Collaborative Consumption Sounds Great on Paper Than Reality

Watch Out for Your Reputation and Your Privacy

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Rance Crain
Rance Crain
What's the next logical step for consumers after they've bought more stuff than they'll ever use? Sharing stuff and swapping stuff.

That's the premise of a new book, "What's Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption," by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers. "Every day, people are using collaborative consumption -- traditional sharing, bartering, lending, trading, renting, gifting and swapping, redefined through technology and peer communities," they write. "Collaborative Consumption is enabling people to realize the enormous benefits of access to products and services over ownership, and at the same time, save money, space and time, make new friends, and become active citizens once again."

But wait, there's more. "Social networks, smart grids and real-time technologies are also making it possible to leapfrog over outdated modes of hyper-consumption and create innovative systems based on shared usage such as bike or car sharing. These systems provide significant environmental benefits by increasing use efficiency, reducing waste, encouraging the development of better products, and mopping up the surplus created by overproduction and consumption."

This utopian view of a more rational, caring and trusting society, cut loose from the destructive pattern of endless buying and storing, had me ready to sign on the dotted line. But all this swapping and sharing of everything from vegetable gardens, empty couches, washing machines, cars, bikes, hedge trimmers and the like takes more than a modicum of trust. Trust that the person who lends you his couch won't rob you while you sleep or the guy with the hedge clippers will actually deliver the goods when you send him something else in trade.

The authors contend that people involved in the swapping and sharing will want to do the right thing to protect their reputations. "Today reputation not only serves as a psychological reward or currency, but also as an actual currency, called reputation capital. We have already seen how people build their reputations by playing within the rules, helping others, and touting their accomplishments," Ms. Botsman and Mr. Rogers say.

The FTC thinks it's creepy that advertisers are able to track what your product preferences are and serve an internet ad to you on those. And the ad industry itself thinks there's a problem here, too. The ad trade groups last week announced a program that will give consumers enhanced notice and control over the collection and use of product data for targeting ads.

But if both the FTC and the trade groups are concerned about behavioral advertising excesses, wait until they get a load of what will happen when the Collaborative Society takes steps to ensure that your reputation as a swapper or sharer gets proper recognition.

"It is only a matter of time before there is some form of network that aggregates your reputation capital across multiple forms of Collaborative Consumption," the authors predict. "We'll be able to perform a Google-like search to see a complete picture of how people behave and the degree to which they can be trusted, whether it's around products they swap or trade or money they lend or borrow or land or cars they share."

Can you imagine what would happen to the poor guy who gets rousted by the Collaborative Consumption police? Maybe he snored too loudly on the empty couch he shared. Or maybe he put too much soap in the communal washing machines or dug the trenches too deep in the communal vegetable garden.

He would be forever banished to the harsh and cruel world of individual consumption and ownership. Embarrassed by the blatant use of name-brand merchandise, he would be scorned and shunned by the fiercely protective swappers and sharers and cyber barterers of the world.

But the authors assure us that Collaborative Consumption "is by no means anti-business, anti-product, or anti-consumer. People will still 'shop' and companies will still 'sell.' But the way we consume and what we consume is changing. As we move away from a hyper-individualist culture that defines our identity and happiness based on ownership of stuff toward a society based on shared resources and a collaborative mindset, fundamental pillars of consumerism -- design, brand and consumer mindset -- will change, for the better."

Swap till you drop, baby.

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