Share And Share Alike: A Time Of Collaborative Consumption

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This week on-air and online, the tech team is exploring the sharing economy. You'll find the stories on this blog, aggregated here and we would love to hear your questions about the topic. Just email, leave a comment or tweet.

Our Internet-connected world makes it easy for anyone to become an entrepreneur by offering up an unused resource for sale or rent, be it an empty bedroom, a parked car or a skill. This has become such a common way of doing business that it's now being studied as a piece of the overall economy, since billions of dollars are changing hands this way.

As part of our week on the sharing economy, All Things Considered host Robert Siegel sat down with Danielle Sacks of Fast Company magazine, who has been tracking the world of collaborative consumption for several years. Below, some excerpts from their conversation.

For the uninitiated, we're not really talking about sharing but selling. What makes selling in this way different from Amazon or Craigslist?

That brings up totally a great point. It sort of has this ... warm and fuzzy, sort of kindergarteny feeling to it. But the reality is, I think what really got the attention of venture capitalists and people with money ... is this notion of underutilized assets, which sort of feels like it is on the opposite end of sharing. But it is this notion that we all have things in our lives that sit there for a lot of time, whether it's your car, it's your driveway, a piece of electronic equipment or your clothing. What if we can use all the connectivity that we have through the Web, and through technology, to rent and borrow and basically find a way to make a profit off all of that?

People who observe this economic activity speak of a shift from "ownership to access." What do they mean by that?

This whole notion of, the importance isn't really necessarily to own something, ... but the importance is to have access to things. So why do I need to go out and spend $3,000 on a dress that I'm only going to wear for one night when I can borrow it from Rent the Runway and pay 75 bucks and look just as fabulous. Then not to worry about the fact that I have an irrelevant gown sitting in my closet for years and years to come.

If we can add up all the gowns or rooms rented out ... or all of the cars that are rented out by the hour in this way, what does it come to? How big a sector is this?

The number I've heard is as large as a $100 billion opportunity. Just if you look at the specific sectors ... there are now startups ranging from food-sharing businesses to car-sharing to outsourcing every task in your life. Something that seems as narrow as pet services is considered to be an $8 billion industry. So there's startups, there's one called DogVacay, which is basically, as many of these startups like to call themselves — "the Airbnb of dogs." That's an $8 billion industry that they ... want to go and disrupt.

As this sharing economy grows, do you get the sense that it actually adds to economic activity or does it just shift away from the traditional other ways in which people found these goods and services?

I think it grows in particular marketplaces. I do think it grows, just because you're seeing people — like for example students, particularly in this time of unemployment — people are finding new ways to bring in income. In the case of TaskRabbit, which is basically a platform that says you can outsource any task within legal constraints, ranging from, "I need someone to pick my kids up from school today," to — actually the most popular task on TaskRabbit, if you can believe this, is assembling Ikea furniture. I don't want the headache of assembling Ikea furniture; I will pay someone to do that.

So ... for a lot of people it's a career stopgap. Whether it's a student who wants to make some extra money on the side or people who are finding themselves unemployed who are cobbling together what they call these sort of micro gigs. That is economics at work.

The big question here is, are we seeing something that is the behavior of a particular generation and a particular economic climate and might it subside when household formation picks up again ... or is this the future?

I think it's a bit of both. Obviously in times ... when you have people who are unemployed and looking for more opportunities, that's obviously something that will go with the trend. But I do think what is so interesting about this space is that it comes out of the social Internet. So if you look at the history of the social Internet, it started with programmers sharing code, and that's the whole notion of open source. And then over time, it became people sharing content — so on something like YouTube, and then over time it became Facebook, and so I'm gonna share these intimate moments of my life with people. Now it's kind of taking that full circle, to "I'm gonna connect with people online into the offline world." So that is a behavior that I don't think is going to go away.

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