Bloomberg Businessweek, 18 October 2013
I was invited to a potluck dinner on Wednesday to meet a bunch of strangers and discuss the importance of sharing. Well, kind of. Our hosts were looking to bolster the so-called sharing economy, which, depending on who you talk to, is either a lightweight form of socialism or an artisanal flavor of capitalism spawned by the Internet.
The event had clearly attracted people from both camps. It wasn’t long before one guest trumpeted a desire to “kick capitalism in the crotch,” while several others gently reminded people to sign a petition supporting Airbnb, the peer-to-peer apartment renting service. One man offered to sing a few songs. I spent much of the evening wondering why my red pepper hummus, which is always a hit at Super Bowl parties, wasn’t as popular as the vegan mac ‘n’ cheese. Plus whoever made the salad put in way too many red onions.
Standing in the cloudy center of all this was a group called Peers, which popped up over the summer with the goal of becoming a grassroots movement based on sharing. The potluck dinner—and about 130 other events taking place in 90 cities around the world on the same week—is its first big push to bring people to the cause.
There have been movements based on sharing before, as my aging hippie parents remind me with increasing regularity. But the brand-name version is relatively new. In the past few years, a series of startups have based their business models on creating online platforms where people can sell one another access to their homes (Airbnb), labor (Taskrabbit), or possessions (Lyft, Sidecar). These companies bathe in the spirit of cooperation—and it’s clearly to their benefit to frame themselves as facilitators of generosity—but they are also marketplaces looking for commissions.