In sharing we trust

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What is the biggest thing holding back a more meaningful sharing economy? Basic digital skills are important, but establishing online social trust is a much bigger hurdle, writes Richard Dent. 

The sharing economy has the potential to transform British society by lifting people out of poverty and addressing social exclusion. But we’re not there yet! As a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, I’m fascinated by the role online social trust plays in creating a socially beneficial sharing economy. Social networks like Streetbank, Streetlife and Casserole Club already show real potential to address social problems by lowering the cost of trust formation between strangers. More recently, Refugees-welcome has been set up to help refugees arriving into EU countries, and the Techfugees movement is creating a whole raft of new apps for refugees.

However, participants in the sharing economy are still a minority with 25% of people in UK reported participating in the sharing economy (including users of platforms such as AirBnb and Uber) in 2014. The percentage using apps like Streetlife is much smaller. The sharing economy is fuelled on a new social process: the ability to build online social trust between strangers. But how far can this go? Can the sharing economy gain the trust and participation levels needed to deliver a widespread and transformative public benefit?

Digital skills are the beginning, but not the end

While sharing platforms can widen access to food, donations, job opportunities and child care, online access and participation are not always a given. In fact, the digital skills requirements of the collaborative economy have excluded 20% of the UK population – particularly those who are unemployed or on a lower income. An estimated 44% of people without basic digital skills are on lower wages or are unemployed (Gov.uk). If digital inclusion isn’t a priority for proponents of the sharing economy, we risk seeing its benefits restricted to a highly skilled digital elite – or at worst, the exacerbation of existing social inequalities. This last issue was observed as an effect of the Internet by The World Bank’s Digital Dividends research.

Getting the most out of these new sharing platforms requires individuals have more advanced digital skills. The government recently pledged to improve digital inclusion for over one million people, and the launch of free wi-fi in libraries and community centres is a welcome step forward. However, one in five still remain offline or lack basic digital skills. Poverty is on the rise, and at the same time, trust in society is reportedly falling.

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Unlocking pro-social activity

It’s not just digital inclusion that needs to be addressed. While research by Compare and Share showed £3.5 trillion worth of idle assets worldwide, we have yet to fully explore the value (both economic and social) of idle online social trust. More than a third of UK adults would be willing to volunteer for the NHS. Volunteerism in the UK contributes an estimated 3.5% of annual UK GDP. Equally, People Helping People – a Nesta report on social action in the UK – pointed to the various new volunteering opportunities technology can create – such as ‘micro-volunteering’ and other ‘bite–size’ volunteering activities.

As more people get online, with the necessary digital skills, levels of participation in volunteering activities could increase in the next ten years, thereby unlocking a vast wealth of social and economic value. However, increasing trust and participation also means overcoming the motivation gap. People may have concerns about engaging in prosocial behaviour online, or simply not be interested.

Field research conducted by University of Cambridge Computer Lab found that even when offered free Internet, low income communities in Nottingham did not engage online “citing time constraints, fear of being tracked, fear of the technology and concerns that family will revert to online contact rather than face to face”

The Oxford Internet Institute’s Cultures of the Internet research found that for those already using social networks online, civic engagement is the least popular activity. Challenging and rethinking one’s motivations is incredibly tricky. If people don’t see the benefits of the sharing economy, they are unlikely to change their behaviour. Communication and education on the benefits has largely been left to the NGO sector and media, yet both national and local government should be playing a role.

Increasing online social trust and inclusion in the sharing economy

These barriers are surmountable. Understanding and then communicating the benefits sharing economy platforms could have if coupled with an effective digital inclusion strategy is thus key. The argument is simple – getting online with the right digital skills and motivation could be more important than ever before. As the sharing economy grows in diversity and popularity, we risk missing the opportunity to build valuable trust in our communities and to address poverty and social isolation together.

To move forward, academics, social enterprise, government and charities will need to work together. Researchers can help identify the true value of online social trust and find ways to motivate people in cost effective ways. This knowledge can help sharing platforms, governments and civil society develop support and incentives for sharing economy platforms that create meaningful impact.

If you want to get involved, you can start by getting involved with Dot Everyone who are aiming to create a public institution for the digital age. I will also be publishing further work on this topic at openaccessphd.com, so please get in touch if you have any thoughts or feedback in the comments section below.

Edited by Sophie Reynolds.

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