The Real Sharing Economy Is Booming (And It's Not the One Venture Capitalists Are Cashing In On)

After picking more limes than I’ll ever eat from the tree near my apartment, I log onto Facebook and post about them on the Backyard Fruit Swap group I belong to. Someone offers me passion fruits for the limes, and someone else offers guavas. “What kind of guavas?” I reply. I don’t like pineapple guavas.

Compared to the rest of the U.S., my home of San Diego can grow some strange types of fruit. Aside from that, my online exchange is not so odd. Sharing is now in vogue—or perhaps it always was.

In human history, the so-called sharing economy is older than money and capitalism. Before anyone came up with the clever idea of giving set values to bits of metal and paper, people figured out that everyone could benefit by bartering and sharing. Sometimes this took the form of barter. You give me some of the fish you caught and I give you some of my crops. You help me harvest my field and I help you harvest yours. Sometimes it takes the form of gifts, seemingly given altruistically, but almost always returned at some point by a reciprocal gift or favor.

Other times, it could be codified by cultural traditions, as in the case of a dowry given at the time of marriage. Or, a group of people might collaborate on a hunt and share the meat based on a specific protocol: the person who made the kill gets certain cuts of meat, the person whose arrow was used gets other cuts, and others who participated in the hunt might get other portions of the animal.

Today, this age-old system is getting a high-tech makeover, and a lot of media attention from BBC, Marketplace, NPR, the Guardian, and Fast Company. But are the sites and apps getting the attention actually sharing, or just a new way to rent or sell goods and services?

One of the most common items “shared” are cars. Think about your car. Does it spend more time sitting in your garage or on the road? If the former, you might be one of the people who could profit by listing your car on sites like FlightCar, GetAround, Car2Go, RelayRides, or BuzzCar and renting it out to strangers. Or perhaps you could ditch your car altogether and rely on public transportation, biking, walking, and occasional rentals from neighbors who list their cars on those sites.

Obviously, once you add money into the mix, you’re no longer talking about sharing. Perhaps that’s why venture capitalists are getting excited about the sharing economy. In the US, the sharing economy (more accurately known as the “peer-to-peer rental economy” or “underused asset utilization”) is estimated at $3 to $4 billion and growing.

As noted on All Things Considered, “We’re not really talking about sharing, but selling.” And selling everything from stays in your house or office and meeting space rental to dog boarding, handmade goods, used clothing, and parking spots. Or, if you don’t feel like doing small tasks like putting together your IKEA furniture or weeding your garden, you can pay someone to do it on Taskrabbit.

It makes sense that someone wouldn’t want strangers to use their car for free (or without insurance), but there is a real sharing economy worthy of media attention, and it’s one that wouldn’t interest venture capitalists because it’s based on actual sharing.

As noted, sharing is not a new idea. Perhaps you remember reading in Little House on the Prairie how Pa traded work with the Ingalls’ neighbor, Mr. Edwards, or swapped furs for a plow and seeds? But Pa certainly did not log onto or Zimride to find a ride out to Indian Territory. Laura’s family was stuck driving there in their covered wagon.

Sites like these have added a new dimension to sharing and barter. On Freecycle, you can list what you want to give away and others will take it off your hands. StreetBank is another site where you can give (or receive) items for free, but it also helps you loan or borrow items or share your skills with neighbors. If you’ve got a ladder that mostly sits in your garage, you can list it online and your neighbors can ask to borrow it. Because what’s the sense in an entire neighborhood full of homes with ladders mostly sitting idle when one or two shared ones could easily meet everyone’s needs?

Instead of renting someone’s house, you could find a place to crash for free on Check Falling Fruit to see if there are fruit trees you can harvest in your area. (If you don’t feel like picking fruit yourself, try looking for free food on Leftover Swap.)

Some cities also have time banks. The idea is simple: your time is your currency. If you give an hour of your time, you get an hour of someone else’s time. Let’s say I can teach Chinese, but I’d really like someone to give me a massage. Without a time bank, unless a massage therapist wants a Chinese lesson, I would not be able to exchange my skills for hers. But with a time bank, I give one hour of time teaching Chinese to someone who wants to learn it and that entitles me to an hour of service from someone else within the bank. Then I can find a massage therapist to give me an hour massage, and the massage therapist can redeem her hour of credit from someone else for whatever she wants.

Why is sharing so popular? Some say it’s motivated by the economic downturn. When money’s tight, it’s a lot more affordable to borrow your neighbor’s drill instead of buying one yourself. The for-profit forms of “sharing” fit in here too, as the cash-strapped can now earn a few extra bucks by renting out their rooms or their cars.

Others point to the environmental benefits of sharing—or even renting out your stuff. It’s wasteful for everyone on a block to buy a drill if a few shared drills are sufficient to meet their needs. And then there’s the technological aspect: the Internet and the gadgets we use to surf it make new forms of sharing possible.

But perhaps there’s something else behind it, like a desire to build community. That’s one aspect Kevin Marks, a volunteer at San Diego’s Really Really Free Market, points to.

The Really Really Free Market is an in-person form of sharing. Participants are invited to bring things they no longer use to give away and to help themselves to whatever they need for free.

“There's no trade,” explains Marks, “This was a little different concept for me to wrap my head about because I've been to a few different Buy Nothing Day events that were centered around a barter.” But at the Really Really Free Market, you can come and just take things. “We don't want there to be any restrictions—the main purpose is to get usable items into the hands of those that need it. That supersedes any sort of 'you must bring something to take something' ideology. We don't want restrictions placed on it.”

In addition to simply moving goods from those who don’t use them into the hands of those who will, the market wants to create community.

“Part of what we're trying to build with this thing is that we've had musicians come and play and we want to make it into more of a community event,” explains Marks. “Just come and hang out in the park and talk to other people. You don't even have to participate in the getting and giving of anything. You can give your presence and share your conversation. We also want to build in services, like if somebody is good at giving haircuts, set up a little haircut station. Every now and then, somebody will bring the excess lemons from their tree, or little vegetable seedlings, and so you know it doesn't have to be stuff you don't need anymore. It can be your artwork or your excess fruit.”

It’s interesting to compare forms of sharing now popular in the U.S. and Europe with those found around the world in other societies. In our individualistic society where we believe each person is responsible for pulling himself up by the bootstraps, we feel unattached to our neighbors and seek to build community. In rural villages throughout much of the world—and even in our own country’s past—people were acutely aware of their reliance on their neighbors, and sharing cemented the ties between them.

But in these other societies, reciprocity and sharing were born out of scarcity, whereas today many in the U.S. are reacting to overconsumption. James C. Scott, professor of political science at Yale University, wrote in The Moral Economy of the Peasant, “patterns of reciprocity, forced generosity, communal land, and work-sharing helped to even out the inevitable troughs in a family’s resources which might otherwise have thrown them below subsistence.”

Scott explains how sharing functions to help keep families afloat amidst scarcity: “As soon as a peasant leans on his kin or his patron rather than his own resources, he gives them a reciprocal claim to his own labor and resources. The kin and friends who bail him out will expect the same consideration when they are in trouble and he has something to spare.”

That’s a far cry from the Really Really Free Market, which encourages participants to “de-clutter,” or sharing based on “underused asset utilization.” But perhaps we have something to learn from the Southeast Asian peasant described in Scott’s book. Victims of Hurricane Sandy described a period of a few weeks when their neighbors came together to help one another out. The mutual help was important, but so was the feeling of community it engendered.

Intangible feelings of community do not excite venture capitalists as much as profitable enterprises such as AirBnB, but that does not mean they lack value. In our stressed-out, overworked and disconnected culture, a little more community, built on one loaned-out power drill at a time, can go a long way.

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