The Movement to Kill the Phrase 'Sharing Economy'

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(Photo by Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

"Sharing economy." It's a phrase we increasingly put in quotes or try to replace with another term here at KQED. But many news outlets still use it liberally, even though there is a growing movement of people who want to toss the phrase altogether.

The most recognized businesses in the so-called sharing economy are now companies like Uber, Airbnb and TaskRabbit. These corporations are built around apps where you pay for stuff -- rides, places to stay, a handyman. This is far from the original idea of the sharing economy, says Neal Gorenflo.

The Movement to Kill the Phrase 'Sharing Economy'

The Movement to Kill the Phrase 'Sharing Economy'

Gorenflo runs Shareable, a hub for co-ops and websites like Freecycle, where people give things away. Here is Gorenflo's definition of the sharing economy: "It’s where individuals are working with one another to create the products and provision the services we need to live and live well."

Gorenflo says the real sharing economy picked up after the 2008 financial crisis. It was utopian, anti-capitalist, all about reducing consumption. Then companies like Uber and Airbnb took off. Now for most people, they define the sharing economy.

"They’re sort of like the sharing-economy Death Stars," Gorenflo says. "They’re so aggressive. They raise so much money. They’re taking up all the oxygen in the discussion, which is really frustrating for us."

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Gorenflo says this is a classic example of corporations coopting the feel-good language of social activism.

The phrase "sharing economy" is particularly powerful, says Giana Eckhardt, a professor of marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London. She says, "It facilitates consumers believing they’re part of a larger movement."

Ironically, Eckhardt says instead of being about conservation, the phrase now puts a whole new positive spin on consumption. You are not paying for a ride or a room, you’re part of a community, sharing.

Eckhardt says, "People want to believe that the consumption activities that they’re doing have a larger purpose."

Eckhardt is one of many pundits and reporters trying to kill the “sharing economy” label. She wrote this piece in the Harvard Business Review urging people to do just that. Since then, others, like Alex Hern, have spoken out against the phrase.

Hern reports on tech for The Guardian newspaper in England. He wrote this op-ed titled, "Why the term 'sharing economy' needs to die." He says the argument is so simple that even little kids would understand. Paying is not sharing.

Hern says, "You’d be a very odd parent if you did tell your child ‘remember you have to share your toys with your sister and she has to pay you the market rate for what those toys are worth.’"

People like Hern are pushing for new terms: the on-demand economy, or the access economy. Hern uses gig economy, which he says focuses on the people actually doing the work for companies like Uber and TaskRabbit.

Hern says, "It’s both more accurate and it highlights to me what is the most important aspect of these companies, which is their relationship to labor."

Hern says the media are really to blame for the phrase getting out of control. He says reporters jumped on the sharing economy trend after the financial crisis. Then they started using the term for all kinds of new tech companies. Now, Hern says it’s hard for news outlets to stop using it.

"It’s a term that’s widely understood," Hern says, "It’s used to refer to hundreds of billions of dollars worth of companies. It’s not going anywhere soon."

It is entrenched. All you need to do to see that is search for the phrase in a dictionary.

Katherine Connor Martin is the head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press. She says, "Sharing economy was on the shortlist for the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year for 2015."

The term is in the online version of the Oxford Dictionary. The sharing economy is defined as "an economic system in which assets or services are shared between private individuals either for free or for a fee typically by means of the Internet."

Yes, the online Oxford Dictionary officially defines paying for something as part of the sharing economy, as does Webster’s and other dictionaries.

Martin says, "If people who are passionate about this shame the media into no longer using the word this way, and use it in a more restrictive way, then we would be obliged to reflect that change."

Neal Gorenflo has been trying to do this for five years to no avail. He and others in the original sharing economy have started giving up on the phrase. Now, they’ve got a new name: "Platform-cooperativism."

Gorenflo admits that it's not quite as sexy as “the sharing economy." Then again, if it were that good, a corporation would probably come along and scoop it up.