There are a number of instantiations of peer-to-peer economic activity in which people leverage their latent skills or loan out latent capacity of tools they own. Each instantiation vary on a scale in terms of how much they tip in either direction of firm or market characteristics. For example, it can be argued that many of the sharing economy websites today like AirBnB or TaskRabbit are more akin to the market logic of prices signaling a relationship between supply and demand. While this is true, I argue that such platforms still fall under the umbrella of the peer-to-peer economy for two reasons: First, because they support disintermediated transactions; transactions where there is no middleman negotiating the terms of the transaction. In such transactions, individuals must come to such terms on their own, therefore, the relevance of social frameworks (shared social norms) is still a prominent and overarching component that mediates and determines the success of the transaction. Where we rely on such frameworks to be embedded and assumed in the relationship we have with resellers, this framework must be renegotiated in each peer-to-peer transaction, thus making such websites part of the peer-to-peer economic phenomenon. The second reason is the characteristic of utilizing latent capacity: Both platforms take assets like unused rooms in a home or the skills not being used during an individuals free time and create a platform that communicates such latent capacity to those who might want them.
San Francisco just announced a move to create a network of local sharing economy businesses that will act a resource for disaster response. The building of a network that leverages latent local resources in order to support resiliency is a great example of social infrastructure. A press release from the Mayor’s Office in San Francisco stated that the network was inspired by the work of the Airbnb community after Superstorm Sandy:
One immediate outcome of this new partnership is the launch of BayShare member Airbnb’s new tool to quickly deliver housing assistance to displaced residents following a disaster. Inspired by the Airbnb community’s work to donate housing to victims of Superstorm Sandy, the tool will help provide free emergency housing to families in need in cities in every part of the world.
In the face of mitigating damage from natural disasters, the conversation often tends towards the importance of appropriate physical infrastructures. In a New Yorker article published in January, Eric Klinenberg, Professor of Sociology at NYU, pushed the conversation beyond physical infrastructure to include a discussion of social infrastructure. Klinenberg describes social infrastructure as the “people, places, and institutions that foster cohesion and support.”
Pointing to data from the Chicago heat wave of 1995, Klinenberg notes that Latinos in Chicago, who had high levels of poverty, faired better than other ethnic groups because they “lived in densely packed neighborhoods where dying alone is nearly impossible.” Another data point were two neighborhoods in Chicago’s South Side, another area of high poverty, where one neighborhood experienced a higher death rate than the other. The conclusion by researchers was that the neighborhood which had fewer deaths had more public space, more sidewalks, and more community organizations that brought “people into contact with friends and neighbors.” In the neighborhood with more public space, neighbors were actively involved in checking up on each other to make sure people were getting the resources they needed during the heat wave.
The sharing economy describes an economic model where people sell, share, or barter their skills or owned assets directly to others. This economy is facilitated primarily by websites that act as hubs for the visibility and transactions of local assets. Yochai Benkler notes that such peer-to-peer transactions are mediated not by market prices or organizational hierarches, but by normative frameworks. How the normative frameworks are produced and perpetuated by transacting parties on the websites has yet to be studied by scholars. This paper proposes a practice perspective as a theoretical framework and Sense-Making as a method to explore how users interact with each other on the websites so as to produce and sustain the normative frameworks critical to the success of the sharing economy.
I recently completed a draft of my working paper on the socio-technical design characteristics of websites for the sharing economy. In the paper I analyze findings from a pilot study I conducted over the summer with users of both Ourgoods.org and Taskrabbit.com. Using Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice, I analyze the findings to understand the ways in which users engage both with each other and with features of the site to establish the norms that will frame their transaction.
This paper is inspired by the writings of Yochai Benkler and Cameron Tonkinwise who both acknowledge the critically important role social norms play as mediators of transaction in the sharing economy. For both Benkler and Tonkinwise, a range of norms must be shared between each transacting principle. The question then becomes one of how the transacting principles negotiate, identify, and understand what the shared normative framework will be.
If you would like a copy of the paper, please send me an email.
This video is of philosopher Roman Krznaric talking about how social change is contingent upon individuals being able to empathize with others. His premise ties in nicely with Beauregard’s belief that the political struggles of today are not about the recognition of power, but the recognition of peoples needs. Beauregard looks specifically at the role of proximity between actors and how this produces empathy and thus supports peoples ability to negotiate their interests and needs with those of others. In particular, he looks at the value of urban environments where people are constantly negotiating their interests given their close proximity to each other. So in short, taking what both Krznaric and Beauregard have to say, proximity between democratic actors is correlative to successful and viable democratic action (for more on this relationship take a look at my slidshow on the relationship between proximity and democracy). This of course should raise an interesting question for the role of place based information communication technology that supports interaction between neighbors. In what ways do such technology already promote this relationship between proximity and democracy? How might current design paradigms be altered so as to better support this relationship? The role of such technology in bringing people closer together is evident, how we might leverage it further to emphasize the importance of empathy or “outrospection” is a conversation worth pursuing.
*Special thanks to the blog, “Nudge, Push, Shove: Social Justice Dispatches” where I first came across this video.
Websites like Airbnb, taskrabbit, and Neighborgoods are typically featured in conversations about the peer-to-peer economy, collaborative consumption, or the sharing economy. The platforms are hailed for their role in boosting local economic activity by empowering people to leverage what they have (goods or skills) to sell, barter, or share with people doing business in their locale. Such platforms have also found their way into academic research, with most attention being paid to their design features that infuse trust into transaction between strangers. Despite all this attention in both popular and academic circles, there is one area of research where these platforms, or what I call peer-to-peer living sites, have not been discussed and in my opinion, deserve an introduction.