I’m fascinated by this HBR article about the “sharing” economy’s rhetoric by marketing professors Giana M. Eckhardt and Fleura Bardhi. The gist of their findings is that consumers don’t care about “building community” through using services like Airbnb; they actually just want cheaper services and less hassle. The platforms are popular because they actually diminish social interaction while letting you take advantage of service providers with little leverage. You “trust” the sharing-platform brand while you exploit the random person offering a ride or an apartment (or whatever) without having to negotiate with them face to face.
When “sharing” is market-mediated — when a company is an intermediary between consumers who don’t know each other — it is no longer sharing at all. Rather, consumers are paying to access someone else’s goods or services for a particular period of time. It is an economic exchange, and consumers are after utilitarian, rather than social, value.
That seems almost self-evident. It’s premised on the belief that we define “social value” as the interpersonal interactions that aren’t governed by market incentives and economistic rationality. “Utilitarian value” is about consumption efficiency, which is impeded by dealing with other humans who can be unpredictable or have irrational demands.
The authors propose “access economy” as an alternative to sharing economy. One might presume it refers to the way consumers can pay brokering companies for access to new pools of labor and rental opportunities. Think “shakedown economy” or “bribe economy.” Middlemen like Uber who (like an organized-crime racket) can bypass the law and bully the street-level people working for it are in a prime position to collect tolls from people seeking necessary services.
But Eckhardt and Bardhi seem to want to use the term to differentiate renting from owning. People are content to buy access to goods rather than to acquire them as property. Renting is bad for marketers (it’s not “best practices”), because people don’t invest any of their identity into brands they merely rent. They don’t commit to them, don’t risk their self-concept on them. “When consumers are able to access a wide variety of brands at any given moment, like driving a BMW one day and a Toyota Prius the next day, they don’t necessarily feel that one brand is more ‘them’ than another, and they do not connect to the brands in the same closely-binding, identity building fashion."
So what marketers want consumers to want is ownership, which puts their identity in play and gives advertisers something to sink their teeth into. Whether or not consumers actually want to own so many things is a different question. Marketers of course must insist that they know what consumers want (that’s their rationale for their job); the benefits consumers supposedly reap according to marketers are actually just the ideological tenets of marketing.
This helps bring into focus what a true sharing economy — one that discouraged ownership while imposing reciprocal human interaction —might accomplish. Marketers like "brand communities” that let isolated people "share identity building practices with like-minded others,“ but little else. That is, in such communities they can "share” without sharing. They can “share” by buying products for themselves.
But with more widely distributed rental opportunities, identity anchored in what one owns can potentially be disrupted. As the marketing professors write:
When consumers are able to access a wide variety of brands at any given moment, like driving a BMW one day and a Toyota Prius the next day, they don’t necessarily feel that one brand is more “them” than another, and they do not connect to the brands in the same closely-binding, identity building fashion. They would rather sample a variety of identities which they can discard when they want.
If not for the burden of ownership, then, consumers would conceivably try on and discard the identities implied by products without much thought or sense of risk. They would forgo the “brand community” for a more fluid sense of identity. Perhaps they would anchor their identity in something other than products while enjoying the chance to play around with personae, by borrowing and not owning the signifying resonances of products.
Perhaps that alternate anchor for the self could be precisely the sort of human interaction that exceeds the predictable, programmable exchanges dictated by the market, and its rational and predictable incentives. This is the sort of interaction that people call “authentic.” (Or we could do away with anchors for the self altogether and go postauthentic — have identity only in the process of “discarding” it. )
Sharing companies do nothing to facilitate that sort of interaction; indeed they thrive by doing the opposite. (Authenticity marketing does the same thing; it precludes the possibility of authenticity by co-opting it.) They subsume more types of interaction and exchange to market structures, which then they mask by handling all the money for the parties involved. This affords them the chance to pretend to themselves that the exchange has stemmed from some “meaningful” rather than debased and inauthentic commercial connection, all while keeping a safe distance from the other party.
Sharing companies and brand communities mediate social relations and make them seem less risky. Actual community is full of friction and unresolvable competing agendas; sharing apps’ main function is to eradicate friction and render all parties’ agenda uniform: let’s make a deal. They are popular because they do what brand communities do: They allow people to extract value from strangers without the hassle of having to dealing with them as more than amiable robots.
When sharing companies celebrate the idea of community, they mean brand community. And if they appropriate rhetoric about breaking down the attachment to owning goods as a means of signifying identity and inclusion, it’s certainly not because they care about abolishing personal property, or pride in it. It’s because they are trying to sell their brand as an alternative to the bother of actually having to come up with a real alternative to product-based personal identity.
The perhaps ineluctable problem is that belonging to communities is hard. It is inefficient. It does not scale. It doesn’t respond predictably to incentives. It takes more work the more you feel you belong. It requires material sacrifice and compromise. It requires a faith in other people that exceeds their commercial reliability. It entails caring about people for no reason, with no promise of gain. In short, being a part of community is a total hassle but totally mandatory (like aging and dying), so that makes us susceptible to deceptive promises that claim to make it easy or avoidable, that claim to uniquely exempt us. That is the ruse of the “sharing economy"—the illusion it crates that everyone is willing to share with you, but all you have to do is download an app.