The Sharing Economy = Brand Yourself
The Share-My-Bed press conference announcing its provocative rollout was extensively covered by the entire spectrum of news media. The “Sharing Economy” has obviously become mainstream. The college dropout CEOs of this multi-million dollar start-up were literally rolled out on an enormous bed custom-built for the occasion. As confirmation of future financial success, they said they had difficulty keeping their website up most of the night due to the enormous sign-up traffic.
The above is satire. But how far is farce from reality when your closet can be monetized? An author of a recent book on The Sharing Economy said that it was worth over $100 billion. And a venture capitalist, who invests only in start-ups with a multi-billion dollar future, believes that monetizing space in homes is only the beginning. Next is “monetizing all the stuff in houses, front yards, backyards, and driveways.” Solar companies monetize roofs when you lease their panels, so his prediction seems less like fantasy and more like a business plan.
Sharing, we are told, has come a long way from the days of the San Francisco Diggers’ Free Box in Golden Gate Park, or, also in the 60s, Amsterdam’s Provos and their White Bicycle Plan for sharing bikes, or, for that matter, Food Not Bombs and their free food sharing that captured the imagination of thousands throughout the country, and beyond, decades ago. Sharing as a social custom goes back before time; the examples just mentioned, however, took the concept into the political arena to make a point. In the 90s, the practice of bypassing the market was revived by a proliferation of community gardens, bike clinics, info shops and free schools. These projects were amplified by the internet (remember Craigslist?) and by the development of free software. Soon file sharing became ubiquitous – like Napster, most notoriously for some. The freewheeling environment of online communities like freecycle, reallyreallyfree, couchsurfing proliferated. At the same time, the confrontational politics of sharing diminished.
The mass media ignored these adventures in de-commodification, except to publicize a scandal. This may explain why recent stories of the Sharing Economy place its origins in Silicon Valley, as if the tycoons of social media created it – supposedly another clever, cutting-edge innovation. That misplacement, while it upsets some, let’s call them the stalwarts of sharing as an anti-establishment gesture, in fact, makes sense if we capitalize the term and recognize that it’s a marketing ploy.
But are the disgruntled stalwarts missing the big picture here? Is the Sharing Economy absorbing their pristine projects, meant to increase trust in society, and magnifying them a million-fold? Many including Jason Tanz in a recent Wired article seem to think so.
Tanz, while recognizing that users of car and space sharing are drawn to it either to save money or to make some spare change, says there is more to it than survival. One of Tanz’ informants juggles a few jobs, along with driving her car for a sharing company. She is typical of others who drive the streets to “share” their car with strangers. The poor economy motivates their participation, in the same way that the users (the pick-ups) like the cost savings, and the convenience.
However, Tanz’ main point is that the structure of these enterprises fosters a different relationship – a more intimate one – than the traditional economy provides. Getting a ride from the individual who owns the car is more engagingthan taking a taxi, and staying in someone’s spare room is more “real” than staying in a hotel. Tanz reports that people like the bond – the trust – that is formed from face-to-face transactions.
Lyft, a car-sharing company, suggests that riders act like a friend and sit in the front seat with the driver rather than in the back like a fare. Their main slogan – “Your friend with a car” – seems to reproduce in everyday life the “friendships” one has with Facebook. Airbnb, an online space-sharing service, also encourages the extension of a social media persona, with photos of the host, an upbeat bio and willingness to exchange repeated emails with the prospective renter, excuse me, “guest.”
Of course, face-to-face interactions – so long as they are with another middle-class person (Tanz quotes a guy saying he wouldn’t “share” his car in Philly) – are generally pleasurable experiences. And they sell product! This is why retail clerks are forced to ask you if you need help and waitpersons inquire about the state of your happiness.
What’s new here? I have been seeing the same auto mechanic for many years and we always share a laugh or two. I greet the owner of my favorite restaurant. Same for my bookseller. Are we seeing here a monetization of an experience yearned for because the anonymity of modern society makes these interactions scarce? And let’s not forget, hi-tech surveillance must mediate the interaction to prevent creeps from spoiling the fun (I mean, transaction). Is a level of authenticity missing here? We meet others not in the context of their lives, but through a mediated process that relies on making privacy an historic artifact. And more, just as years ago online dating eliminated the matchmaker, today cab drivers and hotel clerks face the prospect of joining matchmakers on the pages of old family photo albums.
We have reached the point where our atomized lives are taken for granted and social interactions are only possible because a third party facilitates them, of course, with our eager compliance. After all, we freely make our private lives (such as they are) public. You accept a ride with a stranger, but you can know beforehand, if you want to, what book she is reading and her favorite songwriter.
The west coast utopianism of Wired’s Tanz outraged New York Magazine writer Kevin Roose. In his rebuttal article, he comes out swinging. For him, the Sharing Economy is marketing savvy working its magic in a depressed economy. And the increase in “trust” is a function of nothing more than a market exchange. He strikes back, “…what compels people to open up their homes and cars to complete strangers is money, not trust.”
Roose’s critical remarks on, what I call, the Austerity Economy, and the creation of too-eager-to-please DIY hotel managers and desperate on-call chauffeurs, while powerful blows, nevertheless miss their mark without an historic perspective. Over a decade ago, the idea of sharing on a systematic though informal basis – as the stalwarts will tell you – arose from a confluence of social dynamics, like anti-consumerism and the desire to create vibrant communities, and not solely, or even primarily, as a response to the economy. And as I noted above, the sharing they instigated and supported began years before the Great Recession.
Bike sharing, couch surfing and, to a lesser extent auto sharing, were originally projects of informal groups and non-profits. It didn’t take long for municipal politicians seeking popularity to scale up fledgling bike-share endeavors to city-sponsored programs. The reasonableness of foregoing major purchases, like autos, and at the same time acting ethically towards the environment, just made sense to lots of people. After the banking crisis, as we all know, the economy looked like a days old balloon and “green” options suddenly became necessities.
Grassroots sharing receded as a form of oppositional activity when the promoters, as I call them, appeared with their new discovery – the “sharing movement” – and displaced the stalwarts as the spokespeople of sharing. The promoters say that sharing should extend beyond the limited non-market exchanges of the stalwarts. With new social forces, as they believe, at their backs, the promoters are proceeding to publicize the profitable innovations of a host of micro-entrepreneurs and to agitate for reform in governmental agencies.
When one investigates the background of the promoters, it is remarkable how many corporate refugees one finds amongst them. Seemingly their previous employment prepared them to undertake their current crusade, both in the sense that they yearned for meaningful work and in the sense that as seasoned corporate executives, some in marketing not surprisingly, they have the skills both to expand the scope of sharing to include small businesses and to accelerate the adoption of favorable legislation to legitimize their operation. On the housing front, they celebrate the popularity of collaborative housing arrangements, as the stalwarts did back in the day of couch surfing as a non-profit service, but then promoters extend their reach to support online rentals. And, further, they hope to convince local governments to change zoning codes to facilitate these rentals. It is probably not fair to say that the promoters made career changes, not life changes, just because they use their business-trained web smarts and organizational abilities to adopt a flashy media presence for their sharing movement. But still, as a consequence of these promotions they come to support, as we will see, the rise of big corporate sharing ventures. The less spectacular grassroots, non-market stuff that spawned early interest in sharing tends to fade in significance.
We now have the spectacular emergence of the third generation of sharing advocates and they, I am sorry to say, are the exploiters. You met the likes of them in the opening paragraph. These are the CEOs of The Sharing Economy consisting of Airbnb, RelayRides, Lyft, Exec Cleaning, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, Panda Parking and so forth. The typical character in this role is exemplified by the alumnus of the Harvard Business School who started an online thrift store. At his portal your old clothes are “shared” directly with the new wearer – for a price.
The promoters’ success in expanding the reach of sharing to include micro-entrepreneurship prepared the way, possibly unintentionally, for the exploiters by celebrating the world-wide expansion of sharing – from local to global. The Sharing Economy by utilizing the web to not only connect folks everywhere, but more importantly, to monetize those connections, ushered in what both promoters and exploiters see as the next wave of economic advancement for the whole of society – e.g., more jobs. The promoters, who advocated sharing as compatible with commodification and the marketplace, agree with the exploiters that sharing, as they define it, is an unstoppable socio-economic phenomenon – the equivalent of a new industrial revolution.
But why do the promoters ally with the exploiters, these Moguls of Sharing and their mega-billion dollar sharing corporations? Doesn’t it occur to them that the corporate world they abandoned has reentered their lives? Like Tanz in his Wired article, they think billion dollar corporations will spread the “meme” of sharing (my tongue resolutely positioned in my cheek with the mention of memes), and ultimately humanize the economy. The sharing fraternity believes face-to-face transactions, even if they occur in the marketplace, create trust. And it’s true, sharing has the power to release ethical impulses in all of us. And freely giving to others resonates with people who wish to escape, if only briefly, the desperation and mendacity of everyday life. But when the promoters consider trust as the currency of the new economy, they misappropriate the ethic of the stalwarts as the basis for their micro-entrepreneurial economy of extreme commodification. To succeed in this so-called new economy one’s brand needs to be relentlessly polished and rate five stars consistently, or fail. And become the new debtors? Sounds like the old economy to me.
In the discussions that have occurred amongst the advocates of sharing – from the stalwarts to the exploiters – one definition of the term frequently appears only to be jettisoned by the more recent arrivals on the sharing scene. Professor Russell W. Belk defines it as:
… the act and process of distributing what is ours to others for their use and/or the act and process of receiving or taking from others for our use.
He elaborates that this definition includes voluntary lending, pooling, allocating of resources and authorized use of public property. Renting and leasing do not fit the definition, as any dictionary would confirm. According to Danielle Sacks, who writes for Fast Company, Silicon Valley investors use the phrase “underused asset utilization” instead of sharing since it clarifies how the investor makes his money.
Belk’s definition, though perfectly reasonable, doesn’t fit the requirements of the sharing meme and was rejected by one scholar of sharing as too narrow. The sharing meme, to establish its significance as a source of inspiration and motivation, must incorporate an expansive notion of sharing. We have here a recognizable methodology borrowed from advertising: a concept, in this case sharing, is drained of its traditional meaning, that is, its context discarded, to be re-defined. Specifically, sharing is simply defined as the act itself. Sharing as reciprocity – what could be called the core activity that has always sustained societies – simply disappears.
Promoters of sharing strive to make it a universal meme. Similarly, some think that the commons is everywhere. These proselytizers maintain that the street I live on is a commons that I share with my neighbors. On the contrary, our street would be a commons if we bought it from the city, removed the asphalt and cement and, for the lack of a better idea, planted a vegetable patch. And likewise, I don’t share the street I use it. It is a means to an end, not a resource we can divvy up with anyone. OK, I grant that I don’t drive down the middle of the street too often and certainly not when there’s oncoming traffic. I share the street then. But this is exactly my point, sharing is a secondary aspect of the street. It would be better to say I don’t drive down the middle because I want to preserve my physical integrity, or simply, I want to obey traffic regulations.
To take another example, when my kids were in co-op preschool I volunteered there one day a week. During that period, I learned a great deal about the practice of conscious communication and, happily, it benefited me later in the contentious world of commerce. Preschools are wonderful arenas for struggling over resources – the toys. Guiding the preschoolers to play without fights, and soliciting their input to help resolve their differences, required skill defining boundaries and rules. They learned how to process their desires and I learned how to patiently help them negotiate. They learned to share a limited number of toys after the agreements were settled. Sharing meant a lot, but the process of reaching the agreement meant more. Daycare could be called a sharing experience and no one would argue that, but for me anyway, it was mainly a learning-to-socialize-by-negotiating experience. And often the rules’ setting wasn’t about sharing, but about how to play a game. It would seem odd to say that after they set the ground rules the kids were sharing. No, they were playing. The sharing again might be a part of the game, but if so, it was secondary.
The children in the preschool were, in fact, learning the basic skills of commoning. Adult commoners share, in the broadest sense of the term, but specifically, and importantly, they are commoning. That is they are following guidelines that they, or more likely their ancestors, established. It is noteworthy that commoning is not a static condition. Things change in life. The commons, whatever the resource, might be stable, but not necessarily forever and new rules must accommodate changed circumstances. Commoners may have precedent to assist them in formulating new rules, nevertheless the commoning can never be considered finished, it is always a process.
Those who support the resurgence of the commons are fully aware of the historic richness of commoning. The layers and layers of experience fine-tuning basic arrangements so that all benefit fairly from their commons is like a rich porridge juxtaposed to the thin gruel of the democracy we accept today. We should be embarrassed. The depth of participation and the sophistication required to establish a just system of commoning could have been the basis for the fuller blossoming of a truly democratic society. The enclosures put an end to that. Commoning, as an historic practice, equally cannot be displaced by a term like sharing that has no specific referent beyond the one stalwarts defend – freely giving to another what we have.
This brings us to another form of commoning that has gained popularity recently, including with the advocates of sharing – cooperatives. Cooperatives are like a little commons, generically speaking. Food co-ops often require members to volunteer to do some portion of the work, for example, and so it can be said that they are sharing the tasks of the cooperative. In the same way, farmers might share a processing facility, and, as another example, a marketing co-op makes it possible for members to share advertising costs, etc.
So given this, it appears reasonable to think of cooperatives as sharing institutions, certainly more so than corporations (even if they are facilitating the “utilization of underused assets”). However, as with the commons, the sharing that takes place in cooperatives follows democratically (if not consensually), established procedures. We don’t share in cooperatives; we cooperate. And like with commoning, we collaborate in specific, defined ways as members.
In the context of how we actually get things done, sharing may evoke a good feeling based on friendly exchanges, but it doesn’t assume a process of actually accomplishing a goal. In Argentina over a decade ago, the workers occupied factories to restart them and re-create their jobs. They had little to share but their misery.
It’s generally agreed for social change we need a vision of a better future society to motivate us to question our conformity to the status quo. But a vision – like universal sharing – goes only so far, even with social support. What’s better is to fasten a vision to a foundation of successful endeavors. Precedents, coupled with a pragmatic approach, improve the chances that taking control of one’s livelihood will be successful. The workers in Argentina a decade ago had a vision and, with a mighty effort and community solidarity, they succeeded. Today their vision can be shared (yes, shared!) with others. But more importantly, their successful reoccupations of their workplaces motivate others to follow. They set an example for others.
Vast social changes – on the level of radical transformations – require a number of preconditions including experiments and failures, and, then, learning from the experience of that cycle of creation and destruction. What is required above all, it seems to me, is to strive through that learning process for precise analysis and that entails practice in critical thinking. Sharing as an umbrella concept can’t measure up to the task before us. It elides vastly different economic practices – from really free to renting, let’s say – on the assumption that they are all guided by a foundational ethic that transcends the economic reality.
Commoning, cooperative enterprises, collectives of all sorts – all projects that develop a more profound understanding of communication than that which the dominant society can tolerate – have the key to breaking the bonds that limit our ability to function as fully human. I mean by that, a solid sense of our unique individuality refined by peer relationships where respect and transparency prevail. These sound like lofty concepts, in fact though this is how radical democracy works. Where it works – which ain’t in too many places.
Those who are familiar with worker cooperatives, which I believe are pivotal institutions to develop and sustain values like solidarity and reciprocity, know how difficult it is to overcome the conditioning, really the brainwashing, of this society. This is more than simply implanting the wrong ideas – self-deprecating ones instead of liberating ones. The social conditioning we endure approaches somatic proportions that lead to all sorts of self-abuse. However, exercising transparent peer relationships, actively de-conditioning, is necessary for any successful cooperative venture. And through attentive listening, giving and receiving criticism within a safe circle of affinity and recognizing the opinions of others, even when they threaten your own views, result in a positive outcome for the group as a whole. And de-conditioning brings with it positive benefits for the participants. Marina Sitrin’s recent article from Argentina about how community activists have achieved a new sense of self-worth reminds us of this. None of this social complexity and its liberating potential is transmitted by the notion of sharing.