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Fifty Shades of Sharing. Or at Least Two.

Understanding the division within the sharing economy is an essential step toward engaging the values-driven segment of that economy with our social change missions.

Share a jug with someone in tribute to Creative Commons, the sharing economy at its aspirational best. (Image courtesy of Toban Black Creative Commons License Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike)

I was excited to read about the dread Airbnb squatter, who stopped paying after 30 days and demanded tenant rights per California rental law. I appreciated it as a graphic illustration of the two very different “sharing economies” that have emerged, joined at the hip by the blarney of branding.

One sharing economy is, at its core, materialistic, with roots in economic shifts and forces. The owner victimized by the squatter seems to have simply purchased a rental property for income generation and was using online services to market it. Nothing wrong with that. No “sharing” there either.

The other sharing economy is idealistic, rooted in a quest for meaning and interpersonal connection amidst the anomie of our age. Only a minority can afford this quest—basically those who have been able to surf the economic crisis. They—we, I should say, given SSIR’s readership—embrace “open”—the idea that if you are transparent and sharing with others, they will respond in kind. Maybe we see a conceptual reed to grasp in a fraught and often hostile world, where “closed” has been normative and protection is sought in courtrooms.

(As a sidenote, but relevant I think: Wealthy people can embrace “open” too. See here how the fabulous scions of Facebook demand the right to mingle with the sweaty artists of Burning Man, albeit in catered camps.)

So we have two comingled sharing economies and, of course, people are rarely just one way or another. The embracers of the open economy avidly shop for discount-rates embraces. And even those driven primarily by economics for the most part prefer to save money cordially.

A sharing site like Krrb enables people to sell collectibles to each other. The evocation is of setting up a stand on the Krrbside—one pictures an umbrella, perhaps some tall drinks with straws and mint, neighbors strolling by ... “Why, Daniel, wherever did you get this? It’s just too cute.” Sales would be the least of it. But on Krrb, you are inundated with injunctions about doing business with strangers because, as they lay it right out there, “Nobody likes a stranger.”

Really?

In the sharing economy, nobody likes a stranger?

Where I hang out in Sharingville, we like strangers a lot. We treasure our serendipitous human interactions. They are often the part of a trip or purchase that we talk about most.

Naturally, we also hear the horror stories.

When you think about it, the horror stories are always about the human part, not the economic part, except indirectly. Systems like Airbnb are actually quite good at making the actual payment process secure and transparent. The horror occurs when a person acts differently than you expected—someone trashes your rental property or fibs about wireless access in their ad. And what I fear is happening, as a result, is that confidence in serendipitous human interactions is waning and emphasis on price point is gaining.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I date my own involvement in the sharing economy (not yet so named) to 1985, when I joined the WELL, from which CompuMentor (now TechSoup Global) emerged in 1987. For the last 19 years I’ve rented out a Sierra cabin on VRBO, and for the last six years, I’ve stayed chez Airbnb in upwards of 20 rentals in 15 cities Throughout the 90s, we home-exchanged with other families all over the world. My own organization has worked hard at sharing and being shared with, particularly in our network of 55 other organizations.

In my experience, successful engagement with the open, personally expansive elements of the sharing economy requires that you:

  1. Offer clarity and transparency (C&T): Take the chance of making your intentions and aspirations crystal clear.
  2. Demand C&T: You can insist on the same in return.
  3. Read reviews: Duh. An unreviewed site is waving a red flag at you.
  4. Get Reviews: The reality is that one bad review eats 10 times its weight in good ones. This is the burden of operating a stand in the Reputation Roadshow. So:
  5. Avoid bad reviews. Take the long view. Meet people way more than halfway.
  6. Give happy customers a nudge. Remember: reviewing is no longer a natural Internet act; it’s an extra act.

I’ve written here from a personal consumer standpoint, but I am convinced that there are enormous opportunities for the social sector to engage with the values-driven segment of the sharing economy. The synergies between the idealistic portion of the sharing economy, and the goals and activities of the sector seem evident. To date, this synergy is somewhat tapped via crowdfunding mechanisms, especially those like Kiva, which share back to the donors the stories of the recipients. I think much more is possible.

Admittedly, it’s tricky. I am thinking about an environmental organization’s fundraiser that I attended. It was pretty garden variety—slide show, director talking about environmental depredation, pitch for funds. The people there were older “enviros” like me who already supported the organization.

But one slide really jumped out at me. It showed a bunch of 20- and 30-somethings clearing dead, fire-hazard brush in the Sierras. They were working hard and having a ball. They looked like people who work at Google and Facebook. And it turned out, that was indeed their ilk. They had signed up for a work-and-learn weekend run by the organization. The price of the weekend was nugatory; the organization was glad to have the free labor.

To me, it suggested a lot better development approach than slide shows and speeches. The group’s director expressed polite disinterest in my notion, and I could see his point; it takes a lot of work to host those volunteers, and there is no financial benefit as it is now set up. But all that could change. It would take understanding the motivations of the volunteers and engaging them fully in organizing themselves. The upside might be amazing.

I’d like to think and write more about the intersection of the reputation economy and the social sector, and I welcome your ideas.

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COMMENTS

  • BY Susan Tenby

    ON August 28, 2014 11:12 AM

    There are many apps like Uber and AirBnB that are affiliating themselves with the sharing economy for good movement that is afoot. They haven’t figured it out quite yet, but they know that in emergencies, we all want an organized way to help. We’re attempting to help with that very issue in the new app that we (caravan studios) have developed, 4bells.org.

    There is an issue that I think, and I’ve thought this for a long time now, is being overlooked, the issue of safety. We are just moments away from hearing about some horror story where the consumer of an AirBnB homestay or a rider of an Uber or Lyft has an unfortunate experience. Some of these stories have already been told to me. But none of them are bad enough to make national headlines. There is also the real-life occurrence that just happened on Monday, here in SF, where my friend, an AirBnB host, died suddenly, and he was discovered by his non-English-speaking guest who didn’t even know what calling 911 was, since they don’t do that in his country. All of these sharing-economy experiences with strangers rely on a ton of trust. I’m an optimist, and I naive;y believe that we, the citizens of the social web, are ultimately good people. But, I’m very concerned that the people behind these sites simply haven’t thoroughly thought through the potential consequences. There is a movement surrounding the economy of the sharing economy called Collaborative Consumption (#CollCons) but, I wonder if we, in the social sector, should start the dialogue on the ethics and civics of the sharing economy.

  • BY Glenn Hirsch

    ON August 28, 2014 12:12 PM

    This post continues a thread Jonathan Lethem’s “Ecstasy of Influence” began when it first appeared in Harper’s in 2007 in which he investigates the plague of plagiarism as it impacts culture (e.g., painters who base a picture (more or less) on a photographer’s print)...Working as an artist, teacher and also for a NGO myself, I see that the sharing economy is badly needed, and so it’s great to see this post move the dialog further.

  • BY Daniel Ben-Horin

    ON August 29, 2014 09:59 AM

    This is a terrific post by my colleague Lewis Haidt

    http://forums.techsoup.org/cs/community/b/tsblog/archive/2014/05/14/nonprofits-imagine-a-better-sharing-economy.aspx

    that calls out the hidden issues and provides a lot of information about what has been tried.It’s a great call to action to claim the ‘commons’ space.

  • Becky Wiegand's avatar

    BY Becky Wiegand

    ON August 29, 2014 09:59 AM

    I’m glad to see this topic coming up more, and to see the duality of the sharing economy explored.

    We need to call a spade a spade and recognize that simply because someone is renting their apartment or their car out for hire via an app, that doesn’t make it “sharing” at all, and in fact, money changes hands just like in the regular consumer economy. Coworking a work space isn’t sharing either, when you’re renting time and space there. A hotel isn’t sharing, just because you’re only using part of it for one night.

    The real sharing economy should be led by the social good sectors - like Kiva or the Mission Asset Fund for lending; and community gardens or co-housing with shared time invested and shared outcomes.

    Calling all of these other things “sharing” is what helps lend social good moxie to companies that are often putting all the risk on the backs of their “independent contractors” and consumers, while raking in huge profits that aren’t for the good of anyone but shareholders and investors.

  • Cindy L.'s avatar

    BY Cindy L.

    ON August 29, 2014 11:42 AM

    What I don’t get about these types of services: don’t we tell our kids stuff like “don’t talk to strangers” and “don’t get in cars with strangers” etc.? While I think these concepts are interesting and innovative, I personally would not be comfortable on either the giving or receiving end of couch sharing or ride sharing. (It’s entirely possible I’m just getting old…I do recall passing out/waking up on stranger’s couches in my 20s and not being too concerned about it. smile

  • Matt C.'s avatar

    BY Matt C.

    ON August 29, 2014 05:40 PM

    Daniel,

    My sense with this post is that you’re addressing an interesting topic but looking for it in the wrong place.

    Websites like Krrb, Airbnb, etcetera, are really exactly the opposite of a sharing economy.  They are opportunities to monetize dimensions of modern life that been outside of formal or efficient financial structures.  They’‘re part of a class: sell things to friends and locals (Krrb), sell space in your house (Airbnb), sell a few hours of your driving (Lyft), sell the stuff in your basement (ebay) sell odd hours of your labor (taskrabbit).  In all these cases, you’re erasing a sharing economy “transaction” and replacing it with a formal economy copy:  “Of course I’ll carry those boxes for you, neighbor, I want a relationship with you where maybe sometime I’ll ask you to pick up my mail.” becomes “Is there someone within 5 minutes of my house who will carry three boxes for $5.?”

    Yerdle is much closer to a sharing economy website, because people give away stuff for free (or now for “points.”  Nextdoor is also closer, because it facilitates relationships that lead people to give stuff or advice away for free, wanting to be (and be seen as) a good neighbor.

    Advice is an interesting category - Although the Internet has become more and more full of paid stuff, there’s still lots of free help and advice on offer, and I hope there always will be.  When you give advice, you don’t diminish your stock, and you can get various forms of non-monetary satisfaction out of it.

    There’s a different level of a sharing economy possible.  I’ll give you an example:  a 25 year-old woman I know recently had her hair cut by a friend.  She didn’t want to go to a hairdresser and spend money for a traditional economic transaction.  She didn’t even want to go to Yerdle and find someone to cut her hair for free.  What she wanted was to strengthen and be part of her community by sharing in the giving and accepting of labor by someone in the community. 

    That’s the dynamic that had traction in the 1960s, and before that in lots of so-called Utopian communities.  It’d be interesting to find online businesses that actually strengthen that sort of thing.

    But

  • Richard Lang's avatar

    BY Richard Lang

    ON September 3, 2014 10:14 AM

    We have a small cottage in Mendocino that we’ve rented via VRBO for 7+ years. 98% of the interactions have been great. But one glaring downside emerged when one disgruntled guest (who objected to our non-smoking rule) decided to degrade the property on the “reviews” section (without mentioning the non-smoking rule as his motivation). The result was that for weeks, our top review was a bad one. So shouldn’t sites like VRBO, Yelp and others that serve small businesses give the opportunity to the business owners to “delete” at least one customer “comment” every so often without explanation (1 out of 10?), just to weed out the customer with an ax to grind (and an unfair ability to slander a business owner)?

  • Daniel, you’ll like this article by Nipun Mehta as well, that describes more about the second kind of sharing:

    “When what used to be shared informally turns into a formal, commoditized transaction, we lose something. That something is subtle, so it’s easy to gloss over. But over time, it cheapens our human experience. We strip away our commons, and we forget how to value things without a price tag. The highest potential of sharing is when it embeds the transformative spirit of generosity. When kids share their favorite toy, or when we share a seat on a crowded bus, or when we share our public parks, the quality of connections can go quite deep. It’s one thing to get into a car-turned-cab with someone smiling to keep their online ratings for future profit, and then say goodbye after making a mechanical payment through your iPhone. It’s quite another to ride in a rickshaw where someone before you has paid for you and you are trusted to evoke your empathy muscles to pay forward for the person after you—to a rickshaw driver whose entire family depends on his earning, and who still humbly offers himself in the spirit of unconditional love. That is a VERY different kind of “peer to peer” economy, and a very different kind of sharing.

    From Sharing Economy to Gift Ecology:
    http://www.servicespace.org/blog/view.php?id=14918

  • BY Daniel Ben-Horin

    ON September 9, 2014 04:26 PM

    Jesse, Thank you for the pointer to Nipun’s post. I recommend it to everyone reading here (and will tweet it out more broadly). Nipun himself, in many ways, exemplifies the potential and the contradictions. I remember when he started Charity Focus and CompuMentor was still in early years and we discussed ways to collaborate, since our goals were so similar and we got along personally (well, I liked him a lot and I hope he felt the same). But I/CompuMentor wanted to grow a staffed model and Nipun was (and is) committed to an all volunteer approach. If we think about the kind of transformation that is ultimately needed—a transformation of what we as a species think is important—Nipun’s approach is not only consistent but inspirational. However, if we are still ‘attached’ to an overall economic model—and most people really don’t have an option to be unattached—there are compelling arguments (in my view) to deploying models that generate revenue that allow people to support themselves.

    Nipun’s piece brilliantly illustrates the inherent tension of commodification. He seems to feel that once the scarlet $ enters the picture, cheapening, in the human sense, is ineveitable. I enjoy this paragraph:

    “....Same thing happened with social entrepreneurship. Bill Drayton’s vision behind it was to leverage entrepreneurship to solve complex social problems; instead, all businesses called themselves social and diluted its essence. Similarly, Muhammad Yunus pioneered micro-finance with the idea of eradicating poverty, but now MFI institutions openly profit from poverty. We’ve even done this with friendship. Facebook and the world of social media forged trillions of new connections amongst us, but it has simply cheapened the idea of friendship. Now, it seems like sharing is having its turn. - See more at: http://www.servicespace.org/blog/view.php?id=14918#sthash.67UcwiuN.dpuf”

    Susie Cagle’s Medium piece. The Case Against Sharing,
    https://medium.com/the-nib/the-case-against-sharing-9ea5ba3d216d
    Strikes me as a pungent but pretty confused anti-Sharing diatribe. It hearkens back to a better time when all workers were protected and had fair wages, unlike the new breed of at-risk sharing economy freelancers. But when exactly *was* that better time? It was always aspirational, incomplete and at the expense of illegally underpaid new immigrant workers.  It is clear that big, highly capitalized companies are being built on the myriad small personal transactions that collectively make up the economy currently known as Sharing. But the ascendance of these companies shouldn’t obscure the possibility that those small personal transactions can be meaningful both on a personal level and economically.

    Yerdle, the free stuff place, plans to monetize by selling the credits you need to get the free stuff. Can that possibly work? Nextdoor, the neighbor to neighbor place, has raised mega-capital with still no monetization plan. Its founders are candid that they will indeed monetize; their bet is that they will have captured the neighbor to neighbor market to such an extent that their monetization scheme will be accepted and productive. Can that possibly work? We’ll find out. People complain about Facebook and Amazon (for different reasons) all the time, but they’ve become standards—utilities you don’t necessarily have to like in order to use. At the same time if, to pick an example at random, if Nextdoor came up with some obnoxious monetization scheme, it wouldn’t be that hard for someone to start an alternative neighborhood site. They could just publicize it on Nextdoor!

    Withal, I remain bullish on what is going on. I am planning a trip to Manila and find myself gravitating to airbnb because good airnbnbs are more fun and more satisfying. The considerable financial savings are secondary. Yes, to Cagle’s argument, that’s one less stay in a Manila hotel and one less customer for a Manila hotel service economy worker. But, at scale, there are positive repercussions to deflecting income from hotel chains to individuals, even taking airbnb’s cut into consideration.

    Ultimately we will get the sharing relationships we deserve, I think. There will be a big Sharing Economy in which economics is the primary driver. And there will be a smaller but exceptionally dynamic sharing culture, in which the experience itself is the driver. Not everyone is as grounded as Nipun in making a full commitment to the ‘experience as driver’ model but more and more people, I think, will place value there and will act accordingly.

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