ICT, Community Building, and the Sharing Economy

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.

Internet based neighborhood information systems (IBNIS) like neighborhood forums/listservs and neighborhood social networking sites have long served as valuable platforms for the discussion of local issues and transactions of local resources. Such platforms are used to organize neighborhood watches or help neighbors barter, share, or sell local goods and services. Researchers have hailed Internet Based Neighborhood Information Systems (IBNIS) as tools that boost social capital between neighbors that, due to temporal or spatial barriers, are normally unable to connect with and support each other in times of need. By facilitating conversation and the visibility and transaction of local resources, such platforms empower neighborhoods to be more self reliant, which is an encouraging prospect for anyone involved in community development work.

Over the years, the design of such platforms have remained fairly stable, with the platforms acting as open repositories for any conversation topic or transacting of resources of nearly any kind. However, the appearance of peer to peer living sites over the past few years has brought about what I perceive to be a major shift in how we should think about the design of platforms that facilitate the visibility and transaction of local resources.

Unlike traditional IBNIS, P2PLS have a narrow scope of content and feature mechanisms that cultivate trust between users. Both narrow scope of content and features that cultivate trust are aspects that researchers of knowledge sharing communities within firms recognize as being crucial to successful knowledge sharing activity. For example, a platform with a narrow scope of content is easier for a new user to understand what the platform is used for, whereas a platform that facilitates sharing of any type of content may leave a user to wonder what they would use the platform for. Yiri Engstrom covers the importance of narrow content focus and the impact on the successful adoption of social media tools in his blog post about the social object. Here he talks how the straightforward nature of a platform like flickr or del.icio.us is valuable to a new user since they know immediately what they will use them for and thus are more likely to adopt it. This narrow focus of content is what Engstrom calls the social object, an idea he pulls from Karin Knorr Cetina’s work on epestemic frameworks, or social protocols for activity in knowledge production communities.

In the case of features that facilitate trust, it goes without saying that this aspect is critically important for strangers to transact with each other. In the case of knowledge sharing environments, mechanisms that cultivate trust help people who have never talked to each other before engage in a transaction with some sense of expectation regarding the quality of knowledge that the other party might have. In this case, trust is linked to the reputation that the other members of that knowledge sharing community possess.

Having considered the relative value the design of P2PLS have for facilitating the visibility and transaction of local resources, I believe it is safe to ask why researchers who focus on the role of ICT in community development do not pay attention to how this design model can be leveraged? With collaborative consumption businesses like AirBnB and others accounting for a $35 billion dollar sector of our economy, there is evidence that this design model is effective at facilitating transactions of local resources.

Certainly the argument can be made that such platforms are already playing a role in empowering local economies (AirBnB’s hiring of a policy analyst to examine their impact on local economies is evidence of this), but investigations about how this design model might be leveraged for other applications for community development, or how current platforms are being used to empower neighborhoods to be more self reliant, are conversations and research directions whose time have come.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: From social capital to social infrastructure as design objective | Building the Commons

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