Share conference outlines the possibilities and pitfalls for a new economy at the crossroads
Jose Quinonez runs the nonprofit Mission Asset Fund, a nonprofit on Valencia Street that assists with peer-to-peer microlending, an amazing program that seemed to have little in common with the investor-backed companies that dominated the agenda. "I didn't know I was part of the sharing economy until today," he told the crowd.
In an earlier session, Quinonez called out the self-congratulatory tone by some boosters. "As we talk about the word inclusive it's very easy to forget the people not invited to the party...We have to make sure we're not making an exclusive sharing economy."
Next came Denise Cheng, an academic who has been studying the sharing economy for the MIT Center for Civic Media, and she had perhaps the most poignant and insightful answer to the question the conference posed about what will best catalyze the sharing economy.
"Straight talk will catalyze the sharing economy," Cheng said.
She discussed how the broad label of the sharing economy gets claimed by everyone from small idealists who truly want to promote the idea of sharing to self-interested corporations who use the label for political cover and really mean "renting."
"When we say sharing economy, we actually mean a lot of things," she said. "Companies that adopt the sharing economy label are not necessarily adopting the values of the sharing economy."
Compounding that deception is the fact that companies like Lyft, Uber, and Airbnb are profiting from business models that are often illegal on the local level, but doing little to help drivers or hosts who get in trouble with local authorities: "When someone has to answer on the local level, it's the providers who are on the front line."
There was a very different tone and message that came from the subsequent guests to join the panel, who shamelessly promoted their companies and didn't seem to take heed of Cheng's call for straight talk.
"Sharing cars is how we can catalyze the sharing economy," Jessica Scorpio, wearing a T-shirt of the car-sharing company she helped found, Getaround. She called car-sharing "a gateway drug to the sharing economy," noting that car-sharing customers often go on to use other sharing economy products and services.
"Sharing cars is transforming the fundamentals of our transportation system," Scorpio said, claiming that each shared car takes up to 32 cars off the road, a figure that doesn't square with the body of peer-reviewed research on the subject, which places the actual number at nine to 13 cars.
Hyperbole and exaggeration are common among the biggest boosters of sharing economy companies, as are the sins of omission and misdirection — all of which are perhaps what prompted Chang's "straight talk" prescription.
Sunil Paul, co-founder and CEO of the ridesharing company Sidecar, gave a long and detailed presentation on the supposedly ambiguous definition of "commercial transactions," calling for what he called a "safe harbor" for sharing activities, without once mentioning the word that he was actually talking about and dancing around: taxes.
"There are certain activities that should be beyond the commercial reach of government," Paul said, describing his clients who drive customers around the city like taxi drivers less than full time. "We need a safe harbor for sharing that protects these activities from being considered commercial."
Paul said that Sidecar and other sharing economy companies have "blurred the line between what is personal and what is commercial," comparing the activities his company facilitates to carpooling and arguing that people should be able to cover the annual cost of driving, say around $10,000, without it being considered a commercial activity (i.e. a taxable transaction).
"As long as you don't make a profit from it, it's not a commercial transaction," Paul said, redefining the very concept of commercial.