*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.
After nearly four years of trying to turn this idea into a reality, the pilot of CampusNeighbor finally came to a close on April 4th at 601 Tully: Center for Engaged Art and Practice (see press here and here). CampusNeighbor.org is a website designed to facilitate barters between students and residents in college communities. The goal is to bridge the traditional town and gown divide by encouraging bartering, a form of economic activity that can have a long term impact of creating social capital.
The website acts as a match maker between students and residents by matching skills with needs. The pilot ran from January 2014 to April, with the final event at 601 Tully acting as an opportunity for people who had been matched up on the site or were looking to be matched up to barter with each other.
In the four years that it took to get this project off the ground, CampusNeighbor went through a number of iterations, but it was the push back and input from a number of amazing people that helped take this project from an idea to a reality.
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.
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.
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.