The Collaborative Consumption Myth

I’ve been reading a lot about Collaborative Consumption recently. And talking about it, and thinking about it but it still leaves me puzzled. As much as I want to believe in the power of peer-to-peer I keep coming back to the same concerns.

There’s a theoretical issue when it comes to the core idea of collaborative consumption. In many ways I think society is less peer-to-peer than ever. Increasingly, the things we do are moderated, interfaced, organised and ultimately controlled by third parties. In many cases by huge, un-democratic third parties.

To me, the irony of collaborative consumption is that society started out that way. In the most basic of market economies we traded between ourselves, locally and organised our own resource eco-systems. Industrialisation, economies of scale, division of labour and all the other elements of economic development have merely sought to streamline and commoditise these basic transactions. And this continues. We want more and more conversations so we get new platforms. We want to trade more and more items so we get online marketplaces. The move to efficiency and scale continues.

Then I look at the examples of collaborative consumption that are offered. I see names like eBay, AirBnB and Zipcar. Is any one of these a co-operative, not-for-profit, customer-owned social enterprise? No, not one. Many of them are large, highly profitable businesses, or at least heading that way. I’m not saying that for collaborative consumption to exist it must be about non-profit. But I fail to see how the arrival of new companies designed to sell new services in this marketplace heralds the arrival of a new social paradigm.

In other words, rather than collaborative consumption as a peer-to-peer revolution, it seems to me that collaborative consumption is the name given to the process of monetising and up-scaling what people already do. The shift is not a societal transformation but a simple extension of the parameters of industrialisation. Now businesses own our conversations and the sale of our own unwanted goods. Craigslist is an extension of newspaper classifieds. eBay is the new auction room. Where is the consumption revolution exactly?

At the extreme, perhaps collaborative consumption is regressive. By endorsing a massive centralisation of human interactions we’re handing over more power than ever. We’re allowing businesses to own more and more of us. I’m not even saying it’s a bad thing. But what I am saying is that we should know what we’re doing and give it a proper name that reflects this. We should drop the utopian vision of non-hierarchical, democratic, peer-to-peer revolution and either accept what we’ve made or make something that is genuinely revolutionary.

  1. martinhowitt said:

    Interesting view, but I wonder if there’s more than a touch of the straw man here. EBay as a CC platform? I don’t consume stuff of ebay in collaboration with anyone else, it’s a straightforward sale between two independent parties. Sure we flag the seller as trustworthy but that is collaborative marketing rather than consumption, surely.

    For me the best example I can think of is when people live-tweet comment on the TV they are watching. That enhances the experience of watching TV and you start to consume it in a social way.

    I agree that in these cases our conversation is intermediated by a large unaccountable 3rd party company (Twitter). But they do at least get out of the way at such times…

    • Thanks for the comment. I agree that eBay doesn’t really seem much like collaboration but it is one one the primary examples used and one which sets off the alarm bells for me.

      I like the live tweeting example, but again (I know you acknowledge this) there is a large company making this activity possible. I guess my real issue is whether the very concept of peer-to-peer is actually viable. Any kind of mass-participation needs structure. And structure breeds hierarchy. Ultimately it seems to me that collaborative consumption simply can’t exist as the concept people present it as. In most cases it seems to be just a misleading term for incremental business efficiency improvements.

  2. nels said:

    Have to write an essay on hyper consumption. Stumbled upon that book about collaborative consumption. It appears to be a positive spin on hyper consumption . People naturally look for positives in the negative things in their lives and collaborative consumption is simply a false positive drawn from hyper consumption. What you wrote was helpful, and one of the few sources on the net not stating the revolutionary wonders of collaborative consumption.
    Thank you

    • Thanks for the comment. Great to know that the article is of interest. I think it’s important that people are able to see these things for what they are and separate the positive aspects from the huge over-selling of the general concept.

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