#WeWashing — Part 2

It’s been a couple of months now since I published my original WeWashing article. In that article, I coin the term WeWashing to mean when organizations refer to renting and selling services as “sharing” and/or use terms like “community” in misleading ways. I wanted to follow up in response to reader feedback and to share a bit about how my thinking has developed since then.


First of all, thank you to my readers and supporters who have disseminated the article far and wide across the internet. The concept and the term WeWashing seems to have struck a chord with people. Thank you to everyone for the feedback, critiques, and encouragement to continue. I would like to extend particular thanks to Rajesh Makwana and Elisabet Roselló for citing WeWashing in their own works.

I also want to acknowledge that a similar term, “Sharewashing” was coined by Anthony Kalamar back in 2013. Thanks to Arthur de Grave of OuiShare for pointing this out to me.

In Response

My colleague Alberto Cottica pointed out that “it [critique of the discourse around the ‘sharing economy’] is an important conversation to have — though #wewashing can become an all-consuming rhetorical weapon.”

I agree that we need to be careful, nuanced, and rigorous in our critiques of “sharing economy” or “platform capitalism,” but I think having a term like WeWashing helps us to have a banner around which we can rally and organize opposition.

One commenter* on the Huffington Post version of the WeWashing article offered a helpful question to ask of so-called “sharing economy” services:

What is being shared?

*Apologies for the lack of personal attribution. The Huffpost has disabled comments on the article and I can no longer find the commenter’s name.

What is being shared?

Services like Lyft Line and Uber Pool enable customers to share taxi rides with strangers. This seems like legit sharing to me. These services help customers save on money and carbon emissions from rides they would have otherwise taken alone.

But is the act of taking a Lyft or Uber ride in itself a form of sharing? The act of paying somebody to drive me from point A to point B seems firmly identifiable as an economic transaction. I’m paying for a service, renting the driver’s time and the use of his/her vehicle. Not sharing in my book.

What isn’t being shared in the “sharing economy”?

Power, control, agency?

The concept of a “share,” in terms of a portion of ownership like stock in a corporation, has a long capitalist history. Shareholders have economic and management rights, the ability to by or sell their units of ownership and some degree of agency in the running of a business.

What say to Uber drives have in the corporate policies of the company? Do they have the ability to organize and collectively bargain for better terms and conditions? Do the drivers share in the ownership of the company?

I don’t mean to single out Uber here, but I am simply using it as a concrete example to apply the question “what is being shared” on multiple levels.

What is being shared?

What isn’t being shared?

These are important questions to ask as consumers and citizens. Not all forms of sharing are alike.

Other readers asked me define what I mean by “community” and “sharing.” I still do not feel prepared to answer that right now, but in the meantime, I would like to direct readers to Wolfgang Sützl’s “On Sharing” and David M. Chavis and Kien Lee’s “What is Community Anyway?”

So why is it problematic to over-commercialize cooperation and sharing?

One reason is that paying people to cooperate can backfire. Co-authors Erez Yoeli, Syon Bhanot, Gordon Kraft-Todd and David Rand explain in a recent New York Times article How to Get People to Pitch In:

A 2006 paper by the economists Roland Benabou and Jean Tirole shows that paying people muddies the reputational benefits of cooperating. We’re sensitive to not just whether someone cooperates, but why. When we’re paid to cooperate, observers can’t tell whether we are “purely” motivated, or just want the $25. Therefore, when we cooperate, we don’t get the same “credit” for being good people, and so we feel less motivated to cooperate. This effect can be so strong that paying people can reduce overall cooperation.

One could consider altruistic sharing a form of social cooperation. By over-equating commercial transactions with “sharing,” we run the risk of dilluting the quality of social cooperation. The commercial crowds out the altruistic.

Of course, so-called “sharing economy” services can and do help us more efficiently get from place to place or to find contingent labor to help us clean our apartments or assemble our IKEA furniture. But sharing as a social practice is not just about efficiency, whether in the sense of economic efficiency (deployment of “underutilized” resources) or consumer convenience.

Sharing is also about social cohesion, empathy, altruism, fairness, and justice. Sharing is more than the “sharing economy.” That is why we need to have vocabulary like WeWashing to help us distinguish the differences.

What is being shared? What is not being shared?

I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation.

See Also

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