Meet the "collaborative" consumer

May 16, 2012: 12:51 PM ET

The rise of social media is altering how people shop for everything from movies to food. But is that a social good?

By Jill Allyn Peterson, contributor

FORTUNE -- Collaborative consumption is a concept that can seemingly describe anything from Netflix to New York City's Park Slope Food Co-op. It has been called a "revolution" by "creative entrepreneurs who want to change the world" and while its promoters claim it is a cure for "hyperconsumption" based on sharing and peer-to-peer networks, some of the ideas it is beginning to spawn and the claims made on its behalf look more like a reduced-guilt version of the same old capitalism than a revolutionary economic model. Sharing is caring? Or sharing is monetizing? What exactly is "collaborative consumption"?

The first time I heard about collaborative consumption was through a TEDtalk from 2010 by Rachel Botsman, who coined the term to describe a reorganization of mass consumption that could potentially be less wasteful, more communal, more affordable, and seemingly more sensible. In Botsman's talk, examples such as Zipcar, Netflix (NFLX), and Swaptree were used to demonstrate how a new approach to consumption -- one where network services enable items like cars or DVDs to be jointly used or redistributed amongst members -- could make the culture of ownership a thing of the past. "Why buy a drill when what you need is the hole?" Botsman asks, claiming that the average drill gets used 12 to 13 minutes in its lifetime. She suggested that renting a drill from a neighbor, or even renting out your own drill, could begin to solve the issues brought on by our current mode of "hyperconsumption" and mitigate the wasted money and material when individuals commit to owning things they really only need to use once or twice. I thought it sounded pretty reasonable, but as I continued to explore this new economic proposition, I began to have doubts.

The second time I heard about Collaborative Consumption was at the SHARENYConference last fall. An event put on by Parsons and ShareableMagazine, it was a veritable feast of collaborative concepts, featuring speakers whose expertise ranged from communal living without private ownership, cooperative food buying and skill sharing to more profit-oriented approaches such as SnapGoods, Loosecubes and General Assembly. There was an interesting tension between the "sharing-for-sharing's-sake" concepts and the "sharing-for-fun-and-profit" ones, which made me wonder, are all these concepts along the same continuum? Or do they represent two different schools of thought -- one based on participation in a communal project and the other more of a rental service that eliminates the hassle of ownership and as a side benefit, potentially reduces waste and promotes community participation?

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My skepticism grew sharper in February when I attended CommonPitch, an event which invited entrepreneurs with collaborative consumption-oriented start-ups to pitch their ideas to a celebrity panel of experts. Besides the fact that the time limits were too short for any real examination of the concepts (much less their implications for waste reduction and community building), there was a noticeable trend among the pitches. Rather than identifying ways to reconsider consumption to reduce waste, some entrepreneurs seemed to be identifying areas where the real waste was a missed opportunity for profit -- profit that a start-up might claim if only they could find the right way to create or insert themselves into an existing peer-to-peer relationship.

Two such examples at Common Pitch stood out: a start-up based on the notion that "collecting money at a party is so awkward, why not let us handle the transaction?" and another along the lines of "why let your bike just sit there when you could rent it out for money?" It was an odd combination of creative class concerns (parties and bike rides) with a financial class approach (monetize it!). I wondered, is this really what Rachel Botsman was celebrating when she introduced collaborative consumption to the world? I went back and re-watched the TED talk.

Upon second viewing, several contradictions stood out, the most obvious being the title of the movement and its union of opposites in "collaborate" (joint effort of creation) and "consume" (to ingest or destroy). Also, Botsman's description of people who trade DVDs of "Sex in the City" for "24" through Swaptree as "highly enabled collaborators" using technology that "enables trust between strangers," struck a strange note. Isn't the definition of trust not needing to rely on a third party's insurance, such as a system that ensures your fellow registered swapper will be subject to poor ratings should she misbehave?

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Most confusing were the assertions that sharing is natural because "we're monkeys, born and bred to share," but that "technology makes sharing frictionless and fun," because ultimately, collaborative consumption is not about playing "nicely in the sandbox." So, is sharing an innate human tendency, or do we inherently reject it and need "fun" systems to help us do what's right? Is technology "enabling trust," as it is so lovingly put, or really just enforcing accountability?

While I'm a fan of these services in a general sense (Netflix is incredibly convenient, Airbnb offers new ways to travel, Skillshare brings teachers and students together in non-traditional ways), I wonder if collaborative consumption isn't fundamentally changing how we consume, just how we might see ourselves as consumers. As many have noted, our identities have long been shapedbyourconsumptionhabits, and increasingly, the display of that identity is possibly more important the original act of consumption itself. At a time when personal purchasing power is on the decline for many of us, is collaborative consumption, like the "good" form of organic/sustainable consumption before it, a way to define ourselves not only by what we buy but how we buy? If that "buy" becomes more like "share" do we feel better about it? Additionally, given the deficit of jobs to match the expectations of a vast class of liberal arts degree holders, does the prospect of renting out our extra stuff become a realistic, even "creative" solution to underemployment?

Deals, convenience, efficiency, waste-reduction - there seem to be new possibilities for these wonderful things with collaborative consumption. Creativity, togetherness, sharing, and trust in each other, however, come from us -- human beings -- not primarily from systems or styles of consumption (apointmadeonShareable). There's nothing wrong with making a buck off your neighbor for use of your drill (however awkward that might actually be), or lowering your transportation costs by signing up for Zipcar, or trading DVDs through the mail; let's just not pretend we're saving the world, being better people, or truly sharing (in the caring sense) as a result.

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