Share a jug with someone in tribute to Creative Commons, the sharing economy at its aspirational best. (Image courtesy of Toban Black Creative Commons License Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike)

I was excited to read about the dread Airbnb squatter, who stopped paying after 30 days and demanded tenant rights per California rental law. I appreciated it as a graphic illustration of the two very different “sharing economies” that have emerged, joined at the hip by the blarney of branding.

One sharing economy is, at its core, materialistic, with roots in economic shifts and forces. The owner victimized by the squatter seems to have simply purchased a rental property for income generation and was using online services to market it. Nothing wrong with that. No “sharing” there either.

The other sharing economy is idealistic, rooted in a quest for meaning and interpersonal connection amidst the anomie of our age. Only a minority can afford this quest—basically those who have been able to surf the economic crisis. They—we, I should say, given SSIR’s readership—embrace “open”—the idea that if you are transparent and sharing with others, they will respond in kind. Maybe we see a conceptual reed to grasp in a fraught and often hostile world, where “closed” has been normative and protection is sought in courtrooms.

(As a sidenote, but relevant I think: Wealthy people can embrace “open” too. See here how the fabulous scions of Facebook demand the right to mingle with the sweaty artists of Burning Man, albeit in catered camps.)

So we have two comingled sharing economies and, of course, people are rarely just one way or another. The embracers of the open economy avidly shop for discount-rates embraces. And even those driven primarily by economics for the most part prefer to save money cordially.

A sharing site like Krrb enables people to sell collectibles to each other. The evocation is of setting up a stand on the Krrbside—one pictures an umbrella, perhaps some tall drinks with straws and mint, neighbors strolling by ... “Why, Daniel, wherever did you get this? It’s just too cute.” Sales would be the least of it. But on Krrb, you are inundated with injunctions about doing business with strangers because, as they lay it right out there, “Nobody likes a stranger.”

Really?

In the sharing economy, nobody likes a stranger?

Where I hang out in Sharingville, we like strangers a lot. We treasure our serendipitous human interactions. They are often the part of a trip or purchase that we talk about most.

Naturally, we also hear the horror stories.

When you think about it, the horror stories are always about the human part, not the economic part, except indirectly. Systems like Airbnb are actually quite good at making the actual payment process secure and transparent. The horror occurs when a person acts differently than you expected—someone trashes your rental property or fibs about wireless access in their ad. And what I fear is happening, as a result, is that confidence in serendipitous human interactions is waning and emphasis on price point is gaining.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I date my own involvement in the sharing economy (not yet so named) to 1985, when I joined the WELL, from which CompuMentor (now TechSoup Global) emerged in 1987. For the last 19 years I’ve rented out a Sierra cabin on VRBO, and for the last six years, I’ve stayed chez Airbnb in upwards of 20 rentals in 15 cities Throughout the 90s, we home-exchanged with other families all over the world. My own organization has worked hard at sharing and being shared with, particularly in our network of 55 other organizations.

In my experience, successful engagement with the open, personally expansive elements of the sharing economy requires that you:

  1. Offer clarity and transparency (C&T): Take the chance of making your intentions and aspirations crystal clear.
  2. Demand C&T: You can insist on the same in return.
  3. Read reviews: Duh. An unreviewed site is waving a red flag at you.
  4. Get Reviews: The reality is that one bad review eats 10 times its weight in good ones. This is the burden of operating a stand in the Reputation Roadshow. So:
  5. Avoid bad reviews. Take the long view. Meet people way more than halfway.
  6. Give happy customers a nudge. Remember: reviewing is no longer a natural Internet act; it’s an extra act.

I’ve written here from a personal consumer standpoint, but I am convinced that there are enormous opportunities for the social sector to engage with the values-driven segment of the sharing economy. The synergies between the idealistic portion of the sharing economy, and the goals and activities of the sector seem evident. To date, this synergy is somewhat tapped via crowdfunding mechanisms, especially those like Kiva, which share back to the donors the stories of the recipients. I think much more is possible.

Admittedly, it’s tricky. I am thinking about an environmental organization’s fundraiser that I attended. It was pretty garden variety—slide show, director talking about environmental depredation, pitch for funds. The people there were older “enviros” like me who already supported the organization.

But one slide really jumped out at me. It showed a bunch of 20- and 30-somethings clearing dead, fire-hazard brush in the Sierras. They were working hard and having a ball. They looked like people who work at Google and Facebook. And it turned out, that was indeed their ilk. They had signed up for a work-and-learn weekend run by the organization. The price of the weekend was nugatory; the organization was glad to have the free labor.

To me, it suggested a lot better development approach than slide shows and speeches. The group’s director expressed polite disinterest in my notion, and I could see his point; it takes a lot of work to host those volunteers, and there is no financial benefit as it is now set up. But all that could change. It would take understanding the motivations of the volunteers and engaging them fully in organizing themselves. The upside might be amazing.

I’d like to think and write more about the intersection of the reputation economy and the social sector, and I welcome your ideas.

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