The sharing economy is taking the world by storm -- creating multi-billion dollar companies overnight and inspiring millennial entrepreneurs to squeeze cash out of anything and everything they have lying around the house. The popularity of the concept isn't surprising given Generation Y's adoption of sustainability and zero-waste as a part of their lifestyle rather than a choice. Companies, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs riding the sharing economy wave like to call it a benevolent disruption -- the organic evolution of inefficient markets that comes from empowering regular Americans to maximize their own assets.
It's also first-rate spin from master manipulators in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street. The "sharing economy" is a reductive term that blurs the line between groundbreaking enterprises that tap into unused resources and charlatans looking for a quick payday. From unauthorized "party houses" in residential neighborhoods to profiteering from public parking spots, the so-called sharing economy is more about greed than altruism.
The underlying concept may work in economic theory, but not in practical application. The vast majority of sharing economy startups aim to build bridges between buyer and seller without any consideration for other audiences. No understanding that private and public properties only exist in the context of the community and the neighbors and peers in it. No recognition that the sale, lease or sharing of products and services cannot be conducted in a bubble.
Successful businesses value consumer loyalty, but not at the cost of alienating everyone outside of the financial transaction. Brands like Coca-Cola and Nike remain top names in spite of the occasional bump in the road because they build relationships while maintaining awareness of their community. Buzzy sharing economy companies like Airbnb and MonkeyParking ignore this business truism. In fact, they appear blind to everyone not adding to their revenue stream. They come off like professional cabals of squatters who seek to circumvent the social compact for a few bucks.
These types of startups offer a lot of sharing without caring. They claim to be unassociated third parties, taking a small fee for "facilitating" transactions between two groups interested in making a deal. It's the same faulty logic drug dealers use to deny accountability for inexcusably anti-social behavior.
The extensive public relations campaigns and the tech media industry that laud the power of the sharing economy are deliciously ironic. They simultaneously suggest we're all in this world together while furthering the distance between haves and have nots. More importantly, they offer a glimpse into the struggle for the soul of Silicon Valley and San Francisco. In the hotbed of American innovation, tension between millennial entrepreneurs and those outside the tech world is boiling over. Protests shut down streets, bricks are thrown at windows and name-calling has become an art form. From all corners of society, factions are at odds over rising costs, gentrification, and the #jerktech of the sharing economy.
It's easy to view the strife as a culture clash between young and old, but even among millennials flocking to these trendy urban centers, there is a pervasive sense that the tech world is pushing the boundaries of good taste and public trust. The Daily Show's report on the "Google Glass Explorers" tales of discrimination went viral because it's insightful, comedic and hugely depressing to watch wealthy, intelligent, successful young people so remarkably detached from real human connection.
The "sharing, not caring" phenomenon is exacerbated by major tech media outlets, which slavishly report on every whispered rumor and idea from big tech firms. Take Fast Company's coverage of Airbnb's new branding campaign: a 1,500-word love letter to CEO Brian Chesky. The fluff piece - commonplace in the media coverage of the sharing economy - barely touches upon the company's many troubling controversies. In the ode to the company's genius, the reporter also strangely failed to recognize that the central image of the branding overhaul bears an uncanny resemblance to female genitalia.
Sycophantic media outlets aside, there's no denying the public's shared hatred for waiting at the checkout line, the gas pump or box office. Patience and fair play are necessary parts of life that technology can never subsume. We grudgingly accept waiting as a way to stay connected with other humans - and remember the experience of lining up for coffee is still one of the most powerful ways to make friends.
The violation of a social compact may piss people off, but cheating them out of taxpayer dollars is a more serious offense. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is waging war against armies of high-priced political and media consultants paid from Silicon Valley's deepest pockets. Their primary argument, that their businesses are inherently impossible to regulate, is intellectually arid. All the lawyers, lobbyists and communicators in the world can't spin away the fact that taxes are a necessary evil to pay for education, police and transportation services.
It takes time for the law to catch up to innovation, so there is no panacea on the horizon. But there are plenty of good examples of companies - like TaskRabbit and BlaBlaCar - that legitimately embrace collaborative consumption, value public trust, and don't dodge common-sense regulation. They understand that legal circumvention never works, that there is a world beyond their digital wallets. They skip the public relations and instead work on smart solutions.
Millennial entrepreneurs enamored with the sharing economy must take a step back and think about what "sharing" really means. Think back to the first time they heard the word. On Sesame Street or Barney or another kid's show. Right after Cookie Monster got through with the "C is for Cookie" song, it was there: "sharing is caring." It made sense in the simple days of childhood and more sense now.
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