Sharing is a good thing, we learned in kindergarten, but that wisdom was soon called into question by the grown-up world of getting and spending. Now, New Age capitalism has spun out a wonderful invention: the “sharing economy,” which holds out the promise of using technology to connect disparate individuals in mutually profitable enterprise, or at least in warm feelings.
The most prominent examples of the sharing economy are a taxi-hailing service called Uber and a real-estate-subletting service called Airbnb. As with most enterprises emerging from Silicon Valley, they come with a very ambitious vocabulary. Brian Chesky, the co-founder of Airbnb, uses words like “revolution” and “movement” to describe his company, which is now valued at $13 billion—a bit less than the price at which the stock market values Starwood, a company that operates 1,200 properties in 100 countries, under names like W, Westin and Sheraton—making Airbnb the best-capitalized revolutionary movement in history. The term “sharing economy” has been making the rounds for about a decade, but the phenomenon has roots in the 1990s: all of its trademark enthusiasms—the flattening of stodgy old hierarchies, the rise of peer-to-peer networks, the decentering of everything—were concepts imported into middlebrow culture by the likes of Thomas Friedman. Then as now, the structure of the Internet was taken as a model for society: a network of peers rather than a gray-suited hierarchy. But in its last iteration, during the dot-com boom, techno-utopianism was more about the production side of the economy—transforming the world of work into a flexible, hip space for creativity and collaboration.
The updated version is more about the consumption side; in fact, another name for it is “collaborative consumption.” In a 2010 article in the Harvard Business Review, Rachel Botsman, formerly of the Clinton Foundation, and venture capitalist Roo Rogers applied the term to Zipcar and Netflix, though it seems like a grand appellation for gussied-up rental operations. “Collaborative consumption,” they wrote, “gives people the benefits of ownership with reduced personal burden and cost and also lower environmental impact—and it’s proving to be a compelling alternative to traditional forms of buying and ownership.” Less famous names in the “space,” as business professors like to say, included Zilok.com, a peer-to-peer rental scheme for tools and appliances (which offered me a jackhammer for $18.75 a day); UsedCardboardBoxes.com, for the “rescue” and resale of used cardboard boxes (which brags that it’s saved over 900,000 trees); and the then-new Airbnb.
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Airbnb, which seems universally loved by both hosts and renters, has since become the most appealing example of this profitably collective ethos. I spoke with hosts (who universally crave anonymity) who pick up anywhere from $15,000 to $75,000 a year by renting out parts of their houses. It’s not quite free money; one host in Los Angeles, whose annual earnings are at the high end of that range, estimates that it takes from one to three hours a day to maintain the space (which would work out to $125 an hour or more). And guests love the service, too—it’s much cheaper than a hotel.