Is the collaborative economy only for the privileged?

Sharing and collaboration are often touted as the ultimate solutions to combat the downturn. But the people who speak the loudest are often the ones who have the least to be afraid of.

For the past few years, I’ve been a dedicated advocate of the collaborative economy. I belong to the OuiShare core team, have my own sharing startup, write semi-regularly for Shareable, organize local meetups in Helsinki, and so on.

I’m able to do all this because I can afford it. I have a safety net. I was born in a Finnish upper middle class family. I have higher education. I have savings, and I know that if I my startup won’t make it and I run out of money, I can always get a job. The worst case scenario is that I have to ask for money from my parents.

Like many sharing economy enthusiasts, I don’t dream about being rich or even want to own a lot of stuff.

Still, like the most of us (there are exceptions too), I do need money for living. To pay the rent, to get food on the table. And the truth is that I have never been in a situation where I’d have to worry about not having enough money for either of those. I am very privileged. The financial considerations I have to make are in the neighborhood of “can I afford to attend both OuiShare Fest in Paris and OuiShare Summit in Barcelona this year, or do I need to pick only one of them.”

I’m not alone. I remember a discussion from a year ago, in the early days of OuiShare, when Antonin was describing the OuiShare activists. He said: “We are all Bobos.”

He was referring to a term coined by David Brooks in his book Bobos in Paradise, describing people who are from the middle to upper class, often highly educated, liberal, tolerant, and averse to hyperconsumption.

Bobos don’t have to work 60-80 hours a week in a low-paid job just to feed their family. Bobos can afford to work for what they believe in.

Free is for the wealthy

Many people have recently shared this inspirational TED talk by Amanda Palmer. In it she describes an ideal of the collaborative economy: a meritocracy in which people do not demand to be paid, but are instead simply voluntarily rewarded for their efforts by those for whom they provide value.

While there’s a lot in the talk to praise, not everyone was amused. Cord Jefferson of Gawker links the message with the recent hot topic of media companies not paying their writers, and notes that doing things for free is always easier for those who are better off. He is worried that if the trend of “voluntarily” paying creatives for their work continues, the voice of the privileged will be heard even louder than before, at the others’ expense.

Jefferson writes: “Artists with million-dollar checks in their pockets are telling other artists that they shouldn’t expect to get paid; publications are telling writers that they shouldn’t expect to get paid, either; and meanwhile everyone wonders why we can’t get more diversity in the creative ranks.”

You guessed right: I’m not getting paid for writing this article.

Think about the people who edit Wikipedia or OpenStreetMap, or who contribute to Linux, OpenOffice or Open Source Ecology, or who fund the KickStarter projects (not to mention those who attend TED talks). How well do you think the different ethnical, cultural, and economical backgrounds are represented among them?

The sharing economy and the new class warfare

Some have described collaborative consumption or the sharing economy as “an elite movement”. But there are also a lot of not-so-wealthy people involved in it. They are often the ones who run chores in TaskRabbit or drive the Lyft vehicles. As many have pointed out, this actually does not have that much to do with sharing. Erin Griffith of PandoDaily writes:

Sharing is by definition free — how can it have its own economy if there’s money involved? Sharing for money is called renting.

Says one TaskRabbit: “I do definitely need the cash. But I’ve been reading the press about TaskRabbit and there’s some real conflict of interests here. For one thing, the image and the verbiage they use — it’s neighbors helping neighbors — as if I’m doing this out of the goodness of my heart. As if I don’t care about the money — and I do care about the money. I want to get paid and I want to get paid properly.“

It’s easy to think that if this trend continues, it might lead to a division of people into two classes: those who use the sharing economy services to live more comfortably, and those who are enabling this lifestyle because their income depends on it. Is this the future we want?

Some have proposed that the “real” sharing economy – the one where money is not involved – should be called something else, like “anarchy economy” – separating it from the phenomenon dominated by the big venture-funded corporations like Airbnb.

While we can always argue about the terms that are used, what’s more important is to identify the different motivations and abilities people have, and the differences coming from their different backgrounds and capabilities. How can we create a new collaborative economy that is equally beneficial for everyone, no matter where they come from?

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