The Whatchamacallit Economy

The New York Times

December 16, 2016

By Steven Greenhouse

It’s a hip, fast-growing sector of the economy, filled with headline-grabbing companies: Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Task Rabbit. But there’s a gnawing problem: People aren’t sure what to call it. Many critics dislike the term most commonly used, the “sharing economy,” because there often isn’t much actual sharing going on. Others prefer to call it the on-demand economy, peer-to-peer economy, crowd-based economy, gig economy or collaborative economy.

Uber, Lyft and other e-hailing companies love to say they are “ride-sharing companies,” signaling that they are collaborative and not crassly capitalistic. These companies maintain that their drivers share their cars with passengers and use apps to share information about where they are. But many academics and workers in this sector assert that the business model seems less like sharing than like traditional corporate profit-making that happens to use an app.

Rochelle LaPlante, who works for Mechanical Turk, an internet platform for people to post and find piecework jobs, sees public relations spin behind the term “sharing economy.” “There’s an exchange of money,” she said. “It’s not really sharing if a person’s paying for it.” ...

... Some embrace “platform economy,” but Geoffrey G. Parker, an engineering professor at Dartmouth and the author of “Platform Revolution,” says that name is too broad because it includes giants like Google, Facebook and YouTube. Others like the “app-based on-demand economy” (the Abode economy), the “gig on-demand economy” (the GOD economy) or the “platform on-demand economy” (the POD economy), whose workers could be called pods.

Despite the criticism that “sharing economy” is inaccurate and sounds like corporate spin, Professor Sundararajan says we might be stuck with that description because corporations and the public so often use it. When Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue latch on to a phrase, it’s not easy to shake it off.

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