The twenty-four case studies in Made with CC were chosen from hundreds of nominations received from Kickstarter backers, Creative Commons staff, and the global Creative Commons community.
We did background research and conducted interviews for each case study, based on the same set of basic questions about the endeavor. The idea for each case study is to tell the story about the endeavor and the role sharing plays within it, largely the way in which it was told to us by those we interviewed.
Shareable is an online magazine about sharing. Founded in 2009 in the U.S.
Revenue model: grant funding, crowdfunding (project-based), donations, sponsorships
Interview date: February 24, 2016
Interviewee: Neal Gorenflo, cofounder and executive editor
Profile written by Sarah Hinchliff Pearson
In 2013, Shareable faced an impasse. The nonprofit online publication had helped start a sharing movement four years prior, but over time, they watched one part of the movement stray from its ideals. As giants like Uber and Airbnb gained ground, attention began to center on the “sharing economy” we know now — profit-driven, transactional, and loaded with venture-capital money. Leaders of corporate start-ups in this domain invited Shareable to advocate for them. The magazine faced a choice: ride the wave or stand on principle.
As an organization, Shareable decided to draw a line in the sand. In 2013, the cofounder and executive editor Neal Gorenflo wrote an opinion piece in the PandoDaily that charted Shareable’s new critical stance on the Silicon Valley version of the sharing economy, while contrasting it with aspects of the real sharing economy like open-source software, participatory budgeting (where citizens decide how a public budget is spent), cooperatives, and more. He wrote, “It’s not so much that collaborative consumption is dead, it’s more that it risks dying as it gets absorbed by the ‘Borg.’”
Neal said their public critique of the corporate sharing economy defined what Shareable was and is. He does not think the magazine would still be around had they chosen differently. “We would have gotten another type of audience, but it would have spelled the end of us,” he said. “We are a small, mission-driven organization. We would never have been able to weather the criticism that Airbnb and Uber are getting now.”
Interestingly, impassioned supporters are only a small sliver of Shareable’s total audience. Most are casual readers who come across a Shareable story because it happens to align with a project or interest they have. But choosing principles over the possibility of riding the coattails of the major corporate players in the sharing space saved Shareable’s credibility. Although they became detached from the corporate sharing economy, the online magazine became the voice of the “real sharing economy” and continued to grow their audience.
Shareable is a magazine, but the content they publish is a means to furthering their role as a leader and catalyst of a movement. Shareable became a leader in the movement in 2009. “At that time, there was a sharing movement bubbling beneath the surface, but no one was connecting the dots,” Neal said. “We decided to step into that space and take on that role.” The small team behind the nonprofit publication truly believed sharing could be central to solving some of the major problems human beings face — resource inequality, social isolation, and global warming.
They have worked hard to find ways to tell stories that show different metrics for success. “We wanted to change the notion of what constitutes the good life,” Neal said. While they started out with a very broad focus on sharing generally, today they emphasize stories about the physical commons like “sharing cities” (i.e., urban areas managed in a sustainable, cooperative way), as well as digital platforms that are run democratically. They particularly focus on how-to content that help their readers make changes in their own lives and communities.
More than half of Shareable’s stories are written by paid journalists that are contracted by the magazine. “Particularly in content areas that are a priority for us, we really want to go deep and control the quality,” Neal said. The rest of the content is either contributed by guest writers, often for free, or written by other publications from their network of content publishers. Shareable is a member of the Post Growth Alliance, which facilitates the sharing of content and audiences among a large and growing group of mostly nonprofits. Each organization gets a chance to present stories to the group, and the organizations can use and promote each other’s stories. Much of the content created by the network is licensed with Creative Commons.
All of Shareable’s original content is published under the Attribution license (CC BY), meaning it can be used for any purpose as long as credit is given to Shareable. Creative Commons licensing is aligned with Shareable’s vision, mission, and identity. That alone explains the organization’s embrace of the licenses for their content, but Neal also believes CC licensing helps them increase their reach. “By using CC licensing,” he said, “we realized we could reach far more people through a formal and informal network of republishers or affiliates. That has definitely been the case. It’s hard for us to measure the reach of other media properties, but most of the outlets who republish our work have much bigger audiences than we do.”
In addition to their regular news and commentary online, Shareable has also experimented with book publishing. In 2012, they worked with a traditional publisher to release Share or Die: Voices of the Get Lost Generation in an Age of Crisis. The CC-licensed book was available in print form for purchase or online for free. To this day, the book — along with their CC-licensed guide Policies for Shareable Cities — are two of the biggest generators of traffic on their website.
In 2016, Shareable self-published a book of curated Shareable stories called How to: Share, Save Money and Have Fun. The book was available for sale, but a PDF version of the book was available for free. Shareable plans to offer the book in upcoming fund-raising campaigns.
This recent book is one of many fund-raising experiments Shareable has conducted in recent years. Currently, Shareable is primarily funded by grants from foundations, but they are actively moving toward a more diversified model. They have organizational sponsors and are working to expand their base of individual donors. Ideally, they will eventually be a hundred percent funded by their audience. Neal believes being fully community-supported will better represent their vision of the world.
For Shareable, success is very much about their impact on the world. This is true for Neal, but also for everyone who works for Shareable. “We attract passionate people,” Neal said. At times, that means employees work so hard they burn out. Neal tries to stress to the Shareable team that another part of success is having fun and taking care of yourself while you do something you love. “A central part of human beings is that we long to be on a great adventure with people we love,” he said. “We are a species who look over the horizon and imagine and create new worlds, but we also seek the comfort of hearth and home.”
In 2013, Shareable ran its first crowdfunding campaign to launch their Sharing Cities Network. Neal said at first they were on pace to fail spectacularly. They called in their advisers in a panic and asked for help. The advice they received was simple — “Sit your ass in a chair and start making calls.” That’s exactly what they did, and they ended up reaching their $50,000 goal. Neal said the campaign helped them reach new people, but the vast majority of backers were people in their existing base.
For Neal, this symbolized how so much of success comes down to relationships. Over time, Shareable has invested time and energy into the relationships they have forged with their readers and supporters. They have also invested resources into building relationships between their readers and supporters.
Shareable began hosting events in 2010. These events were designed to bring the sharing community together. But over time they realized they could reach far more people if they helped their readers to host their own events. “If we wanted to go big on a conference, there was a huge risk and huge staffing needs, plus only a fraction of our community could travel to the event,” Neal said. Enabling others to create their own events around the globe allowed them to scale up their work more effectively and reach far more people. Shareable has catalyzed three hundred different events reaching over twenty thousand people since implementing this strategy three years ago. Going forward, Shareable is focusing the network on creating and distributing content meant to spur local action. For instance, Shareable will publish a new CC-licensed book in 2017 filled with ideas for their network to implement.
Neal says Shareable stumbled upon this strategy, but it seems to perfectly encapsulate just how the commons is supposed to work. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, Shareable puts the tools out there for people take the ideas and adapt them to their own communities.