“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.

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.”

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.

  • Ben Kelley

    Just another perversion of language, all too common in a culture that elevates and distorts useful neologisms to serve the purpose of corporations and other special interests. At its most extreme, this trend can destroy the beauty and utility of a language and the integrity of a people, as it did in Nazi Germany, where the rulers corrupted the noble German language into a tool for hate, lies, and evil propaganda. The 2016 presidential campaign is rife with examples of this, especially by the GOP candidates. One shudders to think…

  • Kim Tjoa

    In the opinion of the Dutch Association of Sharing Platforms there is nothing wrong with the term ‘sharing economy’. It should be the effort of all involved in this socio-economic movement to make this way of organising ones lives, businesses or callings mainstream. It’s the substance that counts not words.

    This our definition of the sharing economy: http://deelplatformen.nl/what-is-nederlandse-vereniging-van-deelplatformen-2/

  • Charley Marsteller

    How about “Gig Slave”

  • Tired of Nonsense

    How about calling it the monetizing economy? What it is really about is monetizing instead of sharing. In earlier decades many Americans reached out to other people to share what they had with those less fortunate. Women picked up other women hitchhiking and men picked up servicemen in uniform, for example. Websites helped people exchange temporary housing when they traveled so that, for example, one could visit Italy, stay with someone there and then host that same person in the U.S. the next year. It saved people money and helped them make friends. Neighbors got to know each other as they borrowed tools and equipment so that each individual didn’t have to privately own everything he or she needed. Now we have “the sharing economy” in which we charge people as much as we possibly can for a ride or to sleep on our couch. Instead of making friends we prioritize monetizing our possessions by renting them to strangers. Donald Trump’s unironic choice of a campaign rally song “Head LIke A Hole” says it all about America today, “God Money I’d do anything for you.”

  • Pandora’s Paradise

    Good Article!

Author

Sam Harnett

Sam Harnett is a reporter who covers tech, capital and work at KQED. For the last five years he has been reporting on how technology and capitalism are changing the way we think about ourselves and what it means to work. He is the co-creator of The World According to Sound, a 90-second podcast that features different sounds and the stories behind them.

Before coming to KQED, Sam worked as an independent reporter who contributed regularly to The California Report, Marketplace, The World and NPR. In 2013, he launched a podcast called Driving With Strangers. In 2014, he was selected by the International Center for Journalists for a reporting fellowship in Japan, where he covered the legacy of the Fukushima disaster.

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