One distinctive feature of the sharing economy is its communitarian marketing. Startups claim they support community, create genuine friendships, overcome social alienation, foster intimacy among strangers and so on. Some critics view these as lies or illusions, but although I see many harms associated with the sharing economy, I don’t share their worry that it fails to deliver on these communitarian promises. As I wrote in my essay on Douglas Atkin’s book on cult branding, I’m more concerned that brand communities do provide powerful, authentic communal experiences which can be used to mobilize the community to achieve the company’s political objectives. I wonder if denying the communitarian features of the sharing economy does more harm than good, and in this essay I’ll try to make that argument.
What’s at stake in denying that the sharing economy fosters a communal spirit among consumers? Rob Horning is one critic who makes that case—see The “Sharing” Economy, “Sharing” Economy and Self-Exploitation and most recently Authentic sharing. Horning often writes about the atomizing and individualizing impact of social media on our psychology and communities and he applies a similar analysis to the sharing economy:
Though the sharing economy appropriates a language of progressive change and collectivity (e.g., “collaborative consumption”) to proselytize for their apps and business models, their effect is to more thoroughly atomize individuals…
In Authentic sharing, he cites a study that found that Zipcar customers have ordinary utilitarian motivations for using the service and don’t develop the sense of reciprocal obligation that we associate with sharing. The authors agree: “when ‘sharing’ is market-mediated… it is no longer sharing at all.”
The problem is that this study doesn’t really address the claims made by sharing economy advocates. As I understand Rachel Botsman’s argument, the shift from access to ownership means that consumers must interact with another person to be able to use a product. If I own a car, I can use it whenever I want without having to ask anyone, but if I rely on ride-hailing app, I have to interact with a driver. Furthermore, the sharing economy worker is an “ordinary person,” a real human being. This claim is a little obscure: surely an Airbnb host is just as human as a hotel clerk? The meaning is that sharing economy workers are free from standardized corporate scripts that micromanage employees’ customer service interactions to conform to the company brand—e.g. Disneyland employees who are taught to point with an open palm or two fingers, never one. Taken together, these two features of sharing services are believed to be helpful in sustaining more authentic human interactions and ultimately community1.
Obviously, rating systems are also forms of control, enforcing a different kind of affective discipline on workers, but this is bottom-up control from customers, not top-down prescriptions from management. The abstract numerical rating stipulates that workers should behave in some manner that would garner a 5-star rating from each customer, but the specifics are left up to the worker. Botsman’s argument assumes that mangement wants artificial, brand-conformant behavior but customers want community and authentic human interactions, so customer-driven rating systems of independent workers are productive of the latter.
Unlike Lyft and Airbnb, there are no human interactions or rating systems when accessing a Zipcar. Customers scan a card reader on the windshield and unlock the car via a mobile phone app. The cars themselves are owned by Zipcar, not other customers. So the finding that Zipcar customers don’t develop a sense of community doesn’t disprove Botsman’s argument—the service doesn’t fulfill her requirements.
For Horning, sharing implies a pure gift, so it is self-evident that market-mediated “sharing” is not sharing at all. There are abundant examples of the term being used to describe market-mediated activity (vacation timeshares, shared web hosting, shared housing, owning a share in a business, etc.), but even if we concede that this is a misuse of the term, at best it’s a terminological quibble and there are many synonyms to take its place—Botsman herself prefers “collaborative economy.”
But there is a more substantive criticism that Horning wants to make. As I understand it, it is something along these lines: the communitarian ethos co-opted by sharing economy companies really does challenge the norms of the market, but because the interactions they encourage are still mediated by market exchange, the promises of community will never come to fruition. There is no risk of a repeat of the corporate appropriation of radical, countercutural ideals because the norms of the market and of the community are radically disjoint. The market implies anonymity, individualism, atomism, competition, exploitation, distrust, self-promotion and self-interest, while the community signifies altruism, reciprocity, solidarity, caring and “true” sharing. Botsman’s prediction will fail because it doesn’t take into account that these two are like oil and water.
Horning’s view of the relation between market norms and social norms could be fairly described as following the neoclassical economic model, assuming that social relations are an impediment to perfect competition. To act rationally on the market, transactions are ideally anonymous and atomized, there are no enduring social links established among market participants. The idea is famously embodied in Adam Smith’s observation that “people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”
Of course, Horning opposes the extension of market norms into social life, but he relies on the neoclassical understanding of their relationship to motivate opposition to capitalism. This becomes problematic in view of the last 30 years of research in the field of economic sociology. A key text is Granovetter’s landmark Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness where he argues that the economic and the social are embedded with each other. Contrary to the neoclassical view of the market actor whose behavior is free of the influence of social relations, Granovetter finds that “the anonymous market of neoclassical models is virtually nonexistent in economic life and that transactions of all kinds are rife with the social connections”.
If we accept the findings of economic sociology (and I think we should), there are several implications. First, it means that Horning takes aim at the economist’s version of the spherical cow: an abstraction that only exists in theoretical models of economists, and therefore a caricature of actual economic life. Second, even if the sharing economy genuinely produces social benefits despite its commercial character in no way suggests that it represents a transformation of capitalism.
Finally, the perception that the sharing economy is transforming capitalism is largely due to (what I have argued is) a theoretic misapprehension of the nature of capitalism, i.e. that it follows the neoclassical model. Insofar as we buy into this neoclassical disjunction between market norms and social norms that Horning argues for, the sharing economy gains a faux-radical potential. Thus, Horning’s critique is easily appropriated and generates the veneer of anti-capitalism coveted by their marketing departments.
- Community is viewed as a good in itself, but also tied to the supposed environmental benefits of the sharing economy. Some activists like Juliet Schor seem to believe that the call to reduce our environmental footprint is received by the public as a threat to our consumer enjoyment. Community is figured as an alternative form of enjoyment, and offered as compensation for the enjoyment of consumer goods that will presumptively be lost in a move to a sustainable economy. It allows environmentalists to present themselves as being in favor of enjoyment, not against it, although in a superficial way. Schor ultimately shares the conventional view of consumerism as an excessive mode of enjoyment that threatens the environment and must be subjected to a prohibitory limit, the castrating 'no', the Name-of-the-Father. ↩