The Sharing Economy features a plethora of services that are implemented as “platforms” a la Robin Chase (Peers, Inc. ). Indeed, Claire Marshall documents the range of sharing “platforms”, from giant face-sucking squids like AirBnB or Uber, to regional and local, focused swap/barter/share ‘rent a grandparent’ services. See her new ebook  discussed in a previous post.
Many people talk about these developments as if they are technological wonders (e.g., Chase or Liquid Talent ). Of course, many of the services (e.g., baby sitting, sharing garden produce, house sitting) have existed as long as people have lived in villages. The Internet makes things more efficient, maybe, and certainly makes it possible to operate over long distances.
Just what kind of amazing technical wizardry lies behind these services?
Actually, it’s built on standard stuff. In fact, it’s a great example of how solid infrastructure can be mixed and remixed to create services never intended for it.
To understand the technology, I glanced at a very “sharing economy” product, “Sharetribe”.
“Sharetribe makes it really easy for an aspiring sharing economy entrepreneur to create their own peer-to-peer marketplace website in the spirit of Airbnb, Etsy or Fiverr.”
(I’m not sure I want to emulate the spirit of these particular examples, but I see the point. We can do it ourselves.)
First of all, Sharetribe.com offers a very simple way to set up your own your own “shared economy” website “in one minute without touching code”. Awesome!
Even better, much of the code is freely available as open source. If nothing else, this code gives us a concrete example of the tech base for this flavor of “the sharing economy”.
The main pieces are completely standard: Ruby, mysql, a web server, and various web APIs. The most exotic component seems to be the payment system if you need to handle money. The open source platform has the option to use Braintree Marketplace (which appears to be owned by PayPal). Braintree Market has a Ruby API to connect to a variety of payment services, including Apple, Google, and Bitcoin.
I don’t know the technical details of the Braintree Marketplace, nor do I really grok the legal details. The main point is that it is readily available and it uses standard Web technology to drop in to your standard web based service.
Overall, we can see that “the sharing economy” is basically built out of Internet standard software that implements the regular, non-sharing, economy. So, if Internet technology has enabled the creation of these “sharing” platforms, it did so mainly as a symbiote on the “regular” economy. That’s not a bad thing, but the sharing economy isn’t really technically novel.
The use of these standard technologies has another, not so clearly beneficial effect: there is a bit of a “monoculture” in the design and use of these platforms. They all resemble each other, and, in fact “the sharing economy” has become synonymous with “internet based peer-to-peer market” (e.g., see Marshall ).
When you make it possible to “set up your marketplace in one minute without touching code”, then everybody is going to end up building the same thing except for the decals and paint. There is little innovation happening, it’s mostly just variations on a theme. What works for cars (Zipcar) will work for bicycles or water skis.
Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: getting all these interesting and socially constructive services out there is a good thing. And to the degree that they create communities and make people happy (again, see, perhaps, Marshall ), it’s a very good thing.
But is this the only way to implement “sharing”? I’m pretty sure not. So I put out this challenge: let’s think of a dozen ways to implement the sharing economy that don’t involve a “peer-to-peer market”. What about human brokers (instead of computer algorithms)? What about complex social networks, e.g. “family alliances” (instead of “peer-to-peer” between individuals)?
Above all, new ideas for incentives for face-to-face conversations, long term friendships, and other community building.
Put your thinking caps on, and post ideas here.
- Robin Chase, Peers, Inc.: How People and Platforms are Inventing the Collaborative Economy and Reinventing Capitalism, New York, PublicAffairs, 2015.
- Claire Marshall, How to Make Money (and a whole lot more) by Sharing. 2015. http://www.sharestories.net/
- Liquid Talent, Dude, Where’s My Drone: The future of work and what you can do to prepare for it. 2015. https://www.dropbox.com/s/405kr9keucv97gw/LiquidTalentFoWEbook.pdf