Commodifying our Humanity

Commodifying our Humanity

This week I came across an interesting thought related to the so-called Sharing Economy – that vast and growing collection of  startups, non-profits and cooperative structures that are moving services and goods from the formal sector to a more peer-oriented personal economic system. Think Craigslist and Airbnb, SideCar and SupperKing.  Rachel Botsman describes the sharing economy, or collaborative consumption, as a social revolution that allows people to “create value out of shared and open resources in ways that balance personal self-interest with the good of the larger community.” Why wouldn’t you want to help someone out, if you could earn a quick buck while doing so?

It seems that perhaps the sharing economy has at its core a basic human desire for connection. It sits a little uneasily then to think of these new organizations as capitalizing on our desire for contact, connectivity and community, to coin a couple of dollars. But essentially that is what is happening; we are increasingly monetizing goods and services that were once available for free. SupperKing is a “mobile app that allows people to share home-cooked meals with a trusted community”. The startup sets out to “enhance the dining experience by adding a social friendship layer to an otherwise solitary event”. But let’s not pretend this is all altruistic since “how much money a host can make depends on how many guests are invited, how big a space is available and what sort of experience the host is offering to his/her guests.” Micah Bales, in an insightful article on what it means to “Get Rich Quick”,  describes this development as “taking things that were once in the realm of non-monetary, gift economies and moving them into the money economy.”

So here we are on the cutting edge of the sharing economy, a system that is increasingly transferring goods and services from the commons into the commodified realm. With AirBnB, hospitality is moved from the gift economy to the monetized exchange economy. Now you can give a friend or a stranger a helping hand and be completely justified in charging them for it. Here’s another example from Micah: “SideCar, a company that connects car owners with individuals who need a ride. With their slogan, You drive every day. Why not get paid for it? this company moves the act of sharing a ride out of the informal gift economy. If their model succeeds, ride sharing will no longer be an act of hospitality; it will become an economic exchange that can be measured as part of GDP. ”

Maybe there’s a fair warning here? Maybe it’s time we push pause and consider how far we are willing to commodify our humanity. Hopefully we can still share sugar with a neighbor without splitting the cost of the bag, or renting them the cup it comes in…


Valerie Anderson

Valerie Anderson coordinates Operations at Common Change. She received her MPhil in Development Studies from the University of Cape Town and has spent the last 6 years establishing and maintaining a range of community development projects both in her home country, South Africa, and in low-income urban areas in the United States. She is a writer, problem-solver and strategist and loves to create environments in which others can thrive. Valerie and her husband, Brett Fish, have recently returned to their beautiful home city, Cape Town. You can find more of Val’s writing at

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