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In the face of economic uncertainty, we're increasingly using new social media technology to rediscover the noble art of sharing
Every summer weekend my neighbour spends an hour on his $4,000 ride-on lawnmower. Often one of the other neighbours will also be out on a similar machine for a similar amount of time. Then they will both park their expensive little tractors back in their respective garages, leaving them to sit idle for the remaining 99 percent of the week.
This has always struck me as ludicrous. I used to mow lawns for a living, using exactly the same make and model of mower my neighbour has. I’d run the machine hard for eight hours a day, and with a little maintenance it lasted me years.
Why don’t they just share? A child could work out that it makes much more sense to go halves on a machine that might only be used two percent of the time, but has two households to share the purchase and maintenance costs. And the benefits only increase the more people sign up. You could even buy a bigger, better mower and all enjoy using top-of-the-line equipment. Instead these machines spend the majority of their lives acquiring dust and rust, probably degenerating faster because they are underused.
And it’s not just big-ticket items. According to various studies, most power drills are bought for a specific job, and might only be used for 10-20 minutes in their entire life.
While we teach children to share, as adults we’re accustomed to having our own set of everything. Too often our tools are wildly more sophisticated than we actually require or made so cheaply they don’t last.
Then there’s the environmental effect of manufacturing all this stuff and the challenge of disposing of it.
Most of us share a little with family and friends, but there’s an increasing drive to extend this habit to more things and more people, even to the strangers that live all around us. The motivation? As well as saving money and storage space, it’s been found that sharing is one of the best ways of turning those strangers into friends.
The game changer has been the explosive growth of online social networks, which provide the technology to connect us with others. But more importantly, the new networks have allowed us to become accustomed to sharing online: personal information, product recommendations, advice and more. Just as crucially, technology has also allowed us to place ‘feedback’ on each other, providing communities with the means to be self-monitoring.
The Out of Our Own Back Yards group allows its 4,000 plus members to share resources around growing food, whether that’s tools, training, experience, fun or the food itself. But beyond the garden there are sites such as UK-based StreetBank, which connects neighbourhood lenders, borrowers and givers anywhere through a clever Google Maps interface. Once signed up, you can find stuff you need, help out others by sharing what’s cluttering up your cupboards and make new friends along the way.
The key difference between these new sites and regular trading or swapping sites is that they don’t just involve goods and money. Their purpose is to connect people in ongoing trusting relationships, rather than just in one-off transactions. And in doing so, they can reinvigorate our community in new and powerful ways.
These connections enable us to work together – before the time comes when we might have to rely on others to get by. But before that, as we share more widely, the good times become even better.
Andy Kenworthy is a regular contributor to Good. The handiest thing he ever borrowed from a neighbour was an old-fashioned cup of sugar