My brother, sister and I share a furniture removals trolley given to us by our dad when he moved interstate. It’s not a resource any of us needs to own permanently or use full-time, but it’s handy to have access to it when we need it.
As family, we’ve been used to sharing things with each other since we were children. We often share camping equipment, picnic supplies, cars, a trailer, bicycles, books and even ideas. We’re “family”—and families share. But what about when strangers do exactly the same thing?
We’ve entered the age of what is now called the “sharing economy,” where someone who owns a furniture removals trolley can quickly and easily share it for a time—and a small fee—with a stranger who needs to use one. It’s the perfect arrangement for people who have resources they’re not currently using and those who only need something for a short time.
Benita Matofska, founder of “social enterprise” The People Who Share, defines the sharing economy as “a socio-economic ecosystem built around the sharing of human, physical and intellectual resources. It includes the shared creation, production, distribution, trade and consumption of goods and services by different people and organisations.”
Claire Marshall, an avid supporter and advocate of the sharing lifestyle, wrote on news website, Shareable, “The sharing economy succeeds beautifully in its efficient distribution of idle resources. Rooms that would’ve stayed empty get rented out, cars that would have stayed by the kerb get driven thanks to car sharing platforms, and, as the sharing economy grows, more and more platforms are being invented to help us rent out the stuff we don’t use.”
The platforms Marshall talks about are probably the most recognisable part of the sharing economy. They are the websites that have enabled sharing on a global and virtually instant scale. Airbnb, Lyft, Uber, RelayRides, Open Shed, Car Next Door, Spacelli, TaskRabbit, SourceBottle, GoFetch, eBay, and a myriad others permeate the internet with opportunities for people around the world to share a spare room, a car, a ride, storage space, working skills, errand running, ideas, courier services and to sell second-hand items. You can even share a meal with a stranger in your own dining room through websites such as www.mealsharing.com.
Matofska, Marshall and other proponents of the sharing economy cite inspiring reasons why it’s a good idea: At the very least, people can make a little money by hiring out resources that don’t get used to their full potential, while users save money by not having to purchase goods themselves or paying cheaper hire rates.
But their claims go even further: At its best, the sharing economy can change lives and change the world. Since sharing reduces the pressure on people to own every resource they need (or at the least, to own it brand new), it has the potential to reduce the purchase and manufacture of products. With decreased manufacturing comes a reduction in emissions, waste and landfill, thereby helping the environment.
Sharing resources also brings people together, which strengthens relationships and community bonds, an important goal of those who advocate for a sharing economy. Participants often talk about the people they meet as a consequence of sharing.
But there are others who don’t see the sharing economy in such glowing and utopian ways.
In an article for the Harvard Business Review, marketing professors Giana M Eckhardt and Fleura Bardhi claim this new mode of using and consuming is not sharing at all. They claim that a better phrase to use is “access economy.”
“When ‘sharing’ is market-mediated—when a company is an intermediary between consumers who don’t know each other—it is no longer sharing at all. Rather, consumers are paying to access someone else’s goods or services for a particular period of time. It is an economic exchange, and consumers are after utilitarian, rather than social, value,” they write.
According to this view, strangers aren’t in it for the common good; they just want a better deal. They’re asking “What’s in it for me?”
The “sharing” websites themselves fit within Eckhardt and Bardhi’s claims. These websites need money to operate, so many of them take a percentage of the fees charged between strangers to hire things. For example, the Lyft website takes 20–25 per cent of each hiring fee “to provide a great platform and keep the community growing.” And a majority of platforms that make this new sharing, or access, economy possible have business models, profit margins and paid staff, all of which need to benefit from the transaction.
The growth of some platforms is also changing the way some people think about their potential. Rather than just earning a few extra dollars, many of the bigger platforms are now being marketed as viable ways in which to earn a living. For example, more and more Uber drivers aren’t just ordinary people making a few extra dollars by collecting passengers on a trip they already need to take; they’re dedicated drivers using their own cars to earn an income.
And, as it’s turning out, this arrangement is not a fair “share.” New York academic Douglas Rushkoff, author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, told the Sydney Morning Herald, “Most of Uber’s drivers can’t make a living as an Uber driver. While taxi drivers and limo drivers could recoup enough money to keep themselves and their families alive, Uber drivers are not paid enough to do that. The platform keeps the money.”
He acknowledges that although Uber allows people to share a car ride, the money people make from the “share” is not enough to live on. It’s not a sustainable way to make a living, even though it has disrupted taxi markets as if it is.
Marshall agrees that making a sustainable living from the sharing economy doesn’t seem to be possible. In a Huffington Post article, she explains that some platforms shouldn’t be classified as “sharing,” because there isn’t much of it happening. “The term ‘sharing economy’ is a warm and fuzzy phrase that many businesses have hid under, but really, when you examine businesses like Uber, Fiverr and Airtasker, there is not really a lot of sharing going on. Therefore it’s really better to use the term ‘Gig Economy’ to describe platforms like Uber, Fiverr and Airtasker.”
In essence, the gig economy matches small jobs that either a company or individual needs done, such as designing a business card or having the swimming pool cleaned, with people who are willing to do them—for a very small fee.
Steven Hill, author of Raw Deal: How the “Uber Economy” and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers, highlights the dangers of using the gig economy to make a living. He wrote in the Huffington Post, “A new and alarming mash-up of Silicon Valley technology and Wall Street greed is thrusting upon us the latest economic fad: the so-called ‘sharing economy.’ Companies like Uber, Airbnb, Instacart, Upwork and TaskRabbit allegedly are ‘liberating workers’ to become ‘independent’ and the ‘CEOs of their own businesses.’ In reality, these workers also are contractors, with little choice but to hire themselves out for ever-smaller jobs (‘gigs’ and ‘micro-gigs’) and wages, with no safety net while the companies profit.”
In addition, elements of the sharing economy seem to be counteracting the claims that it helps in other ways. Hill cites analyses that reveal Uber and its competitor Lyft have contributed to increased traffic congestion and slower traffic speeds in several American cities.
So, the sharing economy is more complex than it first appeared. People sharing a meal or sharing their spare room seem to be doing OK. They’re making friends, earning a little extra cash and helping a stranger out at the same time. But for those trying to do a little more with the gig economy, it appears they’re probably being underpaid, over-used and generally taken advantage of. And it’s not clear yet whether the larger goals—better communities and a healthier environment—are being achieved.
At the heart of the utopian view of the sharing economy lies a dream that seems to sit well in the Christian psyche. In the book of Acts in the Bible, the early Christian church sounds like an early proponent of the sharing economy: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2:44, 45).
But the early Christians didn’t have tech companies providing online platforms that took a percentage of the hiring fee. They simply shared—face-to-face and based on the needs of others. They didn’t ask “What’s in it for me?”
“The term ‘sharing economy‘ is a warm and fuzzy phrase that many businesses have hid under . . .”
It’s interesting to note Jesus didn’t talk much about sharing. But He did talk a lot about giving. He is noted as saying things like “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42; italics added) and “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:7, 8; italics added).
Giving is a radical paradigm shift from sharing. Sharing implies that you can either retain the value of the resources you own or at the least receive some level of compensation for parting with them for a time. But giving requires something else. It requires selflessness and a relinquishing of the “what’s-in-it-for-me” mindset. It requires an acknowledgement that the needs of others come before your own, perhaps even at the expense of your own.
For the Christian, the greatest expression of this selfless giving came when Jesus died on a cross to provide salvation from sin for all. The book of Mark reveals, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45; italics added).
Through this gift, Jesus will live forever with those who choose to accept it. And it’s at this point that the perfect sharing really begins. Colossians 1:12 says those who believe can give “joyful[ly] thanks to the Father, who has qualified you [us] to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light” (Colossians 1:12; italics added). And when we are in heaven with Jesus, where all things are made new and perfect, the sharing economy will reach its utopian best. Shared resources, connected people and a perfect world.