Collaborative Consumption

by StefiaMadelyne

Goodbye, Stranger-Danger: Meet Collaborative Consumption

By Digital Strategy — October 18, 2011 – 5:19 pm

Enter “the C-Factor”: in recent years, the concepts of communitycooperation,collaborationcrowdsourcing, the commons, and collective intelligence have circulated widely—see Wikipedia, a communal exchange of knowledge and information. However, the latest displays of self-motivated communal action have proliferated beyond this. The early ‘50s throwaway mode of living characterized by hyper-consumerism and the production/consumption of disposable items is turning in favor of repetitive consumption practices over ownership. This is collaborative consumption: new practices of “bartering, lending, trading, renting, gifting, and swapping, redefined through technology and peer communities” (check the book What’s Mine is Yours). As this year’s PSFK conference, speaker Micki Krimmel, founder of NeighborGoods, eloquently put it:  “Do you really need a power drill, or do you just need a hole in the wall?”

Collaborative consumption has gained increasing popularity since Time magazine declared it one of 2011’s Trends to Watch. But while most new media literature places a central role in the medium (one architected to foster collaboration), and others put too much weight on the effects of the economic crash (as was the case with Time), we may want to approach the subject from the lens of a mediologist (long live Regis Debray!). In other words, while the crisis may have triggered a need to be more open to new ways of accessing what one requires, the motivations to participate in collaborative consumption platforms extend way beyond cost savings. The success of these practices sits at the intersection of new technologies of cooperation, social modes of organization, and cultural transformations. More specifically:  a reinvigorated meaning of trust that emerges from the convergence of new technologies and social networking, coupled with a need to be more open to new ways of getting what one requires, powered by an increased consciousness around environmental issues, leads to a successful practice.

Of course, digital technologies also help facilitate these transmissions. Platforms such as NeighborGoods make technically possible what was previously theoretically unimaginable: reliable forms of collaboration among otherwise unconnected individuals. Other examples, just to illustrate a few, include the swapping sites SwapSquidooU-ExchangeOurGoods, and ThreadUp, where users exchange books, movies, games, and kids’ clothes. FreeCycle andReUseIt are sites where people give unwanted items away. The car sharing and per-hour car rental, facilitated through platforms such as RelayRideGetAroundWhipcarZipcar,ZimRideNuRide, and GoLoco, is predicted to become a billion-dollar industry by the end of the year.

Most literature agrees that all these examples share another common element: direct links between producers and consumers, bypassing the middleman.  However, what if we view these practices as the emergence of a new middleman? What about the story of Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb, who was also a panelist at the PSFK conference in San Francisco?Airbnb intermediations present new characteristics, for sure. Yet, these new middlemen are in essence, connectors between a mutuality of wants and lacks.  What’s different this time is not just a matter of scale. The Internet’s architecture is designed to enable collaboration between non-related human beings who don’t even share a common locale. New notions of trust between strangers amend old definitions of collaboration, in particular, the idea that rules could mainly be enforced within tight circles of friends, families and acquaintances. Today’s examples of collaborative consumption, where reviews and ratings are published for the rest world to see, represent repeated plays of the prisoner’s dilemma. In other words, the incentives for defectors to pursue their goals are low when compared with the risks associated with being excluded from the game.

In sum, the Internet is built for cooperation. Transmissions in the form of collaborative exchanges circulate in a voluntary and self-organized fashion. Users are both transmitters and receivers of exchanges managed around centers of interest, and these transactions are activating collective intelligences by enabling new ways to access what one needs. As in the case of ParkAtMyHouse, these are creative and collaborative avenues of taking an object’s idle capacity and redistributing it among others in need, even when they are not a necessary part of one’s tight network. Goodbye, stranger-danger.

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