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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
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Authentic sharing

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“Sharing economy,” of course, is a gratingly inappropriate terms to describe a business approach that entails precisely the opposite, that renders the social field an arena for microentrepreneurship and nothing else. Yet the vestiges of “sharing” rhetoric clings to such companies as Airbnb and a host of smaller startups that purport to build “trust” and “community” among strangers by getting them to be more efficient and render effective customer service to one another. What more could you ask of a friend?

By bringing a commercial ethos to bear on exchanges that were once outside the market, the civilizing process that is often attributed to the “bourgeois virtues” of capitalism — with successful economic exchange building the only form of social trust necessary — gets to spread itself over all possible human relationships. The only real community is a marketplace in which everyone has a fair shot to compete.

The freedom of anonymous commercial exchange amid a “community” of well-connected but essentially atomized strangers well-disciplined by the market to behave conventionally and sycophantically is not the sort of community the sharing companies tend to crow about in their advertising. The rhetoric of the sharing economy’s trade group, Peers, is instead saturated with testimonials of communal uplift and ethical invigoration. In an essay about the cult-like methods of sharing-economy indoctrination, Mike Bulajewski cites many, many examples of the companies’ blather about community and the ornamental techniques they encourage among users to sustain the illusion. (Fist-bump your driver! Neato!) He notes that “What’s crucial to realize is that proponents of “sharing” are reinventing our understanding of economic relations between individuals so that they no longer imply individualism, greed or self-interest” — i.e., the bourgeois virtues, which make for atomized “metropolitan” people whose freedom (such as it is) is protected in the form of anonymity and equal treatment in the marketplace. “Instead,” Bulajewski writes, “we’re led to believe that commerce conducted on their platforms is ultimately about generosity, helpfulness, community-building, and love.”

Is this rhetoric fooling anyone? Marketing professors Giana M. Eckhardt and Fleura Bardhi suggest that it is bad for their business. In an article for the Harvard Business Review they recount their research that found that consumers don’t care about “building community” through using services like Airbnb and Lyft; they actually just want cheaper services and less hassle. They want consumerist “freedom,” not ethical entanglements. The platforms are popular because they actually diminish social interaction while letting users take advantage of small-time service providers who are often in precarious conditions and have little bargaining 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. The sharing-economy companies are not a way to temper capitalism (and its tendency to generate selfish individualists); they just allow it to function more expediently. The sharing economy degrades “social value,” defined here as the interpersonal interactions that aren’t governed by market incentives and economistic rationality, in favor or expanding the “utilitarian value” of consumption efficiency, more stuff consumed by more individuals (generating more profit). Utilitarian value is impeded by the need to deal with other humans, who can be unpredictable or have irrational demands.

Eckhardt and Bardhi propose “access economy” as an alternative term to sharing economy. One might presume “access” 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) achieve scale and can aggressively bypass the law can put themselves in a prime position to collect tolls from people seeking necessary services and the workers who hope to provide them.

But Eckhardt and Bardhi 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. Viewing the sharing economy from that angle, though, you can almost see why some are beguiled by its communitarian rhetoric. The sharing economy’s labor practices are abhorrent, but we might overlook all that if we think instead of how it liberates us from being overinvested in the meaning of our stuff. Leaving behind consumerist identity presumably could open the space for identity based in “community” (though it would be more accurate to say an identity based on caste, and what services you render).

Renting is very bad for marketers (it’s not “best practices,” the marketing professors note), 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 in a more high-stakes way 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 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 approve of “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 Eckhardt and Bardhi  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 “social value” 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.)

Companies like Lyft and Airbnb do nothing to facilitate that sort of interaction; indeed they thrive by doing the opposite. (Authenticity marketing, incidentally, 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 users 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 use their advertising to build a sort of anti-brand-community brand community.  Both 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. They just let us substitute apps and platforms in for the role material goods played. They cater to the same customer desire of being able to access “community” as a consumer good.

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.

Meanwhile, the sharing economy’s vision of everyone entrepreneurializing every aspect of their lives promotes an identity grounded in the work one can manage to win for oneself, in the scheming and self-promoting posture of someone always begging for a job. If its vision of the economy comes true, no one would have the luxury to do little sharing-economy tasks on the side but would instead have to do them to survive. And there would be no safety net because there would be no political solidarity to generate it, and many of its functions will have been offloaded to sharing-economy platforms. The result would be less a community of equals exchanging favors than a Hobbesan war of all against all, with the sharing-company Leviathans furnishing the battlefield and washing their hands of the casualties.

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