The Sharing Economy Isn't Quite a Kick to Capitalism's Crotch

Sharing sites pitch their business model as a social movement

I was invited to a potluck dinner on Wednesday to meet a bunch of strangers and discuss the importance of sharing. Well, kind of. Our hosts were looking to bolster the so-called sharing economy, which, depending on who you talk to, is either a lightweight form of socialism or an artisanal flavor of capitalism spawned by the Internet.

The event had clearly attracted people from both camps. It wasn’t long before one guest trumpeted a desire to “kick capitalism in the crotch,” while several others gently reminded people to sign a petition supporting Airbnb, the peer-to-peer apartment renting service. One man offered to sing a few songs. I spent much of the evening wondering why my red pepper hummus, which is always a hit at Super Bowl parties, wasn’t as popular as the vegan mac ‘n’ cheese. Plus whoever made the salad put in way too many red onions.

Standing in the cloudy center of all this was a group called Peers, which popped up over the summer with the goal of becoming a grassroots movement based on sharing. The potluck dinner—and about 130 other events taking place in 90 cities around the world on the same week—is its first big push to bring people to the cause.

There have been movements based on sharing before, as my aging hippie parents remind me with increasing regularity. But the brand-name version is relatively new. In the past few years, a series of startups have based their business models on creating online platforms where people can sell one another access to their homes (Airbnb), labor (Taskrabbit), or possessions (Lyft, Sidecar). These companies bathe in the spirit of cooperation—and it’s clearly to their benefit to frame themselves as facilitators of generosity—but they are also marketplaces looking for commissions.

The people running Peers have trouble reconciling it all. Natalie Foster, the group’s executive director, said building a grassroots sharing movement was its main purpose. So far, though, its work has basically been to support companies that find themselves in conflict with local regulators. Peers touts its participation in a campaign to persuade California regulators to drop their opposition to ride-sharing companies. When asked to come up with a situation when Peers’ interests might diverge with those of a for-profit company—like, say, Lyft—people at Peers demurred.

Further muddying things is that the group is vague about who pays its bills. Peers said it is funded by like-minded foundations and individuals, insisting that it doesn’t take money directly from companies whose business models rely on sharing. But it does acknowledge that people at those companies are among its donors. Foster declined to provide any further details about the groups or individuals who contribute. “We’re not going to go there,” she said, “but it’s hundreds of donors across the world at this point.”

Lately the group has been marshaling support for Airbnb, which is fighting a subpoena from the New York attorney general demanding the names of everyone who rents apartments through the service, because many are likely violating the state’s illegal hotels law. “It’s one of the most important fights around sharing globally,” said Foster. She said Airbnb’s hosts were being caught up in an attempt to cut down on slumlords.

But many people at Wednesday’s dinner weren’t quite convinced that renting out an apartment counted as sharing. People paying their mortgage or rent by taking on renters seemed worthwhile; it just didn’t feel the same as cooking dinner for one another. Priyo, an economist who asked that I not use his full name so his bosses wouldn’t see him quoted, said that Airbnb was essentially a franchise of miniature hotels. He argued that the company’s success relied on it outgrowing the idea of simply sharing.

“If you ask a theoretical economist, he’ll say it starts here and ends up with the Marriott,” he said.

Susan was another guest who asked that I not use her full name because of her job. (The enthusiasm for sharing does not extend to last names, apparently.) She is all about potlucks and giving people a ride if they’re going your way. But she said the capitalistic sharing economy and a social movement based on bartering and gifting were just not the same thing. She had expected the latter, and was uncomfortable with Airbnb being glommed onto it.

“They have their own lawyers,” she said. “They can figure it out.”


    The bottom line: Sharing-economy advocate Peers is recruiting communitarians to campaign on behalf of its corporate partners.

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