The tale of the drill

Everything made sense except that nobody gives a shit. They go buy [a drill]. Or they just bang a screwdriver through the wall.

Adam Berk, the founder of Neighborrow, on the reasons the company hasn’t worked out as planned in Sarah Kassler’s post-mortem of the “sharing economy.”

In it, she begins with the oft-told tale of the drill, borrowing her telling from Rachel Botsman’s 2010 TEDxSydney talk on collaborative consumption.

How many of you own a power drill?

That power drill will be used around 12 to 13 minutes in its entire lifetime. It’s kind of ridiculous, right? Because what you need is the hole, not the drill.

So why don’t you rent the drill, or, even better, rent out your own drill to other people and make some money from it?

And that simple story is what lies behind what Kassler calls the “real sharing economy.”

But the real sharing economy is dead.

It was a beautiful idea that struck hard, but when it died, nobody seemed to notice… And nobody seemed to ask the question of how an idea that everybody loved so much, an idea that made so much sense on a practical and social level, morphed into the pure capitalism that it is today.

Deciding what the “real sharing economy” is is tricky. Rachel Botsman has recently tried to tease out some definitions. I’m not sure she and Kassler would agree on the definition as Botsman lists Airbnb as an example in her definition of the sharing economy, while Kassler primarily uses Airbnb and Uber (“pure capitalism”) to provide a contrast to what she means by the “real sharing economy.”

I think that Botsman’s definition of the sharing economy is useful, though.

An economic system based on sharing underused assets or services, for free or for a fee, directly from individuals.

I think that many of the tool-sharing services that Kessler includes in her definition of the real sharing economy would also fall under this definition.

But what really interests me about Botsman’s definition is that it is an “economic system.” Language has a way of influencing the way we think about things. In 2007, Alex Steffen proposed another term for these type of tool-sharing interactions: use communities.

I think we very much got what we asked for. When you ask for an economic system, that’s exactly what you get (and I don’t necessarily think there is anything wrong with that). However, if you ask for a solution that’s community-based, you’re likely to get something that looks quite different.

The thing is, there are some people who did ask for exactly that, who are asking for a use community. And that’s what those people seem to be getting. Makerspaces, Hackspaces, Fab Labs are thriving. Community Supported Agriculture is more popular than ever.

The kind of sharing that Kassler believes are “the real sharing economy” are happening all the time. In the last week, I’ve seen three instances of it, just not in one centralised website. Two—a tent and a string of fairy lights—happened on a mailing list of dads that live in my village. The other–a wifi router–happened on a Hackspace mailing list.

So, I don’t think that the “sharing economy” is dead. I’m just not convinced that it’s much of an economy. It happens when people come together and create a community.

All of this makes me wonder two things.

The first is that use communities–as opposed to some of examples of collaborative consumption that Botsman gives–may work better if they are radicant-like: entities that are connected but independent. Makerspaces and community supported agriculture are examples of this. They are part of a broader movement, but each instance is dependent on a local community. This is opposed to some of the examples of very successful collaborative consumption that are run by one (and are now often very large) company (Zipcar, Airbnb, Uber).

The second is that use communities may work better if they make use of what Clay Shirky calls socially interesting tools. Rather than trying to create something new to support themselves, they use technologies that we take for granted (like mailing lists).

In the end, the tale of the drill that people share turns out not to be a myth. I suspect we were just looking for it in the wrong places.