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Is Sharing Political? Thinks So

BY Sam Roudman | Wednesday, August 28 2013

Some vegetable sharers Peers will mold into a coalition. Credit:

Sharing is not only a nice thing to teach children, it is the basis for a chunk of the economy. And according to some, the sharing economy is more than technological advancements that allow the crowdfunding of a college roommate’s short film or a single dad to make extra cash driving revelers on the cab poor streets of San Francisco. It’s a movement.

“We’re moving as an economy, as a strategy, and a lifestyle, from a world organized around ownership to one around access to services and talent,” says Lisa Gansky, an entrepreneur who wrote a book about the sharing economy called The Mesh, and invests in car share company RelayRides and work-tasking platform TaskRabbit, among others.

Standing behind for-profit sharing platforms like Airbnb and RelayRides, as well as non-profit endeavors like the Santa Rosa Tool Library is the idea that sharing can enable a more efficient economy, where owners profit from latent assets (an extra room, a car that sits in a garage), and communities benefit from pooled resources. The hope is that money saved and earned through sharing can soften the blow of high unemployment and cuts to government spending, while also strengthening the social bonds of communities.

But is a common economic practice grounds for a political coalition? Peers, a new organization looking to advocate for individuals who benefit from the sharing economy, is betting yes.

“I believe that it’s a movement of people who want to see a bottom up economy and they’re building [it],” says Natalie Foster, Peer’s co-founder and executive director.

Foster says Peers will build the sharing economy in three ways. First, they’ll set up community building events in cities around the globe. The organization kicked off in late July with parties in 15 cities, connecting sharers in not just in New York and the Bay Area, but also in Barcelona, Spain and Seoul, Korea. The second goal of the organization is to mainstream the sharing economy by telling the stories of those involved in the sharing economy, and finally, by providing a platform for sharers to organize themselves on behalf of issues, particularly at the city level.

“In some cases it might be calling on a mayor to bring bike sharing to their city, in some cases it might be coming together to make ride sharing legal in the city,” says Foster.

Operating within government regulations has been a major challenge for companies in the sharing economy (although it need not be an insurmountable one).

“There’s a ton to be done as far as policy making,” says Janelle Orsi, an attorney and executive director of the Sustainable Economies Law Center, which has helped advocate for policies supporting the sharing economy, “it’s almost like we need to carve out a new space in every single realm of policy, at the city, state, and federal level.”

When sharing companies don’t comply with local regulations, they either get shut out or operate in a legal grey zone. In New York for instance, some of Airbnb’s services are technically illegal, although enforcement is highly unlikely (it has happened once), while RelayRides had to suspend its operations completely until it gets up to date with New York insurance law. Both companies operate without issue in other cities and states.

“What they’re doing isn’t advocating for RelayRides per se, it’s advocating for those members in New York who are being hit because of regulatory issues,” says Steve Webb, RelayRides’ spokesman. Webb says the focus of Peers will be on supporting those who use or depend on companies like RelayRides to make extra money, “the people that are making up the sharing economy.”

Peers hopes to use stories of those involved in the sharing economy to inform policy debates.

“A lot of the conversation has happened behind closed doors,” says Foster.

Peers is a product of Foster’s experience in online political organizing. Previously she worked in online organizing for MoveOn, the Sierra Club, the DNC, and co-founded Rebuild the Dream, which advocates on behalf of economic issues. Peers is also a result of Foster’s disillusionment with political work.

“DC seems broken and people don’t necessarily believe it’s going to fix their problems,” she says.

On the other hand, it’s not clear that the sharing economy can either. Although one often cited estimate says the sharing economy currently contributes $3.5 billion to the economy annually, and could eventually contribute $100 billion annually, there’s no proof yet it is reducing the overall inequality of American society.

Lisa Gansky agrees the potential of the sharing economy is far from settled, but thinks Peers will contribute to answering questions about it. “The opportunity is to create the equivalent of the blue dye, and allow us to track it,” she says.

Peers is funded in part by executives and investors from for-profit sharing companies, but a number of nonprofits are involved as well. One of them is Ioby, a crowd-resourcing platform, where people contribute time, money and whatever other resources they have to neighborhood projects.

“Into the future there’s a space that’s not as definitive about what is for and nonprofit,” says Erin Barnes, Ioby’s executive director. She thinks promoting for-profit sharing will encourage the more altruistic version of it. Referring to a project now crowdfunding startup funds on ioby, Barnes says “the difference between [the Asheville] tool library and Airbnb is only one of scale.”

Correction, September 4. The original version of this article didn't specify Erin Barnes was referring to a specific tool library and not all tool libraries when making a comparison to Airbnb.