The Misnomer Called the Sharing Economy

I’m not sure who came up with the term “Sharing Economy” , but I have found it to be more of a misnomer than an accurate description of many microentrepreneurial businesses.  As well, in the minefield that is the landscape of modern day short term rental politics in many cities, it is a term that is actually often used against short term rental hosts.

As defined on Wikipedia , the term Sharing Economy is clearly linked with “peer to peer economy”, which would have been a better word to use.  In this Wikipedia article, it’s stated that this economy,

 ” refers to peer-to-peer-based sharing of access to goods and services (coordinated through community-based online services).  “

The term that is problematic here, and which I think boomerangs against us, is “sharing.”  I think most of us have realized that when we have riders in our car, or guests in a room in our house, we are not “sharing”, we are “renting” or “selling.”  The term “sharing economy” has confused not only our riders and guests, on Lyft/Uber and Airbnb,   but also our local governments, and those neighbors or community members observing our “sharing” businesses  — some of them quite clearly experiencing contempt for us, that we should make any income at all,


If we were caring, we would be sharing!


since in their view, we should be “sharing.”  !!  Indeed, it’s the view of many, that if we were really decent people, and if we really sincerely wanted to just meet a lot of different people from around the world like we say we do, then we wouldn’t be charging money for folks to stay at our house.  We would let them in for free.  Isn’t that what sharing is all about?  So these people, dismissive of  our need to actually generate income for our work, say that if we were really caring, we should be sharing!

Airbnb should be all Puppy dogs and ice cream!

There are other consquences of this unfortunate misnomer, which is that the hosting business is perversely seen,( not only by many who oppose it but also by many hosts!), as just about the only kind of business in the world, where the less money you make from your business,  the more virtuous you are. Really, name me one other type of business where the prevailing attitude is that you shouldn’t be earning much money at it!

If we had simply termed our business, “peer to peer economy”, rather than “home sharing”, we might not get those strident individuals who stand up at City Council meetings and insist that people who rent out a room in their house shouldn’t be allowed to do so all year long, but should be limited to a certain number of nights per year, like, say, 60 nights a year. “After all, dont’ they say they are ‘sharing’?” I heard one bitter woman argue in a local City government meeting.   No,  I didn’t say I was sharing, Ma’am!

City government leaders and community members alike often have the perspective, that there is something slightly gross or just wrong, about a person who rents out a room in their home on a full time basis.  Notwithstanding the fact that people have rented out rooms in their home for decades — for centuries even, including to those staying on a short term basis.  To hear the view of many civic leaders, it’s fine to run such a business part time or occasionally, but certainly not full time, because, by gosh, “then they would be running a business!!”  As if renting out a room for any amount of time wasn’t running a business?


If you’re not a cute little sharing critter then I just dont’ know about you


This view about the virtue of not making very much money at your business, also affects the Airbnb host community itself.  Of course there are those super-coach type hosts, the shiny motivational speaker types, who write the Get Rich Quick guides like ,  “Turn that dark, dingy unused hallway closet into a guest room and make a million dollars this year!” — so of course there is that segment of hosts who believe in making money, and lots of it, even if their idea of how much you can make is somewhat exaggerated.

But there are also a good number of hosts, often those who signed up in the early days of Airbnb when it was less glitzy and ritzy and more clearly focused on room rentals, who think there is something shameful about those hosts with — gasp — “multiple listings.”   As if having more than one room in your home that you rent, or more than one apartment that you rent, made a person into some type of demon.  It’s true that in some places in the world, hosts aren’t allowed to do short term rentals of entire apartments that they dont’ themselves live in.  Notably, New York, San Francisco, and a few other cities where housing is tight.  But politics are not the same everywhere, and in places like Bali or Singapore, Russia or Namibia, I doubt that there are the same regulations as in New York City.  So, one can’t make broad generalizations about those listing multiple apartments.

I’ve read laments on the host groups, where hosts decry the direction that Airbnb is going, now that people are using it to list entire apartments, when apparently they “should” be listing only a room in their own home.  Others self-righteously lecture other hosts (see for instance one such lecture in this post ) who have many listings, insisting that they “have contravened the spirit of Airbnb” and “Airbnb was not set up for people like you.”  In fact there are no statements one can find anywhere on the Airbnb site that state that one cannot list several different properties, or that Airbnb was “not set up for” people who happen to own or manage such properties and want to use this website to rent them out.  It’s true that in early days the “atmosphere” or culture of Airbnb was palpably felt as a place for those renting out rooms, opening up their homes to guests, and much of the language in the Airbnb ads and website promote that culture.  But this culture is not policy, and not mandated for hosts, and I think it’s presumptuous for hosts to insist that  Airbnb is more than a short term rental listing service, which struggles to wade the treacherous waters of regional regulations which often either  outdated, or evolving in response to political pressures.

The sharing-economy term having led to the concept that we are really all supposed to be “sharing” I think in this way influences hosts who offer rooms in their home, or “just one separate unit, but it’s on my own property”, to look askance at those whose offerings are not as homey, and spite them as being not as altruistic — they aren’t really hosting, as some would have it, they are just “doing a business” or “listing many properties.” Well what the heck is wrong with that?  People who own or manage many properties naturally are going to rent them, right? What else are they going to do with them, put them in frozen storage?


And please mind your own business while you’re at it…


So I am suggesting that one of the consequences and end results of the term “sharing economy”, has been that we have this insidious moralizing and judgementalism infiltrating this business of doing short term rentals.  The moralizing stems in part from the use of “sharing economy”, but also stems from the fact that this business (which is really a very OLD business) is new to the present time, and those engaging in this business often feel put upon to defend it to the critics, particularly critics in local government.  So there are many efforts afoot to show that we as hosts are doing something virtuous, doing something generous, doing something hospitable…not just making money! God forbid we should be making money when we rent out our property, that many of us have obtained not only thru investing our life savings, but blood sweat and tears to boot.

So my point in this blog, is to take note of the moralizing that surrounds our business, the inappropriate expectations that we should be sharing, rather than making an income, and the various kinds of judgmentalism which arise from the host community itself, regarding other hosts.  Particularly in an environment where hosts are seeing an oversaturation of hosts in almost all areas, and growing competition, I think we need to recognize that part of this moralizing is self-serving: we’d like to eliminate much of the competition so that we could get more business ourselves, and one of the ways that people naturally seem to do that is by judging other hosts and self-righteously deciding who should and who shouldn’t really be an Airbnb host.

Yes, it’s true that some hosts are violating local laws with the listings they are offering — but as far as that goes, people by the millions have violated federal laws when they ran across a national border at night, when no one was looking.


Sir: Are your listings illegal or are they just undocumented ?


Many of us heavily criticize the former but look kindly and compassionately at the latter group of law-breakers.   Apple Corporation right now is violating federal law and defying court orders by refusing to hack into an iphone for the FBI.  Yet I think you and I and most of us who aren’t Donald Trump or the other Three Stooges running for Republican nominee for president, would applaud the “scofflaw” attitude of Apple, because it is so important a position for our collective rights to privacy. Not all laws are created equal and  particularly when you have cities that haven’t developed short term rental laws that suit the modern times, not all laws are up to date and fair.  So I suggest that we hold back on our impulse to judge others, and temper our stridency or any obsessive qualities of our love of the letter of the law, and focus on how we as short term rental hosts can work collectively to promote our collective interests.



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