“Sharing economy” is running its course as a useful term

The meaning of the term ‘sharing economy’ has always been a bit vague for me. On the one hand it includes genuine sharing ideas like Airbnb whilst on the other it includes labour markets like TaskRabbit and Homejoy, and then more recently Venturebeat lumped in companies like Wework and Transferwise (although they called it the ‘collaborative economy’).

Still, the label was useful for PR purposes, and for building a positive company image with investors, regulators and the public.

That may now be changing. I’ve just read Sarah Lacy’s Let’s face it: Uber IS the sharing economy which makes the point that Uber dominates the sector, and The “Sharing Economy” is the Problem which argues that Uber and other sharing economy labour marketplaces are using a novel corporate structure to exploit workers.

Being labelled as ‘sharing economy’ is starting to carry more negative connotations than positive. Hopefully we can move to something clearer.

UPDATE: Alan Patrick pointed me to a Grist article which makes a more emotive claims against Uber and others:

The sharing economy is a nice way for rapacious capitalists to monetize the desperation of people in the post-crisis economy while sounding generous, and to evoke a fantasy of community in an atomized population. …

[I]t sees us all as micro-entrepreneurs fending for ourselves in a hostile world. … You may lack health insurance, sick days, and a pension plan, but you’re in control.

  • Joscelyn

    Totally agree on the negative connotations. Rachel Botsman usefully revisited the definitions a few weeks back. http://www.fastcoexist.com/3046119/defining-the-sharing-economy-what-is-collaborative-consumption-and-what-isnt & The Register’s piece on it highlighted the negative aspects here: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2014/08/29/uber_and_lyft_there_is_no_magic_to_the_sharing_economy/

  • nagleonce

    Think of the “sharing economy” as Worker Exploitation 2.0. Just as the H1-B visa system is Slavery 2.0.

  • Thanks Joscelyn. Seems I may be a little off the pace with this one 🙂

  • A very compelling argument against the sharing economy. Although, I wonder if Sarah Lacy is unfairly pinning all her anger towards Travis Kalanick, when really, he appears to be a people-pleasing figurehead who represents the interests of the VC groups that back him? Hopefully, the UK won’t follow the US’ lead on this kind of “sharing economy”…since Uber has been declared by a California court that contractors are actually “employees”; this could be the beginning of the end of the sharing economy as we know it anyhow…

  • Yes. Very interesting to see these court rulings on Uber drivers and other similar workers.

  • Kartik Krishnan

    Agreed. I think the term is being used fast and loose! Here we discuss whether crowdfunding can be labelled a part of the sharing economy in the wake of the crowdfunding campaign for Europeans to share their spare Euros and bail out their Greek brethern: http://onfi.do/cj

  • Michal

    It’s simple – let’s define the Sharing Economy as one where a) the value of an individual’s (not a corporation’s) b) already existing assets are being unlocked by creating a marketplace where that individual can sell the usage of their assets to others and c) it is not their primary source of income, but rather a supplementary one.

    This is what the term “sharing economy” was originally meant to represent. Uber is therefore mainly NOT sharing econonmy as the majority of their drivers are doing this as a full time job (doesn’t meet criterion c). Airbnb, on the whole, IS sharing economy, as the majority of their properties are (I assume) uploaded by individual for non-primary-income purposes. Similarly, any company that allows me to sell the usage of my drill, lawn mower, nail clippers, snorkel etc. is in the business of the Sharing Economy. Same with TaskRabbit, unless the majority of their users is doing this as a full time job.

    Why not agree on this definition? Adoping it would also eliminate all the labour-related problems outlined in the articles you linkedin to.

  • Hi Michal – that works as a principle, but it makes the sharing economy much smaller. Also – getting picky on definitions – for Task Rabbit and maybe AirBnB there are a significant number of suppliers who derive significant income from the sites, even if it isn’t their primary source of income. The difference between them and an Uber driver isn’t that great.
    Separately – did you see that Hillary Clinton has spoken out against the ‘Uber economy’?