The End of Ownership: America’s New Sharing Economy

After defining ourselves for generations by possessions, a dramatic cultural shift is under way. In the wake of a collapsed economy, what matters to a growing number of Americans is not so much ownership as access. That’s made Boston ground zero for a powerful new force: The sharing economy.

In her research, Schor explained, she’s finding that her subjects are increasingly eager to work outside the standard, business-as-usual marketplaces. Call it bailout hangover. But even with the trust-building exercises that these new sharing companies walk users through, people are still not exactly comfortable—or clear on how to navigate once they’re in the system. “People don’t expect the same kind of relationship that they do [in] going to the market and buying the service from a professional,” Schor said. “But it’s also different from what they would just do with a friend.”

Schor pointed me to the work of Anny Fenton, a Harvard graduate student whose research looks at how people are operating within the sharing economy. In a recent paper, Fenton studied social interactions among RelayRides users. Her findings are fascinating. Despite all of the talk about community and connection that we’re hearing from advocates of the sharing economy, car owners using the site said that their relationships with renters were “sterile,” “anonymous” and “nothing.” But when those same owners were asked to compare their rental service with that offered by a company like Hertz, time and again they said they had something much more personal to offer, and assumed, as a result, that renters would treat their cars better than a typical rental car. “Owners create a contradiction as they transform their personal property into a commodity,” Fenton wrote, “but do not expect it to be treated like one.”

When I asked Fenton about her own experiences making peer-to-peer exchanges, she laughed. She’d stayed in an apartment in Paris with a host who was drawing most of his income from Airbnb, and though she’d stayed in B & Bs many times before, this experience struck her as very different, so much so that she behaved differently. One night her host invited her to dinner—and she went. Throughout the meal, he regaled her with stories of his past relationships and ended up paying. “It’s cheaper than therapy,” he told her.

Was she a friend? A customer? She left puzzled by the exchange, but says it captured the inherent tension that underlies so much of the sharing economy: Are we actually making more connections? Or are we just commoditizing our relationships?

When I posed this question to MIT’s Nick Grossman, he sat back in his chair and nodded. “But there’s another kind of social stickiness that these networks can help overcome,” he said, “which is just the awkwardness of broaching a conversation.” In many instances, it’s not the act of sharing itself that’s difficult, it’s the social aspect of having to make the ask, whether it’s borrowing your neighbor’s snowblower, crashing on your old college roommate’s couch, or asking your circle of friends to help you move. “Those conversations are a little bit hard to broker,” he says. “It’s not the Ick Factor, as in, You’re sitting in my car. You’re sitting in my house. It’s more like, How do we even have the conversation about my borrowing your snowblower?

It’s becoming easy to see how, in circumstances where people feel strange about asking for favors from their friends or neighbors, they’ll turn to the marketplace instead. We say we’re getting into the sharing economy to build community, but you have to wonder whether it’s also a way to avoid engaging with the community we already have.

 

Rachel Botsman, the coauthor of What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption (2010), has calculated the value of the peer-to-peer rental market to be $26 billion, and Forbes anticipates that the market will grow 25 percent more in the coming year. Big corporations increasingly want in, so much so that there’s now a VC firm, Collaborative Fund, that’s dedicated to investing in sharing-based startups.

This weighs on some of those who are actually participating in these marketplaces at the individual level. A bit of a backlash has even begun. “Sharing for Profit–I’m Not Buying it Anymore” was the title of a recent post on Shareable, an online magazine which until now has been one of the most vocal proponents of the sharing economy. In it the author, Sven Eberlein, writes, “What once used to be the most basic human value your parents ever taught you”—sharing—“seems to have magically morphed into a well coiffed, profitable, and fashionably cool buzzword for an entire industry.”

Janelle Orsi, the sharing lawyer, has similar feelings. “I’m disappointed in the structure and the financing of most sharing-economy companies,” she says. “Because they’re mostly VC-funded, there’s a great deal of incentive for their founders, and for their funders, to sell out to a larger company.” It’s happened already: Avis recently bought Zipcar for $500 million. So it’s not all that far-fetched to imagine that Airbnb could one day be purchased by, say, Marriott. “And when that happens,” Orsi says, “it means that the key platforms of the sharing economy will be increasingly consolidated under the ownership of richer and richer people. Which is ironic.”

As sharing sites increase in popularity, however, Schor anticipates that they’ll begin to fragment and become more targeted to specialized audiences. More nonprofit options, meanwhile, may arise to serve those users who are turned off by the idea of sharing for cash. All of this makes her feel cautiously optimistic. Commerce and the desire to make money, she thinks, don’t have to be the sole drivers of the sharing economy.

 

It’s been over a year since my stay in Santa Fe, and in that time, I’ve noticed a bit of rewiring in terms of the way my brain thinks about ownership. As I talk about sharing with my friends and colleagues, I’ve felt an untightening of the grip—both physical and mental—that I’ve held on my possessions. Even my own mother, who instilled the stranger-danger sentiments in me, keeps asking me if I’ve listed my place yet on Airbnb.

I still haven’t. But, like Schor, I’m optimistic. I’ve found that the rise of the sharing economy, and the difficult questions it has forced me to confront, have made me reevaluate all that I own. I find myself thinking, Do I use this enough? Can it help someone else? as I sort through my possessions. I’ve also become less inclined to make purchases without thinking about whether I can just share something instead. More important, as I’ve signed up to explore dozens of sharing sites, I’ve begun to realize that I can own much less.

As for the Ick Factor? I’m doing my best to get over it. I may not become a homespun hotelier any time soon, but I’ve been snapping photos of my housewares and am open to sharing them. And if you’re looking to rent a Jeep, there’s a lovely one parked just outside my house.

 

For more, check out “Thank You for Sharing,” a quick look at what’s on offer in Boston’s burgeoning sharing economy.