Is the 'sharing economy' really about sharing?

A meeting of America's mayors adopts a resolution that a caring, sharing economy has to be fostered. But are we really shareaholics?

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read
Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, one of the supporters of the resolution. USMayors/YouTube Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

I confess to being in two minds about sharing.

It's not merely that the minute I do, every government on Earth is going to know about it.

It's that movies tell me that America is about individuals standing up on their own, fighting the elements and the enemies -- which generally include groupings of people who share a twisted (or not) philosophy.

And yet, I have just received an excited missive that America's mayors touched heads, hearts, and souls Monday -- before joining hands and singing some 60s songs -- after approving Resolution 87.

Should you not have partaken of this resolution, it has, at its core, a pulsating urge to embrace the "sharing economy."

The supporting evidence is profound. Americans aren't making a whole lot of money. (Well, a few of them are, but they're not sharing.)

Then there's all the sorry (or happy) people living alone -- the number has doubled since 1985.

Sharing has both economic and spiritual benefits. Who cannot admire New York's lovely new, blue bicycles -- the ones that help people move about freely and advertise Citibank, an ever-enthusiastic sharer of resources?

Clearly, the Web's very existence makes it even more simple and joyous to share so much more of our virtuous (even if often virtual) selves.

The news of the adoption of this resolution -- whose every paragraph begins with "Whereas" -- was brought to me courtesy of one of America's more visible sharing companies: Airbnb.

Never having dared to use the site to stay in a stranger's house, I find the enthusiasm of some of its users quite stirring. They swear by it with exponential glee.

And yet, only last week, I was talking to an extremely important figure in digital advertising, who said that the air had been let out for him in his most recent transaction.

He said he was told that someone else had offered more money for the apartment he'd booked for his family in New York, so he had to find something else.

I was trying to imagine what would have happened if the exquisitely, tragically hipsterish Ace Hotel, where I stayed last week -- would have tried that one on.

Still, the sharing economy seems to be working for many people. Mayors such as Michael Bloomberg, Rahm Emanuel, and San Francisco's very own Ed Lee wish it to speed ahead in their densely populated cities.

I worry, though, that people have increasingly isolated themselves for a reason. Perhaps, for many, it's because they can't tolerate living with others -- or, at the very least, because they feel others haven't shared and shared alike.

All too often, it seems that organizations based on sharing always devolve into desperate power struggles between individuals. Someone always wants more. Someone's always making more.

Perhaps, then, the real problem is with the word "sharing."

What's being executed isn't really a sharing economy at all. It's an economy where some things are being made simpler, cheaper, and more accessible, thanks to looking at regulations that favor incumbent businesses and either changing them or ignoring them.

There are surely no more pulsating examples of rule-breaking than Web companies. Asking for forgiveness seems so much more lucrative than asking for permission.

Normal humans are complicit, too. How many Airbnb hosts really do have the legal right to make money on their apartments by renting to strangers? Does it matter?

Perhaps it should be called the "flexible economy" or the "inventive economy" instead. That has so much less cant and kumbayah about it.

After all, you'd think if all these mayors truly believed in the essence of sharing, they would have every one of their meetings in a commune and sit cross-legged on the floor while they do their business. They would also have had a clothes-swap.

Whereas, I am reliably informed that their caring, sharing resolution was taken in a place where the words "sharing" and "economy" have specific and often very expensive ramifications: Las Vegas.