Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On the Sharing Economy"
Schor does a masterful job of teasing out what the sharing economy has come to represent to its diverse set of stakeholders—from venture capitalists, to entrepreneurs, to end-users (both providers and customers). The two core contributions of this piece are the typology of platforms and the two-by-two table that allow us to map out this ecosystem.
In conversations with people unfamiliar with the sharing economy, I have often described it using its four basic elements: people renting out their skills, assets, and/or their time. However, that description, while useful, always seemed a bit simplistic. Schor’s typology proposes a more comprehensive way of thinking of this through four categories that help organize and historicize sharing economy platforms: recirculation, asset utilization, service exchange, and production enablers. These categories allow for a historical perspective that is often missed in the discussion, like the fact that tool libraries and time banks have been around for decades. This typology encapsulates the current state of this movement as well as its imaginary.
The part that struck me the most about thinking of the sharing economy through the lens of Schor’s typology is how these platforms are being adopted in developing countries. For instance, in Mexico, a country with which I am familiar, systems for service exchange and recirculation are deeply embedded in the culture but lack the technological and financial infrastructure of American companies like Uber. The recent arrival of these companies to the Mexican market has been fascinating. Unlike the American versions, these services tend to be pricier and are perceived as more upscale than the traditional services like taxis. Companies like Uber have also adopted different business models. Unlike their American counterparts, Mexican Uber and UberX drivers, for the most part, seem to be employees of “partners” who own the car and pay them a salary, an arrangement far from the concept of “micro entrepreneurs” that is sometimes used to refer to them in the US. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why, as Schor mentions, Uber does not affiliate itself with the sharing economy movement.
Schor also examines the sharing economy platforms by looking at their market orientation and the type of providers. Orientations could be non-profit or for-profit, while the relationship between providers could be peer-to-peer or business-to-peer. These two dimensions open up a core tension of the sharing economy vis-à-vis movements like the open source movement and commons-based peer production, from which it has derived some of its language. For example, does the introduction of a market-based hospitality service like Airbnb have a negative effect on non-profit options like Couchsurfing?
In interviews I have done with providers in platforms like oDesk, Airbnb, TaskRabbit, and Uber, I have found that some providers reduce their altruistic asset and skill sharing in favor of for-profit options. I do not know how generalizable these observations are, but, for example, an oDesk provider mentioned feeling less inclined to help friends and family now that she feels that she can make money with her skills.
In the end, this monetization could also prove problematic implications for the platforms themselves. It can reduce peoples’ emotional attachment to the platform and make them more susceptible to being replaced by a cheaper option.
That said, like Schor, I am cautiously optimistic about the potential of these platforms. In particular, I am hopeful about the possibility that we might be in a transitional period, followed by a 100% provider-owned, peer-to-peer mode model where the providers, empowered by technology, own the platform and reduce operating costs, potentially eliminating the need for intermediaries that keep a large percentage of every transaction.