CSCW 2015 panel recap: Studying the “Sharing Economy”: Perspectives to Peer-to-Peer Exchange

This blogpost is a long-overdue recap of a panel organized at the CSCW 2015 conference.

A summary of “Studying the ‘Sharing Economy’: Perspectives to Peer-to-Peer Exchange” (pdf) is archived in the ACM Digital Library. In it, we describe the topic and aims of the panel in this way: “A number of technological platforms, that have come to be known as the “sharing economy” or “collaborative consumption,” are disrupting established industries with new decentralized peer-to-peer marketplaces. While peer-to-peer exchange and co-use practices are a relatively new research area, they are rapidly developing in both commercial and nonprofit variants. In this session, we bring together people from different disciplines to explore these issues, and to present future directions for research on sharing economies in the CSCW community. Our aim is to widen the “sharing economy” debate in CSCW. In order to better situate this stream of work within CSCW, we will connect “sharing economy” research to broader topical issues and concerns, such as networked coordination of peer-to-peer activities and the future of work and labor.”

The goal of this post is to document some of what we discussed during the session. The so-called sharing economy is a timely topic that has been attracting a lot of media attention, but increasingly, it is also a topic of study in our research community (see, for example, these studies on timebanking, on-demand mobile work, local online exchange, and rideshare programs).

We took, purposefully, a broad perspective to “sharing economy” and “collaborative consumption”, setting the scene by noting that parts of the phenomenon do not align with what we would traditionally think of as “sharing”. Yet, there is a lot here that fits well with the interests of CSCW: practices of co-use and coordination, dynamics between different stakeholders in marketplaces and platforms, and experiences of both monetary and non-monetary peer-to-peer exchanges, to name just a few.

In my introductory comments, I invited the panelists to help us (begin to) address the following:

  • How might we tackle the methodological and ethical challenges of conducting research in this domain?
  • How might we move from buzzwords to analytically helpful concepts, that is, get the language right and work toward helpful framings of the phenomenon?
  • How might we better build on and connect with CSCW research more broadly?
    • Why is “the sharing economy” a CSCW concern?
    • How does our research connect to other ongoing conversations (crowdwork, newcomer socialization, sustaining participation), and to longstanding lines of work (sociality and materiality of collaborative activity, getting work done together)?
  • What should we make of the drama and the tensions surrounding the phenomenon?
    • Challenges to legal regulations that are intended to protect safety, health, and labor rights?
    • Intertwining of social & economic motives?
    • Future of work and labor?
  • What future directions might we point for research in our community?
    • What are the most burning issues?
    • Where can we make the most meaningful contributions?

We then moved over to a round of short talks from the panelists.

Alexandra Samuel from Vision Critical offered remarks on the Sharing is the New Buying report that she authored with Jeremiah Owyang of Crowd Companies. From research with 90000 people, Alexandra made the case that a lot of what’s going on fits into mainstream lifestyles and motivations, that is, “you don’t have to be a vegan living in Brooklyn to do this”. It’s best to read the report for details, but four interesting points include:

  • Sharers are young but not low-income.
  • Sharers are mainstream. Both in their lifestyle, and in their reasons for sharing.
  • While people associate the sharing economy with values like sustainability and community, convenience, price, product, and recommendations are key motivators for participation.
  • Social media activity is driving the growth of the phenomenon: One of the ways sharers are NOT typical of the general population is that they are more likely to engage in just about every kind of online activity.

Next, Andrés Monroy-Hernández, a researcher at Microsoft Research and an affiliate faculty member at University of Washington, took the stage. He first pointed out that in discussing the sharing economy, it’s important to make clear whether the focus is on providers or entire platforms. Andrés presented some of his recent research on Uber drivers, Airbnb hosts and “TaskRabbits”, noting that the demographics of providers, their reliance on the income from working via the service, and their sense of empowerment in the work they do vary quite a lot from one type of platform to the next. Andrés also pointed to Juliet Schor’s piece Debating the Sharing Economy which provides a helpful categorisation of different types of activities in the sharing economy:

  1. Recirculation of goods
  2. Increased utilization of durable assets
  3. Service Exchange
  4. Sharing of productive assets/spaces

Andrés concluded with thoughts on the future of “sharing economy” platforms, laying out two scenarios: First, a centralized model where the user experience resembles something of a remote control for ordering different kinds of services, and where the agency of providers may be undermined, and second, as a contrast, a decentralized, worker-owned model with similar user experience. (We have since seen the latter approach promoted in events such as Platform Cooperativism – “the coming out party for the cooperative Internet”.)

Third, Victoria Bellotti, a Research Fellow at PARC, discussed altruistic motivations in peer-to-peer marketplaces. Victoria referred to a recent survey by Nielsen that suggests that while most people around the world are interested in sharing, this is less the case in North America and Europe. She wondered whether our privileged societies just haven’t felt the necessity, even though these are precisely the societies that need to cut waste of resources the most to reduce human demands on an over-exploited planet. Victoria’s research then, has aimed to understand how to motivate people to participate in peer-to-peer exchanges and to share what they have or to reuse what others can provide. She highlighted possibilities of communicating the joys of altruism (such as helper’s high) next to opportunities of saving or making money. Victoria concluded with a sneak preview of some of the findings from their CHI 2015 paper A Muddle of Models of Motivation for Using Peer-to-Peer Economy Systems. You should check out the paper for the full story!

Fourth, Coye Cheshire, Associate Professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information, addressed social exchange and paths of participation in the sharing economy. In this talk, Coye promoted social exchange as a helpful conceptual, theoretical and methodological framework for analyzing dyadic interactions and group outcomes in the sharing economy. The core idea here is that human relationships are formed through exchange interactions with valued resources (goods, services, information, love). Early social exchange theorists (including Blau, Homans, and Emerson) emphasized that social exchange is about more than just goods for money. It is about how we are constantly engaged in exchanges throughout our day, and these exchanges shape the development of outcomes such as trust, power, affect, solidarity, and community.Trust and Transitions in Modes of Social Exchange (in Social Psychology Quarterly. Vol. 73, No. 2, pp.176-195.) is a good article to start with if you want to know more. Coye also pointed to our paper on indebtedness in local online exchange as an example of how this theory has been applied to studying the sharing economy.

Moreover, Coye discussed ongoing research on paths of participation in the sharing economy. He argued that identifying the different structural forms of social exchange help us understand contributions and the development of participatory roles over time. He described how his interest in paths of participation and collective sharing began with Wikipedia, and how from that background, he is now interested in paths of participation in the sharing economy of goods and services. Coye explained that his current and ongoing goal is to connect dispositions, attitudes, motivations and designs that structure the possibilities for social interaction to behaviors that create valued outcomes in the sharing economy.

In sum, the panel provided a broad overview of where CSCW research on the sharing economy is at present and where it might be headed in the future. As a follow-up, Coye, Victoria, Mary L. Gray and I are running a workshop on CSCW and “the Sharing Economy” this spring. The event will focus on the future of platforms as sites for work, collaboration, and trust. There will also be another panel on the topic at CSCW 2016, this time titled with a provocative question: Does the Sharing Economy do Any Good?



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