The “sharing economy” is being pulled ever farther from actual sharing

The “sharing economy” has seen a rapid slide away from collaborative sharing towards further deregulated and precarious employment — the direct consequence of venture capital funding and the growth imperatives that come with that money. Such a project won’t bring us any closer to the more equitable society we want to see any time soon.

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Flickr / Bootleggersson

Excerpted from Tom Slee:

“Leading sharing economy companies are moving rapidly away from peer-to-peer reputation to centralized systems such as validation and background checks.

Airbnb is typical. It recently hired a 50-person “trust and safety team” headed by a former US Army intelligence office and a former government investigator. The use of a human team clearly doesn’t scale, so Airbnb is now turning to centralized analysis to solve its problems, saying, “We want to apply data to every decision. We want to be a very data-driven company.” On April 30 2013, asserting that “trust is the key to our community,” Airbnb introduced a “Verified ID program” which demands that you provide government-verified identification and permit the company to analyze your social networking presence or provide it with a video profile.

There is also a drive for more professionalism among hosts. Airbnb now lets hosts sell tours and activities. Chip Conley, the new “Head of Global Hospitality” for Airbnb, hired from the hotel industry, said in a September 2013 interview:

We’ll be introducing nine minimum standards around what we expect an Airbnb experience to be, whether it’s related to cleanliness or the basic amenities you expect, which is not currently the case. The idea that we create some amenities that you should expect — clean towels, clean sheets — that’s important.

In short, Airbnb is abandoning the idea that peer-to-peer reputation systems can solve the problem of trust, is moving away from the casual “air bed” mentality that gave it its name, and is resorting to traditional centralized systems of enforced minimum standards, documentary verification, and so on.

While the “sharing economy” is being pulled ever farther from actual sharing, it might not be a completely lost cause. These ventures could take actions that might help to restore some semblance of credibility to the “sharing economy” name. Ridesharing companies could limit income to remove insurance liability and taxation issues. For example, BlaBlaCar limits the money that any driver can earn on one ride so that it never exceeds the cost of the trip: this means the money is costsharing and not income, and so removes taxation issues and insurance clauses that forbid commercial use of a car.

Airbnb could limit hosts with multiple listings on their site. It’s difficult to keep up the image of occasional artisan renters when there are hosts called NY Furnished Rentals with over 200 listings on the site, and when “the top 40 Airbnb hosts in New York have each grossed at least $400,000 over the past three years.”

At the very least, Airbnb can make the rules clear for their hosts, many of whom are confused about who qualify as “amazing people with kind hearts” and who are “unscrupulous slumlords [making] a quick buck.” They could also stop burying cautions in a 10,000-word terms-of-service contract that takes half an hour to read, carefully limiting the company’s liability.

In a spirit of collaboration, if they are genuinely concerned about New York tenants, Airbnb could work with tenants’ associations and other providers. If Lyft and Uber are actually interested in the welfare of drivers, they could work with taxi driver unions such as the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. (Oh, and stop taking their own drivers’ tips.)

Finally, there is the petition-organizing, council-lobbying group Peers. Until now, its efforts have all been in support of the VC-funded heavyweights: Airbnb and the new transit corporations. As sharing economy companies move away from sharing to a new model of piecework they need to re-investigate their own principles. A good start might be to provide a set of principles that “sharing economy” organizations would have to adopt to partner with the organization — something like the co-operative movements Rochdale Principles, few of which are compatible with the privately-owned, centralized sites that characterize the industry.

The chances of the adoption of any of these recommendations are slim. Taking a modest supporting role in reviving the supposed spirit of the sharing economy is incompatible with the hubris of leading large companies, and most of these suggestions would compromise the revenue growth that investors are looking for.

The “sharing economy” has seen a rapid slide away from collaborative sharing towards further deregulated and precarious employment — the direct consequence of venture capital funding and the growth imperatives that come with that money. Such a project won’t bring us any closer to the more equitable society we want to see any time soon.”

1 Comment The “sharing economy” is being pulled ever farther from actual sharing

  1. Matthew Slater

    Yes, its called collaborative consumption.
    She sharing economy is not being pulled in any direction, only the use of language.
    We must look at the substance not the PR.
    Users may be sharing more, but the venture capitalised platforms are only intending to share with their shareholders.
    Its like the virtuous and the church – only the most naive believers expect the church itself to be virtuous.
    In my view any effort to accumulate the limited resource ‘money’ is antithetical to sharing.

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