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What We Talk About When We Talk About Sharing

Posted by Bill McRae Filed Under Insights, Content

What could sound more selfless and altruistic than the “sharing economy?” You know, where Airbnb helps you share your apartment and Uber helps you share your car?

 Except that sharing isn’t exactly an accurate word to describe the exchange of goods and services that occurs when Airbnb helps people book a private room or Uber helps someone hail a ride in a private vehicle. As a technical marketing writer, that got me thinking.

“Now, in industry parlance,” writes Natasha Singer in the New York Times, “[sharing] has also come to denote just about any online venture that connects consumers seeking goods and services with people willing to provide them. That would include apps that charge a fee to stay in strangers’ spare bedrooms or use their cars—ventures formerly known as ‘renting.’”

 The language used to describe technology innovation has always been susceptible to marketing hyperbole (think of the latent promise implied by the words Windows, Apple, and Oracle), but language used to describe the app-mitigated economy seems particularly coded. “The peer economy,” the “on-demand economy,” the “collaborative economy,” and the “gig economy” all seem to point to a more evolved or reformed way of consuming or working, which it may be if a freelance lifestyle is what you’re looking for. But for workers seeking stable employment with insurance and benefits, living in the gig economy might not be so feel-good.

 Once you start unpacking the concepts behind the sharing economy, things get political fast—as courts, legislators and regulators have discovered as they attempt to determine whether workers who perform services for on-demand apps should be considered employees or independent contractors. “Terms like ‘sharing,’” writes Singer, “can put a gloss on business practices that may work against the interests of the supposed sharers—that is, the drivers themselves.”

 In other words, the term “sharing” changes its meaning depending on where you are in the transaction. There’s no question that Web apps like Uber have leveled competition in the taxi industry by brokering transactions between riders and private drivers, but framing the interaction with egalitarian-sounding words like “sharing” and “partner” obfuscates the reality for many of the people who actually perform the labor in the gig economy.

 Singer quotes Alex Rosenblat, a researcher at Data & Society: “I think that the biggest problem with the sharing-economy language is that it co-opts you into your own disempowerment.”

 What words do you use to describe the new peer economy? Please share.