Sharing is (not always) caring

Would you like to share a car with your neighbors, or have a total stranger sleeping in your spare room? If your answer is yes – does your family agree? DSV researcher Airi Lampinen studies interpersonal aspects of the hyped sharing economy.

Genre photo for an interview with Airi Lampinen on the sharing economy: colourful doors of building.
Managing social interaction is one of the great challenges of the sharing economy, according to DSV researcher Airi Lampinen. Photo: Max Bender/Unsplash.

The ideas underlying the sharing economy are not new, people have always traded goods and services with each other. The newness is in the technical platforms which enable business models that rely on connecting strangers.

But nowadays, technology is the easy part. The hard part is in the social interactions, according to associate professor Airi Lampinen, Department of Computer and Systems Sciences at Stockholm University.

“For the system to work well, you have to both give and take”, she says.

Portrait photo of Airi Lampinen, DSV. Photo: Sophie Landwehr Sydow.
Airi Lampinen. Photo: Sophie Landwehr Sydow.

Airi Lampinen has just published the book “The Trouble with Sharing: Interpersonal Challenges in Peer-to-Peer Exchange” with Morgan & Claypool Publishers (2021). At the time of the interview, she has not yet held the printed book in her hands. She is waiting eagerly for the first boxes to arrive from the publisher.

“My book is based on qualitative studies in Finland and the US. My colleagues and I have interviewed people who use platforms such as Airbnb and Couchsurfing”, says Lampinen.

Polarized discussion

So far, the discussion around the sharing economy has been pretty polarized. A handful of companies have gained a lot of attention. They’ve been presented either as cool and innovative businesses, or as evil employers who exploit their workers. Airi Lampinen would like to broaden the perspectives and raise awareness of the many grassroots initiatives.

How can people have meaningful social encounters, without getting too close? Who is responsible if a shared car breaks down? And how do neighbors feel about new people moving into the apartment next door every other day? In her book, Lampinen discusses three issues that can make peer-to-peer exchange both worthwhile and difficult: reciprocity and indebtedness, closeness and intimacy, and participation and inclusion. They all involve challenges that need to be addressed.

“In local communities, the people that I’ve interviewed didn’t express a fear of freeriding. Rather than worrying about being taken advantage of, they were more concerned about not being able to reciprocate. They wanted to give back to the community”, explains Airi Lampinen.

“In a way, this is a ‘positive problem’. The norm of reciprocity is beneficial, but it may hinder an exchange community from thriving. When I interviewed single parents in California, they said they wanted to share resources with peers in their local community – but they couldn’t find enough time to develop the relationships it would have required.”

Social relations are important

Even if money is involved, social relations still play a major role. Having a stranger sleeping in your spare room is not only about earning an extra buck. The interviews show that being a good host can be an important value. Similarly, when people rent a private home, they tend to try to be good guests.

Finding the right balance is a challenge. For a peer-to-peer exchange system to work, people need to connect with one another – without getting too close.

“If someone stays overnight in a private home, it’s not just the host and the guest who have to get along. Family members and neighbors can be affected too.”

Like the original idea of Airbnb, Couchsurfing is about having guests stay over in your private home. But Couchsurfing is more focused on building a community. The hosts are explicitly banned from charging their guests for the hospitality. The whole idea is to create a network so that members can travel and see different parts of the world.

No silver bullet

The design of the technical platform matters to the service that is delivered, and to the overall experience. But there is no silver bullet or magical solution that does the trick every time, Airi Lampinen stresses. It depends on what you want to achieve. Within the sharing economy, there is a broad spectrum of initiatives. From the most effective and transaction based, to the local and more trust based.

“If you would like to start an exchange initiative based on closeness, trust and social interactions, you shouldn’t use a platform that is too convenient and effective. That risks turning the participants into customers and businesses, rather than members of a community.”

The Airbnb hype has faded

The early hype around companies like Airbnb has faded. Lampinen thinks it is an opportune time to return to the more community-oriented visions of the sharing economy. How people reason, interact and decide on exchanging resources, has a strong environmental impact too.

“We need to get better at sharing the resources we have. Also, the corona pandemic has had a negative impact on many people’s private economy.”

Local initiatives promoting sharing rides, exchanging clothes or borrowing tools seldom develop their own technical solutions. They tend to use established platforms like Facebook instead, and are more dependent on participants making the effort of reaching out to their neighbors and local community. These initiatives may not aim at being scalable, they are limited to a certain geographical area. Still, the initiatives can inspire people in other communities to develop something of their own.

“These types of systems works very well for some people, and not that well for others.”

“I think I’m like most people when it comes to sharing. I like the idea and have used Airbnb many times, but when it comes to the everyday, it can be hard to make it work. I hope to be able to engage more in sharing activities in the future. Since I became a parent, I’ve discovered new possibilities to circulate children’s clothes and products”, says Airi Lampinen.

Book cover: “The Trouble with Sharing” (Morgan & Claypool Publishers, 2021)

Text: Åse Karlén