The limits of collaborative consumption: Would people really share their belongings?

An unofficial Google news blog Google Operating System has reported that the search giant is playing around with a potential new service called “Google Mine” — a Google+ feature that would allow users to share their real-life possessions with their social network.

“Google Mine lets you share your belongings with your friends and keep up to date with what your friends are sharing,” the blogpost says. “It enables you to control which of your Google+ Circles you share an item with. It also lets you rate and review the items, upload photos of them and share updates on the Google+ Stream where your friends get to see and comment on them.”

Google hasn’t commented publicly on the report. It is constantly testing out new features and products, many of which never see the light of day. So if Google is, in fact, tinkering with Google Mine, it, too, could die in the laboratory.

But it’s a good jumping-off point to talk about whether people would use such a service. Collaborative consumption — where people share things like cars (ZipCar), homes (Airbnb) and even chores (TaskRabbit) — is a hot trend among entrepreneurs. There are startups trying to make it big sharing all kinds of things. Google Mine would catalogue a user’s belongings, whether it’s a dog-eared copy of Pride and Prejudice from college or a kayak you bought last year, so you could share them among trusted friends.

In many ways, a product like Google Mine would be the fastest way to get an answer to “Does anyone have a screwdriver I could borrow?” And it could create whole new efficiencies around stuff that mostly just takes up space– much of what we own, of course, we barely use. But at the same time, it’s very much a product rooted in San Francisco, the poster city for collaborative consumption. In a community where technology and business are so comfortable alongside the city’s hippie undercurrents, something like Google Mine would make some real sense.

But for the rest of the country?

Large-scale escalation of a collaborative program has a hitch in that it assumes that people want to document their belongings online explicitly for sharing. It hinges, also, on a maximum efficiency rate where there are enough people in the community participating to make sharing worthwhile. While it’s easier to replicate in metro areas like San Francisco or New York — unsurprisingly, since many collaborative consumption startups focus on high-density areas — it has less of a chance succeeding in suburban or rural areas.

That said, Google is probably the perfect company to road-test it, simply because it’s unafraid of trying to shoot the moon. If Google Mine is a real and planned addition to Google+, it could paint a helpful picture of how collaborative consumption could work on a worldwide scale.

But don’t be surprised if no one really wants to share their belongings — you never know when you’ll get them back!