Labelling companies such as AirBnB, Uber and TaskRabbit as “the sharing economy” is one of the finest and most deceptive bits of branding of the past few years.
If children were encouraged to share in the way users of these services are there would be a lot of tots losing their pocket money while others profited from parcelling out parts of the sandbox.
Companies in the sharing economy thrive on the impression that they are cutting out the middle man, that their services simply connect people with a need to people with excess capacity for sale. But for all the tech conference rhetoric about disrupting established markets, these new players often become a new form of less regulated middle man.
Rabbits in their headlights
The changes to TaskRabbit’s model are the latest example of how shifts in the sharing economy can leave the freelance workers who actually provide a service struggling.
For years, TaskRabbit’s model allowed its freelancers to bid against each other to compete for contracts but earlier this month that changed. Now Rabbits are assigned a set hourly rate and expected to be available immediately. If they can’t take on a task in 30 minutes, it’ll be assigned to someone else. Many aren’t happy.
Look at TaskRabbit’s site and it’s clear that the company has moved a long way from simply tapping into unused resources. It promises “skilled professionals…who undergo identity and criminal record checks as well as in-person interviews”.
This has nothing to do with sharing. Cut away the marketing speak and glossy pictures of smiling task-takers and you’re dealing with a tech-enhanced temping agency.
We can apply the same process of simplification to the Airbnb, the original doyen of the sharing economy.
It is currently valued at $10 billion and announced this week that it is partnering with the expenses-software maker Concur to let corporate customers book apartments and houses directly through that company’s TripLink service.
While its inventory may come from individuals, Airbnb isn’t about sharing – it’s a tech-mediated take on the short-term letting business. It’s renting, not sharing as an Airbnb host who ended up stuck with squatters recently discovered all too painfully.
In August 2012, a group of companies including TaskRabbit and Airbnb launched a lobbying organisation for sharing economy companies called Peers.org.
It encourages visitors to sign a pledge that they “believe the sharing economy should be the biggest economic movement of the 21st century – by building an economy that benefits everyone”. But this “sharing” economy is predominantly benefiting the new class of middle men and their VC backers while creating a new class of unstable employment.
Non-profit projects such as Wikipedia are about collaboration and sharing. The companies that sail under the banner of the sharing economy are about a profit.
That’s a perfectly fine way to work but let’s not get wrapped up in cuddly rhetoric. Piecework and self-employment are nothing new and we’re a very long way from a true sharing economy. If a company is VC-backed, caring and sharing will be very low on its list of priorities.