Essays on Technology and Culture

The Endgame of the “Sharing Economy”

I have a startup that I plan to launch soon called LiveIn that combines all the best features of TaskRabbit, Lyft, Zaarly, and AirBNB. It’s a sharing economy enabling service to end all others—we match people with empty rooms with people who can fill them. However, instead of paying money, our LiveIn Chore Monkeys pay for their space by performing chores for the space owner. The responsibilities are negotiated up front through our iOS and web apps, along with terms and length. A LiveIn Chore Monkey could cook meals, do laundry, clean house, drive people to work or school, or other “unspecified services,” and are compensated with the ability to live in some of the hippest communities in America. We’re currently in private beta in Brooklyn and the Bay Area, but planning a public launch in 2015. LiveIn also collects a small listing fee to help keep us sustainable.

Okay, this isn’t an actual startup, but it seems like live-in help is the inevitable endgame of the “sharing economy” promoted by Bay Area technologists and Venture Capital types. The premise at least makes sense on the service: you have something you can provide: a spare room in your house, the ability to mend clothes, a car with a back seat, and you offer it to anyone who is willing to pay your price. Of course, anyone can tell right away that this isn’t actually sharing. The “sharing economy” is a wonderful piece of doublethink that hides the truth that these companies are just enabling a new form of a “freelance gig economy” with more middlemen to take your share. Even the marketing for some sharing economy apps pin it as a side hustle. Lyft promises drivers that they’ll make up $35 an hour as a taxi hack.

There are some great takedowns of the “sharing economy” floating around online, including this great comic on how a sharing economy doesn’t work for the poor. Even for those with enough time, skills, and a car, living as a part of the commercialized “sharing economy” isn’t likely to make enough money for you to live on. The New York Times has a full article on how AirBNB is abused in New York City’s competitive housing market. The most damning inditement, however, is the look inside Couchsurfing, one of the original sharing economy darlings, and how VC funding destroyed its community. Meanwhile, the real sharing economy is overlooked by high-profile, Internet enabled startups and VC funding.

What is the real sharing economy? It’s tool libraries, material exchanges, carpools, and food pantries. It’s New York’s shadow transit system. It’s services where people give as well as get, and where money rarely changes hands except perhaps a membership fee. Food pantries are in serious need as donations drop and need rises with cuts to government assistance. Of course, there’s no money to be made by venture capital in those spaces, which echoes a statement I’ve made before: there’s no money in solving real problems faced by real people. Once again, we have to think outside the startup to find new solutions that aren’t just adding middlemen and profit taking.