One of the most interesting things about so-called sharing economy companies is their mobilisation of users in defence of their political objectives. This is something which can prove uniquely urgent because of the sheer number of municipalities in which they operate, leaving them exposed to regulatory backlash particularly given their tendency to self-righteously disregard laws they see as antiquated. It’s easy to characterise these mobilisations as manipulative, but it’s important to recognise the self-interest and/or commitment of those who are mobilised in this way. Loc 4251 of The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, describes an Airbnb group in San Francisco which was (seemingly) entirely grass-roots:

Kwan decided to gather a group of hosts together to share information and navigate the emerging complexities of the so-called home-sharing economy. He announced the formation of his club on Craigslist and held the very first meeting of the Home Sharers of San Francisco in his living room in 2013. The group would eventually attract twenty-five hundred members. Seeking to avoid any conflicts of interest, Kwan decided the group would not allow Airbnb employees or city or state government workers to join. Kwan’s group got so large that eventually it had to start gathering in public libraries instead of living rooms. They shared hosting tips, talked about issues like insurance, and swapped stories of nightmare guests (always the most enjoyable discussion). Then things got serious. In the wake of Airbnb’s agreement to collect hotel taxes, the city’s board of supervisors was considering legalizing short-term rentals. The Home Sharers lobbied to keep the names and addresses of hosts private and to maximize the number of nights they could rent out their properties each year.

But the company also seeks to encourage these groups in a top-down fashion. I’m interested in the cultural resources deployed to this end, how the opportunity to participate in the great disruptive project is framed in a way which facilitates engagement by users. See for example the description on loc 4333-4347 of the Airbnb community festival:

The crowd stood and cheered repeatedly during the event, responding to rousing proclamations (“ You are truly revolutionaries!”), as if the speakers were blowing dog whistles. Occasionally the audience was yanked back to the other reality. “This generous idea is growing in Paris,” said Jean-François Martins, deputy mayor in charge of tourism, on the first morning. “But big ideas need some regulation to protect them from people who want to use it in a not very generous way.” Chris Lehane also appeared onstage and spoke to the gathered hosts as if they were infantry in the French marines. “We are going to have more fights and we are going to have more battles in the days, months, and years to come,” he said. “When this community is empowered to be a movement, we cannot be beat.”

When the Uber co-founders recount the story of their project, they stress the importance of the consumer to it. This might seem like familiar rhetoric but I want to suggest it reflects a deep (and problematic) commitment. In The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, we see how the early idea for Uber came to Garrett Camp when he was a young multi-millionaire living in San Francisco. After StumbleUpon was acquired by eBay, he found himself young, free and wealthy. From loc 617-632:

Camp continued to work at eBay after the sale, and he was now young, wealthy, and single, with a taste for getting out of the house more often. This is when he ran headlong into San Francisco’s feeble taxi industry. For decades, San Francisco had deliberately kept the number of taxi medallions capped at around fifteen hundred. Medallions in the city were relatively inexpensive and couldn’t be resold, and owners could keep the permit as long as they liked if they logged a minimum number of hours on the road every year. So new permits usually became available only when drivers died, and anyone who applied for one had to wait years to receive it. Stories abounded about a driver waiting for three decades to get a medallion, only to die soon after. The system guaranteed a healthy availability of passengers for the taxi companies even during slow times and ensured that full-time drivers could earn a living wage. But demand for cars greatly exceeded supply and so taxi service in San Francisco, famously, sucked. Trying to hail a cab in the outer neighborhoods near the ocean, or even downtown on a weekend night, was an exercise in futility. Getting a cab to take you to the airport was a stomach-churning gamble that could easily result in a missed flight.

He was, as Brad Stone puts it, “habitually restless, frustrated by inefficiencies, and armed with a willingness to challenge authority”. He contrived an initial solution of calling all yellow taxi companies when he needed a cab, in order to take the first one that arrived. He quickly found himself blacklisted (loc 647). He further explored how to game the existing system, learning about the mechanisms which frustrated him in the process. He developed an extensive working knowledge of how the collective interests of taxi drivers frustrated his interests as a wealthy young consumer. This generic propensity of the taxi industry to frustrate was coupled with the capacity of individual taxi drivers to fail to show such young consumers the respect they felt they deserved. From loc 771-786:

On a separate night in Paris, the group went for drinks on the Champs-Élysées and then to an elegant late-night dinner that included wine and foie gras. At 2: 00 a.m., somewhat intoxicated after a night of revelry, they hailed a cab on the street. Apparently they were speaking too boisterously, because halfway through the ride home, the driver started yelling at them. McCloskey was sitting in the middle of the backseat, and, at five feet ten inches tall, she’d had to prop her high heels on the cushion between the two front seats. The driver cursed at them in French and threatened to kick them out of the car if they didn’t quiet down and if McCloskey didn’t move her feet. She spoke French and translated; Kalanick reacted furiously and suggested they get out of the car. The experience seemed to harden their resolve. “It definitely lit a fire,” McCloskey says. “When you are put in a situation where you feel like there’s an injustice, that pisses Travis off more than anything. He couldn’t get over it. People shouldn’t have to sit in urine-filled cabs after a wonderful night and be yelled at.” That cantankerous Paris taxicab driver may have left an indelible mark on transportation history.

The instinct here is framed in terms of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ when it is articulated. But the basic moral sentiment is how dare they put their interests over ours? It’s a consumerist entitlement rooted in the extremely specific experience of affluent young consumers. Once embedded, every attempt to preserve the status quo can be experienced as an extension of this basic affront to self-importance. What appears to regulators as an incomprehensible disregard for legality (“You can’t just open a restaurant and say you are going to ignore the health department” as they were told in an early clash, reported on loc 1693) is experienced by ‘the upstarts’ as a commendable failure to be bullied, a refusal to take shit from anyone, whether it’s haughty French taxi drivers or municipal bureaucrats serving their interests. Their professed concern for regulation can be explained away as an allegiance to taxi drivers who don’t know their place. From loc 2348:

Still embittered by his experience with Christiane Hayashi and the SFMTA, Kalanick instructed Kochman to ignore New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission and its rules, reasoning that its regulations, under the guise of consumer safety, were really there to protect entrenched taxi interests.

What I’m describing as a moral project operates on two levels: an intellectual critique of entrenched interests and their failure to adequately serve consumers, as well as an underlying affectivity generated when entrenched privilege meets perceived wrong-doing. The former derives its shoving power from the latter. This is why I suspect the Uber co-founders might not simply be driving towards automation out of economic interest, but rather actually be able to take some perverse delight in rendering taxi drivers redundant as a category. As the Uber CEO excitedly put it when presented with a self-driving car for the first time: “The minute your car becomes real, I can take the dude out of the front seat” (loc 3657).

And this moral project is one it’s demonstrably possible to enlist others into. From loc 2467:

After Tusk joined as a consultant, Uber executives started meeting regularly with Ashwini Chhabra and his boss, David Yassky, chairman of the TLC. Officials in Bloomberg’s business-friendly administration, it turned out, were inclined to look favorably on a technology startup trying to change New York’s crusty taxi industry, which had resisted modernizing its vehicles and installing electronic credit card readers. 4 But Uber first needed to play by the rules. To truly appeal to New York drivers, Uber was going to have to register as a base.

Pity those who find themselves on the wrong side of the great disruptive project:

When asked about driverless cars, he said that he was excited for the technology because it could bring prices down, but he didn’t express concern about unemployment for drivers. “The reason Uber could be expensive is because you’re not just paying for the car, you’re paying for the other dude in the car,” Kalanick said. As for the tens of thousands of drivers who relied on his company to support their families, he shrugged. “This is the way of the world,” he said, “and the world isn’t always great. We all have to find ways to change.”

This struck me as an interesting case that reveals a broader truth about the sharing economy. A description of the very early merger of two companies offering city wide access to unused capacity in fitness classes, from Sweat Equity, by Jason Kelly, loc 1343:

“When you look at quality fitness inventory in each city, there aren’t thousands of studios,” Kapoor says. “You’re talking in the hundreds range, so the supply is limited. It’s difficult for more than one marketplace to win aggregating this type of supply. We asked ourselves, ‘Do we want to go head to head like Uber and Lyft? Maybe it makes sense to come together. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to help the industry for us to spend time and resources fighting each other versus focusing on our partners and consumers.’”

The evolution of one of the two companies is itself quite interesting, detailed on the same location in the book:

Founder Kadakia created the company, initially called Classtivity, as a one-time (one-month) sampler; the service was called the Passport, and it allowed the user to try out various workouts with the assumption that she’d settle on a favorite and join up. The Passport holder was entitled to skip around, depending on mood and availability of classes, and pick what to do that day. One New York magazine writer dubbed it “How to have an open relationship with exercise.” It was such a good idea that people wanted to do it for more than a month.

The author makes the interesting point that the transitory nature of the ensuing experience erodes the shared experiences which he argues are integral to understanding the fitness boom. From loc 1374:

One thing ClassPass lacks is a community. Sure, there are lots of ClassPassers running around, and users may collude by text and e-mail to grab a couple of free spots in the same cycling or barre class. But ClassPass removes a key element of what makes so many of its client boutiques so attractive in the first place—the ability to show up, on a regular basis, with your people.

A great analysis of a hugely important case being heard in the near future:

The immediate threat takes the form of an antitrust class action lawsuit against its co-founder and CEO, Travis Kalanick, which will be litigated in the Manhattan courtroom of Federal District Judge Jed Rakoff starting on November 1. At issue is Uber’s mobile app, through which customers order on-demand car rides, and which customer Spencer Meyer alleges amounts to a price-fixing conspiracy. The question is whether independent Uber drivers using the app, all charging the same price and implementing “surge pricing” at the same time, are violating the Sherman Antitrust Act’s prohibition against any “combination … or conspiracy … in restraint of trade.”

The lawsuit puts Uber and other companies in the online economy on a collision course with antitrust law. It also raises fundamental questions about how American companies treat their workers. It’s not surprising that tech companies can make a great deal of money by skirting employment, antitrust, and even anti-discrimination laws. But do we want them to? Some argue that the Uber conundrum calls for the creation of a third “independent worker” category of employment that gives it the control it needs to make its business model work, while safeguarding the flexibility its drivers prize. If courts and policymakers agree, it would effectively carve out a tech-sector exception to the regulatory principles governing the economy since the New Deal and the Gilded Age.

http://prospect.org/article/uber’s-antitrust-problem

The questions asked at the end are precisely the ones currently preoccupying me:

 Are the new behemoths of the tech sector innovators that make the economy more efficient by “disrupting” antiquated business models? Or are they just the trusts of a second Gilded Age, their new-fangled apps the equivalent of the railroad networks that monopolized commerce and access to markets 126 years ago, when the Sherman Act first took effect?

http://prospect.org/article/uber’s-antitrust-problem

Interesting analysis of the difficulties that many platform firms are facing now that venture capital is starting to dry up. I also love the phrase “a contagion of pivots” more than I can express:

A contagion of pivots began happening among other sharing economy startups. Companies like Cherry (car washes), Prim (laundry), SnapGoods (gear rental), Rewinery (wine), HomeJoy (home cleaning) all went bust, some of them quietly and others with more headlines. Historical experience shows that three out of four startups fail, and more than nine out of 10 never earn a return. My favorite example is SnapGoods, which is still cited today by many journalists who are pumping up the sharing economy (and haven’t done their homework) as a fitting example of a cool, hip company that allows people to rent out their spare equipment, like that drill you never use, or your backpack or spare bicycle—even though SnapGoods went out of business in August 2012. It just disappeared, poof, without a trace, yet goes on living in the imagination of sharing economy boosters.

http://www.salon.com/2016/03/27/good_riddance_gig_economy_uber_ayn_rand_and_the_awesome_collapse_of_silicon_valleys_dream_of_destroying_your_job/

The rather provocative conclusion drawn is that the so-called sharing economy ultimately amounts to nothing more than a series of digitally mediated niche temp agencies:

A pattern has emerged about the “white dwarf” fate of many of these once-luminous sharing startups: after launching with much fanfare and tens of millions of VC capital behind them, vowing to enact a revolution in how people work and how society organizes peer-to-peer economic transactions, in the end many of these companies morphed into the equivalent of old-fashioned temp agencies (and others have simply imploded into black hole nothingness). Market forces have resulted in a convergence of companies on a few services which had been the most used on their platforms. In a real sense, even the startup king itself, Uber, is merely a temp agency, where workers do only one task: drive cars. Rebecca Smith, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project, compares the businesses of the gig economy to old-fashioned labor brokers. Companies like Instacart, Postmates and Uber, she says, talk as if they are different from old-style employers simply because they operate online. “But in fact,” she says, “they are operating just like farm labor contractors, garment jobbers and day labor centers of old.

http://www.salon.com/2016/03/27/good_riddance_gig_economy_uber_ayn_rand_and_the_awesome_collapse_of_silicon_valleys_dream_of_destroying_your_job/

This is a great talk by José van Dijck. I can’t wait for her new book:

There are some excellent responses by Sonia Livingstone, suggesting we need to be critical of an emerging grand narrative of the platform society. It meshes nicely with the observation made by Adrian McKenzie that ‘algorithms’ have replaced ‘discourse’ as the master concept of post-structuralism.

One of the most interesting developments in the so-called sharing economy is the growing tendency for the largest of these companies to try and mobilise their users as lobbying and protest groups at the municipal level

But when Airbnb’s executives look out at the world, they don’t see a fragmented puzzle of local politics and planning codes. They see Moscow, where Russians are renting out rooms on Airbnb as a means of surviving the country’s current recession. They see Havana, where Cubans were listing their homes in droves https://nextcity.org/features/view/cuba-airbnb-houses-for-rent-sharing-economy-havana. They see, as Lehane said to a room full of reporters over breakfast the morning after the election, a global network of guests and hosts that, if politically organized by and in favor of the company, could be enormously powerful.

And so organizing and training them is exactly what Airbnb plans to do, using its victory in San Francisco to unite Airbnb’s most passionate users into a series of clubs in cities around the world. The goal is to have created 100 of them by 2016. When election season rolls around that year, legions of customer advocates will be ready and waiting to come out against any group or individual who doesn’t wholeheartedly embrace Airbnb and what it stands for.

http://www.buzzfeed.com/carolineodonovan/the-road-forward-for-airbnb?utm_term=.bc5407K9g#.cj2mP6j0Q

This would always be sinister in-and-of-itself. But what really worries me is the dependency and/or loyalty of these users and how that may play itself out politically as this trend develops. I just came across this remarkable devotional essay: Why I’m thankful for the sharing economy.

At the end of the day, the sharing economy is the most necessary thing I need to survive. Not a day goes by without my pulling out my phone and tapping a couple apps to make my life in this crazy world a little bit easier

http://vator.tv/news/2015-11-26-why-i-m-thankful-for-the-sharing-economy#rX3SZo23vhE1f04Y.99

How many people experience these companies as something essential for their day-to-day life? This strikes me as a really urgent empirical question, particularly given the aforementioned political questioned posed by the increasingly aggressive lobbying of these companies in municipalities throughout the world.

After so narrowly defeating the San Francisco ballot calling for restrictions on short term letting, Airbnb intend to step up their mobilisation of hosts and users to help defeat legislative obsticles to their expansion:

But when Airbnb’s executives look out at the world, they don’t see a fragmented puzzle of local politics and planning codes. They see Moscow, where Russians are renting out rooms on Airbnb as a means of surviving the country’s current recession. They see Havana, where Cubans were listing their homes in droves https://nextcity.org/features/view/cuba-airbnb-houses-for-rent-sharing-economy-havana. They see, as Lehane said to a room full of reporters over breakfast the morning after the election, a global network of guests and hosts that, if politically organized by and in favor of the company, could be enormously powerful.

And so organizing and training them is exactly what Airbnb plans to do, using its victory in San Francisco to unite Airbnb’s most passionate users into a series of clubs in cities around the world. The goal is to have created 100 of them by 2016. When election season rolls around that year, legions of customer advocates will be ready and waiting to come out against any group or individual who doesn’t wholeheartedly embrace Airbnb and what it stands for.

http://www.buzzfeed.com/carolineodonovan/the-road-forward-for-airbnb?utm_term=.bc5407K9g#.cj2mP6j0Q

What I find particularly interesting about this is the role of vested interests on the part of many of the hosts. This begins to take on a rather feudal character when we consider that in some cases those being  mobilised are financially dependent on the income stream Airbnb opens up for them. 

There’s also an interesting observation in the article about the heterogenous policy climate that Airbnb, in common with many comparable platform companies, find themselves confronting on the municipal level. This results in a remarkably pronounced structural imperative to seek the harmonisation of regulation across the cities in which they operate:

While the company is headquartered in San Francisco and fought hard there, the company has property listings in 34,000 cities, each of which, according to global head of policy Chris Lehane, “has its own flavor.” The sheer variety of municipal legal codes has been repeatedly cited by Airbnb as the reason the company can’t create a customized product for each city depending on its laws. While cities like Philadelphia, Milan, Frankfurt and Amsterdam have, according to Lehane, embraced Airbnb and been willing to work with it on regulations, relations have been rockier elsewhere. Santa Monica cracked down on the company in the spring, and in October, Airbnb had to fight off regulations in Québec, the first of their kind in Canada.

http://www.buzzfeed.com/carolineodonovan/the-road-forward-for-airbnb?utm_term=.bc5407K9g#.cj2mP6j0Q

This is another example of how corporate trends at the leading edge of digital capitalism intersect with a much longer term tendency towards post-democratic drift, one which is in many cases much further developed at the municipal level than at the national level. In essence: how well equipped are other local groups to resist the lobbying of platform providers and their mobilised user base? Are they less able to do so than they would have been previously? 

This is a slightly crude attempt to thematise something which I’ve been struggling to express for a while: has there been an acceleration of the rate at which bullshit emerges in the digital economy? Here’s an example of what I have in mind. I’ve been looking through Amazon for business books about the newer social media and sharing economy companies for part of my new project. This is what I find when searching for Instagram in the books section of Amazon:

1

If you can’t read the screenshot closely enough, trust me when I say they look crap. What appear to be a uniformly substitutable array of questionably written books united by the underlying motif of how to get rich from Instagram. I’ve found something similar for almost every search I’ve undertaken in the last half hour.

The presence of many crap books on Amazon might not be a revelation. But what interests me is the motivations of those writing them. The buzz around a new platform presents an opportunity to establish oneself as a guide to that platform. But the nature of this buzz means awareness of that opportunity is almost as pervasive as awareness of the platform itself. The barriers to entry are minimal and the rewards appear to be great, particularly given the tendency of those who have ‘made it’ to “publicize successful outliers to propagate the illusion”. Furthermore, there’s a broader acceleration of the rate at which people seize on opportunities against a structural background of destructured careers and a cultural background of entrepreneurial individualism.

The result: we find ourselves drowning in an ever expanding pool of bullshit. The cognitive costs entailed by sorting the wheat from the chaff become ever more onerous, our reliance upon human and algorithmic intermediaries tends to increase as a result, making a small but meaningful contribution to the upwards spiral of individual distraction and collective fragmentation that I’m increasingly convinced is perhaps the defining characteristic of digital capitalism.

 

This is an interesting development: there’s clearly an interest served by the announcement but the potential success of this positioning could prove influential if legal challenges to contract labour gain some traction:

Shift, an on-demand startup that helps people buy and sell cars, is looking to make employees out of its contract-based labor force. Almost 100 California-based “car enthusiasts” — what Shift calls the people who do price checks, coordinate inspections, facilitate test drives, and otherwise help with the transaction — are being given the opportunity to join the company as employees, starting December 1.

Use of contract labor by tech companies is a hot topic. Companies including Postmates, Washio, Handy, Lyft and Uber are currently being sued by workers who say they should be receiving the benefits and compensation befitting employees.

Not all on-demand companies use independent contractors — Munchery, WashUp, Alfred and Managed by Q, to name a few, use employees. Still others, such as Shyp, Instacart and Sprig, have announced intentions to transition their workforce from contract-based to employee status.

http://www.buzzfeed.com/carolineodonovan/another-startup-is-moving-away-from-contract-labor

Another BuzzFeed article gives an excellent overview of a legal challenge currently being mounted by four amazon staff over their status as contract labour:

Amazon contractors — drivers who worked for Prime Now, Amazon’s two-hour local delivery service, and were hired through a third-party contracting company — have proposed a lawsuit against the company, accusing Amazon of misclassifying them as contractors.

The drivers, their lawyer Beth Ross argues, should be classified as employees for a number of reasons, including that they work shifts rather than on a gig basis, have to wear shirts and hats with company branding, and are told by the company where to be and when. In addition, the workers are concerned that the cost of gas, tolls, and other incidental expenditures makes their total income below the legal minimum wage in California. (Amazon advertises that the drivers will make around $20 an hour; the minimum wage in California, where these workers live, is $9.)

http://www.buzzfeed.com/carolineodonovan/yet-more-amazon-workers-are-suing-amazon

Uber is planning to raise up to $1 billion in new investment, only months after having raised the same amount. As Natasha Lomas observes, this raises an important question:

Why does a ride-hailing business that likes to claim it’s not a transportation company need such a massive money mountain behind it? It’s pretty clear Uber subsidizes the cost of rides as part of its market expansion acceleration strategy — as a way to undercut traditional taxi opposition and put pressure on local ride-hailing competition.

It’s also been spending big on trying to crack specific international markets, such as the Chinese market, where it faces some fast growing (and well funded) local competition — raising around $1.2 billion last month to fuel its growth there, and another $1 billion in July focused on India.

The company has also signaled its ambitions go beyond getting people from A to B, with merchant delivery programs, such as food delivery (Uber Eats) and a same-day courier service (Uber Rush), being piloted and soft launched in various cities.

It’s also engaged in driverless car tech research — envisaging an evolution of its platform, down the road, where Ubers are driven by robots rather than self-employed human ‘partners’. The meatsacks will just be sitting in the back.

http://techcrunch.com/2015/10/24/one-more-billion/



She plausibly suggests that Uber’s ultimate goal is to become an ‘on demand logistics platform’. The overlap with Amazon’s long term ambitions here seems particularly interesting. But what is most pressing to me is the question of when, if at all, the rhetoric of the ‘sharing economy’ will be abandoned. 

There are strong prima facie grounds on which to argue that it functions as a discursive slight of hand, distracting attention from the terrifying scale of Uber’s ambitions. It would be an interesting exercise to try and evaluate this through a content analysis: how does Uber position itself in public, particularly in response to criticism? How, if at all, has this changed over time?