Just ‘cos it’s collaborative, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good

I read an interesting piece in the Huffington Post this morning about a phenomenon that’s calling itself social trading. Basically, the idea is that instead of making trading decisions based on knowledge about the markets, you base your trading on what the people in your social network are doing. I’ve been reading lots of articles about collaborative consumption recently for a paper I’m presenting at a conference about ethical consumerism in Phoenix in a couple of weeks, and the following are some unprocessed thoughts about the limits of the category of collaborative consumption.

The HuffPost piece focuses on a startup called Roboinvest, which is a social network like other social networks: you friend people, you see what they’re up to, and they see what you’re up to (you probably don’t poke them though).

What’s interesting is the way that the CEO of the startup tries to align it with other collaborative consumption ventures. The point, of course, is that collaborative consumption is represented in the press, and represents itself, as a way for people to (1) save some money, (2) be nicer to the environment, and (3) reinstate those community and interpersonal ties that have fallen victim to our hyperconsumerist society. In other words – and I’m not saying this is good or bad, right or wrong, I’m saying it as a researcher – by consuming collaboratively we are signing up to a moral agenda. It is a movement that portrays itself as having certain values, while at the same time helping people save some cash in straightened times.

This is hardly something that a startup like Roboinvest can say about itself, but it is interesting to see that it tries. In the HuffPo piece, for instance, the CEO of the company talks about community. But surely community is not an end in itself, is it? A gang of bank robbers might also be a community, but not one we would want to join or encourage.

It is also interesting to see that the Roboinvest CEO cites Uber as another instance of collaborative consumption. To be fair, it is a company that appears in various lists of collaborative consumption, but I can’t quite see why. Uber lets you call a cab (but they can’t call themselves cabs), and a comfortable sedan comes and picks you up. The drivers are off-duty private drivers. To me this sounds like a way for off-duty private drivers to earn some extra money. I fail to see where the collaborative aspect comes in, and I think that it is an interesting choice of example as an equivalent to Roboinvest. Be that as it may, Roboinvest has very little in common with garden-sharing enterprises, for instance, where someone with some spare land lets someone without any land grow some vegetables.

It is also interesting to see that the traction enjoyed by social trading is attributed at least partly to the fact that people feeling comfortable sharing stuff online, which is to repeat Rachel Botsman’s ideas about participation in social network sites driving participation in offline sharing ventures.

So social trading is social (though one might ask if there is a kind of trading that isn’t), and companies like Roboinvest make use of the affordances for collaboration provided by the internet. But, I would argue, trying to put Roboinvest in the category of collaborative consumption looks a bit too much like trying to enjoy the love currently being bestowed on companies whose agenda is quite different from that of traders in the stock market.

Unexpected consequences of the sharing economy

The sharing economy is hotting up, and I don’t just mean that it’s becoming more popular to do car-sharing, peer-to-peer lending, and the rest. What’s hotting up is the legal environment of collaborative consumption. In particular, questions are being asked about taxing the money people are making from renting their stuff, and about what happens to your car insurance when someone borrowing your car crashes it.

All the action is in California right now, and mostly in San Francisco. Regarding car-sharing, California passed a law protecting peer-to-peer car renters in cases where someone else’s driving leads to a handout from the insurance company. This was an early sign that if these practices are going to spread, they are going to hit some institutional obstacles and challenges.

The latest issue concerns tax liabilities for people renting out rooms or their whole apartments through Airbnb. For people using Airbnb, the sense is that it is informal, and that even if someone pays you for using their place, it is not really a business transaction, and so you don’t need to declare it to the tax man. But that’s not necessarily how the tax man sees it. If people are using Airbnb instead of staying in hotels (which are taxed), then the tax man (and the hotel industry) loses out.

Steve Jones has written a lengthy and considered piece on this, which is well worth a read.

Where we start straying into the sphere of unintended consequences is when we start to notice that for-profit companies are taking advantage of consumer interest in Airbnb by letting out whole blocks of flats by the day or week. This way they can make more money, and because they are renting for under 30 days, they are exempt from San Francisco’s rent control regulations. In the case of San Francisco, this has the unintended consequence of squeezing an already tight rental market. Why should I rent out an apartment I own on a year long contract if I can rent it by the day and earn way more than double? This wasn’t what the collaborative consumption people had in mind. That’s why it’s called an unintended consequence.

What would seem to be happening here is that commercial entities are starting to muscle in on what are meant to be peer-to-peer networks, where each peer is an individual person. One of the stated aims of the collaborative consumption movement is to provide a counterbalance to today’s “hyperconsumerism” by restoring the human touch. As an extra bonus, consuming this way is also cheaper. Precisely because of this it is attractive to people – that is, there is demand – and eagle-eyed capitalists seem to be paying close attention.

Does this mean we’ll see another Airbnb, one that keeps companies out of the loop? Will the consumer care? What other unintended consequences await us in the sharing economy?

Confusion about sharing

One of the challenges in writing a book about sharing is that people use the word in such a range of ways, sometimes in a single sentence. We can see this in an article published by The Guardian yesterday by Maria Konnikova, a PhD psychology student. The article is titled, “Now for the good news – sharing can make you happy. Pass it on”, and its point is that sharing makes us feel good.

The article is fun and readable, but it uses the notion of sharing entirely uncritically. I don’t mean by this that the author should be critical of practices of sharing. What I mean is that she uses the word to mean lots of things at once, which is confusing. First of all, she lumps together the sharing of objects, information, and emotions. “We share emotions; we share thoughts; we share opinions; we share objects”, she writes. This is not the first time I’ve come across the merging of sharing objects and emotions, and I think it’s a kind of category mistake.

The common origins of these disparate types of sharing, if we are to believe the article, lies in our roots as cavemen: if I have some important knowledge, I will share it with my tribe as it will help all of us to survive. This is knowledge sharing. Konnikova rhetorically asks if there is any difference between knowledge sharing and forwarding a link to a YouTube clip: “Is it really so far from: ‘There’s a bear in the cave’ to: ‘Look at that adorable bear playing with the berries in that YouTube video’?” Well of course it is. Both are social activities, but while the former serves survival, the latter might be understood as a kind of phatic communion or small talk. Or as a Guardian reader commented on the article, “Cave people shared information for survival, not to fashion their self-identities”.

This, then, is just one confusion about sharing—that all types of telling people things are basically the same, when they are patently not. The thing is, that by confusion sharing as communication and sharing as distribution, people make bad conclusions about how “natural” sharing is, and how good it is for us (I say this without wishing to imply it’s bad). And this is to say nothing about the dodgy use of cavemen based on an equally dodgy version of social Darwinism (everything we do now we do because our ancestors had to do it to survive), but that’s for another day.

Looking to the future… in 1991

I’m researching for a paper about privacy and Facebook (I won’t go into details just yet), and I came across this quote from Time magazine in 1991:

“In the not too distant future, consumers face the prospect that a computer somewhere will compile records about every place they go and everything they purchase,” says Democrat Bob Wise of West Virginia, who heads the House subcommittee that oversees the government’s use of data. “I’m not sure this is the vision of the future that will make Americans comfortable.”

So not only do computers know everywhere we go and (almost) everything they purchase, but we willingly and happily give up that information (Foursquare, Blippy). But it’s not without its limitations – Foursquare is still a minority interest; Blippy stopped being a credit card purchase sharing app; and Beacon went down in a blaze.

Google’s new privacy policy

Google is updating its Privacy Policy and Terms of Service. This is certain to be a major media event, and the press has already started publishing pieces about it, most of which are critical. I had a look at the new Privacy Policy myself, and these are the points that jumped out at me:

If other users already have your email, or other information that identifies you, we may show them your publicly visible Google Profile information, such as your name and photo.

We have a situation here where information you might have thought was private will now become public. It doesn’t really matter that your Google Profile is already publicly visible (remember how angry everyone got when Facebook launched the News Feed in September 2006, even though it only presented “publicly visible” information?). What matters is that your email address will be much more readily linkable with you. This seems to be quite a big shift.

When you use our services or view content provided by Google, we may automatically collect and store certain information in server logs. This may include [...] telephony log information like your phone number, calling-party number, forwarding numbers, time and date of calls, duration of calls, SMS routing information and types of calls.

I find this clause very unclear. When reading it, it seems as though Google is telling me it can make a record of the phone calls I make using my phone if I also use my phone to check my Gmail account. In fact, one could go further and say that this clause lets Google save your phone number and record the time and date of calls you make if you just use Google to search the web on your smartphone. Or am I reading this wrong?

Location information

When you use a location-enabled Google service, we may collect and process information about your actual location, like GPS signals sent by a mobile device.

Again, there is a serious ambiguity here, and it resides in the word “When”. Does “when” here mean “while you are using…”? Or does it mean “if you ever use…”? If I allow Google Maps to access my location one time, am I thereby giving Google permission to “collect and process information” about my actual location all the time?

We will share personal information with companies, organizations or individuals outside of Google if we have a good-faith belief that access, use, preservation or disclosure of the information is reasonably necessary to:

  • meet any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request.
  • enforce applicable Terms of Service, including investigation of potential violations.
  • detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues.
  • protect against harm to the rights, property or safety of Google, our users or the public as required or permitted by law.

Well this is the catch-all clause, and you don’t have to think Google will act in bad faith in order for it to raise eyebrows. While it says that Google will share personal information following enforceable governmental requests, it also says that it will share information with others “to protect against harm [...] to the public”, which is an extremely amorphous concept.

And finally, is the reference to terminating employees an intentional joke? Or am I being too grammatically pedantic?

We restrict access to personal information to Google employees, contractors and agents who need to know that information in order to process it for us, and who are subject to strict contractual confidentiality obligations and may be disciplined or terminated if they fail to meet these obligations.

Peer-to-peer car sharing and trust

There appears to be growing talk of peer-to-peer car sharing, at least judging by the recommendations I get for my Scoop.it page. Peer-to-peer car sharing involves renting someone else’s car. The current “brand leader” is RelayRides. This is a different model of car sharing from that of ZipCar. With ZipCar, the company owns the fleet and you hire the car from the company. With RelayRides, all they do is install a special lock and take care of billing and insurance. For that, they take a 35% cut of the rental fee.

Peer-to-peer car sharing is interesting because of the question of trust. With ZipCar, the interaction is between a company and an individual, but with RelayRides it is between two individuals – the company is much further backstage.

This suggests an interesting dynamic between the extent to which a service is centralized and the degree of trust required between parties to a transaction in order to make that transaction work. This is not a new dynamic: credit card companies remove the issue of trust between seller and purchaser; instead, both place their trust in the credit card company. Even currency, which is guaranteed by the state, is a way of making questions of trust between individuals irrelevant: people just have to trust the state. But with peer-to-peer interactions, trust reemerges as a central issue.

Photographs of your Junk

This is a clip – entitled The Photographs of your Junk (will be publicized!) - is based on Gil Scott Heron’s legendary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (in which Scott Heron warns the bourgeoisie that, when it comes, the revolution will not be something that they will be able to to watch from the safety of their living rooms). But beyond Scott Heron’s song providing musical inspiration, there’s not much similarity between the two.

This clip is a kind of modern sermon about the dangers of over-exposure on social network sites and in relation to the ubiquity of cameras in mobile devices, arguing that we are so busy documenting the insignificant minutiae of our lives that we are blind to the important stuff in the world (starving African children, genocide, that kind of stuff). This is a very Frankfurt School type of argument, of course. Social networks connect us, he raps, and put us to sleep.

And then the song moves on to a criticism of surveillance, invasions of privacy, and the longevity of digital images, at which point it kind of loses direction and becomes an unfocused rant about all sorts of modern stuff (why are there photos of Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen, for instance?).

So really it’s quite an odd piece (and with only 15,000 views at the time of writing, not a hugely popular one either).

Organ sharing

In my study of sharing, my aim to is to kind of let the field lead me. What I mean by that is that if a phenomenon is described as one of sharing by the people involved in it, then I should have a look at it. I recently came across two organizations that call themselves organ sharing organizations. On the face of it, this is an odd use of the word sharing: organs are not shared, they are donated. More to the point, the donor, at the time the donation is made, is dead.

From a very brief and not at all scientific scan of the website of the United Network for Organ Sharing, it seems that when describing their activities, the word “donation” is used, and not “sharing”. That is, the “sharing” part is only in the title of the organization.

If there is sharing, it could be between different states and organizations – sharing knowledge about donors and waiting lists – but I’m not really sure about that either.