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Airbnb and the New Shared Economy: I Hated the Age of the Hummer

I love the idea of being able to put wasted space to use for a shared benefit

I love the shared economy. It’s where I live. Literally.

I recently signed my house up to Airbnb, the online service where you can rent your house out to strangers for money. I’d used the service last year to find a place during the Cannes Film Festival, and before that to find my junior-year-abroad daughter an affordable weekend in Barcelona with her girlfriends, but I’d never actually stepped out on the ledge to rent my own house.

I live in my house, so it’s only really available on the rare occasions when I’m gone, but after a few years of watching Airbnb grow like a global weed, hearing founder Brian Chesky speak at conferences, and as my various bedrooms have emptied of children, I decided I’d try it.

Also read: Gawker’s Nick Denton: How Uber Can Help Save the World

I’m overjoyed.  There’s no other word for it. I love the idea of being able to put wasted space to use for a shared benefit of bringing joy to others, while putting cash in my pocket.

It’s like finding a spare $20 bill in your jeans after they come out of the wash: cash, plus clean jeans.

In fact I love the whole idea of the shared economy, the concept that the Internet enables a measure of economic efficiency that has never before been possible, putting to use idle goods and services in a drive for a higher quality of life for a greater number of people. In a world of diminishing resources, it offers a path to survival. In a tight economy, it offers a financial boost while promoting conservation.

This notion speaks to my heart: Let’s not make more stuff we don’t need. Let’s find ways to use the stuff we’ve already made. The Internet allows that to happen.  Without making another thing, we can find billions of dollars of GDP through the shared economy.

Also read: Jon Stewart: Let’s ‘Transformer’ Into a ‘Campaign-Based Economy’ (Video)

What a change from the era that preceded this. I hated the age of the Hummer. During the 1990s, I recoiled in disgust as commercials for glitzed-up armored personnel carriers barreled across TV screens, convincing Americans that a car that got seven miles to the gallon, built for the theater of war, was really, really cool.

Was I the only one who thought McMansions were obscene?

All of this faces a retreat with the rise of the shared economy. This shifting world view had its start with connecting people who previously sought their missing half in the Help Wanted ads: Craigslist, job listing services like Monster.com and romantic connectors like Match.com.

But now the sharing culture extends to sharing everything from bicycles to luxury goods to taxis.  I met a woman on a plane whose husband, she said, was “in real estate.” Turned out he was really renting a number of properties on Airbnb. Increasingly, this is how families are raising extra cash.

And it’s only the beginning:

  • Uber provides people  who have cars the ability to join the ranks of livery drivers, and people with smart phones to use them. Drivers sign up independently, are found via geo-targetting on their phones, and graded by their rides.
  • Bike-share programs in cities from New York (Citibike) to Boston (Hubway) to London have exploded in the past few years. As of April 2013, there were around 535 bike-sharing programs around the world. They included an estimated fleet of 517,000 bicycles, double the previous year.
  • There are numerous luxury resale shops online, including one that’s been advertising constantly in my face, TheRealReal.com. Not sure this one works. But then there’s RentTheRunway which is brilliant, because how many women want to buy a gown they can only wear once? You don’t have to: Just rent one, wear it once, and send it back.

Airbnb is incredibly easy to use. It takes about a nanosecond to sign up. You upload photos of your residence and list details with the easiest interface imagineable. The service suggests pricing for your property, and an interactive calendar, offers insurance, answers your basic questions with stunning clarity and takes a reasonable 6-12 percent service fee.

Within a few days of posting, I’ve been deluged with inquiries, including from a few yoga teachers who want my place in August, and a guy who wants his bachelor buddies to hang out with him before his wedding. There’s one guy who wants to shoot a YouTube video here next Sunday.

Meanwhile, Airbnb politely sent a note saying I was expected to answer everybody. Thus far it’s been fun. I also get to tell anyone I like that we’re not available.

Is there a downside to Airbnb? Will someone steal my stereo? Walk off with the china?

I doubt it, but I don’t know. I’ll let you know how it all shakes out.