"Sharing" may be one of the key elements of our digital world - sharing files, sharing links, sharing content. But has the emphasis on sharing online changed the way in which we share offline?

Results of a study by Shareable Magazine and Latitude Research (led by Kim Gaskins) contend that indeed it has. A survey of over 500 Web users finds that people who share online are more apt to share offline, in part the study argues, because they've learned to trust each other online.

And the impetus behind this sharing isn't simply a matter of saving money. The same number of respondents claimed they share in order to make the world a better place as said they share to save money (although two-thirds did say they were more likely to share if they could make money from doing so).

It's part of a move the authors of the research trace from an ownership economy to an access economy. In this new economy, a variety of new services have been developed in order to allow people use of an asset without having to actually buy or own it.

Share and Share Alike

Sharing was defined by participants as "borrowing or lending an item for free, seconded by co-owning something with others: essentially, exchanges that involved no monetary gain, as well as synchronous access or collaborative efforts toward a shared goal." Over half the respondents identified renting and buying and selling used items as a form of sharing.

Some of the other findings include:

  • Sharing online is a good predictor that someone is likely to share offline, too; 78% of participants felt that their online experiences make them more open to the idea of sharing with strangers.
  • 85% of all participants believe that Web and mobile technologies will play a critical role in building large-scale sharing communities for the future.
  • Age did not seem to make a difference in the propensity to share. And respondents age 40 and over were more likely to feel comfortable sharing with anyone at all who joins a sharing community, whereas younger respondents preferred to share among smaller social circles
  • Three out of four participants currently share personal or informational content through social networking platforms, while 70% share digital media, and 68% share physical media like books and DVDs.
  • Of those who share information and media online, two-thirds use other people's creations licensed under Creative Commons.

Opportunities for Social Startups

The report also looks at opportunities for entrepreneurs in building startups around social sharing. And those opportunities look good, considering that 75% of participants predicted that their offline sharing will increase over the next five years. The report notes in particular the opportunities in sharing transportation and physical spaces. Even though many of these services are not Internet-based, the report emphasizes the importance of the Web in building the peer-to-peer networks to facilitate sharing.

"The rise of sharing requires us to use a new language where 'access' trumps 'ownership'; social value becomes the new currency; 'exchanges' replace 'purchases'; and people are no longer consumers but instead users, borrowers, lenders and contributors. All of this means businesses must redefine their role from providers of stuff to become purveyors of services and experiences," says Neela Sakaria, SVP of Latitude.

Even though author Malcolm Gladwell recently contended that social media would not bring about revolution, the "New Sharing Economy" study does seem to indicate that our online interactions are having a substantial impact beyond just the realm of communication and culture.