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A new economy of sharing emerges at unapologetically weird SXSW

By Gareth Jones

March 13, 2013 | 4 min read

Instagram for cyborgs, what can we learn from the Unabomber and why the Neanderthals were lousy entrepreneurs. You wouldn’t find content like this anywhere other than South By South West (SXSW), writes LBi's global brand and marketing director, Gareth Jones

Gareth Jones shares his views on SXSW

Anyone who’s been to the Austin event will tell you that SXSW is unapologetically weird. And this is even before you get sucked into the festival sideshow - highlights of which this year included girls reading books - naked, a parade of zombie brides… and of course that cat that looks like it just drank a cup of its own sick.

The upshot of all this carefully orchestrated lunacy is that it’s impossible to navigate SXSW without getting properly stuck in. This means talking to strangers with nose rings, asking directions from West Coast hipsters with ironic hair and, judging by some of the Austin entourage, dropping copious amounts of acid. Anyway, for me, it’s the peer-to-peer DNA of SXSW that makes it so interesting. It also perfectly embodies the growing ‘sharing economy’ that so many of the speakers at this year’s event touched upon.

The notion that people would increasingly rather do business directly with strangers over the internet than with traditional firms is set against a global backdrop of financial meltdown, rising unemployment and seemingly endless political wrangling. Now more than ever people feel failed by the institutions that govern their lives. This growing disillusionment has sparked a widespread distrust of corporate entities and an increasing desire for peer-to-peer interactions over and above traditional business-to-consumer interactions.

You only have to look at the ever-expanding list of companies tapping into the power of peer-to-peer connections to realise that the sharing economy is gaining momentum. Airbnb, which lets people rent out their spare rooms, and RelayRides, which allows other people to hire your car, are both going from strength-to-strength – and it’s easy to see why. The fact is that renting something from someone online is cheaper than renting from a traditional company like a travel agent or a car hire firm. Smartphones and geolocation services are simultaneously making it easier than ever for people to connect via the internet, while social networks and recommendation engines are helping establish trust in peer-to-peer connectivity. The result is that millions of total strangers are now doing business with each other online, a phenomenon the Economist has dubbed ‘collaborative consumption.’

In the long-term, the effect of collaborative consumption is potentially huge. Peer-to-peer services are already allowing large numbers of people to generate income without the need for a traditional job, fuelling entrepreneurialism and sticking the proverbial two fingers up at the nine to five business culture. Similarly, as peer-to-peer services grow – and they inevitably will – the dominance of traditional businesses in our lives stands only to be eroded.

Of course in the short-term it’s unlikely that the new sharing economy will have any significant disruptive impact on the traditional global economy, but companies of all shapes and sizes need to start thinking about whether or not they should be playing a role in helping their customers to connect with each other rather than just with them.

Ultimately it will be the businesses that concentrate on facilitating peer-to-peer connections – financial, emotional, intellectual or cultural – that will enjoy the most success. If this means joining the SXSW circus for a few days each year to be reminded how, then surely it’s a small price to pay?!


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