Do Consumers Perceive Ethical Intensity in Über and Airbnb Peer-to-Peer Services?

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
202 South Hall (South Hall)
Myriam Ertz, Université du Québec à Montréal, Montréal, QC, Canada
Fabien Durif, Université du Québec à Montréal, Montréal, QC, Canada
Agnès Lecompte, Université de Bretagne Sud, Lorient, France
The digital shift brought about by the Web 2.0 has led to a boom in collaborative consumption platforms (Belk, 2014). Collaborative consumption refers in part, albeit not exclusively, to web-powered, peer-to-peer (P2P) services (e.g. Über, Airbnb) or marketer‑managed systems (e.g. Zipcar, Bixi) which employ social media, mobility and reputation systems to create new business models (Gansky, 2010; John, 2013). Often portrayed as champions of ‘sharing’ by reason of their pooling and mutualization of resources, and as democratizers of ‘access to ownership’ through redistribution systems (i.e. swapping, donating, secondhand purchasing and resale platforms), companies operating in what is commonly referred to as the ‘sharing economy’ (Benkler, 2002) are therefore frequently conflated with the notion of ‘virtuous economy’. That said, the issue of whether or not for-profit P2P services operate in keeping with generally accepted moral principles remains a topic of fierce debate. Some prominent scholars, business commenters and authors allude to the sharing economy as a misnomer, claiming that the utopian potlatch façade has been paved over and replaced with a turbo‑capitalistic digital shopping mall (Bardhi and Eckhardt, 2015; Leonard, 2014). Botsman and Rogers’ (2010) ingenuous ‘what’s mine is yours’ now occupies shelf space alongside Tom Slee’s (2015) vindictive ‘what’s yours is mine’. Borne of the shift to digital, giants Über and Airbnb not only epitomize the notion but also crystallize the moral issues associated with the sharing economy.

Über and Airbnb indeed represent forms of for-profit P2P services which provide consumers with an opportunity to fulfil their needs through the use of consumer-driven in lieu of corporate-driven services (Botsman and Rogers, 2010). However, Über, Airbnb and other copycat organizations are regularly criticized and attacked for rampant profiteering, even though criticism can be readily traced to the fact that newcomers of the like disrupt the economic moralities developed over time and internalized by markets and states. Indeed, while most conventional businesses are required to comply with sector-specific regulations, declare worker salaries, pay applicable taxes and provide social benefits schemes, non-conventional businesses operating in the sharing economy eschew standards and regulations (Slee, 2015). Lack of regulatory compliance creates unfair competition, decreases government revenue intake (The Economist, 2013), and raises a host of contract, legal and tax-related issues for workers (Roose, 2014; Benner, 2014; Huet, 2015; Benner, 2014). Meanwhile, lower costs, greater flexibility and enhanced service offerings continue to spawn ever increasing consumer interest in and attachment to for-profit P2P services (Williams-Grut, 2015). Parallel economies revolving around the sharing economy have also begun to emerge. There are now businesses which take charge of the entire Airbnb lodging process from listing to cleaning, and hotel establishments which rely on Airbnb to fill rooms (Kessler, 2015). Hence issues relating to the collaborative economy tend to be as seminal as they are complex. From a broader perspective, there subsists a need for public intervention and for regulatory bodies to embrace an expanded range of stakeholders.

The object of this paper is to broach the subject from the viewpoint of an often overlooked stakeholder, namely the consumer. It remains unclear the extent to which consumers actually perceive ethical issues with respect to for-profit P2P services such as Über and Airbnb. After all, no fewer than 60 million people use Airbnb to find hotel alternatives (Kessler, 2015), and Über has grown into a transport network spanning 311 cities in 58 countries (Kim, 2015). This study therefore seeks to answer the following research questions: (1) To what extent do consumers perceive ethical issues respecting recourse to for-profit P2P service platforms such as Über and Airbnb?; (2) How do these perceptions translate into effective behaviour; and (3) What are the situational dimensions underpinning these perceptions?

To capture a broad spectrum of consumer attitudes, exploratory research involving individual, in-depth interviews will be conducted with both users and non-users of Airbnb and Über. These interviews will be carried out employing a sample of Canadian consumers based on the semantic saturation principle in accordance with which the interview process is terminated when insight provided by consumers starts to become redundant (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). Between fifteen and twenty consumers are expected to take part and provide perceptions of potential moral issues relating to Über and Airbnb use. Consumer input will be recorded in full, then subsequently transcribed and analysed using Atlas.ti software.

In an attempt to answer the two first research questions (i.e. identification of perceived ethical issues relating to the use of platforms such as Über and Airbnb, and translation into behaviour), qualitative data will be analysed and benchmarked against Jones’ (1991) ‘ethical decision-making process’. According to the latter, consumers engage in a four-stage process whereby they: (i) recognize a moral issue, (ii) make a moral judgement about the issue, (iii) formulate intentions respecting their judgement; and, (iv) take action based on intentions formulated (Loe, Ferrell and Mansfield, 2000).

To answer the third research question (i.e. identify the factors impacting consumer positioning in the four-stage process), an analysis will be conducted to determine the nature and intensity of the moral issue, and, more particularly, the importance of the issue to consumers (Crane and Matten, 2010). According to Jones (1991), the intensity of an issue varies based on six underlying factors: (1) magnitude of consequences (e.g. sum of benefits or harmful aspects  for those impacted by for-profit P2P services); (2) social consensus (e.g. extent to which people agree the positive or negative nature of for-profit P2P services); (3) probability of effect (e.g. likelihood that harm or benefits will actually be incurred); (4) temporal immediacy (e.g. speed with which the consequences are likely to occur); (5) proximity (e.g. cultural, social, psychological or physical nearness felt by consumers for those impacted by for-profit P2P services); and, (6) concentration of effects (e.g. major for the few, minor for the many). The analysis will therefore pinpoint those dimensions which are relevant for characterizing the moral issues relating to Über and Airbnb use, and the patterns of reasoning favoured by consumers in this regard.

Lastly, our research draws political and theoretical conclusions on this intensely debated topic.

References available upon request.