Terminology 101 - A glossary for the sharing economy

Terminology 101 - A glossary for the sharing economy

No pun intended: I want to share something with you! I've been collecting terms around the peer economy. Stripped down to its core, this work paradigm is essentially about freelancing. It's 1099s, independent contractors and sole proprietors.

Collaborative, sharing, peer, consumption, economy... Those are enough terms to make heads spin. But I put this to you: These are not interchangeable terms. Read on, because I'm going to make my argument in the form of this fledgling glossary.


Image by MarcoD

Among platforms, analysts and consultants:

  • Collaborative consumption - Popularized by Rachel Botsman in What's Mine is Yours, "collaborative consumption" is an economy where there is net-zero production. On a company level, this looks like the upfront cost of equipment that will be rented out countless times, what Botsman calls a "product service system" (think car sharing or bike sharing). On an individual level, this could be renting out a spare room or other idling asset. In both of these situations, continual production is avoided.
  • Sharing economy - By far the most popular term to capture this networked economy, "sharing economy" encompasses any platform where things are sold directly between individuals, or are shared, bartered or traded.
  • Peer economy - I prefer the term "peer economy" because of my scope of study: platforms that enable people to monetize skills and assets they already have. The peer economy is different from the sharing economy in that it enables individuals to transact [monetarily] between each other. Services like CouchSurfingZipCar and Citibike are excluded from this categorization.
  • Mesh - Investor Lisa Gansky uses "meshiness" to refer to the networked nature of people, societal values and more in this economy. Like "sharing economy," it's a term that is liberally applied.
  • Collaborative economy - Why "collaborative economy" when there's already "collaborative consumption" and two other terms that use "economy?" According to Altimeter analyst Jeremiah Owyang, the other economy terms favor startups and individuals. Incumbent corporations and brands (think Marriott or Daimler) are jumping in, and "peer/sharing economy" are not inclusive enough.

In media:

In other traditions:

  • Informal economy / Système D (sometimes called the hustling economy)- The term "informal economy" has been used widely since the 1970s. Basically, it is any income earned through work that is unregulated. Keith Hart, an anthropologist who popularized the term, had originally meant it to describe workers who add to the economy despite the lack of regulation (i.e.: providing portable clean water in plastic bags, building toilets and charging for their use since there is no public infrastructure for public toilets, etc.). However, it is liberally used to include shadow economy activities such as mobs, and organ, drug and sex trafficking.
    In Stealth of Nations, Journalist Robert Neuwirth has tried to get at Hart's original meaning by repolishing the term "Système D." Système D, an abbreviation of "l'economie de la debrouillardise," is a class of entrepreneurs who identify gaps in public infrastructure as commercial opportunities to provide access to services and technologies (examples of those services are listed above for "informal economy"). In providing these services, these entrepreneurs are accelerating development through an unregulated push and are directly responsible for driving countries forward (i.e.: electronics in Africa, which has spurred technological development in Africa).
  • Portfolio of work - Philosopher Charles Handy uses this term most consistently. He wrote The Elephant and The Flea to reflect on his own experience as a "flea" in light of the increasingly patchwork nature of work, and how that career paradigm may actually enhance quality of life.
  • Circular economy - As a simplification, this means the same thing as "collaborative consumption." As a term, it's been around much longer and is defined by a recycling, closed loop in both production and acquisition. Architect Bill McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart mirror this especially well with the cradle-to-cradle design model, detailed in Crade to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.