The not-so-sharing economy

Sharing or not sharing?

By Attila Marton

With the rise of Airbnb and Uber into the elite club of Silicon Valley superstar firms, the sharing economy has become an accepted business concept and social practice. Apart from the fact that sharing economy platforms (SEPs), such as Airbnb and Uber, are very savvy in playing labelling games (most of them have little to nothing to do with actual sharing), they are also very savvy in purposefully blurring established institutional boundaries and categories – most prominently, categories of employment and labour. By facilitating the “casual participation” of private individuals as users of their services, SEPs can gain significant advantages over well-established incumbents as they disrupt mature markets and labour structures as well as challenge long-held wisdoms of how to organize the creation and distribution of value.

It’s a thing now

The sharing economy is here to stay. Although, it is not yet clear whether the sharing economy will turn out to be as big a thing as the hype surrounding it suggests. Just to give some indicative numbers; The Economist estimates that the consumer peer-to-peer rental market is worth $26 billion, McKinsey predicts that the sharing economy will rise to $335 billion in revenues by 2025. In Denmark, 10% of the population has participated in the sharing economy in some form, while the Danish government announced a sharing economy strategy. At least it is safe to say that the hype is real and so are the expectations for high returns on the investments made into sharing economy platforms.

Something new, something old

The sharing economy, in its contemporary digitally platformed version, is the result of the confluence of three developments:

  • The rise of access-over-ownership as consumers are increasingly okay with paying for services and servitised products rather than to buy stuff. Streaming services, such as Netflix and Spotify, are telling examples. When we say access-based consumption or on-demand economy, we typically refer to this development.
  • The rise of peer-to-peer networks, which allow for direct inter- and transactions between peers coordinated by trust and reputation mechanisms. Think eBay and YouTube – typical examples of what we sometimes call the peer-to-peer economy or collaborative economy.
  • Allocating idle resources in order to tap into privately owned resources (assets and labour) and to promote more economical and sustainable use of resources as a result. Examples are IKEA’s second-hand campaign or renting out idle storage space via Terms such as collaborative consumption and circular economy typically refer to this notion.

None of these developments is, of course, new nor exclusive to the sharing economy. Clans have been sharing food and tools since the dawn of humanity. Donating blood peer-to-peer has been around for at least half a century and the allocation of idle resources in brick-and-mortar second-hand shops even longer. The same applies to digital varieties of these practices; sharing files or selling/buying peer-to-peer online have been around since the 1990s (eBay was founded in 1995, Napster in 1999, Wikipedia in 2001). What is new is how these developments come together under specific technological, economic and cultural circumstances.

Mature technologies of automation enable private individuals to casually participate in economic activities as they self-service on dedicated platforms, which run automated matchmaking algorithms. Network effects attract larger groups of participants, increasing the economic value of those platforms (and of the corporations owning them). Thus, the coordination of casual participants has become a highly profitable business model. Culturally, these developments have become socially acceptable and appropriate as the new narrative of the Web 2.0 propagates “sharing is caring” and a general fascination with technological wizardry.

Four generic types of sharing economy platforms

An important outcome of above developments is that established institutional categories are becoming blurred, and static boundaries are becoming fluid. SEPs purposefully utilize these fluid boundaries to their advantage – be it between firms and markets (are Uber drivers employees or self-employed?), between internal and external resources (Airbnb hosts bring their own assets and have all the risks), and between private and business spheres (participants monetize and commodify their private life into assets), to name but only the most important examples. In our research (with Ioanna Constantiou, Dept. of Digitalization, CBS, and Virpi Tuunainen, Dept. of Information and Service Economy, Aalto University), we found that successful SEPs are very good at exploiting these boundary fluidity for their purposes. We identified four generic types we call the Franchiser, Chaperone, Principal, and Gardener.

  • The Franchiser aims for tight control over the platform participants and high rivalry among the service providers. The prototypical example is Uber, exploiting boundary fluidity by treating its drivers like employees while making them compete for fares dictated by Uber’s algorithm.
  • The Chaperone aims for loose control over the participants and high rivalry among the service providers. This is, of course, the Airbnb model; Airbnb exploits boundary fluidity by treating its participants like community members expected to follow norms and values while making the hosts compete like micro-entrepreneurs, who set their own prices based on Airbnb’s recommendation.
  • The Principal aims for tight control over the participants and low rivalry among the service providers. For instance, Handy (a per-task labour platform) treats its service providers like employees by making them sign contracts while the service providers participate in tenders based on standardized prices dictated by Handy.
  • Finally, the Gardener aims for loose control over the participants and low rivalry among the service providers. For instance, Couchsurfing (facilitating short-term, free-of-charge accommodation) leaves it to the participants to coordinate their accommodation while eliminating rivalry among the hosts by not allowing them to charge money.

Not so obvious implications

What each of these four types have in common is that they all rely on the casual participation of their user base; that is, their users typically operate on smaller scale, use their personal resources, and are less experienced than traditional service providers and professionals (not only in terms of delivering services but also protecting oneself against exploitative business practices).[1] Combined with digitalisation, such casualness provides unprecedented sources for creating value and disguises large portions of the labour of the participants.

It is the degree to which this hidden labour has become the core of the business models of Uber, Airbnb, Handy, and Couchsurfing, that is really new.

To name just two examples. By means of the app and data-driven algorithms, Uber obviously replaces taxi dispatchers. Not so obvious, however, is the hidden labour provided by the Uber riders who, by scoring their rides, control the service quality. This used to be the purview of employed and paid middle managers. Likewise, Airbnb does not only profit from on-boarding private individuals as hosts (instead of hiring professional concierges) but also from the marketing those hosts provide not just for themselves but for Airbnb, the corporation – hidden labour, which would have traditionally required to pay marketing specialists.

It is a not-so-sharing economy we are dealing with. In fact, the sharing economy is the quintessential expression of a new logic of capital accumulation in the digital economy, where large portions of labour are disguised as casual (or even pleasurable) participation in the name of self-servicing and sharing. These forms of hidden labour are not unintended consequences; they are essential parts of the platform business model, as they sustain the digital systems and algorithmic operations of those platforms in order to make “sharing” not only economically viable but, above all, profitable. As a result, the historically and culturally important institution of sharing (in the true sense of the word) is thinned out and replaced by the logic of the platform economy, the micro-entrepreneurial ethos of monetizing every aspect of one’s “everydayness”, and the precarity of depending on demand.

Attila Marton is Associate Professor at the Department of Digitalization at Copenhagen Business School. He  focuses the interplay between information management and digital memory studies and the question how we will remember and forget the past in the future.His research can also be found on Academia and ResearchGate.

Academic Reference

[1] See Katz, V. 2015. “Regulating the sharing economy,” Berkeley Technology Law Journal (30:385).

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash


Consider also our post from last week, dealing with the topic of sharing.

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