2013-10-15

Co.Exist

The Sharing Economy Is Owned By The Same People As The Rest Of The Economy

It may get you a cheaper ride or place to stay, but when you rent something are you really performing a revolutionary act?

Peers calls itself a "grassroots organization to support the sharing economy movement." Formed this summer, it aims to grow the sharing economy by getting the sharing "story" in front of policymakers and the media. You can read a host of testimonials at its site, from the woman who pays for her husband's care by sharing their home, to the guy who says sharing has allowed him to "rediscover the essence of Los Angeles and create unique bonds with people."

Peers says it isn't a lobbying group, though it is interested in reducing the regulatory burdens on sharing companies. And though it claims not to be a trade association, 22 leading companies (Airbnb, Lyft, Taskrabbit) have their logos on its site. Funding comes not directly from those companies, Peers says, but from "mission-aligned independent donors," including startup executives and investors.

Several people have pointed out that this is disingenuous. Nobody denies that sharing has value to local communities and the environment. But they say the emphasis on "grassroots" is a bit misleading given Peers's origins (Airbnb was key in founding the group) and that much of the sharing economy's profits will ultimately go to a few venture capitalists. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. But it's not exactly the message Peers is promoting.

Tom Slee, author of No One Makes You Shop At Wal-Mart, makes several cutting points, riffing on a speech by Douglas Atkins, Airbnb's head of community, earlier this summer. He quotes Atkins:

I’d like to talk about a move­ment for the shar­ing econ­omy. By "a movement" I mean exactly that. I mean huge num­bers of peo­ple, with a shared identity, mobi­lized to take action to do two things: to grow the peer shar­ing economy, and to fight for their col­lec­tive inter­ests against unfair and unreasonable obstacles.

And:

So what we’re talk­ing about here is not just peo­ple shar­ing their skills, or their apart­ment, or their car, but also their col­lec­tive power to expand the shar­ing econ­omy together, and to stand up against entrenched inter­ests who stand unfairly in their way. So "peo­ple power" if you like, or more accu­rately "peer power."

The speech "doesn’t once men­tion the finan­cial moti­va­tions of the forces behind the shar­ing econ­omy," Slee says, but is full of the "lan­guage of col­lec­tive and pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics." We don't hear about the $600 million that sharing companies have received from big VC funds (including $120 million for Airbnb alone). But there's a lot of talk about standing up to "entrenched interests." Atkins even ends his speech with a cry of "Vive La Revolution!"

As Slee notes, a lot of what we call "sharing" is more accurately renting—a term that has a less cuddly feel to it. And not every interest Peers wants to take on is market-powerful. Alongside hotel chains and car rental companies, Airbnb's competitors also include small bed and breakfast owners, who have licensed themselves fairly.

Just this week, Airbnb was at it again. In a letter, Atkins asked New Yorkers to sign a petition to save the company in the face of "special interests" and "poorly written laws." Valleywag's Sam Biddle writes:

But Airbnb's quasi-legality isn't tenable, and it's hard to argue that apartments functioning as de facto hotels shouldn't be subject to some kind of hotel tax. To this end, the company isn't just mobilizing its subscribers, but funneling them towards an astroturf campaign—"Please sign Mishelle's petition to change the NY law here."

Andrew Leonard at Salon has more here.

The point isn't to deny any group's right to champion the sharing economy. That's largely to the good. The problem is that Peers's advocacy is in the name of private interests as well as public ones. It should be more straightforward in saying so.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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4 Comments

  • Maggie

    It is worth looking at the fact that the founders of Airbnb and all of the other start-ups began their companies and Peers.org in the midst of the current economy. One that requires a large amount of capital to get started and be noticed. Instead of condemning them for needing capital to start this movement and painting them as hypocrites, we should really look beyond the surface and black and white of what is happening here. Even if the owners of the company profit from their start-up, it is still helping the American people FAR beyond most other corporations in this country. This is not a black and white issue, and deserves a lot more analysis into the distribution of wealth.