Market Exchange or Social Bond? Characterizing the Exchanges in Collaborative Consumption

Friday, June 24, 2016: 10:45 AM-12:15 PM
205 South Hall (South Hall)
Jean-Samuel Beuscart, Orange Labs, Châtillon, France; LISIS - UPMLV/CNRS, Marne La Vallée, France
Marie Trespeuch, IDHE - ENS Cachan; Orange Labs, Châtillon, France
The collaborative consumption (CC) refers to a set of consumption practices based on direct exchanges of goods and services between consumers (Botsman & Rogers, 2010). The intermediation between private individuals is handled by digital platforms which organize a minimathe encounter between non-professional suppliers and buyers. In the early stage of the web, this trade has been used for selling second-hand goods (eBay, much later LeBonCoin); more recently it has expanded to the selling of first-hand goods (Etsy), and little by little to an increasing range of services: hosting (Airbnb), transportation (BlaBlaCar, Drivy), equipment rental (Zilok), small tasks and services (TaskRabbit), etc. The exchanges are mostly done with for-profit motivations, but a wide range of other motivations can interfere (Couchsurfing, Corecyclage, Peerby). The scope of this consumption varies depending on the authors and the definitions they choose to define the phenomenon (e.g. putting some emphasis on the concept of "sharing" - Belk, 2010 ; taking into accounts or not non digital practices – FING 2015); but the fact remains that a specific consumption sphere has quickly developed, characterized by peer-to-peer exchanges and the mediation of digital platforms.

In addition to the economic success of these companies, the growth of collaborative consumption is associated to several promises about the specific nature of its market exchanges: peer-to-peer transactions would be potentially more authentic, would produce enhanced market exchanges, i.e. richer than the ordinary market relationships. To coin a term widely used by the platforms managers we met, the collaborative consumption, because of the meetings and exchanges it generates, would be more “friendly”, would favor warmer relationships, unexpected encounters and a collective spirit of mutual assistance. Of course, for the most critical analysts, this argument is likely to be reversed: by organizing mercantile relationships between individuals, collaborative consumption would increase a little more the scope of cold and selfish interested calculation; by transforming individuals into small commercial entities, and by taking a commission fee, the websites would contribute to the economic colonization of the social world, to the extension of the exploitation of labor in the private sphere (Scholz, 2013).

Our paper focuses on the qualification of these socio-economic relationships between individuals and the characterization of online platforms, which are at the heart of the concerns about the collaborative consumption. Beyond the interpretative schema opposing “sharing” and “alienation”, we try to describe the concrete functioning of exchanges on the platforms and its effects, following both the technical mediations put forward by the websites, as well as the descriptions made by users of their exchange partners and of their interactions. More specifically, our approach consists in observing to what extent these exchanges were thought and designed as typical market transactions or left some space for unexpected interactions, and to what extent users overflow this framing or not. Within the extensive literature on the topic, we particularly rely on the symmetric definition of gift and market exchange proposed by Callon and Latour (1997). They summarize the framing of the market exchange by three characteristics: it occurs between two strangers -at least two individuals who treated each other as strangers; they exchange a good or a service against a strictly equivalent (financial) compensation; and at the end of the interaction, individuals are quits.

This definition provides a useful guideline to describe the multiple shades of collaborative exchanges. In a first part, we analyze the work that platforms and users jointly make to build a market transaction: the technical devices as well as users’ routines (sellers in particular) converge in order to define the goods and the services exchanged, fixing their value, facilitating the transaction, without needing a strong commitment or acquaintanceship. This market framing is more or less present on all the platforms we have observed; but it does not exhaust the description issue of the collaborative exchanges. In the second part of the communication, we identify the aspects of the exchange that overflow the market framing: in particular, the choice of the exchange partner can raise important moral issues; moreover, we report various practices of sociability and self-unveiling moments depending on the services and the social contexts.

The communication builds upon a qualitative study which analyses the framing of several CC platforms and users practices. After defining and mapping a wide range of CC services available online, we interviewed French managers of ten different platforms, covering both monetary and non-monetary exchanges. We asked questions about the ways they developed their business and how they designed their websites to frame the exchanges between their users (building confidence, security, simplicity…). In a second phase, we interviewed French users of three platforms: BlaBlaCar (carpooling), Drivy (peer-to-peer rental cars), VideDressing (second-hand clothes exchanges). The interviewees (n=45) were contacted in partnership with the platforms, selecting frequent or regular users of the website, and according to their age, gender and geographic location. All the in-depth interviews were recorded, transcribed and coded via the QdAMiner software before analysis.


Belk Russel, “Sharing”, Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 36, 2010.

Botsman Rachel & Roo Rogers, What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, éd. HarperCollins Business, 2010.

Callon Michel & Bruno Latour, « Thou shall not calculate ! or How to Symmetricalize Gift and Capital » ;  translated from « Tu ne calculeras pas, ou comment symétriser le don et le capital », in Le capitalisme aujourd’hui, Paris, éd. La Découverte, 1997.

Daudey Emilie & Sandra Hoibian, « La société collaborative – mythe et réalité », CREDOC, 2014.

Scholz Trebor (ed.), Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory, Routledge, 2013.