Ad and marketing creatives

Thanks for Sharing?

Earlier this year the Associated Press Stylebook—the standard usage guide for U.S. newspapers—issued one of its frequent updates. "Do not use ride-sharing" to refer to services such as Uber and Lyft, the stylebook counseled; instead, use the modifier ride-booking or ride-hailing. It was the AP's quixotic bid—hard to enforce even within the news agency itself, as a March 13 AP article about "the Lyft ridesharing company " demonstrates—to stem the increasingly common use of sharing to refer to a wide range of activities that are not quite as selfless as the word share may suggest.

These activities—"ride booking," chore marketplaces, textbook lending, short-term lodging rentals—have become known collectively as the sharing economy. The sharing economy is a growing sector of the U.S. and global economy as a whole, and its name represents the latest twist in the evolution of share, a word that's practically inescapable in the social-media-dominated 21st century.

Share appears in company names (SlideShare, ShareThis, Shareable, City CarShare) and product names (Sharewhat, Leafshare, Authentishare, ScholarShare); in advertising campaigns ("Share a Coke," the 2014 program credited with reversing the soft-drink manufacturer's decade-long decline in sales) and website prompts ("Share on Facebook," "Share your thoughts"). It has even inspired at least one new word blend: sharewashing (softening the capitalistic edges of an enterprise by calling its activities "sharing").

A 2014 tweet from Zipcar, a car-"sharing" company that maintains its own fleet.

Share has cut quite a swath since it first appeared in Old English, where it was spelled scearu and meant a cutting or shearing. (The word is related to shear; a plowshare is the iron cutting blade of a plow.) In Middle English, share took on the meaning of "a portion allotted to or contributed by an individual." Toward the end of the 16th century, share became a verb meaning "to enjoy or suffer [something] with others"; the idiom share and share alike can be traced back to that period.

By 1600 a share could mean a portion of a company's capital, although shareholder didn't enter the lexicon until the 1780s. Profit sharing, a system in which employees receive a direct share of their employer's profits, first appeared in print in 1872; judging from the number of times it appeared in book titles, it was as popular a topic in the early 20th century as sharing economy is today. Sharecrop—to farm as a tenant and pay rent with a share of the crop—is an Americanism that appeared at the relatively late date of 1907.

A few decades later, sharing acquired a new meaning with spiritual overtones and deep cultural impact. Frank Buchman, an American Christian missionary, had undergone a conversion experience in a small church in rural England in 1908; in response, he founded a leaderless, nondenominational organization that was eventually called the Oxford Group. Group members followed four spiritual practices, the first of which was "the sharing of our sins and temptations with another Christian."

The Oxford Group and its late-1930s successor, Moral Re-armament, attracted thousands of followers throughout Europe and North America, including many alcoholics seeking to change their ways. One of them was Bill Wilson, who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935. AA imported many Oxford Group concepts, including "sharing." To this day, public sharing is a prominent feature of AA and other 12-step meetings; after a member talks about his or her experiences, others in the group will chorus "Thanks for sharing." (A 2012 movie—a comedy about sex addiction starring Mark Ruffalo—took its title from this well-assimilated phrase; the magazine of the AA community in Great Britain is called Share.)

It's that vaguely spiritual sense of share—coupled with the kindergarten lesson that "it's good to share (toys, crayons, food)"—that lends a virtuous glow to our contemporary usage. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, has said that he "wanted to create an environment where people could share whatever information they wanted, but also have control over whom they shared that information with." In fact, everything a Facebook user "shares" with friends is also shared with Facebook, the corporation—which can then "share" (or sell) that information to other interested parties.

That's not generally what's meant by sharing economy, however. Admittedly, it's a term that's hard to pin down, even by social scientists. Sociologist Juliet Schor, who studies consumer culture, wrote last year that "self-definition by the platforms and the press defines who is in and who is out." The peer-to-peer lodging service Airbnb, for example, which takes a cut of each transaction, "is practically synonymous with the sharing economy, but traditional bed and breakfasts are left out," Schor wrote. Some writers prefer the term peer-to-peer (P2P) or collaborative consumption, even when a broker or middleman takes charge of the enabling technology and makes a profit from the "collaboration."

Airbnb "story advertisements" commissioned for California Sunday magazine
this year. In the real world, red of tooth and claw, the sharing stories—
coyote and jackrabbit, trout and bear—would not have such jolly resolutions.

The boundaries are so blurry that Anthony Kalamar, who writes about technology and the environment, has accused companies of "sharewashing," a word he coined in imitation of "greenwashing" (branding products as "green," or ecologically pure, in order to capture customer loyalty):

At best, using "sharing" when you really mean "renting" degrades the meaning of the word and introduces confusion, potentially disenchanting those who would otherwise be attracted to the sharing economy. At worst, this is a cover for seeking out occasions when people are already sharing and turning these back into monetary exchanges, the very opposite of sharing.

If you think that sounds faintly Orwellian, you're not alone. In his 2013 novel The Circle, Dave Eggers conjures a near future in which a huge technology company, The Circle, has subsumed Facebook and Google. The protagonist, a naïve new hire named Mae Holland, is given a data-collection bracelet on which is inscribed a company maxim: "TO HEAL WE MUST KNOW. TO KNOW WE MUST SHARE." Later, in front of an audience of thousands of "Circlers," Mae makes a public affirmation:

If you care about your fellow human beings, you share what you know with them. You share what you see. ... You share what you have and what you see and what you know. To me, the logic there is undeniable.

The audience cheered, and while they did so, three new words, SHARING IS CARING, appeared on the screen, below the previous three.

Do you find that passage cheering? Or chilling? Whatever your thoughts, you are of course invited to share them right here. In fact, you can even share the whole column. Thanks.

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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.