CSCW 2016 panel recap: Does the Sharing Economy do Any Good?

This blogpost is a recap of a panel organized at the CSCW 2016 conference.

A summary of Does the Sharing Economy do Any Good? (pdf) is archived in the ACM Digital Library. In it, we describe the topic and aims of the panel in this way: Despite the benefits offered by sharing economy, researchers have identified several challenges preventing disadvantaged groups (e.g. low socioeconomic status, un(der)employed and/or users from emerging regions) from receiving the same level of benefits as those from advantaged populations. This panel brings researchers from the sharing economy and mobile crowdsourcing space whose research has identified unique challenges for underserved populations. We consider the opportunities offered by these platforms to disadvantaged communities and examine to what extent these platforms instead may recreate disadvantage, as well as the workarounds communities employ to make these platforms work for them. We examine the opportunities for the CSCW community to address these challenges going forward.

The goal of this post is to document some of what we discussed during the session. (I want to acknowledge Tawanna for coordinating and chairing the panel as well as thank all the panelists for sharing their slides with me to help make this blogpost happen.)

In her introductory comments, Tawanna Dillahunt (University of Michigan) described the aims of the panels around presenting different perspectives and research findings about the sharing economy as they relate to populations who may be underserved (e.g., low SES, un(der)employed and/or users from emerging regions). We were invited to focus on 1) the challenges uncovered in prior work (e.g., discrimination, perceived safety concerns, limited trust, technical and methodological challenges); 2) opportunities for CSCW to address these challenges and barriers to doing so; and 3) next steps for CSCW researchers and practitioners. In other words, the panel

  • What are the opportunities for the sharing economy to benefit populations who may have limited education, limited access to resources or be un(der)employed?
  • Why are individuals from low-SES areas less able to benefit from these applications, and what are the unique challenges they face?
  • What are some of the methodological challenges studying these applications among underserved populations?

Tawanna, then, shared recent research about active job seekers from disadvantaged communities. The goal of this project was to explore whether the sharing economy was feasible for unemployed and underemployed individuals from economically distressed areas. Instead of repeating Tawanna’s remarks in detail, I’m happy to point you to this paper: The Promise of the Sharing Economy among Disadvantaged Communities (published at CHI’15). In brief, the key findings from this research suggest that some participants felt that the sharing economy would fail in communities that had low collective efficacy among its members. Collective efficacy refers to the feeling that your community has some control over the environment, and these participants felt that they lived in unproductive neighborhoods. Another barrier was that participants distrusted aspects of the sharing economy related to monetary transactions and to sharing their personal data. For example, participants were hesitant to pay using cell phones, provide their location, provide a link from sharing economy applications to other accounts, such as Facebook, and display photos. Moreover, the reputation systems built into applications (such as Lyft and Airbnb) were misconceived by the participants. Finally, the participants stated that item exchanges required a safe place (like a police or fire station) for conducting the exchange. [You should also check out these publications from Tawanna and colleagues: Fostering Social Capital in Economically Distressed Communities (published at CHI’14) and Designing for Disadvantaged Job Seekers: Insights from Early Investigations (forthcoming at DIS’16).]

Next, it was my turn to take the stage and share insights from recent research. I started by voicing the question on many people’s minds – “what are we talking about when we talk about the ‘sharing economy'”? My goal here was not to settle the dispute but to nudge the community to work toward developing a set of terms that can cover in a nuanced and more precise way the diversity within what gets referred to as the “sharing economy”, ranging from paid on-demand labor to community-oriented models, such as time banks. I also suggested that asking “How common is it for those involved to take part on both sides of the market?” (or more personally “Would you be happy to act in both/all roles that are relevant for a given marketplace?”) could serve as something of a litmus test for assessing the flavour of different systems in the domain. From these general remarks, I shifted into a discussion of the lessons learned from our efforts of setting up local online peer-to-peer exchange in a single parents’ network. For details, you should check out the paper I co-authored with Kai Huotari and Coye Cheshire: Challenges to Participation in the Sharing Economy: The Case of Local Online Peer-to-Peer Exchange in a Single Parents’ Network (published in Interaction Design and Architecture(s), special issue on peer-to-peer exchange and the sharing economy). One key insight from this work was that (1) the perceived risks of participation are very contextual and (2) pressures related to a specific situation (such as a being a single parent in a particular geographical and societal setting) can impede participation even when social & material benefits of participation are considered desirable (or even necessary) and even when no direct monetary investment is required. For the participants in this study, the initial social commitment and time investment to build trusted relationships and embrace a new online peer sharing system were significant barriers to participation. So, in designing peer-to-peer exchange systems, it is important to think about for whom is it easy to take part, what type of exchanges are facilitated and what kinds of requirements for trust do they involve. Moreover, while there is a lot to be gained from peer support, sometimes it could be more effective to match participants with differing, complimentary needs/interests, with one another. Finally, it is worthwhile to seek clarity on whether the aim is to design for a particular group vs for the inclusion of a particular group in a broader exchange system.

Third, Jacki O’Neill (Microsoft Research India) took the stage to share findings of an ethnographic study of auto-rickshaw drivers in Bangalore who were using a peer-to-peer app (Ola Auto) for getting rides. The project was driven by Jacki’s interest in understanding how this app impacted the practices of auto driving and, specifically, whether the app improves the auto-drivers’ lot. I encourage you to read more about the research Jacki and her team have done from their CSCW’16 extended abstract Design Illustrations to Make Adoption of Ola Technology More Beneficial for Indian Auto-Rickshaw Drivers and the forthcoming CHI’16 paper Peer to peer in the workplace: A view from the roadIn brief, the promise of Ola is to reduce uncertainty by connecting drivers to customers and making it easier for drivers to get fares. In reality, Ola currently does little to reduce the uncertainty of an auto-drivers day and, rather, acts as a digital middleman, intervening in the marketplace by setting fares and incentives, and controlling the platform, network and algorithms. Furthermore, the app controls what information is hidden from and revealed to the drivers. Despite this state of affairs that is far from ideal, Jacki emphasized that peer-to-peer apps offer opportunities for creating new types of more direct working relationships between drivers and passengers. Yet, she pointed out that to avoid recreating existing hierarchies, we must be less technology-driven and acknowledge that we are redesigning work – if we want to create sustainable markets for work, we need to understand and balance the priorities and needs of all the actors involved. Jacki concluded on the hopeful note that more equitable re-design could produce more sustainable, long term marketplaces which can also make a profit.

Loren Terveen (University of Minnesota) joined the discussion with a focus on the US, taking as his starting point a recent paper he co-authored with Jacob Thebault-Spieker and Brent Hecht: Avoiding the South Side and the Suburbs: The Geography of Mobile Crowdsourcing Markets (published at CSCW’15). The paper takes on questions about where participants in mobile crowdsourcing markets will be willing to go to complete tasks and how geography affects how much participants in mobile crowdsourcing markets request in payment. Most people participating in mobile crowdsourcing markets do not live in lowest income areas or in suburbs, and crowdworkers are less willing to go over to areas further away from their homes. Participants were found to assess acceptable distance in light of the payoff and perceived safety. Moving to a more general discussion, Loren challenged us to think about what can we do in the face of the inequalities that research reveals and, second – who’s we? Finally, he brought up Lawrence Lessig’s Code, suggesting that the four ways to regulate behavior that are identified in the book (social norms, law, incentives, code) could be helpful in thinking about this domain, too, opening up space to think about what different people might want to take on, on the one hand as researchers and, on the other, as citizens (and how these two may align to a different degree and in different ways depending on the person and the setting).

Our last speaker was Cory Kendrick (Uber) addressed the topic of the panel based on her work at Uber. She approached the perspective from the point of view of passengers, arguing that Uber’s service can extend the research of public transit and help connect the first and last mile, providing mobility options for density-starved areas. Cory also pointed to this report from 2010 by the Brookings InstitutionJob Sprawl and the Suburbanization of Poverty.

Finally, there were plenty of good questions from the audience. We did not have the time to address all of them (not even close) so here’s a slightly edited, selected collection to prompt further reflections:

  • Should companies like Uber and Task Rabbit build more empathy and awareness of workers to their consumers in their app? Is that realistic?
  • What’s the point of asking what we can do outside of the system? Why are we talking as if existing systems have no room for change?
  • What happens when/if all the VC money propping the sharing economy up dries up and the people who make a living off of this can no longer do so because the subsidies dry up?
  • What are ways we can ensure that people take part on both sides of the market?
  • What CSCW applications can we start working on that help foster collective bargaining?
  • How can algorithms used by these platforms be made more transparent to drivers?
  • How do we stop the unintended consequence of the sharing economy on the rights of workers to collective action?
  • It seems that sharing economy systems are more buyer’s markets. What can be done to balance this out?
  • How does homophily and discrimination vary among the type of service/economy in question?
  • What are alternatives to the current reputation systems?
  • How might cooperatives work as a model for sharing economies? What about roles that the public sector, especially cities, could take?
  • Are there examples of local communities adapting applications of the sharing economy to address their own community’s needs?

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?