Open source and collaborative consumption

For some reason, not that many successful collaborative consumption services are open source. I find it surprising. This movement, whether you call it collaborative consumption or the sharing economy, is about acknowledging that there’s more to gain by sharing than by owning. We believe that as a company that promotes the sharing economy, we should embrace the culture ourselves, and share as much as possible of what we have. We believe that when you give more, you get more. So being open source comes natural to us.

Sharetribe — WordPress for the sharing economy

Our role model, as a project and a company, is WordPress. When they started in 2003, the dominant blogging platform was Blogger, started 4 years earlier. But WordPress was open source. Because of that, it managed to create a whole ecosystem around it — people who make their living building products on top of it, or who simply want to contribute to great open projects. By doing that they managed to build a platform that today powers 1 out of every 6 websites on the Internet. And what’s more, they have managed to build a sustainable business on top of it, predicting revenue of $45 million this year. All this while still staying true to their values.

We want to be for peer-to-peer marketplaces what WordPress is for blogs and news sites. We really think that there’s a huge need for such a solution.

There are thousands of projects currently operating in the field of collaborative consumption, with more starting almost every day. It’s because the basic idea — using online tools to share offline assets — is so obvious that many people around the world are getting it at the same time. Some people might just want to create a simple lending tool for their small neighborhood. Others want to create a company that will change the world.

Yet, building these marketplaces and getting them off the ground is a surprisingly challenging task. Thus, we feel that all these bright minds should not waste their time working in isolation, trying to invent the wheel yet again. Instead, they should be benefitting from the existing battle-tested best practices on the basics that power almost every marketplace site — P2P listings, user profiles, internal messaging and reputation systems, and so on — and innovate on top of that.

There are already many great open source initiatives in the field of sharing economy, and some projects we truly love, like GiftFlow and SharedEarth. Yet, so far we haven’t come across a dedicated open source platform for all kinds of marketplaces — whether it’s about buying, selling, renting, ridesharing, service exchange, or some other activity like that. That’s the void we want to fill.

Federation and the Sharing API

A year and a half ago I wrote an article on Shareable about An API For Sharing. The key message in it was that people should be able to take the data they cumulate in one sharing service — like the assets they share and their reputation — and bring it to another service. The idea was to enable this by creating a generic API model that all the sharing services could implement

After writing the article I’ve come to realize that to achieve that we need to start from the bottom up. The big players who are holding the most valuable data will not be the first to give it away. So we’ve decided to start from ourselves. We’re currently building our own API, based on the Sharing API ideas. There’s a lot to say about it, so it will be a topic of another post.

The first benefit of having a common API is that connections between different sharing services become easier to implement. This would enable, for instance, other sharing services show its users search results also from other sharing networks nearby. Alternatively, it would be easier to build a “Google of sharing”. Without a common API each service needs to build the connection separately to each connected service. If all of them use the same API, connecting to many other services becomes a one-time task.

The next step could be adding some sort of federation between different sharing services, and also between different self-hosted open source instances of Sharetribe. Building the connections manually (even with common API) can be a tedious job, and a federated network of interoperable instances could be the best solution for the user. It’s what Diaspora wanted to do for social networking, and what WordPress has at least partially done for blogging.

In practice that could mean that the user who wants to borrow a specific item nearby could make the request in his favorite sharing site and the search would find the most suitable offers, regardless of where they have been originally posted. The federation should also allow easy messaging to the offer author.

That kind of system might not be compatible with every service’s business model, but in our open source approach it makes sense to build the connection between the communities hosted by us and the communities hosted by the users of the open source Sharetribe. And we believe that there are many services who would benefit from being part of the network of interoperable sharing sites.

Creating this system is by no means an easy task. There are multiple challenges, as the example of Diaspora has shown. But, as a wise man said, sometimes it’s a good idea to deliberately seek hard problems.

To achieve all this, we will probably need some help. Luckily, we already have some great people all around the world developing awesome things on top of Sharetribe code — from aspiring entrepreneurs to open source activists. If you would like to join, fork our code and join the community in our open chat room. Welcome aboard!

- Juho


Originally published on the Sharetribe blog on September 26, 2012.