The social balance sheet: a new way to define and measure sharing

More than seven years ago, when Claro started its first consortium project looking at new models of ownership, barely anyone had heard of “the sharing economy”. Seven years later, the term sharing is everywhere… there is a whole new economy around it. We share our pictures, thoughts, emotions and many other things on social media. Shared consumption has also found its counterpart in shared production through co-working spaces and maker spaces. We want to share anything and everything. But what does sharing really mean? How have the developments in the last ten years transformed the meaning of sharing? And what does this mean for service design?

Most academic literature around sharing defines it as a non-reciprocal, selfless act. Sharing is differentiated from value exchange, by non-reciprocity and showing a way of caring, and differentiated from gift-giving by non-transfer of ownership and lack of ceremony. However, when you start analysing individual cases, these boundaries don’t appear as clear. Russell Belk, professor at York University, talks about motherhood as the ultimate example of selfless sharing. “In giving birth the mother shares her body with the fetus and subsequently shares her mother’s milk, nurturing, care and love with the infant. This care is given freely, with no strings attached and no expectation of reciprocity of exchange.” It may be true that mothers care for their children in a selfless way, however this doesn’t change the fact that for doing such a “selfless” act, mothers are revered in most societies. There is a social expectation of reciprocity in the collective mind that a child should be grateful and respectful, and should take care of his/her parents at old age. In fact, this might explain why families in developing countries tend to have more children than those in developed countries, as children are who you can rely on to secure you in old age.

This is not to say all sharing is a conscious, calculated value exchange, but that there are different types of value, and some types are indirectly paid back through a social contract. During recent fieldwork in India, we were asking people about their sharing behaviours, and something we kept hearing across the people we interviewed was “I share today, so others can share with me tomorrow when I am in need”. In a more individualistic culture like the US, people also expressed a similar idea, stated in different words: “I share, hoping others will pay it forward.”

This idea of a collective social “balance sheet” for sharing seems very intriguing, and is at the core of what is called the sharing economy. When people share – whatever it is they’re sharing – there is a value exchange happening, but not necessarily with direct reciprocity. This aligns very well with the notion of social capital – a form of cultural capital in which social networks are central, and where transactions are marked by reciprocity, trust, and cooperation. Companies or startups such as Klout, Traity or Social Coin are attempting to address this subcontextual reciprocity by giving structure to it and tracking credits and debits in social capital. This is an arduous task with many loose ends to sort out, but also a potentially powerful opportunity area for many businesses.

Let’s compare Airbnb and Couchsurfing to better illustrate the role of reciprocity. They are both sharing economy platforms that focus on providing an alternative to hotels, but each has its own twist. Couchsurfing regards sharing as a “non-reciprocal” act, in this case meaning no money involved, whereas Airbnb recognises reciprocity in commercial terms. However, everyone who uses Couchsurfing knows your’re not really free from some sort of payback. You have social obligations – the expectation to socialise with your host, help out in the house, etc. are all different ways of “paying” for the couch you’re sleeping on. So which exchange model makes more sense? Each approach provides a different value proposition for different kinds of people and/or different circumstances. But as experience designers, we should be conscious that there is a value exchange at the core of both cases.

Another interesting aspect of sharing comes up when we think about sharing things physically, versus digitally. In the digital world, things are endlessly replicable, whereas physically, if I share half of my sandwich with someone, I absolutely and forever lose that half. This difference has made digital sharing much more easy and frictionless – and made our definition of “sharing” more ambiguous. However, new technologies such as blockchain may change this balance. Blockchain’s distributed ledger can keep track of every transaction around a piece of data, and this can be used to prohibit unauthorised duplication of a digital asset. If blockchain transactions becomes the dominant mental model, what will this mean for how we define digital sharing? Would you still share that e-book if you would lose your own copy? Would you still share that photo if you had to pay to duplicate it? Or will you share more knowing that you can define how, when, where and with whom any given piece of your personally generated data can and cannot be shared?

As service designers, our task is to design experiences that provide functional and emotional benefit to users. In an increasingly connected service economy, we need to consider questions like: what is each user putting into the service and what are they getting out? Does the reciprocity need to be more or less considered and/or obvious? Do we or do we not need to recognise an instance of sharing as a “transaction”, and how does this impact the meaning of a particular experience? Today, these questions are generally glossed over within the term “sharing”, but we are quickly coming to the end of the current era where sharing is treated without much thought. When digital sharing can be engineered with the same friction as sharing in the real world (for better or worse), we will need to implicitly design sharing as a core component of new user experiences to match consumer expectations about how they want to manage their sharing balance sheets.

Nov 27, 2017