As I sit down to write this week's Grouse column, I find myself having to work through one of those rather dull and annoying headaches, which, I'm almost certain, is from repeatedly slapping myself in the forehead over the course of the last few days. It's not that I'm a masochist -- I'm just upset with myself for not being the first to think of a Netflix-style site for books and book lovers.
Genius, right? Yeah, well someone's already thought of it, and it's called BookSwim.com. It works exactly as you'd expect: Hold onto a number of books (an amount commensurate to your plan rate) for as long as you want and return them when you're done without ever suffering the indignity a late fee. You can try before you buy, and even rent textbooks instead of pledging your first-born for them at the university bookstore.
OK, so BookSwim isn't exactly genius, right? But it is the latest online service to realize that the Netflix rental model is more than a fad or bandwagon -- it's the new economy. In just the last two years or so, technology (specifically Web 2.0 ease-of-use and broadband access), environmentalism and our collective financial ruin have combined forces and turned the marketplace for goods and services into one giant Rent-A-Center. Ownership is out. "Rentalism," or "Zipcar capitalism," is in.
Having moved apartments last week, I can appreciate a BookSwim now more than ever. After boxing and then un-boxing years' worth of dusty tomes, I found myself wondering why I was bothering to hold onto these things. Other than the few reference books I have on various topics, I've never reread anything. So why keep them around? After thinking about it for a while, I honestly think the answer is vanity. As shallow as it sounds, I think the books I keep around give visitors to my hovel a clue as to who I am. That's part of the reason I also keep those old LPs on my shelf, despite having several of them in MP3 format on iTunes. In many ways, my stuff helps define who I am. That may sound incredibly showy and materialistic at first, but it's really no different than the exhibitionism present on today's Facebook/MySpace/Last.fm/Hulu/etc. profiles -- mine just happens to be a hard copy.
I'm not totally out of touch with The Economy 2.0. Living in New York City, I use Zipcar rather than paying to park, insure, and fuel a car that I'd only ever occasionally use. I've also been on Netflix for a while now, having realized some time in the early part of this decade what a waste of money DVDs are. If I were more into playing video games, I'd definitely be signed up for GameFly. I don't feel the need to own any of these things. And yet there are certain trappings, mostly music, I'm less flexible on. I still like vinyl, and while I'm OK with "owning" MP3s I purchase via AmazonMP3.com, I'm just not able to wrap my brain around subscription-based services like Rhapsody and Napster. Again, I think that goes back to a belief that I'm somehow defined or characterized by the music I've committed to financially.
One service in which I do see some value is Avelle.com -- especially after helping my wife unpack her stuff into 90 percent of our new closet space. Think Netflix for handbags, jewelry, sunglasses, and other fashion accessories. Another great idea is BabyPlays.com, which is the Netflix model applied to baby toys. I'll admit that at first I was a tad repulsed by the thought of a hundred different infants drooling all over the same tickle-me-whatever, but it actually kind of makes sense when you consider how brief a shelf life most tot toys have in the average household. And, as I was unpacking all of my worldly possessions last week, it dawned on me just how many other things lend themselves to rental -- my tools, for example. Once I'm finished drilling, hammering, and tightening my new apartment to perfection, it'll probably be six months to a year before I need any of that stuff again. What a waste of space! Netflix for tools, anyone?
The upswing of this rental economy is twofold. One: In most cases, it's cheaper to rent than to own, and therefore kinder to the American wallet. Two: There's less impact on the environment, as fewer goods are produced and even fewer wind up in landfills (Check out "The Story of Stuff".) But I'm not without my reservations. For example, what happens to organizations such as Goodwill and Salvation Army as fewer and fewer clothes, baby toys, and other used goods go to the folks who truly need them? Then there's the fact that this rise in "rentalism" is happening at the same time as a parallel rise in what I'll call "disposalism." The reality is, today's mass-produced goods, particularly electronics like TVs, computers, printers, and iPods, are easier to throw away than they are to repair. I'd love to rent my next iPod instead of buying one, but a used iPod is like a ticking time bomb -- it's just waiting to conk out on you. For TVs and PCs, it's actually cheaper in a lot of cases to own than it is to rent.
My chief concern, however, is with where this transient lifestyle is steering us all. If we all become renters instead of owners, then what do we buy each other on birthdays and holidays -- coupons for a free month of Zipcar? As if Home Depot gift cards weren't already impersonal enough! On a slightly more existential tip, I'm not sure I'll ever be comfortable with the notion of not being able to call something my own. It's why I can't bear to subscribe to Rhapsody in the place of buying MP3s. It's why I'm typing this column on a copy of Microsoft Word instead of Google Docs. Ownership is simply a more tangible notion to me than rentalism is. I say this fully cognizant of the facts that, one, "you can't take it with you when you go," and two, this column is dangerously close to reading like the hysterical whimperings of a 90-year-old man.
I'd love to hear what you think of our new Web-fueled rental economy, so please share! What else should the Netflix model be applied to? What shouldn't it be applied to? Are there advantages and disadvantages I neglected to mention? Do tell.
Call me crazy, but I am a big fan of lending and borrowing (it's kind of like free renting....I know crazy!!) I realize that in this impersonal digital age it has become an out of data idea from the days before I was conceived. It sounds so "leave it to beaver" that you can drop by your neighbor's house and borrow a drill or saw. And in return lend them your pickup truck for a weekend of yard work tasks.
I guess you would actually need to know your neighbors though......again back to the impersonal digital age.
When it comes to things like DVDs however I am all for renting. The few DVDs I just HAD to own (Braveheart, Last of the Mohicans, The Princes Bride, etc) are still mostly collecting dust anyway.
I do have to say though that some things you just need to own. My neighbor owns a chain saw and said that I can borrow it any time, but I just had to have one of my own. Why you ask? That's simple, because any self respecting man needs to own a chain saw....dumb question..... Just think about it, what if I had some real urgent chain saw emergency late one night and my neighbor was asleep!!! Well I guess he is going to be awake 5 second after I rev that baby up anyway. But the sound your own personal chain saw makes at 3am is sweeter than all others.
Interesting write up on owning vs. subscription. It seems to be a consistently hot topic. You don't mind renting movies, you wish you could rent tools, and you're stoked that you can rent books. Right? Yet, you balk at renting music because you feel the need to own something. But, have you given a subscription music service a fair shot?
I think if you dove in to a library 7 million songs strong you may change your tune (yes, pun intended). You'd have the ability to listen to thousands of artists- many you know, many you may not have ever heard before. Your guests would be impressed by your vast music catalogue, just as they are your book library.
Here's an interesting fact. In a recent Piper Jaffray study, (dated April 7, 2009) 46% of teens said they'd consider paying $15 a month to rent music. That number has steadily increased since 2005. And if that demographic is getting on board with subscription music, it'll be interesting to see where it goes in the next few years.
In the mean time, we'd like to give you a free subscription to Rhapsody, so you can see for yourself the benefits of a music subscription service. You'll be receiving the subscription info via email soon.
Lacy Kemp (of RealNetworks/Rhapsody)
You know who needs to take on this model??
THE PUBLIC LIBRARY
Still the best place to rent books and movies and music and its all free. They just need to work on the no late fees thing and a nice online service and maybe some deliveries.
Personally I would never pay a cent for a digital copy of music, artists don't do anything in creating copies of their music for me to have in my library, I'd rather pay people for working. To me, becoming a popular musician provides enough opportunity for revenue, and making your music free and available everywhere can only increase your following. I mean come on... these people are famous, they should be making money throwing huge concerts and through corporate sponsorships if they really wanna sell out (if they're only in it for the money which it seems most of the pop musicians are who protest free downloading).
Still the public library should be providing these services free of charge except for maybe a delivery charge
"Netflix for tools, anyone?"
Here in Rochester NY, most Neighborhood Associations have tool librarys. Cheaper than Netflix, it's FREE (small refundable deposit), cus the associations want to help with the upkeep of their/our neighborhood.
They don't deliver, but they are in walking distance.
The last tool i borrowed was a 500lb roller to flatten the new patches i put on my driveway. I sure didn't want to buy one, and only use it once.
"Netflix for books"
Ben Franklyn started them over 200 years ago.
How quickly you forgot LIBRARYS.
They don't deliver, but they are in walking distance too.
(admit it, you NEED to get away from your desk and get some exercise.)
Actually, out here on the Left Coast of Canada we have a Netflix like program from the Vancouver Island Regional Library - its called Books By Mail (and includes DVDs too). You can join by email, they have a website to pick the books and they pay the postage to & from. You can have up to 10 books, 30 days. They won't ship any new books if even one is overdue, but no fines.
The only glitch is you have live here.
<i>Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgement.</i>
Yea and who would want to live in Canada? hahaha for the books!!? No that does sound like a sweet deal though.
Okay the baby toys thing sounds really unsanitary. I can't imagine what mother would allow their child to play with a used toy that could've come from anywhere. That will never catch on.
A lot of people, including myself, take pride in what they own. I'd much rather own than borrow any day.
Also, tools are never a waste of space to a real man. Why would you purchase power tools without the intention of using them regularly anyway?
No that does sound like a sweet deal though.
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