LAST night 40,000 people rented accommodation from a service that offers 250,000 rooms in 30,000 cities in 192 countries. They chose their rooms and paid for everything online. But their beds were provided by private individuals, rather than a hotel chain. Hosts and guests were matched up by Airbnb, a firm based in San Francisco. Since its launch in 2008 more than 4m people have used it—2.5m of them in 2012 alone. It is the most prominent example of a huge new “sharing economy”, in which people rent beds, cars, boats and other assets directly from each other, co-ordinated via the internet.
You might think this is no different from running a bed-and-breakfast, owning a timeshare or participating in a car pool. But technology has reduced transaction costs, making sharing assets cheaper and easier than ever—and therefore possible on a much larger scale. The big change is the availability of more data about people and things, which allows physical assets to be disaggregated and consumed as services. Before the internet, renting a surfboard, a power tool or a parking space from someone else was feasible, but was usually more trouble than it was worth. Now websites such as Airbnb, RelayRides and SnapGoods match up owners and renters; smartphones with GPS let people see where the nearest rentable car is parked; social networks provide a way to check up on people and build trust; and online payment systems handle the billing.
What’s mine is yours, for a fee
Just as peer-to-peer businesses like eBay allow anyone to become a retailer, sharing sites let individuals act as an ad hoc taxi service, car-hire firm or boutique hotel as and when it suits them. Just go online or download an app. The model works for items that are expensive to buy and are widely owned by people who do not make full use of them. Bedrooms and cars are the most obvious examples, but you can also rent camping spaces in Sweden, fields in Australia and washing machines in France. As proponents of the sharing economy like to put it, access trumps ownership.