That question hung over the rows of identical fire-red bicycles lined up last week for the start of Capital Bikeshare in Washington, the nation’s largest bike-sharing program.
Similar programs also began this year in Denver and Minneapolis, with another to start in Miami this fall. At the same time, start-up companies with names like SnapGoods, Share Some Sugar and NeighborGoods are trying to make money by using social networks to let people borrow or lend their stuff, either free or for a fee.
These companies are looking to join a familiar list — including Netflix, Zipcar and Pandora, the online radio service — built on access to goods and services, rather than ownership.
But the question is whether most consumers would ever accept time share ownership of a bike or a blender. After a bike share program began in Denver, one gubernatorial candidate in Colorado attacked the program as un-American.
But some scholars say that the Internet — by fostering collaboration on a communal, open platform — has changed the way Americans think about sharing and ownership. Collaborative habits online are beginning to find expression in the real world.
“I thought that online was an exception,” said Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, whose coming book, “The Penguin and the Leviathan,” focuses on the explosion of cooperative endeavors, both online and off. “I now am more confident that the phenomenon is not limited to online but is a general phenomenon of human behavior.”
So far, he said, there have been no formal studies into whether the Internet has affected offline cooperation or attitudes about ownership…