What motivates us to share? That’s the subject of a recently released working paper by Juho Hamari and Antti Ukkonen, researchers at the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology, called "The Sharing Economy: Why People Participate in Collaborative Consumption."
Is it intrinsic motivators, like a desire to contribute to a sustainable economy or the enjoyment that we get from participating in a community built around peer-to-peer exchanges? Or is it extrinsic motivators, like the economic benefits we accrue or the boosts to our reputations that come with being seen as someone who collaborates? A bit of both?
Hamari and Ukkonen focused their research on the Finland-based Sharetribe, "an international peer-to-peer trading service that offers its service package to various organizations," like the marketplace Mpankki, where companies can sell excess raw materials like fabric, metal and wood.
"Sharing," you’ll note, doesn’t mean that anything is free. As the Helsinki researchers define it, the term refers to a dynamic where there’s no central owner of the goods and services being exchanged. Under that umbrella, Hamari and Ukkonen put everything from couch-surfing to Wikipedia to the open data movement. The Sharetribe platform, for one, comes with a built-in “payment” systems that works not only for cash, but also barter and gifting.
The researchers surveyed 168 Sharetribe participants, finding that what drives us to begin sharing isn’t always what keeps us doing it.
Collaborative consumption, they write, "has been regarded as a mode of consumption that engages especially environmentally and ecologically conscious consumers." But their findings "suggest that these aspirations might not translate so much into behavior as they do into attitudes."
In short, the study found that users are attracted to using services like Sharetribe because of a desire to do more with less, and the fun that comes with being part of a community. But they actual take part in sharing behaviors because of what it does for their wallets. The reputation boost that participation might be thought to provide didn’t matter much either way.
Hamari and Ukkonen note that we’re in the early days of technology-enabled collaborative consumption, and more longitudinal research is needed. But they’ve seen enough to have worries.
"In a worst-case scenario," they write, "some users in a sharing economy might be altruistic and share their goods while the other users may be mostly just enjoying benefits from others’ sharing." That might, they conclude, challenge the long-term prospects of online communities built around sharing.
There are engineering tweaks that might help — they mention time banking, a notion central to the idea of reciprocal volunteerism, where participants donate time with the expectation that they’ll be able to eventually extract the help of others. But looming on the horizon is the "crowding-out" phenomenon associated with blood donations, where, in some cases, paying for blood pushes out of the picture a general willingness to give blood for free.
There’s hope for collaborative consumption, though. Some people still exist who simply like sharing and aren’t sufficiently concerned about not maximizing their economic benefit.
"Even if," the researchers conclude, "the particular motivations of individual participants may vary from mainly altruistic to strongly gain-seeking, the sharing economy as a whole can still remain functional, provided that the benefits for each participant outweigh possible costs incurred through the imbalance of contributions."
In other words, in the "sharing economy," there seems to be room for all kinds.
Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.