I knew that eBay and Craigs List are big, and they both strike me as a fascinating execution of a simple idea: regular folks like you and me selling and buying goods and services via the Internet. They're like gigantic electronic bulletin boards where you post what you've got or check for what you want.
What I didn't know is that they belong in a much larger and still growing category of Internet sites in which people like you and me become the merchants, transacting directly with other people like you and me who are the customers. Then my 20-something colleague at work called my attention to the term "collaborative consumption."
Community marketplaces like Craigs List are referred to as peer-to-peer, which describes one essential characteristic common to all of them: transactions via these sites are between equals, rather than between a small consumer and a large organization. (Tech savvy readers might take issue with me here, so let me clarify that I'm aware that peer-to-peer networks also has a very specific technical connotation having to do with sharing of computer files in a way that doesn't happen outside peer-to-peer networks, and that the classic example of peer-to-peer networks is Napster.) But for the purpose of what I'm talking about, I'll use peer-to-peer marketplaces. Authors Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers have examined this trend in depth in their book What's Mine Is Yours -- The Rise in Collaborative Consumption.
The trend is manifest in a growing variety of such peer-to-peer Web sites. There's peer-to-peer lending sites, e.g. http://www.prosper.com/ and http://www.lendingclub.com/, in which you can lend money to any Joe Schmoe who's on the site, basing your choice on the information provided about that Joe; and you can also borrow from any Joe Schmoe, based on the various Joe Schmoes who are willing to lend you money at the interest rates they deem reasonable, given your credit history. Hmm, who needs Wachovia and all that intrusive paperwork?
There's also peer-to-peer car rentals, in which you can rent your neighbor's car when he's not using it. Presumably, you get cheaper rental rates than you'd get with Hertz or Avis, and your neighbor makes money on a car that would otherwise sit idle. One such car rentail site in Boston is called http://www.relayrides.com/. One in Australia is called http://www.rentmycar.com/, although this one seems to cover quite a bit of territory. Interestingly, I didn't find one for Miami, FL, but it may be a matter of time. Or maybe here in Miami we're too attached to our cars to share with a stranger, just for a few bucks.
Then there's http://www.zilok.com/, a peer-to-peer rental site for everything, from tools to wedding dresses. For rooms, apartments, studios, and all manner of places to stay while visiting another city or town, there's http://www.airbnb.com/. Closer to my heart is this website, http://www.smashwords.com/, where you can self-publish your novel and market it to your peers.
Peer-to-peer sites go beyond buying and selling to bartering and trading, as for example, http://www.thredup.com/, a site where people can exchange clothing that their kids have outgrown.
I think the peer-to-peer commerce trend speaks to individual and community empowerment and connection, with an accompanying dose of variety, flexibility and serendipity that makes it interesting, fun and maybe more personal and human, even if you're dealing with strangers. I mean, if you need $1,000, wouldn't it feel more George Bailey-ish to borrow it from 10 individuals each willing to risk $100 on you at 6 percent interest, than from Bank of America, whose CEO frankly couldn't care less about your endeavor or dilemma? Or to rent a car from your neighbor down the street than from Avis?
I think it's incredibly refreshing to have the option.