Twisting Words to Make 'Sharing' Ap...
Twisting Words to Make 'Sharing' Apps Seem Selfless
I have trouble with the sharing economy. Ditto the peer economy, the people economy and the collaborative economy.
To be clear, I'm not objecting to the services themselves. Ride-hailing apps like Lyft and Uber, odd-jobs marketplaces like Task Rabbit, vacation rental sites like Airbnb, and grocery-shopping apps like Instacart have clearly made travel, lodging, home renovation and dining more efficient for millions of people.
What I find problematic is the terminology itself and how it frames technology-enabled transactions as if they were altruistic or community endeavors.
Let's begin with "sharing," a concept that implies something selfless — like giving a part of your liver to a relative who needs a transplant. Now, at least in industry parlance, the word has also come to denote just about any online venture that connects consumers seeking goods and services with people willing to provide them. That would include apps that charge a fee to stay in strangers' spare bedrooms or use their cars — ventures formerly known as "renting."
Lyft and Uber, for instance, have both described their services as "ride-sharing" whether the ride involves one or multiple passengers. Lyft also promotes itself as "your friend with a car." Uber calls its drivers "partners" and "entrepreneurs." OfAirbnb's lodging rentals, its site says, "trust is what makes it work." The names of some service-on-demand apps even carry share-and-share-alike connotations; take Favor, a food delivery start-up where consumers can order "favors" like takeout meals.
Of course, marketing by its very nature involves concocting the most appealing expressions to attract consumers. But start-ups that enable consumers to summon drivers, lunch deliveries or domestic help at the tap of an app have added incentives to portray themselves in feel-good terms.
Government regulators, legislators and courts in the United States have started scrutinizing the app-mediated service sector with the idea of determining whether longstanding consumer protection and labor rules apply to these new delivery models.
One of the central questions is whether people who perform services for on-demand apps should be classified as employees — who are entitled to workers' benefits and safeguards — or as independent contractors who are on the hook for insurance, expenses and other costs. Judges' and regulators' decisions on this issue will depend in large part on whether the workers themselves generally control their own work or "are generally subject to the business's instructions about when, where and how to work," according to a federal test for classifying independent contractors.
Against the backdrop of possible regulation, egalitarian-sounding words like "sharing" and "partner" distance start-ups, linguistically at least, from the traditionally regulated industries they seek to displace.
"Framing it as 'sharing' or 'peers' is a way of trying to keep the focus on the people who provide the services — and off the platforms, which may be very rigid and deterministic as to when, where and how the services are delivered," says Erin McKean, a lexicographer who is the founder ofWordnik, an online dictionary.
Altruistic words may also lend an aura of incontestability to app-enabled transactions. After all, who wants to challenge services that invoke generous concepts like sharing?
In a forthcoming study on the technology-mediated work experiences of Uber drivers, however, two researchers argue that terms like "sharing" can put a gloss on business practices that may work against the interests of the supposed sharers — that is, the drivers themselves.
Uber and Lyft, for instance, each set the prices passengers pay. But, the study notes, the Uber app is devised to require drivers to accept a ride request before knowing a passenger's destination and being able to determine if that fare would be financially worthwhile. The study also points out that Uber asks drivers to return passengers' iPhones and other lost items — a service that earns good will for the company — without automatically compensating drivers for their effort. Some drivers have also noted that the companies encourage them to provide bottled water, mobile phone chargers and other services to passengers at their own expense.
These practices seem inconsistent with the idea of workers as partners who have a say in the business or autonomous, self-directed entrepreneurs, the authors write.
"I think that the biggest problem with the sharing-economy language is that it co-opts you into your own disempowerment," says Alex Rosenblat, a researcher at Data & Society, a research center in Manhattan, and a co-author of the study.
(Disclosure: I am starting a part-time fellowship this fall at Data & Society.)
Kristin Carvell, a spokeswoman for Uber, said the app was intended to provide "transport without discrimination" wherever and whenever consumers choose. That is why, she said, drivers learn a passenger's destination only after accepting a ride request. She added that providing water or phone chargers was an optional customer service for drivers and that drivers could return forgotten items directly to a passenger or to Uber.
The industry rhetoric could be dismissed as mere semantics if the stakes were not so high for investors (a recent financing round valued Uber at about $51 billion), workers and government authorities involved with industry oversight. As with other hot-button issues — do you say "illegal aliens" or "undocumented immigrants"? — word choice here can offer clues to a person's stance.
In May, for instance, Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California, announced that he and a Democratic colleague, Eric Swalwell of California, had formed a bipartisan Sharing Economy Caucus to focus "on these pioneering industries and ensure Congress is taking all of the necessary steps to facilitate, rather than hinder, the next great idea."
A month later, the Federal Trade Commission held a workshop titled "The 'Sharing' Economy." Marina Lao, who directs the commission's office of policy planning, told me the quotation marks around "sharing" were meant to indicate that the agency was simply citing a popularly understood term and "not supporting any particular business model."
And last month, Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, and Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, wrote a letter to the Labor Department about the industry without once invoking "sharing." The legislators asked labor regulators to examine whether business in "the new on-demand economy" had the potential to misclassify workers as independent contractors and the possible ramifications of such a problem. They also called it the "gig economy."
News organizations, too, are grappling with what to call these services.
Last year, The Associated Press Stylebook, the ultimate American language manual for many reporters, added an entry for Uber. It described the company, along with Lyft, as "ride-hailing" or "ride-booking" services that allow people to use smartphone apps to book and pay for a car service. The entry cautioned: "Do not use ride-sharing."
The A.P. manual does not yet have an entry for "sharing economy."
In a telephone interview, David Minthorn, co-editor of the A.P. Stylebook, told me that "sharing" tends to imply an informal agreement among people, like carpooling. So it seems inaccurate, even euphemistic, he said, to use "sharing" in the context of commercial enterprise."We prefer a more forthright description," he said.