The Coming Sharing Economy

The last few years have seen a lot of aggressive discussion around the "sharing economy" and whether it will deliver on the promise of a more community oriented internet. We just wanted to ask one question: Can you wait a second?

By now, everyone has probably heard Louis CK’s brilliant bit about our impatience with technology. Describing people who complain about slow cell service or a spotty connection, he tells them to just “give it a second!”. The signals is “going to space,” he continues, “Would ya give it a second to get back from space?” The nub of the joke is how blasé we’ve become about technologies that, however imperfect they may be, were unimaginable merely thirty, twenty, or even just then years ago years ago.

I always think of that bit whenever I hear discussion of the nascent sharing economy - which is often filled with similar groans and bellyaching. Techno-pessimists complain that the sharing economy is at once too transactional - “people aren’t interacting genuinely; they only care about the money” - and not transactional enough - “those aren’t real jobs; how are people supposed to make money?” Can’t they just give it a second?

We’ve seen this pattern before, of course. When music streaming first began to capture the public’s attention, there was no shortage of complaints: people want to own their music; they want to control the contents of their music libraries; they don’t want to be subject to the whim of intermittent wireless signals. Yet, as projects like Pandora and Rhapsody evolved into more mainstream and multifaceted platforms like Spotify and Beats Music, each iteration made such complaints increasingly moot.

It could be said that we are in a “phase” of the sharing economy’s development in which experimentation and iteration are the only ways to understand what’s possible. The rush to define the sharing economy can easily obscure its real potential.

Though exceptional, Airbnb nonetheless offers one particularly instructive model for the sharing economy. When it launched just six years ago, Airbnb had little support from tech industry veterans - CEO Brian Chesky was advised by his mentor to keep “working on other projects.” No one believed that people would want to stay in the homes of strangers. Or that people would want strangers staying in their house. Topping over 15 million bookings since, people seem to be adapting to the idea.

However, you don’t need to be a $10 billion monolith to change the way people interact either with each other or with property. Car sharing is a domain where a number of different solutions have emerged. From sharing rides between cities (RideJoy), borrowing a neighbor’s car (Relay Rides), sharing a car with a whole community (Car2Go), or simply hiring a driver (Uber), there is no shortage of innovative businesses competing to be the best solution.

As a global authority on collaboration, Rachel Botsman defines the sharing economy as "An economic model based on sharing underutilized assets from spaces to skills to stuff for monetary or non-monetary benefits."

When talking about the sharing economy, it’s important to realize we’re also talking about the future - about a phenomenon that is only beginning to take shape. That means when programmers and entrepreneurs build new platforms for peer to peer interaction, they are also building toward the future. We say: keep looking forward. Haters gonna hate.

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