The new sharing economy takes many forms, housesitting, lift sharing and meal sharing are fast growing trends enabled by the internet offering an exchange of services or gift exchange based on trust. This global trend is of great interest to academics and practitioners alike as it demonstrates human adaptation. Here is one view on how the new sharing economy is seen from an anthropological perspective, by Nick Caley HouseSitMatch house-sitter and recent anthropology university graduate.
The new sharing economy – A new form of trading
Turn on the news – you are going to hear someone mention the economy. Most likely it will be accompanied with graphs and a mention of GDP, GDP per capita or GNP. Jargon aside, I want to highlight one aspect of current economics, it’s called the ‘sharing economy‘ and sometimes ‘peer-to-peer (P2P) exchange’, or collaborative consumption. More than just another theory this sharing economy is a new approach to how we use resources. The sharing economy is not just a matter of selling, consuming, or giving away. It offers an alternative to impersonal trading, and perhaps as Time magazine suggested in 2011, an idea that could change the world. Indeed, two years later Forbes estimated that this new sharing economy generated revenue surpassing $3.5 billion. To better understand what all this means it is useful to look back at how the economy – “the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services” – has historically been understood. We can do this from a social perspective and so break down some assumptions that surround the word ‘economy’ and start to imagine what diverse new forms it might take. Enter anthropology.
Though not formally connected with ‘anthropology’ Marx made an important definition of the ‘alienated goods’ as those ‘things’ (goods and services) which could be completely isolated from the people who produced them. I am wearing a pair of socks and I have no connection or awareness of the person who made the socks. They are alienated goods or a ‘commodity’. There are examples of this everywhere because this is how most transactions occur everyday. Of course Marx went on to tie the notion of the commodity to the perils of capitalism though we’re interested in his definitions rather than his conclusions.
Exchange – Formalising the new sharing economy
Standing apart from the commodity is the idea of “gift exchange”. This is where anthropology comes in. Marcel Mauss was interested in how the exchange of gifts is fundamental to the effective functioning of society. In this way we can think of the ‘inalienable’ good, for example a family heirloom like a ring passed down from generation to generation. The exchange happens when the ring is inherited. It is a form of exchange deriving meaning from the social relation. Who gives or receives is critical. To a stranger the ring might be worthless. But to an inheritor the ring is loaded with values that are personal, representing a unique and enduring relationship between people. Gift exchange occurs daily in life such as birthday or Christmas presents. Giving gifts is significant in creating social bonds.
House-sitting – new sharing economy exchange of services
So what does this have to do with housesitting..? Looking at both methods of exchange – one impersonal and the other personal – the former lends itself to making money and the latter less so. Much more emphasis is placed on the commodity with its’ ability to generate wealth and fulfill needs. The new sharing economy fulfills more by leveraging existing resources through collaboration. Housesitting offers such collaboration, generating generating trust between the homeowner and the sitter. Trust is the currency for the exchange that carries the social bond. Moreover, different ‘housesits’ suit different people and are ‘matched’ accordingly. Housesitting is social from the outset, creating a community of trust and of shared interests (i.e. pets, travel, the will to meet new people).
Conversely, housesitting retains an element of traditional economics. Housesitting can be accessible to anyone without knowing the other party. Housesitting platforms enable this by formalising the social approach. In fact, most prospective housesitters and homeowners are in the novice position when they begin. Membership of an established community like HouseSitMatch makes the possibility of building new relationships viable, growing stronger the more often the service is used. In the traditional sense of economy housesitting is also fulfilling in a financial sense as it can pay and reduce the costs of rent, travel, home and pet care.
Building trust and exchanging to do good
The new sharing economy is a marriage of “gift” and “commodity” exchanges. The social motivations (the unalienable) include the building of trust networks, the desire to meet like-minded people and have fun, balanced with an obligation to do good for others. Commoditised or pragmatic motivations (alienable) relate to saving and making money by carrying out a required service for someone in the network. This is counter-balanced by using existing resources such as an empty home. HouseSit Match offering home and pet care in exchange for free accommodation, is an example of this new sharing economy. It is enabled by internet technology and stands at the boundary of the gift and the commodity economies. Maybe we’ll see the divisions between them dissolve completely. Already we can eat with a stranger, car-share, skill-swap, exchange books or films or music, sleep on a stranger’s couch in a new city, and have our pets and homes looked after while we’re away. It is an exciting time to be part of this economy. If you are reading this then you already have an internet connection and that is all you need to get involved right away.