Sharing is the Future


The internet can stop you buying stuff you don’t need

Last year I took a two week holiday to Vietnam, where I used my membership of social network to find like-minded people in Hanoi with whom to meet up. Having found and exchanged messages with someone of similar age and interests, I arranged to meet up with this complete stranger, who spent a day showing me the local secrets of Hanoi on a thrilling and terrifying moped trip. No money exchanged hands, but in return I gave an informal English lesson to her and her friends.

Not long after, I found myself in NYC as part of an ethnographic research team, which in part, involved seeing how young, ‘early adopters’ of new tech consumed media. One trend that we saw across the board was that no one we interviewed owned a DVD, Blu Ray or CD collection. They preferred to stream their music and movies ‘on demand,’ as and when they wanted them. At the time, Wired editor Kevin Kelly was already talking about ‘access, not ownership’ being the future.

Until recently I didn’t realise that these experiences had something in common: they’re evidence of a shift in consumer behaviour that we’re all soon to be a part of, if we’re not already. It’s referred to as the shared economy, or collaborative consumption, and is the sharing or exchange of goods and services peer-to-peer.

There are many examples, as diverse as renting your house or car to others when you’re not using them, sharing garden tools with your neighbours, or renting designer jewellery for a special night out. There are a huge number of growing online services to facilitate this, and they’re causing serious disruption to traditional business models. As consumers we’ve started to barter, lend and swap again, just like we used to with our neighbours when we lived in rural communities. This time though, the internet and mobile technologies are allowing us to match our wants and needs with those of others, and make these transactions on a global or very local scale.

The most successful example to date is Air BnB, which is a site that enables anyone to rent out their room, apartment or house directly to others in the same way you might book a hotel, in return for payment. Founded by two industrial designers in 2007, Air BnB has become the poster child for the shared economy movement, with 10 million bookings to date. It was recently valued at US$1 billion., a site I’ve been an active member of for several years now, allows travellers to find like-minded people around the world who are offering free advice and accommodation. Going to Tokyo on holiday? In minutes you can read a profile and reviews on a person, message them and arrange to stay at their house. To date, Couchsurfing has enabled around 5.6 million connections and exchanges like this.

Whipcar, Getaround, Taskrabbit, Getable, Snapgoods, Meemeep, Landshare, Swishy, Crashpadder, Love Home Swap, Uniiverse, Parkatmyhouse… there are new ideas (and clones) appearing every week; 2012 is looking a promising year for those involved with the sharing economy. Fast Company deemed 2012 the “year of peer-to-peer accommodations,” and The Times mentioned it as one of 10 ideas that will change the world. Last year, US$500 million was invested in shared economy companies, this year it could be twice that.

For the generation of digital natives, you are no longer defined by the things you own but by the experiences you have, and as such they are being smarter with the things they already own. Access is more important than ownership, and the recession has meant many more people are looking to offset or avoid the cost of high value goods such as cars. The big auto companies have already noticed this. Today we don’t want stuff; we want experiences that fulfil us. Saving money is the main driver for many in collaborative consumption, but pressing environmental concerns, and a hunger for real, rooted experiences also factor. Air BnB appeals because it offers an enriching stay with a local person in a real home, rather than being a tourist at an anonymous hotel chain.

Of course, these transactions hinge on trust. When I mention couchsurfing to people, the most common question I’m asked is ‘how do you know your guest isn’t an axe murderer?’ It’s because I’ve learned enough about them already to feel comfortable.

Social networks such as Twitter and Instagram, mean we’re comfortable sharing personal information now and can easily access that of people we’ve only just met. We can quickly get a sense of who a stranger is in a way that’s never been possible before. Sites now ask us to login with Facebook or Twitter accounts, and include ratings and reviews from previous transactions, giving others confidence in dealing with us. In the shared economy, it’s not our credit rating that matters but our reputation amongst our peers.

One important effect of this new consumer behaviour is a renewed sense of local community, something sorely missed in modern, urban environments. For example you can use Open Shed to share your lawnmower with a previously anonymous neighbour and in return get help fixing your bike. Today we place renewed importance on re-establishing this sense of community, and the transparency which is required of collaborative consumption is getting us more involved with others at a local level.

So is sharing the future? I believe it is. Our online reputations are forming a social currency which enables us to swap, share and barter in smart and efficient ways, with new ideas appearing all the time. We save and make money, reduce our impact on the planet and at the same time spark meaningful, offline interaction with those around us. I’m going to explore Budapest next month with a friend I met through Couchsurfing, what about you?

Matt Corrall