Sunday, February 06, 2011

Reading :: What's Mine is Yours

What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption
By Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers

[n.b., I'm reviewing the Kindle version, so I don't cite page numbers.]

"There is now an unbounded marketplace for efficient peer-to-peer exchanges between producer and consumer, seller and buyer, lender and borrower, and neighbor and neighbor," Botsman and Rogers tell us in the key statement of this book. "Online exchanges mimic the close ties once formed through face-to-face exchanges in villages, but on a much larger and unconfined scale. In other words, technology is reinventing old forms of trust." In their telling, social technologies have allowed more networked connections, and these connections point to "an emerging socioeconomic groundswell; the old stigmatized C's associated with coming together and "sharing" - cooperatives, collectives, and communes - are being refreshed and reinvented into appealing and valuable forms of collaboration and community. We call this groundswell Collaborative Consumption." Examples include services such as and, of course, coworking (which is what prompted me to pick up the book).

What distinguishes Collaborative Consumption from the other C's are scale and reach. The authors categorize their examples into "three systems - product service systems, redistribution markets, and collaborative lifestyles." These work through four principles: "critical mass, idling capacity, belief in the commons, and trust between strangers." The authors use many, many examples ranging from selling (craigslist, eBay) to connecting people with excess capacity (ZipCar, Freecycle, airbnb, coworking) to "dematerializing" formerly physical media into services (iTunes, Netflix).

In fact, it's this avalanche of examples that makes What's Mine is Yours so richly illustrative, and at the same time so embedded in a popular subgenre that includes works such as The Whuffie Factor and Wikinomics. Like those other books, this one skims lightly across the surface of a lot of different examples - and like those books, this one is necessarily going to have a relatively short shelf life because it relies so heavily on current examples in a fast-moving set of fields without doing a lot to deeply analyze those examples to produce principles. The range of examples makes us want to believe that the authors have discovered some basic principles. On the other hand, the authors often make causal arguments with very little proof - for instance, claiming that the Obamas' White House vegetable garden "evidently" inspired people to start their own gardens across the country. I noticed enough of these that I became quite suspicious of the authors' claims. Although I'm generally sympathetic to the authors' arguments about new ways of connecting, I'm also inclined to test propositions, and the authors don't seem to test them rigorously enough.

The authors can also be hectoring at times. When they tell me to "Think about your own credit card statement for a second (that is if you are not the one in four who has never looked at his or her own statement)," I roll my eyes because I cut up my credit cards years ago. When they tell me that "moving unused goods from nonuse to reuse is now practical," I think about how I've been moving my unused goods to thrift stores for years. And when they begin talking about a system for "banking" reputation - "In the same way that we can move our credit rating from one credit card to the next, our repository of trust will carry from one community to another" - I wonder what happened to decentralized and contextualized forms of trust.

Overall, What's Mine is Yours has some strong points, including a nice overview of coworking. I'd read it for a panoramic view of what constitutes collaboration in social media, as well as for some provocative thinking about the principles of collaborative consumption. But I'd supplement it with more rigorous research.

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