Crowdfunding has hit the big time, but is it really about sharing?

Written for Tech City News and published here.

I headed home for Christmas a semi-willing participant in the ‘sharing economy’, having booked a car ride with a (thankfully non-murderous) stranger I found online. That’s what Christmas is about after all. Sharing, that is, not worrying about getting killed by people from the internet.

The trip cost me just £15, a steal compared to the £80 ticket for the train, plus it means I’m offering a small contribution to the environment by sharing the emissions, and making a new friend!

Sounds great, right?

But is sharing really caring?

Of course, it seems a bit strange that my earnings don’t make it that easy to take public transport, something we’re all paying for via taxation, which is perhaps the biggest unsung hero of our great global sharing experiment. But then, much public transport isn’t really public anymore.

It’s handy that a tech solution is here to step in and connect me with someone who has spare capacity, allowing them to make a little extra cash from their stuff. But, wait, isn’t sharing a not-for-profit activity?

Ridesharing is just one aspect of what we now dubiously call the ‘sharing economy’, along with everything from peer-to-peer lending and crowdfunding, online staffing, peer-to-peer accommodation, and music and video streaming.

Peer-to-peer lending and crowdfunding look set to see the largest growth between 2013 and 2025,according to the world’s accountants PwC, growing by an average 65% over this period. Based on search volume too, Google has already declared 2014 a “big year” for crowdfunding, with 21-times more searches performed this year than in 2013.

People power or private profits?

On the surface, crowdfunding, much like the other areas of this tech-enabled evolution, has all the hallmarks of “people power… [that] has the possibility of transforming the world for the better”, as Douglas Atkin from AirBnB explained on the launch of Peers, a ‘grassroots organisation that supports the sharing economy movement’. That’s an organisation incidentally backed to the hilt byevery US company that has an interest in ensuring that sharing pays.

Just this year, and in the UK alone, the wisdom and wallets of the crowd have brought FC United of Manchester to life, in a £51,000 bid to rival the might of corporatised football. They have also saved one of London’s vital inner-city farms, funded the build of a new public toilet in Worthing, and are now even being used by the UK’s only Green MP to raise election funds outside of trade unions and the private sector.

“2014 was the year that crowdfunding went mainstream in the UK,” agrees Phil Geraghty, MD of Nesta-backed crowdfunding platform Crowdfunder:

“Thousands of grassroots British ideas are becoming reality thanks to the people of the UK.”

However, beyond these projects for public good, many of which should arguably be funded by our increasingly shallow, but nonetheless shared public purse, doesn’t Kickstarter-style ‘sharing’ stink a bit of socialising the costs and privatising the profits?

Guise of generosity?

Kickstarter’s formation comes with a pleasant enough story, but it’s founders have now made a handsome $42m (from 2009 to mid-2014) off the back of others’ generosity. And one of the platform’s greatest success stories, Oculus Rift, got off the ground using $2.4m of public excitement and goodwill, only to be sold to Facebook this year for a ‘wouldn’t that be great if we all shared it?’ $2bn.

If not entirely a marketing tool for a product that could have been self-funded or found funding elsewhere, some of these platforms now appear merely to act as a pre-sales outlet.

The question for backers is not ‘can I make this happen?’, or about enabling others to access something truly life-changing, but is just about snapping up early access to more goods you almost certainly don’t need. And getting your hands on those tasty ‘rewards’ not typically associated with random acts of kindness.

While crowdfunding looks like an exercise in democratising access to cash, most entrepreneurs still come from affluent backgrounds, which inevitably mean networks brimming with readily-available money should you run into trouble, ensuring greater chance of business survival. And it’s the verytax-avoiding tactics adopted by high-tech companies invested in the sharing economy –  Google Ventures in Uber, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos in Airbnb – that deprive the national budget of much-needed funds.

This then perversely creates at least some need for crowdfunding campaigns  – to save public services and community organisations  – representing an optional extra tax on the public.

Let’s get political

Some progressive thinkers, many of whom are sceptical about the benefits that Big Sharing from the likes of Uber and Airbnb is bringing anyone but shareholders, believe that the sharing economy movement has to get political.

By this, Rajesh Makwana, executive director of Share The World’s Resources, means “guarding against the co-optation of sharing by the corporate sector, while joining forces with a much larger body of activists that have long been calling – either explicitly or implicitly – for more transformative and fundamental forms of economic sharing across the world.”

While california-based sharing economy lawyer Janelle Orsi firmly advocates that companies in this area must be setup as cooperatives, writer Marjorie Kelly believes that there are a range of ‘for good’ models appropriate for this new economy.

Yes, I may just be becoming a little weary with ‘amazing tech crowdfund campaigns’ hitting my inbox trying to take people’s cash for things that the world definitely doesn’t need. But in the tech sector particularly, we have the skills, money, influence and, arguably, underlying intention, to make the world a better place.

Shouldn’t what we have learned to date, the platforms and underlying principles, be shared for the international common good, to address some of the biggest challenges facing our shared planet?

Or perhaps you just want to launch another taxi app?

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