If step one in mainstreaming the "sharing economy" is a glowing write-up by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, step two might come when experienced political organizers decide to build a movement around it.
Launched today, Peers is the product of months of study and house parties aimed at better understanding the nature of the emerging peer-to-peer economy. "We realized that there’s power to common values and a shared story," said Natalie Foster, the non-profit’s executive director, in an interview. Yet while Peers found people who have had positive experiences with everything from Etsy to Uber to local tool sharing, those people didn’t necessarily see themselves as participating in anything more meaningful than one-off transactions. "We decided to create that container," Foster said.
The 2001 Pepperdine grad is a longtime political and advocacy organizer. She ran online organizing for the Sierra Club and then served as the digital director for the Democratic National Committee, including its Organizing for America wing active between the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. She left D.C., moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and co-founded, with Van Jones and Billy Wimsatt, an organization called Rebuild the Dream, which launched with great fanfare in 2011 but which seemed mainly to serve as a platform for Jones’ ambitions. Starting in the fall, Jones will serve as co-host on CNN’s revived Crossfire.
Foster explained how her own path led her to building Peers.
"Rebuild the Dream was a people-powered mission to fix the economy," she said, "and I realized that while the economy is broken, and D.C. also feels broken, I found a ton of inspiration in what people are building. They’re building the future that they want to see, turning to one another and just going for it, everything from worker-owned cooperatives to whole new generations of entrepreneurs who have access, with technology, to markets that they never had access to before. It’s very exciting, and it’s the beginning of the economy that I want to see."
Foster offered a prediction. Sharing, she said, "will be the defining economic story of the 21st century."
Exactly which characters will play a role in that story are yet to be determined. On the press call announcing the launch, we heard from two Californians who are sharing their car, produce, tools, what have you, to help make it through tough times. But how do you define the sharing economy more generally?
"We say it’s people who are coming together person-to-person and exchanging goods, time, money, homes, skills," Foster said, "and doing it in a way that is inspiring."
"I’ve been less focused on which companies [qualify]," she continued, "and more focused on the magic that happens when someone can grab that city bike share or can purchase something directly from a seller on Etsy or can share a car more easily with a neighbor." (Foster’s husband helps run Scoot, which rents electric scooters in San Francisco.)
Peers’ work, Foster said, will have three main prongs: "grow, mainstream and protect." It will aim to convince people renting rooms on Airbnb that they’re part of a new global phenomenon. It will work to tell those stories online and off. And it will create the mechanics for advocating for the economics of sharing, especially in cases where limiting rules and regulations are already in place. "We want to turbo-charge it," Foster said.
Advising the new group are some of the leading lights in the "sharing" field, like Lisa Gansky, author of The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing, Rachel Botsman, founder of the Collaborative Lab, and NYU business professor Arun Sundararajan. Foster said the goal is to be a member-supported organization, but in the early going it’s being funded by "mission-aligned individuals both large and small."
Peers will not name those backers at launch, Foster said, but will comply with rules for disclosure that apply to non-profits. Given Peers’ San Francisco roots, I asked Foster if those funders were coming mostly from the tech industry. Not necessarily, she said, explaining that early efforts have found the support of people of all stripes and from around the world.
A final note, especially for nerds: That enviable domain name Peers.org was purchased from the San Francisco-based Period Events & Entertainments Re-Creation Society. But the new Peers.org might want to hang on to the old Peers.org’s tagline: "Remember the cardinal rule of Peers: ‘If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right!’"
Nancy Scola is a lead writer for the Washington Post’s tech blog, The Switch. Scola’s writing on the intersections of technology and politics has been published by The American Prospect, Capital, Columbia Journalism Review, New York, Reuters, Salon, Science Progress, Seed, and other publications.