*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 .
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” . 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 , 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.
Neighborhood listservs and neighborhood social networking websites have been described as helping to create social capital, or relationships between people in a neighborhood who use the platforms. Social capital creation has therefore been a key focus of what social networking platforms have to offer at a local level. But what if we were to shift the conversation and design objective away from creating social capital/building social networks towards creating/framing social interaction? What might we see in terms of benefits for supporting community building? To ask this questions I turn to the concept of social infrastructure.
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.
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.