Social design of the collaborative economy

Merchant of Venice

Lots of interesting attention of late being paid to the collaborative economy. Collaborative economies are of course nothing new. Prior to the rise of capitalism and the organization of society around production and economic trade, most societies were collaborative economies. Though they were bound by traditions, non-monetary trade and exchange, and on principles of gifts, debts, and social obligations. These disappeared when labor was lifted out of social structure and negotiated by means of money.

What’s happening today is perhaps less a sign of an emergent collaborative economy than a spate of social tools seeking to leverage collaborative exchange — in short, collaborative practices mediated by technologies. In cultural terms, what’s new is the possibility that technologies can create and sustain the conditions required for collaborative exchange. It used to be it took social institutions to accomplish this. But as we now know, technologies can serve as substitutes or proxies for deeper social traditions and norms. At least, they can try.

Designing these tools, and indeed practices, entails not only technical development. The social uptake of these practices must be designed also. For this, we have to accept that technology alone does not produce the cultural and social prerequisites for interactions as high-stakes as the temporary rental and exchange of personal property and services. Trust is the barrier to entry. And the higher the risk, the greater the trust needed for success.

Our society is characterized by a myriad of differentiated and expert systems. In them we place our confidence, for none of us is intimately or professionally familiar with the mechanics of each. We invest confidence in systems in place of knowledge, and so our knowledge of these expert systems is subject to a degree of uncertainty. At times this comes around to bite us — housing markets, Lehman, etc.

The system becomes a mediator of technical and social interactions. And confidence in the system serves to mitigate the risks inherent in transactions among strangers.

In traditional societies, this trust is sedimented into social relationships bound by social norms. Right and wrong, and the forces of social membership, guarantee expectations. In modern societies, by contrast, expert systems not traditions mediate these relationships. Which in turn can now be temporary, and less personally invested. Law and legal resolution pick up where traditions left off.

The design of these collaborative practices thus proceeds on two levels. First, a social architecture comprising of social technologies capable of producing enduring and connected interpersonal contact and exchange. Second, a regime of social routines and practices sustained by consistent and socially acceptable communications and activities. The former provides the means; the latter becomes the production.

While confidence in social technologies (expert systems) can be secured somewhat by well-financed and effective technology design, trust among participants cannot. It must emerge on its own terms, by means of social interaction, individual accountability, connectedness (social graph), and legitimacy.

Where many social tools function to reproduce or facilitate direct interpersonal communication, both social architectures and practices of collaborative economies must involve indirect relationships. They must be built around “the third,” or the triangle.

In social networking terms, direct communication is dyadic — it’s a pair or couple, and a relationship between A : B. Triangulation involves A : B : C. And what makes it the building block of social relationships is that an action A : B affects C. As in architecture, the triangle is much stronger than the pair. The triangle is Shakespeare — the basis of all dramatic form. For it is strengthened by loyalty and broken by betrayal. (Drama ensues.)

Social engineering, then, of collaborative practices succeeds or fails on the basis of effective triangulation. A mediating system and its social architecture to serve the “third,” or intermediary role in transactions (branding +). And a culture of social interactions (communication and actions) in which a third party is implicated in the transactions of pairs. This third party can be a public, a relationship (friend or peer), a review board — the list is long. But only with a third is the cost of betrayal raised to prices worthy of trust.

It used to be we talked of social capital, and of the attention economy. This was early days for social, and both social capital and the attention economy were centered on self-presentation of individuals. They were about a social form preoccupied with “me,” and the production of “me.” Collaborative practices, and collaborative economics, hold a greater promise for social. For they rest on the assimilation of social tools into daily transactions with higher stakes (personal property and services). Tools now no longer simply serve the expression of me, but the implication of me into transactional practices.

I suspect that as we get deeper into the complexities of designing these tools, we will make greater use of meta social information to architect reputation systems. These will in various ways fold the third into the sociality of these tools and services. We might learn from technical systems. But likely, we will learn too, from Shakespeare. The Merchant of Venice asks for a pound of flesh.



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