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.