by Juliet B. Schor and William Attwood-Charles
If one had any doubt that the “sharing economy” has become a real thing, the 2016 Presidential campaign should lay them to rest. In July Jeb Bush announced he would be using Uber on the campaign trail to show that that the “free market” can create jobs. Hillary Clinton, in her first major speech on economics, criticized gig economy platforms for failing to provide benefits.
For sociologists, these digital platforms are interesting because they are creating markets that connect people in new ways. The most important of these is Peer-to-Peer (P2P) exchange. The term comes from the open source software movement, and refers to open access communities of collaborating individuals. P2P exchanges occur between individuals, rather than a standard Business-to-Consumer or Professional-to-Consumer transaction. This is less true of Uber, where many drivers were already full-time drivers, including taxi drivers, than it is of Airbnb, a P2P lodging site, or Relay Rides, a P2P car rental site. On labor sites, such as Task Rabbit, Peers sell labor services to people who are looking for help in their home or business.
The promise of P2P platforms is that they create new economic opportunities for people to earn, in ways they can control themselves. This has proved appealing for many, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the period when many of these sites were being launched. Potential downsides include the possibility that the platforms are accelerating a race to the bottom in labor markets, and that they represent a new frontier in the encroachment of the market into daily life.
With a team of PhD students from Boston College and Boston University we have been studying both non- and for-profit P2P platforms, including the three named above (Airbnb, Relay Rides and Task Rabbit). We began studying “providers” on these sites in 2013, and have done approximately 50 interviews, the majority in Boston. Demographically, the salient features of our sample are their youth, high education levels, and whiteness, which are all characteristics of platform participation throughout the country. Although such a small sample does not allow us to definitively answer many of the questions swirling around these platforms, we do have a number of suggestive findings.