The sharing economy sector - where people with average holdings use their homes, cars, skills, and tools to make a living and pay their bills - passed a major milestone in 2014: it generated its first billionaires - the founders of room-sharing site Airbnb.
Microcapitalism grew so fast this year that it is worrying 20th century era hotels, taxi, transit, service, and retail businesses, and the government agencies dependent on them for tax and campaign revenues. By the end of 2015, Airbnb, with 550,000 listings in 192 countries, will soon surpass InterContinental and Hilton in the number of rooms they offer. Investors value it at over $10 billion - more than Wyndham or Hyatt.
To help stem the growth, lobbyists representing the traditional travel sector are streaming into government offices seeking to use the force of law and regulation to raise impediments to their new competitors. Their case: the sharing economy is a threat to "trust and safety." They violate local codes and regulations. They need more insurance. And they undermine tax revenues.
Often the lobbyists and communications strategists recruit activists from the right and left to support them, ostensibly because of the dangers to public safety and the "disruptive" influence of having new choices. As a result, companies like Airbnb, Lyft, and Uber are being demonized in the same ways as mainstream companies: accused of making billions by exploiting the shortage of housing and cars for personal gain, while undermining the good people who have reliably provided those services for generations.
Of course, there are legitimate issues: Is insurance adequate? Should sharing contribute more to local tax and infrastructure needs? And is it fair to undermine the investments people have made in securing those taxi medallions and hotel permits? But these are hardly insurmountable, if approached with an eye to fairness and rationality.
Most progressives and conservatives love the sharing economy, and champion its decentralization of power. Environmentalists laud the resource savings. But it is clear why taxi drivers, unionized hotel workers, and hotel trade groups will keep hitting the panic button.
The old cloth is likely to set the sharing sector back in some ways in 2015 and 2016, by recruiting lawmakers and regulators to their side, with strategic activist support. But even if they manage to illegalize these pioneer companies in some cases, the decentralizing power of digital technology will enable others to insinuate themselves into the consumer economy, sharing an increasingly diversified economy with the behemoths in the same way that a diverse array of species inhabit the space between giant mahogany trees in a healthy rainforest.
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more