06 October 2010

Sharing: Crossing the Digital-Analogue Divide

I've been writing about all kinds of openness and sharing on this blog nearly five years now. Before that, I had been covering free software for a further ten years. Although I touch on open hardware examples here, this has all largely been about *digital* sharing.

A key concern of mine has been how this will translate into the "real", aka analogue world. For digital sharing is relatively easy, and it's possible that without such low barriers to sharing, the kinds of behaviours that are becoming common online might not translate into the offline realm.

But it seems like my fears were misplaced:

The results of Latitude Research and Shareable Magazine's The New Sharing Economy study released today indicate that online sharing does indeed seem to encourage people to share offline resources such as cars and bikes, largely because they are learning to trust each other online. And they're not just sharing to save money - an equal number of people say they share to make the world a better place.

More specifically:

* Sharing online content is a good predictor that someone is likely to share offline too. 78% of participants felt that experiences they've had interacting with people online have made them more open to the idea of sharing with strangers. In fact, every study participant who shared content online also shared various things offline. Sharing entrepreneurs are already taking advantage of this by seeding their services in contextually relevant online communities. For instance, online kids clothing exchange thredUP build relationships with prominent mommy bloggers to speed their launch.

* 75% of participants predicted that their offline sharing will increase in the next 5 years. While fast growing, this new sector has lots of unmet demand. More than half of all participants either shared vehicles casually or expressed interest in doing so. Similarly, 62% of participants either share household items casually or expressed interest in doing so. There's also high interest in sharing of physical spaces for travel, storage, and work - even with complete strangers.

If confirmed by other research, this is really important. It says that global projects like free software and Wikipedia are not just isolated, geeky instances of collaboration, sharing and altruism: they feed into large-scale, personal and local activities that are inspired by them and their digital cousins (remember social networking is one of these).

I'm obviously not surprised, since I have been working on that assumption. I also have a rough sketch of a theory why this digital sharing might spill over into the analogue world.

As those of us deeply immersed in the cultures of openness and sharing know, engaging in these activities is almost literally effortless: it takes probably a few seconds to share a link, a thought or a picture. It might take a few minutes for a blog post, and a few hours for Wikipedia article, but the barriers are still low.

And the rewards are high. Even simple "thank yous" from complete strangers (on Twitter or identi.ca, say) are immensely gratifying. Indeed, I'd be willing to bet that there are some serious hormonal consequences of getting this kind of feedback. For they are sufficiently pleasant that you tend to carry on sharing, and probably more intensely, in part to get that special buzz they engender.

At this point, your brain is positively wired for the benefits of sharing. In which case, you are maybe more willing to overcome the necessarily greater obstacles to sharing in the analogue world. Perhaps the benefits of sharing there are even greater; but even if they are only the same as for the digital realm, they are probably enough for us sharing addicts to carry on. (I'm sure there's a PhD or two in all this stuff.)

Whether or not that is a correct analysis of what's happening at the deepest level within us, this latest research is really good news for sharing, and for humanity's future, which surely will depend on us learning how to share everything - not least the planet and its resources - better. In fact, it was such good news, I felt I really had to share it with you...

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.


guy said...

I'm sure you're right about the 'feel good' rewards of sharing. But sharing information (software, images, ideas etc.) doesn't suffer from the same problems as sharing physical stuff for exactly the reasons of scarcity/abundance so often discussed here. If you share your lawnmower with your neighbour you're not sharing a copy --- you can't mow your lawn until it is returned in (you hope) working order. So you need to have more confidence in the people you share physical stuff with.

Having said that, I rather like the idea of there being 'hackers' in the physical world --- people who aren't just users of stuff, but fixers/improvers... the lawnmower wasn't working very well, so I fixed it ("it needed cleaning, sharpening, oiling and the screws tightening on that wonky handle --- works great now!") but as with the digital world, those people are the minority. Of course, the lawnmower company hate people like that --- clearly they should chuck it and buy a new one.

Sounds rather like freeganism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freeganism)

Glyn Moody said...

@guy: I think you'll have your wish sooner than we might expect: open source fabbers like RepRap are getting betting all the time....