In a true sharing economy, the reward is gratitude

Ryan Merkley is CEO of Creative Commons, a global non-profit organization with chapters in 85 countries that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools.

We need to talk about sharing.


Much has been written about the “sharing economy” – web-enabled services like Uber and Airbnb that allow people to provide rides or rent their homes to strangers. It’s creating new opportunities to make money, and new challenges for established sectors all around the world. Last month, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce released its own report, citing estimates that the global revenue from sharing economy companies in 2015 will be $15-billion.

The problem is that there’s no “sharing” in the sharing economy. The real sharing economy is one built around goodwill, gratitude and mutual benefit, not commerce – it may even be a fundamental element of human evolution.

Sharing shouldn’t require compensation. If you’re paying for it, it’s not actually sharing: It’s just a service. But sharing can still create benefits for those who share, and is vitally important to communities and society. It’s something we shouldn’t distort just because it sounds good in the marketing copy.

Martin Nowak, a Harvard professor who studies the underpinnings of evolution, argued in a recent Scientific American article that humanity’s story is one of both competition and co-operation: not just a struggle for survival, but also an essential “snuggle for survival.” Contrary to prevailing wisdom, his research shows that co-operators – even those who share at their own expense – often win out over time.

An extreme take on social Darwinism might suggest we should never help our fellow humans. And yet the data suggests otherwise. In his recent book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, researcher Adam Grant debunks the idea that givers are simply altruistic, and instead argues that those who “give first are often best positioned for success later.”

Giving doesn’t just help the giver, it also begets more giving. According to Mr. Grant, when researchers studied giving across social networks, they found that when one person gave at his or her own personal cost over a series of rounds, others were more likely to contribute in subsequent rounds, even with people who were not in the original group. “The presence of a single giver was enough to establish a norm of giving,” Mr. Grant says.

The tension this creates isn’t lost on me – we think of sharing as a generous act, but there is a strong case that it benefits the sharer over time, often indirectly. In fact, this is the real power of sharing: concurrent and lasting benefits, multiplied for the giver, the receiver and society.

So sharing is in our nature. Each time we share, we encourage others to do the same. And while it pays off over time, it is in fact in the interest of both the giver and the community that receives the gifts. So why are we so focused on ourselves?

In a true sharing economy, the currency is reputation, and the reward is gratitude. These concepts are familiar to those who engage in the open-source, open-knowledge, and free-culture communities.

Much of the web we know and love is built on shared code and contribution. Firefox, the popular web browser, claims over 40 per cent of its code is written by volunteers. Wikipedia is written and edited by more than 75,000 contributors whose motivation is the dissemination of knowledge to all, not compensation. My own organization, Creative Commons, was founded to make it easy for those who create copyrighted works to share them under simple terms for anyone to use. If that sounds crazy, consider that the commons today contains nearly one billion shared works on more than nine million websites – everything from photos and video, to textbooks and courses, research and data.

We love to share, and it’s that fundamental value that allowed today’s online world to come into being. Sharing without the expectation of immediate reward allowed new economies to flourish through code and content.

Industry is figuring it out as well. Last year, Elon Musk famously declared the Tesla patent library for his electric cars free for all to use. His generous act is also a smart business move: If successful, the Tesla designs will become the industry standard, and undoubtedly sell many more cars. But they will also create benefits for those who receive those designs at no charge for use in their own products. Both the giver and the receiver win.

Too much of today’s discourse is about the power of individualism, and the conflict between personal rights and the collective good. But it’s a false choice, too often framed as profits lost instead of goodwill gained. The true story of our success as a society is both in parallel: the drive of individuals, and the value that accrues from sharing with each other. These ideas don’t have to be competitive. In fact, they mustn’t be if we are to solve the great challenges of our time. To cure disease and combat climate change, we need open access to scientific research so ideas can be tested and built upon. To innovate in government, we need to share our data widely so our brightest minds can develop solutions. To improve equity and access in education, we need more collaboration and an efficient use of limited resources to ensure every child can learn.

These are radical ideas in our entrenched culture of individualism, but this is not the true story of us. Our success lies in collective acts in an environment that promotes and rewards sharing, for the betterment of each of us, and all of us.