Community, network, non-profit or think tank: trying to explain what OuiShare is often leaves people puzzled. After having been part of this ”collaborative experiment” for over 2 years now, it’s clearer than ever to me that every person needs to define for himself what OuiShare is. So here is what it means to me.
When I joined OuiShare in mid 2012, everything was small and simple: there was a tight group of people from different countries that was working together online and organizing events about the collaborative economy. The active members of the group called themselves Connectors, even though nobody really knew how you became one. Most communication and decision making was informal, and everyone who wanted to be “in” simply was.
This spontaneity and trust in human relationships to regulate the group is what first drew me in to OuiShare. The absence of structure and the seemingly endless potential for learning and exploration with a fun group of people was exciting and inspiring to me. And so as the community has grown and we have had to begin to structure our organization, it has been one of our highest goals to be able to grow without losing this energy.
A platform, an incubator of people
After developing and structuring ourselves over the past months, you might think that by now we would have agreed on a clear and uniform answer to the question of what OuiShare is. But actually, the opposite is the case: the larger the community has grown, the more diverse the definitions and the more impossible it has become to “agree” on a standard elevator pitch. Today, if you were to ask four different people for a definition of OuiShare, you are likely to hear four very different, maybe even contradictory, interpretations of what we do.
Is there something wrong with this? On the contrary, I would argue. The fact that OuiShare is, in a sense, undefined, is, paradoxically, one of its defining characteristics and is also an important way to maintain the spontaneous energy that attracted me to it in its beginnings. It also reveals OuiShare’s nature as a platform that can have whatever purpose its members give it within a certain pre-defined framework (I’ll talk more about this framework in the next section).
Whom does the platform serve? It can serve anyone who is building and contributing to it — foremost our members and Connectors, a term that has been around since the beginnings of OuiShare to describe the active members of the network. They are the activists, thinkers and entrepreneurs driving the collaborative economy forward on a local and global level, who are building local OuiShare communities, leading projects or curating knowledge around specific topics.
These Connectors are distributed across 30 cities in Europe, the Americas and the Arab countries, yet they are the centerpiece of our organization. Why? Because beyond OuiShare’s mission to build and nurture a collaborative society, our platform exists to support and empower individuals, like our Connectors, who want to change the world for the better. What makes me get up in the morning is not the sharing economy or the maker movement, but the opportunity to help inspired individuals from our community grow, learn and develop their own projects to address societal, economic and environmental issues. Change starts small and it almost always starts with people — may they be self-employed, building a startup or working for a large corporation. And that’s why rather than calling it a think tank, a non-profit or anything else, I like to think of OuiShare as an incubator of people: a shared platform for experimentation that gives Connectors and members access to a commons of knowledge, tools and an international network of people they can learn and draw inspiration from.
Now let me explain what I meant above by “pre-defined framework” of the platform, as this is a crucial point. You may have asked yourself by now: if each member of OuiShare has a different understanding of it, what do these people actually have in common? What differentiates OuiShare from other communities? Its culture. A blend of our mission, our history and milestones, our collectively defined values as well as the initial spirit given to it by our founders and early members, this culture is the pillar the platform stands on. It contains implicit rules that are hardcoded into our DNA, thus providing guidance and direction when needed. And it is what makes our hundreds of members from across the globe feel so strongly connected to each other and part of something bigger.
This culture not only creates cohesion between people, but also functions as a barrier to entry into the community, as it enables people to self-select based on whether they identify themselves with it or not. Another example of this is that to become a Connector you must be endorsed by three other Connectors. Why are such barriers necessary? Author and commons activist Silke Helfrich puts it well in saying that “every commons needs protection”, to guarantee fairness and abundance within it. Just like a fresh water source, the knowledge produced within the community (for instance in our dozens of online discussion groups or at events) are a commons in need of protection.
What’s the OuiShare culture then? You can read our website all you like, but as with all cultures, you need to experience them yourself. So I won’t try to explain what the OuiShare culture is, but would just like to highlight one element that has been very present since the day I joined in which I firmly believe: a strong culture of mutual encouragement, learning and feedback. A culture where you put trust first, let go and believe in people’s capacity to grow with the challenges they face. This attitude can unleash an incredible amount of energy.
Let me give an example: I regularly meet with people in different countries who would like to launch a new OuiShare community in their city, usually by organizing a first event. Somewhere into the conversation they always ask me: “So what are the rules on how to use the OuiShare brand?” They expect me to give them a handbook with strict guidelines on what they can and cannot do. When I tell them then that I “trust their judgment”, since they know their city best and that OuiShare is a do-cracy where you can organize your first event without any further formalities, I usually get surprised looks, often followed by excitement. So instead of breaking people’s enthusiasm with rules and red tape, you take a leap of faith, hand them the reins and see what happens. And most of the time, great things do happen— like 230 organized events in 35 countries in 3 years. Among these, people such as Jeremy from British Columbia and Nelly from Beirut have started building their local communities without us having ever met in person. Nelly is even starting her own project to address local education issues. Eugenio, from Italy, is organizing the first OuiShare summer school.
These were just some examples of how community members are using the OuiShare platform as an incubator of people to help them put their ideas into action. But as platform built on a shared culture, OuiShare can be what you want it to be. The question is: what would you like it to be?
I’d like to give a special credit and thanks to Antonin Léonard, who triggered many of the ideas developed in this article.