Sharing economy not so much about sharing

The sharing economy that just a couple years ago served only a handful of young, tech-savvy Bay Area professionals has with startling speed become a mainstream economy in parts of the US and is making headway in Middle America.

Its growth has generated a lot of contentious debate, from public policy issues to safety concerns: Is your ski condo on Airbnb a hotel in the same right as Hilton? And who will be liable if a Lyft car crashes and the passenger is injured?

It’s also stirred up questions about whether services such as Lyft and Airbnb are really “sharing” businesses, true to the nomenclature they have adopted. They are businesses, after all, where people are charging money for a service – many of them making a decent living from it – and not sharing.

“The sharing economy has really gotten away from what the original users of that phrase intended,” said Janelle Orsi, an Oakland-based attorney and director of the Sustainable Economies Law Center.

Share, according to the pages of Merriam-Webster, means “to divide and distribute” or “to partake of, use, experience, occupy, or enjoy with others”

Uber’s pricey black car service could hardly be considered sharing, but often we lump it together with services such as Yerdle, a site where people give and receive for free items such as camping gear and children’s toys. Some experts say the terminology will work itself out as the nascent industry grows and businesses begin to find their niche.

Sidecar, one of the San Francisco-based hire-a-ride apps, has long been seen as almost synonymous with Uber and Lyft. But Sunil Paul, company co-founder and CEO, says Sidecar has already begun to differentiate itself from its competitors, and last year rolled out a new app feature that lets drivers pick up only those passengers who are en route to the driver’s destination. That’s more in tune with the origins of ride-sharing – saving gas and taking cars off the road by sharing a vehicle to a similar destination. Most other ride-sharing drivers, however, are operating more like taxi cabs.

“They are going out of their way to pick people up,” Orsi said.

But some industry leaders say just because these new services aren’t free doesn’t mean they aren’t sharing businesses: “The idea that you’re making money off of it doesn’t meant that you’re not part of the broader movement,” Paul said. “It’s about individuals being able to pool their resources to create something powerful and new.”

Lyft co-founder John Zimmer takes a more sentimental view of the budding industry. Services that offer consumers the experience to make an honest connection with each other, whether by sitting in a car together or staying in each others’ home, are all fair game in the sharing economy. What they have in common, he said, is they pull us out of our individual silos that technology has helped to create.

“You could spend your whole day by yourself from getting into your car, going into the garage of your company, to going into your office and sitting alone at a cubicle,” Zimmer said. “In Lyft, people sit together, treat each other as equals and talk to each other. That’s what the sharing economy is all about.

All of these things make people happy.”

 

 Image from Visage

Heather Somerville Heather Somerville (210 Posts)

Heather Somerville is a business reporter covering venture capital and startups for the Bay Area News Group.