Among the surprises in last week’s Pew Research Center survey on the new digital economy was the revelation that the phrase “the sharing economy”—the collective and most broadly accepted term for some of the on-demand apps and platforms that have seemingly seized the world of commerce—is overwhelmingly unknown to most Americans. In other words, while AirBnB may have Super Bowl commercials and Uber may have graduated to being used as a verb, 73 percent of Americans are unfamiliar with the banner under which they operate.
More curiously, those who had heard of “the sharing economy” (or at least claimed to have) frequently defined it as an altruistic endeavor. “The most common description of the sharing economy emphasizes the ‘sharing’ component of the phrase while ignoring the ‘economy’ aspect,” Pew analysts wrote, noting that 40 percent of Americans polled expressed this view.
So how has a ballyhooed economic trend managed to elude mainstream detection? One possibility is that the trend might not be nearly as big as headlines make it out to be, but it could also be a problem with the trend’s name itself. “It may be a consequence of the fact that the label is being used to describe a pretty broad range of things that don’t necessarily all look like each other,” said Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University and the author of the forthcoming book The Sharing Economy. AirBnB, for example, is an online apartment-rental platform, Uber is an on-demand car service, and TaskRabbit is an online labor marketplace. “The sharing economy” often also includes peer-to-peer lending platforms and crowdfunding sites with varying profit models.