Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

The Sharing Economy and Being In Real Life

Social media continues to steer us towards actual socialising.

Wed, Jun 11, 2014, 14:13


This article from April, which made the cover of the US edition of Wired, saw Jason Tanz hang out with people using Lyft, RelayRides, and Tinder, and explore the ‘trust and safety’ departments of companies such as eBay and Airbnb.

I’ve been writing and talking about the future of online being offline for a while now, and it’s pretty clear that more and more, we’re leveraging online to get more out of offline, not the other way around. The reasons are obvious, of course, people are searching out unique experiences more, experiences with greater authenticity, things that drag them away from their MacBooks, shared experiences, communal experiences, and all the other terms that will end up in the next Budweiser commercial, as the advertising industry cottons on to this behaviour as a trend and turns every ad into the romcom trope of all the birds toasting “to friends!” at the end of the movie.

Socialising online is ultimately time consuming and in many ways time-wasting. I’m always struggling with the amount of time I spend online and how that impacts on me and others around me. Social media can be stressful. You start to hate how self-involved people are and get annoyed by people’s statements on Twitter. You start to wonder if you’re one of those people and try to limit your tweeting / status updates / Instagramming. This is why I tend to dump most social media(s) soon after adopting them; Facebook and Instagram especially. There’s a niggling feeling of distraction, compulsive checking of feeds and messages, and ultimately a desire to pull oneself away from online conversation. What did we do before out Twitter feeds were open all day? How different were our experience before the first or second impulse upon witnessing something funny on the street or reading something compelling was to “share” it? What impact is this external reaction having when previously our reactions were internalised and digested? How can one undo “thinking in tweets” without deleting a Twitter account?

The Wired article traces the origins of the modern sharing economy to eBay, and direct person to person transactions. But perhaps the origins of things such as Air BnB came from for a gentrification / hipsterisation of DIY-community philosophies of communal sharing and barter – things that turned into couch-surfing and house swapping. At the centre of this is trust, of course, although it’s kind of weird to think of trust as an algorithm. In order to maximise trust, people tend to gravitate towards people who are likeminded. You always feel less likely to get your phone nicked in your local pub, right? Because the people there are just like you and wouldn’t do that. By the same token, users of Airbnb figure they can trust each other because they’ve flocked to the same service for the same reasons, and therefore won’t screw each other over. If you’re user Tinder and you’re not crazy, then surely the person you’re hoping to hook with via Tinder isn’t crazy either, and so on. There’s always risk, but we imagine risk to be more amplified in situations we’re unfamiliar with and types of people we aren’t attuned to.

So the sharing economy is a continuation of trust and barter, and also an inherent and sometimes misplaced distrust of “the middle man”, creating new systems that feel DIY and fringe-y, but are of course now of huge economic benefit to hugely wealthy corporations – the middle man is bigger than ever. Sharing used to be a transaction of trust and good karma between individuals or groups. Barter is as old as trade itself. Yet now, third parties negotiate this sharing and financially gain from it. Of course, tech companies have enabled and encouraged sharing on a much wider scale than say a punk singer asking from the stage if anyone could let their band crash for the night. For many people who would never have considered staying in a stranger’s house, or letting someone into their car, tech companies have in fact invented both a space and the tools to enable that to happen. There is a gauze of friendliness, trust and sharing, but it is very much wrapped around capital, not just good vibes.

These parallel systems tend to initially operate simultaneously to existing systems. Someone decides the existing or old system could be better and tweaks it a little (or as tech companies love to say “disrupts” it). Either an element of the system gets changed, or an alternative system is born outside of the existing mainstream framework. If the new alternative system is good enough, it will not only flourish outside of the existing system, but also impact on the existing system. And if it is exceptionally good, it will eventually become part of the existing – now old – system, and in some cases even usurp it as the new dominant system. I think a good example of this happening is in terms of food trends and movements. For years, organic food was perceived to be the domain of overly cautious hippies, yet it became a mainstream and positive aspect of food production, retain and consumption. The same goes for dating. In the early days of the internet, people who met online and developed romantic relationships were the subject matter of Jerry Springer chat shows. The idea that you would meet someone online in a romantic way was seen as a red flag, that you were somehow incapable of developing “real” offline relationships in the traditional manner. Gradually, dating websites flourished, gay men flocked to websites and apps that migrated cruising (which was time-consuming and sometimes dangerous) into an online world, and straight people caught up, eventually thinking nothing of heading out on dates with people they matched with on PlentyOfFish or now, Tinder. What was once odd is now the default. The taboos have been broken.

Perhaps social media is coming full circle in terms of communication. Initially, it bragged about connecting, but really it isolated us from each other. Communicating online, or making online friends or relationships, was perceived to be a loner activity for those who didn’t have the social skills to do so in the “real world”. As social media evolves – a media which ultimately, is pretty anti-social (we don’t have to go into the ironies here of people “being social” on their phones in a real life social situation, ignoring their peers at the table in favour of their peers in a Facebook or Twitter app) – the social aspect is bleeding into real life. Sharing has switched from our traditional understanding of the word and practice, on to the dissemination of information (sharing a link or a pic), and now back into the real world, a new layered version of sharing mediated by the invisible hand of third parties such as Lyft, Airbnb, Grindr, Tinder, and so on.

This evolves in tandem with what I call the “free hugs” philosophy of a chunk of social media. Niceness for niceness sake has been developing for a while, perhaps most prominently in the neighbourhood cleanups organised online in the aftermath of the London riots. Feel good videos shared on YouTube, slacktivism hashtags, the endless tweeting and posting of lost items in order to locate their owners, crowdfunding, and so on, go some lengths to create the sense of virtual communities since real communities have become broken down by increased urbanisation, increased migration and the anonymity of apartment living. It’s interesting to see how we purposefully isolated ourselves, yet are now embracing each other in real life again, even if it feels less “authentic”. People now value the “human interaction”, although it feels weird to even call it that, as it positions us all as robots only emerging from a self-inflicted digital hibernation back into a world where we can talk to, look at, and touch each other.

And it’s not just stuff that’s solely driven by the internet. In Ireland alone, the increasing number of festivals, talking shops, street feasts, street cleanups, and other communal activities based on a sense of “niceness” and real life community has to be both a reaction to and manifestation of social media’s dichotomy: pushing us apart and pulling us together. Maybe social media can be social after all – once you actually put your phone down and go in search of not just the white glow of a screen, but the whites of someone’s eyes.

(Image via FreeHugs.)

Coming next: Busting bubbles and the practical problems of “sharing”.