the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Deirdre Macken macken.deirdre@ gmail.com

The shar­ing econ­omy. It’s not, is it? Shar­ing, that is. The bil­lion­aire owner of Uber isn’t dol­ing out dol­lars on the street. The chief of Airbnb isn’t hous­ing the home­less. The shar­ing econ­omy is not run by the Pope, it’s not owned by the peo­ple do­ing the ex­chang­ing, and none of us are get­ting in on the ini­tial public of­fer­ings.

So, what about the col­lab­o­ra­tive econ­omy? That sounds more re­al­is­tic but it’s the sort of ex­pres­sion that a few guys work­ing on a killer app in mum’s spare bed­room would use to im­press a ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist for a few mil­lion dol­lars of seed fi­nance.

Peer to peer? Well, that’s what these busi­nesses do, isn’t it? They re­dis­tribute eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity be­tween peers. You have some­thing you can sell, oth­ers want to buy it and some­where in the mid­dle an in­dus­try goes broke and an app makes a motza.

We could go on. If you search long enough in the breath­less blogs about dig­i­tal dis­rup­tion, you come across a th­e­saurus of ex­pres­sions: shared cap­i­tal­ism, ac­cess econ­omy, the gig econ­omy, cir­cu­lar econ­omy and, my favourite, hip­pienomics.

Which is a round­about way of say­ing we’re hav­ing trou­ble de­scrib­ing what this new way of do­ing busi­ness is all about.

It’s as if aliens have landed in our midst and we’re try­ing to de­scribe them to the cops. Of­fi­cer, it had a big head — like Mark Zucker­berg; it had ears like Skull­candy head­phones and when it spoke, it sounded like that noise that com­put­ers used to make on dial-up lines.

But we should not be alarmed. Our in­abil­ity to nail this new eco­nomic force with an ap­pro­pri­ate ti­tle sim­ply re­flects the fact that it is so alien. It’s so rad­i­cal that it’s muck­ing up our MBA lex­i­con. It’s so next cen­tury that spellcheck doesn’t yet recog­nise the words.

So, we im­pro­vise. We use ex­pres­sions such as: this busi­ness is the Airbnb of of­fice space, or the Airbnb for live mu­sic. Or we de­scribe new oper­a­tions as the Uber for boat own­ers, the Uber for pets or the Uber for pot (a de­liv­ery sys­tem link­ing dope smok­ers with sup­pli­ers). Or we say Hipchat will do to email what the in­ter­net did to the post of­fice. Or the GoPro drone will be the selfie for es­tate own­ers. Or sim­ply, get Net­flixed.

We make the early in­no­va­tors the generic ex­pres­sion for a whole in­dus­try, as we did when new­fan­gled prod­ucts be­gan ap­pear­ing in shops last cen­tury. Hoover, Band-Aid, Kleenex and Google be­came the com­mon name for a whole prod­uct range. But now com­pany names are be­com­ing ex­pres­sions for en­tire in­dus­tries.

It’s handy to use known items to iden­tify un­known ones but there’s more to this an­nex­a­tion of nomen­cla­ture. First, it’s some­thing in­cum­bents can’t claim. ANZ would find it hard to say it’s the Uber for bond traders. The Hil­ton chain is never go­ing to be the Airbnb of bed­rooms. A sub­ur­ban shop can’t claim eBay sta­tus.

Sec­ond, it’s about rid­ing on coat-tails. Any­one can Kick­start a half-baked idea. If you call your new app the Uber for pets, you’re more likely to get cap­i­tal than if you claim you’ve got a way of putting pet own­ers in con­tact with pet sit­ters (it’s too late for that IPO, by the way).

But the great ap­peal of these ex­pres­sions is that they sound hu­man. They are more so­cial than eco­nomic. Ex­perts say the cur­rency of the new econ­omy is trust. The in­fra­struc­ture is trans­parency. The re­la­tion­ships are equal. The by-prod­ucts are good for the en­vi­ron­ment and the sav­ings are great for the econ­omy. It’s all about trust, trans­parency and shar­ing.

And in the be­gin­ning it felt like shar­ing. It felt like a so­cial­ist utopia. It felt fresh and rev­o­lu­tion­ary and a lit­tle big naughty.

We didn’t want to pay ex­or­bi­tant credit card fees in taxis; we wanted to by­pass ster­ile ho­tel ex­pe­ri­ences; we didn’t want to pay for mu­sic when we could rent. We liked go­ing straight to the source — and shak­ing hands with them.

Shar­ing is how it felt. Com­merce is how it will pan out. But it’s a lot of fun along the way — if you’re not a legacy busi­ness with a big build­ing, a wage roll and an at­trac­tive profit mar­gin.

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