Thoughts on the Sharing Economy

I’m a bit ambivalent about what folks are calling the “sharing economy”. Not from a lack of desire to share. Goodness, but I think we need to share more, partner more, and cooperate more – as congregations, seminaries, community groups, etc. – than ever. It’s more that the sharing economy doesn’t always feel like sharing.

Maybe it’s simply that I’ve used Uber and, sure, it’s great. But it doesn’t exactly feel like sharing when I pay at least as much as I would pay for a cab. It just feels a little more convenient, but otherwise pretty transactional. Which is where my ambivalence comes in. I actually love the way the internet has given us more choices, whether via Uber or AirBnB. But describing these activities as “sharing” seems a bit generous for what may have a little negotiating room but otherwise feels a lot like normal commercial transactions.

Nor is sharing entirely new. Quite frankly, NPR has been operating with what feels a lot more like a sharing economy for years. I mean, they go ahead and put out all this great content and hope folks will support it. When we started Working Preacher, we adopted the NPR model for just that reason: We wanted to give something to folks for free, hoping they would find value in it and support us in return. And NPR and Working Preacher obviously don’t stand alone. When you think about it, church is one of the oldest examples of a sharing economy that we have. (Indeed, perhaps the challenge is that fewer folks find what is being shared – or maybe how it is being shared – that compelling.) Folks are offered things for free and volunteer their thankful support.

And maybe that’s what I feel differentiates true “sharing economies” from mock ones – relational volunteering. You volunteer your support or remuneration not on the basis of a primarily economic transaction but because you have some sense of connection to the one who made their expertise, wares, or gifts available.

Which means that there is always something vulnerable about true sharing. Because people might not want to enter into a relationship, might find what you offer unsatisfactory or uninspiring, and might not want to support you.

Yet, despite these risks, I have a hunch that we’ll increasingly move in just this direction – taking the risk, making ourselves vulnerable, truly sharing what we have. Why? Three reasons. First, I think we’ll have to. As resources we’ve counted on for years run short, we will suddenly find sharing not merely pleasurable but prudent.

Second, I think that even as we get more and more connected “informationally” via social media and the internet, we feel simultaneously disconnected relationally. And so moving even slightly from commercial transaction to relational sharing feels good (which is why I think we like to use the name…even for things that don’t look at second glance all that much like real sharing 🙂 ).

Third, I just think that we are deeply communal by nature and therefore born, essentially, to share. If you didn’t catch Jessica Jackley’s TED Talk yesterday on the origins of Kiva, don’t miss it, because this is pretty much exactly the premise she has worked from – people want to be connected, people care, people are moved by each other’s stories. I think this is what Amanda Palmer is tapping into as well when she trades her music and art for a ride to and from the airport, a place to spend the night, or money for enough food to get by. (Again, if you haven’t seen her TED Talk, it’s a really good one.) Vulnerability is a key part of her work, as Palmer shares in her book The Art of Asking, but so is the greater sense of relationship that only comes from vulnerability.

Tomorrow I’ll share one of my favorite examples of what feels more like truly sharing, but for now I’m curious about your experiences of the “sharing economy.” What has worked? What hasn’t? How comfortable are you with asking folks for something when you are in need? Is it easier for you to be generous to others or to receive the generosity of others? Thanks for chiming in. And don’t miss tomorrow’s post as I think you’ll find it simply enchanting and maybe even want to, well, share it with others.