THE BLOG

#WeWashing: When "Sharing" Is Renting and "Community" Is a Commodity

03/16/2015 07:00 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2015

WeWashing is a new term that refers to the abuse of words like "sharing" and "community." Use #WeWashing to identify and critique this abuse.

Whitewash, Greenwash, WeWash

I am usually a satisfied user of services like AirBnb and Uber, even if I don't 100% agree with all of their corporate policies and practices. But I cringe every time I hear these companies, and others like it, described as part of the "Sharing Economy."

New technologies can extend the meaning of words, such as "friend" in a post-Facebook world. But for the sake of clarity, new social phenomena also require us to coin new terms for them. Given the expanding use and abuse of terms like "community" and "sharing," I would like to propose a new term: WeWashing.

Based on terms like whitewashing and greenwashing, WeWashing is when corporations, brands and other groups use the language of "sharing" and "community" to describe what are essentially capitalist commercial transactions.

Whitewash: when organizations cover up or gloss over their misdeeds, scandals or negative facts about them.

Greenwash: when organizations use "green" marketing or public relations techniques to communicate an environmentally-friendly image that contrast with the reality of their products, policies or practices.

WeWash: when organizations refer to renting and selling services as "sharing" and/or use terms like "community" in misleading ways.

We Are Greater Than Our Consumer Selves

In his recent speech at the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, President Obama points out:

[T]he single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word "We." "We The People." "We Shall Overcome." "Yes We Can." That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone.

Words like "we," "sharing" and "community" may be common, but they are also meaningful. These words are reminders that we are part of something greater than ourselves. As community members and citizens, we share common bonds and common interests. We are more than consumers. We interact in ways that go beyond commercial transactions.

"We the people."

Not "We the Monarch."

Not "We the corporation."

Not even "We the consumers."

Our "we" is the "we" of true community, of collaboration, and the shared commons. It is not the "we" of royal or corporate decree.

Our shared language is itself a form of cultural commons that is owned by no one and belongs to everyone. As such, so-called "sharing economy" companies are free to use these words as they like, but we are also free to use them in ways that work for us. We can create our own forms of meaning. We can mold and adapt the language to coin terms like WeWashing.

Now that we have a word for this phenomenon that affects our reality, we can draw attention to it. We can engage in dialog about the pros and cons of "micro entrepreneurship" and the so-called "sharing economy. We can differentiate the "renting economy" from true sharing.

The Rectification of Names

The Rectification of Names (正名) is a doctrine in Confucian philosophy that argues that, for the good of society, we need to call things by their correct and proper names. We need to call a spade a spade. If we can name and identify a problematic phenomenon, we can call it out more easily and take actions to deconstruct it.

For example, by calling discrimination "discrimination," we are able to take actions to combat it. By coining the term, "environmentalism," we were able to unite different causes such as air pollution, water contamination and animal habitat preservation under the umbrella of a single movement.

By calling out incidents of WeWashing, we can preserve the meaning of altruistic sharing and the bonds of community beyond narrowly-defined economic transactions. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with buying, selling and renting to and from one another, but we should rectify our language to separate these kinds of transactions and relationships with ones that are not tied to narrowly capitalist forms of exchange. There is nothing wrong with "friending" or "following" as social media conventions, but we also need ways to differentiate these relationships from deeper forms of friendship or fandom.

At best, the "sharing economy" label is a brand marketing strategy that attempts to take advantage of the "feel good" halo associated with words like "community" and "sharing." At worst, it is a way of obfuscating commercial transactions as "sharing" as a way of evade the reach of regulation and oversight. This is why we need to rectify the names of explicitly commercial transactions that get labelled as "sharing."

The idea behind coining the term WeWashing is not meant to create an exclusive binary between "real" sharing and "fake" sharing, "real" community and "fake" community, but to draw attention to the fact that a spectrum exists. My life has been enriched by my experiences in the so-called "sharing economy," beyond what I paid for the services. I have met Uber drivers from places ranging from Tibet to Mauritania, and they have shared with me about their countries and cultures, enriching my understanding of the world. An AirBnB hostess invited me into her family dinner, making me feel instantly at home in a new place. The fact that these were in the context of commercial transactions and relationships did not diminish their meaning.

However, we need to recognize that there are different kinds of sharing and different kinds of community, just as with the concept of "green," where we recognize that there is a spectrum of "sustainability." Some products are greener than others, just as some communities are more selflessly "sharing" than others. We need to keep each other honest about where on the spectrum something falls.

Let's Hack the Language and Take Action

"WeWashing" as a term enhances our vocabulary and enables us to identify, critique and engage in dialogue about the misleading use and abuse of terms like "sharing" and "community." Let's drop it into our conversations and use it as a hashtag online to call out this phenomenon.

Writing this post and coining the term "WeWashing" is not just a language hack; it is also a cultural intervention and invitation to reflect. It is ultimately not about demonizing corporations who appropriate the language of community and sharing. As my colleague Garance Choko puts it:

The issue is not with corporations co-opting these terms, but more so for us to reclaim how we abide to our "ideal" notion of solidarity, sharing and community.

We must ask ourselves how we can expand the possibilities of the "we." How should we treat each other? How can we collaborate and cooperate beyond the narrow confines of the marketplace?