Jessica Porter, an Uber driver, holds a sign during a protest outside of Uber headquarters in August.

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Book ’em, Danno

I’ve long inveighed against what some call the “sharing economy.” When dollars are involved, you’re renting, not sharing. Airbnb brokers home rentals, and Uber and Lyft sell rides.

Yet in the debate over gig work and California’s AB5, which could turn many independent contractors into employees, I see the term “ridesharing” come up time and again to describe the work done by drivers you hail with an app.

Sidecar CEO Sunil Paul takes credit for inventing the term “ridesharing.”

When Uber started rolling out black cars, there was no talk of “sharing.” It was an affordable luxury mediated by the then-novel smartphone. As Sidecar co-founder Sunil Paul has written, his company was inspired by San Francisco’s Homobiles, a volunteer-run service which offered late-night rides to the LGBTQ community. He’s taken credit for inventing the term.

Homobiles, a home-grown San Francisco volunteer service that takes donation for rides, helped inspire commercial startups to label their app-based services “ridesharing.”

“Ridesharing,” as Paul defined it, initially used donations like Homobiles, and wasn’t designed to make a profit, thereby skirting regulations for paid transportation services. Lyft — then a company called Zimride, which was trying to organize carpools online — caught wind of it and started its own service. Uber quickly followed with UberX, a non-limo service that allowed drivers to use their own cars. For a time, the companies claimed that drivers were “sharing” their personal cars with passengers who just happened to be going the same way.

For Lyft, the “ridesharing” label, along with fluffy pink mustaches as hood ornaments, helped persuade riders that the company was a friendlier alternative to Uber.

The “sharing” was soon exposed as a fiction. Nothing was being shared; passengers were simply hailing cars acting much like taxis, though they were using smartphones rather than raising their hands on a street corner. State regulators rejected Sidecar and Lyft’s arguments that they were facilitating volunteer rides for donations, and the companies began charging regular fares.

In the early days, CEO Travis Kalanick emphasized Uber’s luxury. The “ridesharing” rhetoric came later, when competitors started using the term.

Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick once famously said that the way to fix his company’s business model was to “get rid of the dude in the car” and replace drivers with robots. Whatever we call self-driving, it’s surely not shared.

And yet the term has persisted. Google Trends shows that “ridesharing” is far more popular than the more technically accurate “ride-hailing.”

Language colors thought, and here’s why I think the term “ridesharing” is dangerous.

As legislators consider whether to make ride-hail drivers employees or keep them as contractors, I’d encourage them to be clear-eyed about what they’re regulating. “Ridesharing” suggests a voluntary activity, an exchange of extra space in a car for a little spare cash. It weighs strongly against viewing drivers as employees. The reality of ride-hailing is that Uber and Lyft dictate how much drivers make and shapes when they drive by dangling incentives, a reality that drives some to make marathon cross-state commutes.

A side note: You won’t see “ridesharing” casually used in The Chronicle. For years — before I got here, in fact, so you can’t brush this off as one of my linguistic tics — our stylebook has specifically banned the term “ridesharing,” suggesting “ride-hailing” or “ride-booking” instead.

Before you tweet examples of “ridesharing” from our website at me, I will tell you that our copy desk, though diligent and vigilant, has let some stragglers through, and you might also spot wire stories posted from less enlightened sources that (mis)use the term.

Part of the problem is just how thoroughly “sharing” has invaded our everyday language. Once prosecutors start calling a Lyft driver the “Rideshare Rapist,” the label sticks. Add to that the weird linguistic complexity of services like UberPool or Lyft Shared rides. I’ve seen people call those “shared ridesharing.” As opposed to the … non-shared shared rides?

You see the problem? So practice some economy of your own, and stop sharing a convenient fiction that unscrupulous ride-hailing startups used to bamboozle regulators seven years ago. The English language will thank you.

— Owen Thomas,

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Quote of the week

“Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly lied to the American people about privacy. I think he ought to be held personally accountable, which is everything from financial fines to — and let me underline this — the possibility of a prison term.” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., talking to Willamette Week about the Facebook CEO’s responsibility for privacy lapses

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What I’m reading

Pete Grieve writes about the twisted tale of an Airbnb host who allegedly concocted a criminal scheme online to drive out her guests. (San Francisco Chronicle)

Jefferson Graham reports that Facebook is considering doing away with its famous count of Likes on posts, which discourage some users from posting. (USA Today)

Some guy reviewed Mike Isaac’s “Super Pumped,” a brief history of Uber. (San Francisco Chronicle)

Tech Chronicle is a thrice-weekly newsletter from Owen Thomas, The Chronicle’s business editor, and the rest of the tech team. Follow along on Twitter: @techchronicle and Instagram: @techchronicle

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