Is there a learning curve for participating in the sharing economy?

*The following post is based off a paper I presented at “The Future of Platforms as Sites of Work, Collaboration and Trust” workshop at the 2016 Conference for Computer Supported Cooperative Work

The sharing economy has been described as a phenomenon that reintroduces social interaction into economic exchanges, where people no longer place their trust solely in a network of complex legal frameworks or brand reputation, but also engage in interpersonal negotiations about the terms of the transaction [1].

This act of negotiating the terms of a transaction emphasizes an aspect of how trust is defined in the sharing economy in that it helps to anticipate, “imminent outcomes and behaviors in the presence of uncertainty” [2]. For example, Yochai Benkler describes a website for an ad-hoc carpooling community that outlines behavior ranging from how people wait in line to how they should interact with each other in the car. Trust in Benkler’s example of the carpooling community is based on a mutual expectation that all participants in the carpooling community are aware of the social framework articulated on the website.

While research has looked at such mechanisms as trust, reputation, and social norms that mediate online transactions [1], what we know less of is how newcomers to such platforms learn what the social frameworks of participation are. Because many transactions in the sharing economy are distinct from the majority of transactions we engage in, the question of understanding the learning curve of participating in the sharing economy becomes important. Furthermore, as I suggest later on, this question of newcomers and learning curves to participation is crucial not only to how we understand existing sharing economy platforms, but how we can envision the development of new iterations of the sharing economy.

Attention to the question of newcomers has recieved a lot of attention in the context of peer production. For example, if you want to contribute anything substantial to Wikipedia, it is a good idea to become acquainted with the culture and policies that supports the work of editing articles. If you are not aware of the culture and policies of Wikipedia, there is a good chance that you will unknowingly make and error and your work will be rejected and maybe you will even get a nasty comment along with the rejection. Attending to this question of learning curves on volunteer driven platforms like Wikipedia has been integral to their sustained success, addressing questions of how to support newcomers as they navigate and make sense of a foreign culture.

Like peer production projects, the success of many sharing economy platforms depends on a shared understanding of how transactions should take place. For example, Zipcar depends on members being aware of the Six Simple Rules that outline how cars should be treated so that they will be ready for the next driver, and OurGoods.org has a list of suggestions on how to perform a successful barter. While the characteristics of interaction are different in each example, both speak to cultivating trust among members so that, like members of a common pool resource collective [3], the resources that people are drawing on can be used sustainably for everyone’s benefit.

To frame the conversation about learning curves in the sharing economy, I propose three typologies of sharing economy platforms that speak to the style of transaction and the requirements of newcomers for learning how to participate

  1. Formalized onboarding: Uber represents what Cheshire [2] might describe as using an assurance model of trust, where the construct of trust mediating transactions is defined in part by an institution. For Uber, new drivers are screened and go through background checks. In addition to background checks, insurance policies are in place in the event that either service provider or receiver suffer harm during the transaction. At the event of the transaction, someone looking for the services of Uber makes the request through the mobile app and an algorithm assigns the task to the worker and determines the rate that will be charged to the service requester. Aside from agreeing to the terms of service, and selecting the destination of their ride, a ride requester does not engage in any aspect of selecting a driver or determining the terms of the transaction.In this example, newcomer onboarding is a formal process, under which a new driver must go through background checks established by a company before they can provide a service. A rider, on the other hand, is required to adhere to the terms of service to whch they agree when they create an account with Uber.
  2. Indirect user negotiation: With Zipcar, members interact indirectly, or through their mutual agreement to treat cars in a particular way so that everyone can benefit from their membership. The story of how Zipcar modified its new member onboarding strategy offers insight into the importance around onboarding as a key feature of successful sharing economy models. In an interview with Carl Tashian, a senior engineer on the founding team of Zipcar, he described how the onboarding process started with new members being invited to the home of Robin Chase, the founder of Zipcar, for dinner and an orientation meeting. When Zipcar became popular, the new member dinners were no longer feasible, so the Zipcar team drafted up an extensive legal document that new members had to sign. Mr. Tashian described how after this document was created, cars were returned without fuel and littered by the previous driver. Concerned by the drop in commitment to upholding the terms of agreement, Tashian converted the legal document into what are now known as Zipcar’s Six Simple Rules, a one-page document that is easy to read and is also available as a video. Tashian describes how following the shift to an easy to read document, adherence to the rules increased, with fewer dirty cars, late returns, and empty gas tanks. This example demonstrates the importance of clearly articulated and accessible norms of participation. To the point of this paper, the Zipcar example underscores how newcomer onboarding is key to the production of trust in the sharing economy. For Tashain, that new drivers were not adhering to the norms of caring for the cars was not a question of a sudden spike in untrustworthy drivers, rather it was a matter of a design issue with how new drivers would arrive at their understanding of how to participate in the context of Zipcar.
  3. Burden on user:In a series of structured interviews with users of OurGoods.org, a bartering website for artists in New York City, I asked about the steps they took to set up their bartering transactions. One of the most prominent themes that emerged from the interviews addressed the role of the website’s design and features in orienting the users towards engaging in specific actions that create successful bartering transactions. For example, respondents consistently pointed to the site’s FAQ on successful bartering as a resource that helped them prepare for their exchange. In this theme, I observed what role the website played in orienting new users towards a particular social framework that supports successful barters between users.For OurGoods.org, the burden of establishing trust is placed equally on both transacting parties. Here we see the sociality that Tonkinwise [1] describes, where peers engaged in a disintermediated transaction are required to establish the terms of the transaction. While I suggest moments where newcomer onboarding is present in the first two examples, it is in this last example where the question of newcomers takes particular importance given the disintermediated nature of the transaction.

While not all sharing economy platforms feature a dimension of sociality in transactions, those that do, like Ourgoods.org for example, benefit from attending to the question of newcomer onboarding. Because the majority of our daily business transactions are conducted based on an assurance model of trust [2], bartering platforms like Ourgoods.org have a learning curve. Shifting towards cooperative transactions requires
learning new approaches to exchanges that are unique to different platforms depending on the resource being shared. Attending to the unique needs of newcomer learning though the design of sharing economy platforms will help people understand the social frameworks efficiently and effectively and will in turn help with the growth and success of such platforms.

Furthermore, attending to the question of newcomer onboarding for platforms that rely on sociality has implications for research and design on platforms that support community building. Indeed, a connection can be made between the social capital building capacity of bartering platforms like Ourgoods.org and the the neighborhood listservs in Hampton and Wellman’s seminal work [4]. Like the listservs, Ourgoods.org fosters hyper-local relationships that can be leveraged in times of need. However, Ourgoods.org and other sharing economy platforms go a step further than neighborhood listservs in their design by fostering relationships around the exchange of specific goods that rely on shared social frameworks. It follows that the design and deployment of online platforms for local community building would be enhanced by drawing on newcomer onboarding strategies used for the cultivation of shared social frameworks on sharing economy platforms.

 

  • [1] Tonkinwise, C. 2011. Sharing Trust: Tasteful Designs of Social Systems
  • [2] Chesire, C. 2011. Online Trust, Trustworthiness, or Assurance. Daedalus. 140, ( 2011), 49–58.
  • [3] Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the Commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press.
  • [4] Hampton, K. and Wellman, B. 2003. Neighboring in Netville: How the Internet Supports Community and Social Capital in a Wired Suburb. City & Community. 2, 4 (Dec. 2003), 277–311.

 

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