Powered by Us

The week before last, I attended the Mesh Conference in SF, which brought together a big group of folks working at the intersection of the web and the “new economy”: i.e., the “sharing economy”, “peer economy”, “connection economy”, “collaborative consumption”, “the mesh”, etc.  As you might imagine, a large part of the discussion focused on the lexical problem that this “movement”  faces, with all of these overlapping and somewhat competing terms that attempt to describe it.  

I’ve written about this problem before — and it’s true that any discussion with folks working around this space has to struggle to avoid falling into the “what do we call this?” trap.  Which is annoying, but I do think necessary.  It’s clear that there’s an unfulfilled need to try and describe what we see happening here in a way that really connects.  While the words we’ve tried so far do make sense, I don’t think they yet create an appropriately wide tent, and I definitely don’t think they resonate with folks outside the tech community bubble.

As I was thinking about this on my way home from the Mesh, it struck me that maybe there is a common theme that runs through all of this.  At the heart of all of these platforms and communities is the fact that they are people-powered.  They exist to super-charge people — to turn them into superheroes.  They empower people and are powered by people.

They are powered by us.

At USV, we talk a lot about how “networks” are a fundamentally new kind of entity.  Whether you’re talking about marketplaces like Etsy, Zaarly, or GoodEggs, communities like Tumblr or Indaba, or funding platforms like Kickstarter or Kiva, they all share a common theme: that they are people-powered.  The platform is simply a lightweight architecture which allows people to connect and transact directly with one another on top of it.

Of course, you would be correct to note that all companies and industries are powered by people, whether you’re talking about school teachers, auto workers, or movie executives.  But there’s a difference between traditional companies and these new people-powered networks.  Buying a car from GM is about buying something from a company.  Buying a lamp on Etsy is about buying from a person.   Getting a record deal with a label involves people, but building a music career on a network like Indaba and getting your album funded on Kickstarter is powered by us.

In each of these cases, the companies and organizations (nonprofits like Wikipedia or the Freelancers Union) at the center of this aren’t traditional bureaucratic hierarchies — they are networks, and what they do is help people connect with one another directly in new, exciting, and groundbreaking ways.  The connection is the service, and what’s being connected is us.

Nicco Mele calls this “the end of big” — and argues (correctly, I think) that this is not just a passing fad (like “social networking”), but a fundamental shift in society.  And for all the opportunity it brings, it also presents new challenges as we work to hold on to the most fundamental societal values (safety, accountability, freedom, privacy).  He’s right, and part of the puzzle here is to create a policy environment that honors and protects those values while leaving ample room for us to explore “powered by us” approaches that have never been possible before now.

After two centuries of de-personalization through industrialization, we’re now flooded with new ways to both re-discover individuality and community, while simultaneously tackling huge social and economic problems (education, health, energy, transportation).  And just to make sure I include the word “awesome” in this post at least once, I’ll end by saying that this is all pretty awesome and exciting.