Pen Sharing – The Invisible Global Sharing Economy That Works

By Stephan Manning.

Some time ago people celebrated Airbnb and Uber as new forms of sharing economies that might democratize and challenge existing principles of capitalism. But soon people got disappointed when they learned that Airbnb is reproducing inequality and is becoming just another hotel business, and that Uber drivers went on strike to fight against price cuts of the Uber Corporation, like in any other industry. In fact, disappointments about alternative economies within our capitalist system have a history. Oftentimes, these economies are very limited in scale, they do not sustain, they turn into profit-making businesses, or they turn out very difficult to organize. Famously, Paul Krugman once described the Capitol Hill Babysitting Co-Op as an example of a failed sharing economy: it went into recession because couples would rather bank time by babysitting than utilize the service to care for their children; thus there was insufficient demand for the available sitter supply. So are sharing economies just an ideal? Is there any sharing economy that has sustained over time? Well there is, but you might not be aware of it…

Did you ever ask yourself where your various pens come from?* Well, you probably did not buy them! Instead it is most likely that – out of three pens – one was left behind and you kept it, one was borrowed and never returned, and one was taken without notice – perhaps one of those emblazoned with the logo of a restaurant or hotel that they are only too happy for you to “steal.” But does it matter? Do you even remember? Probably not. Pen sharing is a curious example of a pragmatic sharing economy where no money is needed to exchange and share a particular good, where scarcity is not a problem since everybody has access to pens one way or another, and where trust and reciprocity do not play a role since nobody cares if pens get returned or lost, or where pens come from. To some extent, pens are public property. And not just that: the pen sharing economy is global. The more you travel and move around the more likely you will end up with pens from across the globe. But why is that? Why do we tolerate pen sharing, whereas we typically need money or coupons to buy, borrow or use almost every other good or service? Why are we ok with pens changing owners without notice, where stealing private property is illegal and usually frowned upon, and where not returning favors can end friendships?


Pens are cheap and impersonal. One reason why you might not miss your pen when somebody took it or kept it is because pens are commodities. They are impersonal utility goods. First of all, they are typically not expensive, such as smartphones or other gadgets. So ‘losing’ them is not a big deal financially. Second, unless a pen was given to you by your grandfather or loved one, you are probably not attached to it. Unlike your favorite stuffed animal, pens typically do not have any personal value. And pens are not like keys, which lead to your house, or notebooks, which contain personal information. Interestingly, pens are also unlike other commodity goods, such as lighters, that owners are unwilling to give away.

Pens are accessible, durable, and trustable. Another peculiar thing about pens is that it is easy to find them. They lie around, they hide in corners, drawers, and bags. In fact, it is easier to find pens than coins, even though a pen is more valuable than a quarter. But of course: other things lie around as well, which does not mean you would pick them up. Let’s say food or clothes. Unless you are very hungry, you would not pick up a left behind banana or apple from a table. Unlike food, pens don’t ‘go bad’. And pens are more trustable. Let’s imagine a sketchy looking person offered you – alternatively – a $50 bill, a fancy chocolate box, and a pen. Which one would you choose? Maybe not the $50 bill, because who knows if it is fake and you might get caught trying to deposit it or purchase stuff with it. And maybe not the fancy chocolate which might be poisoned. So, you might choose the much cheaper pen instead. But would you pay for the pen? Even one dollar? Even if Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street tries to sell the pen to you in the most persuading way? Maybe not (I wouldn’t).

Pens are not consumed or traded, but needed – occasionally. There is something else that makes pens more shareable than other commodities. Unlike food or cigarettes which are consumed, or money which gets spent and traded for other goods, pens are re-usable tools. Because of that there is no value in keeping dozens of pens. It does not really matter whether you have one, ten or a hundred pens, as long as you have one available when you need it. But unlike lighters or other items you do not need pens permanently. You can do without them for a while. And because of this it is not a big deal if you leave them behind or forget them, and people, in turn, understand if you ask them for a pen if you do not have one. And it is likely that most people have a pen available – even if they do not realize.

So what can we learn from the ‘pen sharing economy’? Does it only work with pens? Well maybe it works – in principle – with similar types of goods that are durable, reasonably cheap, impersonal, accessible and occasionally needed, such as books, umbrellas, scissors and card games. For example, think of book-sharing circles among friends. But maybe there is more to it. The pen sharing economy is very simple and almost invisible. It does not require sophisticated coordination and incentives like baby-sitting or other cooperatives. Nor do you need to know each other to participate in it since trust and reciprocity are not important. It is also pretty stable in scale and scope. It does not grow and does not generate incentives for big business to take over. It is also social and fun – almost a by-product of daily interaction with friends and strangers.

So let’s not get overly disappointed again when the next big ‘sharing economy’ trend turns out to be yet another illusion. Sharing happens every day – in a pragmatic almost invisible form. And if you pay attention you might discover other ‘pen sharing economies’. Any thoughts or comments welcome!

* I owe the curious example of pen sharing to an inspiring conversation I had with Kythe Heller.


28 thoughts on “Pen Sharing – The Invisible Global Sharing Economy That Works

  1. Sharing economy may improve the natural environment by reducing the demand for new goods, so footprints go down. Staying in existing homes reduces the demand for new hotels just as tool sharing reduces new tool purchases. However, sharing economy not just improve the world and make it a better place to live in, it also create a sense of “social capital.” Because it makes strangers who don’t know each other to connect and share. in this article professor Stephan mentioned how sharing a pen can be social and fun almost a by-product of daily interaction with friends and strangers. It make people save money by sharing and making new friends which can be one of the goals of sharing economy.

  2. The reading made me realize how sharing can happen without us knowing. which means that “sharing economy” can be easy and simple just like the example provided in this article about sharing a pen. What big corporations are doing is making us think that sharing economy can only happen via sharing a ride with someone “UberPool” or saying at someone’s house instead of going to a hotel “AirBnB.” Nowadays many organizations have been willing to position themselves under the “big tent” of the sharing economy because of the positive symbolic meaning of sharing. However, sharing can happen in the society regardless if it’s a ride or something else. yes Sharing happens every day – in a pragmatic almost invisible form.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this article primarily because of how seemingly rare it is for people to analyze the actual value of pens. Personally, if I recall correctly I have only bought about 3-4 packs of pens in my entire college career! It is especially interesting to think about why ordinary pens seem to have such a low value to the industry’s consumer base. It makes me wonder why companies would invest more money or effort towards creating a brand of specialized pens that cost more to make. I feel like pens consistently have little value, unless they contain a certain type of sentimental value to the person who owns it (as you mentioned above). Great article and a great read!

    -Michael Capobianco

  4. Even though we use pens on an everyday basis, we hardly think about the different pens we have or where we received them from. The pen trading idea is such an old and yet useful business marketing idea. When you lend someone a pen and they don’t give it back they now have a pen that possibly meant something to you but nothing to them. Next project is to invest in some customized pens to give out next time I’m in for an interview! 😉

  5. Very interesting and entertaining article. Pens are something we use everyday, yet give little thought to. I liked how you brought up lighters, something I think is very similar to the pens. The difference is nobody wants to give away their lighter, yet somehow one always goes missing anyway. I always found it hilarious that the two most commonly stolen things, lighters and pens, are both dominated by Bic.

    Although it’s on a much larger scale, one example of a sharing economy that came to mind was timeshares and the company RCI. While they aren’t cheap, to an extent they are impersonal. You may only spend a few weeks a year there, if you use all of your stays. An unused timeshare is a waste, so by swapping with someone everyone benefits. The timeshare gets used and you have the opportunity to use a timeshare on the network at a later date. It’s not quite pens and lighters, but it’s a thought!

  6. I like how you use the pens example. it is something simple in life but yeah i haven’t buy pens for a long time. I used to have 3 pens that came in a package and i got them as a gift. I called them “expensive pens” because they were gifted. Reading your article reminds me that my friend from high school still owned me that pen!:) I like how you connect this example to “sharing economy”. This is an interesting article!!

  7. Hi professor Stephan,
    Your article is so interesting and make me change to think different. I usually buy and use pens and pencils easily but never thought that those commodities could connect with global economy. Many of people commonly use pen or pencil, but it was just materials for writing. From your article, I must think again about the connection between pen and business. As I am a one of international business student, I realized that even single of commodities are broadly related with business. I read your article based on your lectures, I appreciate keenly you to inspire me.

  8. A few thoughs:

    I’m not sure pens can be considered shared in the first place. It would be pen sharing if there were any real scarcity of pens in the world,and pens were bring shared because the cost of producing them was prohibitive to creating more. When I think of sharing, I think of a scarce asset with its value leveraged by a third party that benefits from access to the asset. Things that provide an economy of scale are often things that make sense to share.

    Going back to the pen example, I can think of another thing that is often passed around in the same way: guitar picks. Guitarists always will be looking for and grabbing picks that they see laying around them, leaving theirs behind and taking from others and so on… My take on this however is that ideally, a person doesn’t want their picks or pens to be taken by other people. If the pen or pick is lost, it’s unfortunate. I actually do go out and buy pens and guitar picks that work well for me and I’d much rather that I hung on to the ones I started with rather than relying on accumulating lost ones or stealing them from other people.

  9. This is a great article. I loved how you gave a visual image for the term “sharing economies” with the example of sharing pens.
    I believe this is applicable for situations where there is not a high cost or big effort involved in sharing information. I would say the learning that comes as a result of sharing economies, happens without much conscious of the fact that knowledge is being shared. I believe, this example is most applicable sharing learning and sharing technology among different markets.

  10. Being a student it is always important to have a pen at all times. I am always hesitant to give out my pens because there is a very good chance I won’t get them back, or I forget to ask for it back! Like you stated they are trustable, needed, and impersonal. Overall, I enjoyed this blog. I thought it put shared economies into another perspective and gave me a new outlook on pens! I think that there will always be a demand for pens which is why it makes for a good example!

  11. This is an interesting topic that I have though about briefly from time to time. I have worked in a restaurant environment for a few years now. Something that I noticed when I first became a server was how much i suddenly valued a pen and became annoyed if they suddenly went missing or were not returned to me. I left work one day contemplating how in my everyday life, I would not give my lost pen more than a couple of seconds of thought or attention because of this pen-sharing phenomenon. I would like to think there are more goods that create a similar, unprejudiced cooperation all around the world.

  12. Hi Professor! I enjoyed reading this article of yours! Indeed i have never paused to think of where my pens came from. However, I had trouble connecting the pen idea to the topic of shared economy. Like, what would be an example of how this idea can be applied?

    • Good point! Well… think of book sharing circles. But pen sharing is a rather exotic every-day example of sharing (without thinking about it). Whereas other sharing economies, e.g. baby-sitting co-ops, require a lot of thought (and still often fail). But to be continued…

  13. In my view, Pen means education, learning and information. I think most people never consider taking a pen as stealing because that and pens are one of the oldest advertising vehicles in history and millions and millions of them are given out for free, all over the world, every year. People who are educated would not think about stealing. Instead, it seems make you look good if you like to take a pen or need a pen. It means you have knowledge and you need to write something and doing something valuable. I never feel bad for getting a pen form some places when I have the chance. Sharing a pen is different with sharing other things depend on how value people think of it. People don’t “steal” them because they are given out for you to take so that the next time you make a reservation at a hotel, you call the hotel that is on your pen things like that. They are trying to get repeat business by giving you a free pen. It’s all advertising and marketing. The other part of the equation is that most pens have no real value. Also, most pens that cost only a few pennies, nobody cares especially if it was free to begin with. When something doesn’t have any value, nobody cares about it.
    There are good and bad about sharing economy, but it seems necessary and will be going forward in this technology society because the benefit seems much more than the damage. Once something has a value placed on it, whether it is personal, financial, collectible, trad-able, personal hours invested, all bets are off!! The good thing of sharing economy is that communications are expanding; knowledge and intelligence are widely accessible, easily obtained and can be used by different individuals, communities or organizations. It also can use in a different way for different purposes depend on the value. I think the important thing is what are you sharing and why are you sharing.

    • I like your idea of sharing for learning… Book sharing same thing. The sharing economy can promote creativity, innovation and social interaction. And it sometimes start with a simple pen! 🙂

  14. Hi all, maybe I am from a different planet, but I do have my own self-bought (or made) pens and pencils which I treasure… So I am not sure that the ‘don’t own, don’t care, can share mentality’ is that ubiquitous (as others above have pointed out above). Another flaw in the argument seems to me to be that we forget that someone is buying the pens in the first place – in the stated case the hotels or companies who work to a model of a non-sharing economy that I presume the author of the original post seeks to dismantle. – So maybe I have read this all too quickly, but I could not see how this model would be valid (beyond a very narrow exchange of borrowed pens) or how it would translate into a really sustainable, fair and equal economy. In fact in my mind the don’t care mentality is what drives a ruthless economy, and we could do with a little more responsibility and far sight that does not just look to ‘borrow’ the next pencil for free, but that makes managers and CEOs see the issues they create socially, ecologically and economically… Perhaps anyone can explain?

    • These are great points Kristina! And there might be an interesting gender difference as well. I have heard from a number of women how much they love their pens. 🙂 And certainly I did not want to suggest that sharing economies only work if ‘we don’t care’. Maybe what I meant was: as long as we hold on to the idea of private property (i.e. I value/protect things because they are MINE), sharing will remain a difficult undertaking. But care as a concept is also tricky. One reason why sharing economies often only work locally or among people who share certain mindsets is because of the social complexity of sharing – compared to purely transactional, monetary exchanges. And yes it is a matter of fact that money transactions DO NOT NEED CARE – which is why they work on a global scale, among strangers across countries, much better than often sophisticated, culturally embedded principles of sharing. The example of pens is one where sharing happens naturally on a globe scale without much thinking or ‘caring’ about loss vs. gain, giving vs. taking and all that. But you are making some very good points. (And yes: somebody has to pay!) Also the pen sharing case is more a curious anecdote of a hidden phenomenon than a ‘role model’ for anything… I.e. it’s more of an anthropological exercise than a normative model! (It’s good to be reminded of that.) But hey feel free to share more of your thinking. I’d be interested.

  15. I guess we really are all “pen pals” with one another in this pen sharing economy. I would tend to agree with the argument that although we do think of pens as easily given up and shared with others, it stems from the fact that we probably got the pens for free in the first place. Just rooting around in my bag (indeed there were certainly more pens that coins) all but one of them was from an event or company I knew or had worked for. In fact, here at my campus job we had a large bowl of UMB 50th anniversary pens, and it just took a matter of days for the bowl to be empty. I don’t believe people think twice nowadays about getting a pen from a company or institution because they know that the company will just order more, or there will be another event of some sort they can poach some from! This pen sharing is probably also a much more recent phenomenon, now that the day-to-day demand for pens by most individuals is decreasing and more sporadic in nature, and digital communication becomes more pervasive. The data analyst in me thinks it would be interesting to set up an experiment to put location trackers in a bunch of pens, and then release them into the pen sharing economy, and see how far they go!

    • Good point about digital communication. There are some professions though, e.g. restaurant business, where pens are still needed permanently. And yes ‘tracking the journey of pens’ would exactly be the next step… It’s kind of like an artistic project where objects become agents of their own, and human users are just carriers.

  16. A simply pen may not cost as much as other items. So, people may not focus on whether his or her pen has been stolen. Even it is, i believe most people would not care,(well, at least they would not call the police) unlike the entire economic circumstances, sharing is a very cautious behavior, not only the borrower but also the lender would think about it for a bit before they borrowing or lending. It makes me think about the credit system, which all about trust. But where the trust comes from? Can we share the economy? I think there are lots of issues need to be concerned.

  17. Hi
    A very interesting blog and top about pen sharing. I believe the main focus in the top and sharing would be the invididual self. I am like my dad and hate to lose anything. That is just part of my character. I value pens and I try as much not too lose them and try to get to get them back always. I am a waiter at a restaurant so we always need the use of pens and value you them more then most people. It is part of our job and we always need to have one. The individual self i believe plays a major role on how pen sharing is implemented.

    • Good point. I think there are professional businesses where keeping (and using) pens on a permanent basis is crucial. Restaurants are a good example. (And of course some pens are special to some people. So yeah…. People are different.)

  18. Hi Stephan,
    Thanks for your inspiring thoughts, as usual. I would like to add one factor that I think is crucially important for understanding the pen sharing economy: at least in my experience, pens are around in surperflous supply because someone pays for them: organizations using them for marketing purposes. Everyone has an abundance of pens because they are such cheap carriers of marketing for companies, universities, … Maybe some of us also end up with many pens because they take them home from the workplace, so again someone – organizations – has paid for them. Does this not compromise the idea of a “sharing economy” of pens? Is the economy not closer to a “Free” model as described by Chris Anderson?

    • Elke, you have a talent of identifying the one weak spot that I tried to hide! 🙂 I also realized that capitalism creeps back in again through marketing. You are absolutely right. And I just looked at the Anderson book description. Good point! Businesses making money by giving away stuff for free. But then again: it’s not just big business. In my pens collection, 90% of my pens are not marketing-related at all. Yes, maybe office pens. Or from friends. I think it’s the invisible travelling of pens from owner to owner I find interesting. A form of ‘sharing’ that almost happens unconsciously, and, of course smart business can exploit that for stupid marketing (damn it!). But ok… A pen is a pen is a pen…

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