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WeWashing is a new term that refers to the abuse of words like â€œsharingâ€ and â€œcommunity.â€ Use #WeWashing to identify and critique this abuse.
Whitewash, Greenwash, WeWash
I am usually a satisfied user of services like AirBnb and Uber, even if I donâ€™t 100% agree with all of their corporate policies and practices. But I cringe every time I hear these companies, and others like it, described as part of the â€œSharing Economy.â€
New technologies can extend the meaning of words, such as â€œfriendâ€ in a post-Facebook world. But for the sake of clarity, new social phenomena also require us to coin new terms for them. Given the expanding use and abuse of terms like â€œcommunityâ€ and â€œsharing,â€ I would like to propose a new term: WeWashing.
Based on terms like whitewashing and greenwashing, WeWashing is when corporations, brands, and other groups use the language of â€œsharingâ€ and â€œcommunityâ€ to describe what are essentially capitalist commercial transactions.
Whitewash: when organizations cover up or gloss over their misdeeds, scandals, or negative facts about them.
Greenwash: when organizations use â€œgreenâ€ marketing or public relations techniques to communicate an environmentally-friendly image that contrast with the reality of their products, policies, or practices.
WeWash: when organizations refer to renting and selling services as â€œsharingâ€ and/or use terms like â€œcommunityâ€ in misleading ways.
We Are Greater Than Our Consumer Selves
In his recent speech at the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, President Obama points out:
[T]he single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word â€œWe.â€ â€œWe The People.â€ â€œWe Shall Overcome.â€ â€œYes We Can.â€ That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone.
Words like â€œwe,â€ â€œsharingâ€ and â€œcommunityâ€ may be common, but they are also meaningful. These words are reminders that we are part of something greater than ourselves. As community members and citizens, we share common bonds and common interests. We are more than consumers. We interact in ways that go beyond commercial transactions.
â€œWe the people.â€
Not â€œWe the Monarch.â€
Not â€œWe the corporation.â€
Not even â€œWe the consumers.â€
Our â€œweâ€ is the â€œweâ€ of true community, of collaboration, and the shared commons. It is not the â€œweâ€ of royal or corporate decree.
Our shared language is itself a form of cultural commons that is owned by no one and belongs to everyone. As such, so-called â€œsharing economyâ€ companies are free to use these words as they like, but we are also free to use them in ways that work for us. We can create our own forms of meaning. We can mold and adapt the language to coin terms like WeWashing.
Now that we have a word for this phenomenon that affects our reality, we can draw attention to it. We can engage in dialog about the pros and cons of â€œmicro entrepreneurshipâ€ and the so-called â€œsharing economy. We can differentiate the â€œrenting economyâ€ from true sharing.
The Rectification of Names
The Rectification of Names (æ£å) is a doctrine in Confucian philosophy that argues that, for the good of society, we need to call things by their correct and proper names. We need to call a spade a spade. If we can name and identify a problematic phenomenon, we can call it out more easily and take actions to deconstruct it.
For example, by calling discrimination â€œdiscrimination,â€ we are able to take actions to combat it. By coining the term, â€œenvironmentalism,â€ we were able to unite different causes such as air pollution, water contamination, and animal habitat preservation under the umbrella of a single movement.
By calling out incidents of WeWashing, we can preserve the meaning of altruistic sharing and the bonds of community beyond narrowly-defined economic transactions. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with buying, selling, and renting to and from one another, but we should rectify our language to separate these kinds of transactions and relationships with ones that are not tied to narrowly capitalist forms of exchange. There is nothing wrong with â€œfriendingâ€ or â€œfollowingâ€ as social media conventions, but we also need ways to differentiate these relationships from deeper forms of friendship or fandom.
At best, the â€œsharing economyâ€ label is a brand marketing strategy that attempts to take advantage of the â€œfeel goodâ€ halo associated with words like â€œcommunityâ€ and â€œsharing.â€ At worst, it is a way of obfuscating commercial transactions as â€œsharingâ€ as a way of evade the reach of regulation and oversight. This is why we need to rectify the names of explicitly commercial transactions that get labelled as â€œsharing.â€
The idea behind coining the term WeWashing is not meant to create an exclusive binary between â€œrealâ€ sharing and â€œfakeâ€ sharing, â€œrealâ€ community and â€œfakeâ€ community, but to draw attention to the fact that a spectrum exists. My life has been enriched by my experiences in the so-called â€œsharing economy,â€ beyond what I paid for the services. I have met Uber drivers from places ranging from Tibet to Mauritania, and they have shared with me about their countries and cultures, enriching my understanding of the world. An AirBnB hostess invited me into her family dinner, making me feel instantly at home in a new place. The fact that these were in the context of commercial transactions and relationships did not diminish their meaning.
However, we need to recognize that there are different kinds of sharing and different kinds of community, just as with the concept of â€œgreen,â€ where we recognize that there is a spectrum of â€œsustainability.â€ Some products are greener than others, just as some communities are more selflessly â€œsharingâ€ than others. We need to keep each other honest about where on the spectrum something falls.
Letâ€™s Hack the Language and Take Action
â€œWeWashingâ€ as a term enhances our vocabulary and enables us to identify, critique, and engage in dialogue about the misleading use and abuse of terms like â€œsharingâ€ and â€œcommunity.â€ Letâ€™s drop it into our conversations and use it as a hashtag online to call out this phenomenon.
Writing this post and coining the term â€œWeWashingâ€ is not just a language hack; it is also a cultural intervention and invitation to reflect. It is ultimately not about demonizing corporations who appropriate the language of community and sharing. As my colleague Garance Choko puts it:
The issue is not with corporations co-opting these terms, but more so for us to reclaim how we abide to our â€œidealâ€ notion of solidarity, sharing and community.
We must ask ourselves how we can expand the possibilities of the â€œwe.â€How should we treat each other? How can we collaborate and cooperate beyond the narrow confines of the marketplace?