The recently created Peers calls itself “a member-driven organization that supports the sharing economy movement.” Since its founding earlier this summer, it’s built a roster of 240,000 members, organized face-to-face meetups over 120 dinners in 92 cities in 36 countries, and conducted local political actions in New York, Grand Rapids, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Peers’ director, Natalie Foster, has a world-class progressive resume, having worked with both the Obama administration and the Sierra Club. She talks eloquently about such issues as “abundance, trust, collaboration, and community.”
But when you dig into the details surrounding Peers, the story becomes murkier, and you might want to hold that rousing round of “Kumbaya” for now.
Airbnb paid a for-profit consultancy to start the organization. The cofounder of Peers, actively involved in the day to day operations, is Douglas Atkin, currently also the community manager of Airbnb. Most of Peers’ 73 listed partners are for-profit sharing economy companies like Airbnb, Lyft, Sidecar, TaskRabbit and RelayRides–only three are nonprofits.
The organization’s major backer is the Omidyar Network, a “philanthropic investment firm” started by the founder of eBay that gives both grants to nonprofits and investments to for-profits. Omidyar Network has been criticized for co-opting and commercializing sharing innovations, like relaunching CouchSurfing, the original lodging-sharing community, as a for-profit company, and promoting for-profit rather than nonprofit models of microfinance lending.
Foster is positioning Peers as nothing less than the future of the progressive movement, uniting the values of collaboration, community, and entrepreneurship. “There was the DIY era, but maybe we’re in a DIT–a Do-It-Together moment, where we can do it together and create more than what we have,” she says. “That’s what we’re about: building a bottom-up economy.”
But, so far, Peers members are volunteering much of their time fighting local legal battles that benefit the organization’s corporate partners: lobbying state lawmakers in New York City to change the hotel laws for Airbnb, gathering petition signatures to get the Seattle city council to permit Lyft, Sidecar, and Uber to operate, turning people out to council meetings in Los Angeles to protect Airbnb’s operations there.
So is this grassroots or Astroturf?
To try to answer that question, let’s briefly flip to the year 2008. Founded as a way for San Francisco newcomers Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia to make their rent by hosting conference-goers, the peer-to-peer lodging platform grew quickly and steadily to half a million listings in 192 countries, and became a poster company for the “sharing economy.”
But Airbnb hosts and guests don’t pay hospitality taxes, and often skirted the gray areas of the law, and the authorities soon started to ask questions.
By the middle of last year, there were reports of hosts being slapped with restraining orders by angry landlords. In May 2013 a New York City judge fined an individual host $2,400 for an illegal rental. That was overturned, but in October the New York State attorney general demanded Airbnb hand over user data on all New York City hosts.
Airbnb, meanwhile, fought back in the courts, with PR, and by trying to make nice with incoming New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. But the company needed an additional weapon in the court of public opinion. For that they went to Purpose, a one of a kind for-profit consultancy that launches social movements in partnerships with both businesses and nonprofits. Purpose called Natalie Foster.
Charismatic and ambitious, Foster cofounded Rebuild the Dream, an economic justice nonprofit, with Van Jones. Before that, she headed Obama’s new media team in the fight to pass health care legislation, and she’d also worked as the first national director of online organizing for the Sierra Club, and as a deputy organizing director for MoveOn.org.
“There was a lot of interest in what an independent organization for people building the economy would look like,” Foster says of those initial discussions convened by Purpose.
The use of the word “independent” might raise a few eyebrows, given that an Airbnb exec is the cofounder of Peers, and given its for-profit supporters. In a follow-up email, Foster clarifies, “We no longer live in a binary space of business versus the grassroots. Businesses can be part of social change, just like nonprofits. This space between social benefit and economic benefit is where the sharing economy is growing fast.”
Foster says that the agenda of Peers is wide open and will be defined by its membership. If the actions taken so far benefit companies like Airbnb, they also benefit its hosts, who earn an average of $5,000 a year. That’s the nature of the sharing economy. “Erica and Brian in Grand Rapids don’t see themselves as defending corporate Airbnb,” she says. “It’s their room in their house and their income that they’re fighting for.”
Actually, Erica Curry Vanee and her husband Brian, who led the action to protect homesharing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, aren’t even Airbnb hosts; they host artists, for free, who come for the annual ArtPrize competition. Nor, despite being featured prominently in Peers’ PR, does Curry Vanee align herself or her organization with Airbnb.
“Their expertise, responsiveness, and timeliness was very helpful to advancing our local campaign,” she says. Peers provided advice on strategy, the use of their online petition tool, had their New York City-based PR firm send out the press release to local media, and even printed out the signatures on a posterboard for Curry Vanee and her husband to deliver to the city commission.
But when asked if she’d work with Peers again, Curry Vanee is not certain.
“I think so. It would depend on the issue for sure,” she says. “I see a bunch of companies on their website, but I don’t know what the relationship is. I see them as an important intermediary–a national organization that can provide local support for the sharing economy.”
And that idea runs both ways, Curry Vanee points out: “When you have a national organization you need to be able to point to local projects to show your efficacy and your value-add.”
The Bay Area-based Sustainable Economies Law Center, or SELC, is one of Peers’ few nonprofit partners, and they’re watching closely to see how the group’s agenda unfolds. They create policies and laws in support of small-scale cooperative economic activities, from backyard farms to co-op housing, but they don’t have much of a budget for public outreach.
“Peers is a very good strategic partner for the movement, and I think those of us partnering have a lot of ability to shape the movement,” says Janelle Orsi, SELC’s cofounder and executive director. At the same time, because of Peers’ corporate relationships, “Our organization and a lot of organizations are approaching Peers with a certain level of caution, and recognizing that we’re not going to be on the same page about everything.”
One immediate potential area of conflict, says Orsi, is Airbnb’s effect on the availability of affordable housing. “Cities are really concerned with gentrification and displacement. To the extent that people are renting out rooms to travelers, they’re removing affordable housing. We believe Airbnb-style rentals should be limited and maybe even banned where there’s not enough affordable housing, or that people should not be allowed to earn a profit over the rental market rate.”
Another potentially looming issue is profit-sharing. TaskRabbit, in particular, has been criticized for building a business on the backs of people earning low wages for running errands and doing odd jobs–essentially, a temp agency with no employment protections. Both Orsi and Sara Horowitz, the founder of Freelancers Union, have argued for a sharing economy built on more cooperative models, with members sharing ownership and profits.
Foster says Peers would be open to that idea. “What would it look like to think about the value creators sharing in the value of the platform? I think that is really interesting. That’s a conversation we want to help facilitate.”
The question, of course, is what will happen when the interests of Peers’ corporate backers and those of its members come into conflict. “To the extent that Airbnb could make decisions that benefit its shareholders rather than its users, where Peers would stand on that would probably be a touchy subject,” says Orsi of SELC. “It’s not clear when they’ll take a stand in situations where their interests are not aligned.”
Update: this story originally stated incorrectly that Uber is a Peers partner.