There is a monumental difference between being running barefoot and running in minimalist shoes (Vibrams, Vivo, Terra Plana, Nike Free, Aqua Socks etc.). Let's explore 3 of the biggest differences between the two, although this information applies more generally:
(1) Feedback Loop. The difference between what you feel when your feet are directly touching the ground versus touching the ground through shoes is immense. The most sensitive areas of your body are your hands, lips, face, neck, tongue, fingertips and feet. Covering any of those areas would obviously reduce sensitivity, correct?
Here's a simple exercise to illustrate the difference: take an object and hold it in your hands. Feel the texture, the firmness, the warmth, the shape. Now put a glove on your hand. Try the same thing. You can still kind of tell what the object is. The texture information disappears, along with your assessment of the object's heat and your ability to apply correct pressure. This is what happens when you put a glove on your foot!
Of course the thinner the (foot) glove, the more feeling that can pass through, though it can never be the same as without that glove. That information isn't earth shattering, it's obvious once we apply reason.
When a person makes a transition from the typical running shoe to a more minimalist shoe, think of it as a person taking off their heavy duty mittens and putting on a pair of thin gloves. The sensation at first can be overwhelming as new information is being provided. Logically, removing the thin glove will provide even more feedback.
While we run (or other exercise) we are forcing our body to adapt. I would prefer to give my body as much information as I can in order to change in the most beneficial manner.
(2) Cost. Things cost money. You only have so much money. With me so far?
If you don't spend money (or as much money) on shoes, you'll have money to spend on other items, or to save for that special day you find out the chimney in your house is now leaking.
There are hundreds of thousands of people whose sole job is to convince you to buy things. They don't care what it is, their job is to sell what the company tells them to sell. Market it, spin it, convince you that you can't live without it.
The story of how the diamond has been marketed is a great example of people being sold something they don't need.
(3) Being barefoot bothers others. For some reason, folks hate seeing things that are different. It irks them to no end when you don't conform. Seeing you barefoot can make people very uncomfortable.
Why is he barefoot? Doesn't he know he's going to catch some awful disease, step on a hypodermic needle, and follow it off by crawling through a field of broken glass? There is a social stigma attached with being barefoot in places where others do not expect it, which can be pretty much anywhere.
When not running, or some other form of strenuous exercise, minimalist shoes serve mostly to protect those around you from feeling this anxiety.
There is a great statement on twitter regarding this very thing: "Minimalist shoes fulfill the need of those around you for you to not be barefoot." -@rmgraham
What are your thoughts on the differences between the two?