Digital Society Forum Digital Society Forum
Dossier 10/10/2014

Sociability in collaborative consumption: the great illusion?

One of the big recurring promises linked to collaborative consumption, as described by its main promoters, refers to new forms of sociability. These forms of exchange represent occasions for people, who would not normally cross paths, to meet each other forming short or long-lasting connections and unprecedented inter-cultural exchanges. Are platforms such as Couchsurfing, AirBnB or Peerby really creating new forms of social links?

The programme "Nus et Culottés" aired in the summer of 2012 on France 5 filmed two young travellers. The principle was simple: the pair were filmed leaving a departure point naked and were tasked with reaching a finish point "clothed" while spending as little money as possible. They relied on gifts and bartering to achieve their goal. The encounters experienced by our two protagonists were impromptu, heartfelt and brief. By leaving behind monetary concerns to rely on the kindness of strangers, this programme - one of the most watched and popular on this public TV channel - seems to be the TV version of the collaborative economy.

The service offered by the Couchsurfing site relies on the same logic. By putting individuals in touch with hosts who put up guests for free, Couchsurfing also creates occasions for unprecedented encounters. The approach functions on the principle of reciprocity: guests then become hosts by sharing their homes and culture with strangers. Since its creation in 2004, the network has continued to grown (9 million members in 2014) linking the whole planet.

The quest for authenticity

Whether its swapping homes, putting people up or sharing cars, the quest for a certain authenticity seems to be the recurring motivation. This quest is now facilitated by just a few clicks. For example, you may not want to dine alone and wish to meet other people. The sites Eat with or vousvoulezdiner organise meetings or hospitality events where a warm welcome and good food are key.

In terms of hospitality, Couchsurfing, Hospitality Club and Global Freeloaders help those with a modest income to explore countries as the traveller is put up free of charge by another site member. In this concept, the meeting with the host is one of the most important aspects of the visit: the host is an integral part of the life of the city and will often act as guide by showing the visitor lees well known areas of the city and where to get a bargain. This 2.0 version of tourism allows travellers to get off the beaten track, avoid mass tourism and even not feel like a tourist at all. According to the Polish sociologist Paula Bialski, the quasi affective connection which motivates a great many Couchsurfers is one the specificities of "intimate tourism", which plays a role in these relationships.

This notion of intimacy further develops our circle of acquaintances and social interactions, which tend to expand. Sharing something with friends and family or a fellow club member is one thing, sharing something with a stranger is another. This quest for social links, which no longer takes place in a local spheres, has become vast. The notion of intimacy has been turned on its head.

Utilitarianism is a humanism

However, let's not forget that the quest for new encounters and authenticity does not hide the fact that personal gain is the main driver of this approach. Let's take a look at the financial aspects: on Couchsurfing the accommodation is free encouraging foreign travel especially when the biggest of part of a holiday budget is swallowed up by the accommodation costs. One of the growth engines of BlaBlaCar or Drivy is the increasingly high cost of train tickets and traditional car rental. In the case of Couchsurfing, which certain consider as a vast supermarket of free accommodation, the pleasure of travelling and discovering other cultures seems to be a strong driving force. However, does this material and cultural interest prevent true friendships from forming and can quality relationships arise from these types of encounters? No study has sufficient hindsight to explore what happens after these supposedly ephemeral meetings.

When access is better than ownership...

One of the most influential theorists of the collaborative economy is the Australian researcher Rachel Botsman, who puts forward that idea that sharing is indissociable from mankind. Members of Generation Y have grown up "sharing files, video games, knowledge; its second nature to them". Rachel Botsman takes up the concept of the American economist Jeremy Rifkin: ownership of goods has given way to accessing goods.

Dematerializing work and information and sharing goods is now emerging as a new way of consuming, which according to Rachel Botsman, would lead to a broader vision of the collaborative society and would lead users to a progressive detachment from consumer goods. These platforms eliminate the need for intermediaries, lower prices and motivate consumers to engage in peer-to-peer relationships.

But is this vision too idealistic and doesn't it require the transformation of certain collaborative platforms? During their first years of development, these sites did not prevent traditional start-up mechanisms from increasing; a website that managed to establish itself as the essential reference on the basis of a free service, in a second phase often introduces a fee in order to stabilise its business model and develop further. This is the case of, which became BlaBlaCar, and which monetized its business model by imposing automatic transactions. Many of those who regularly used have complained that they do not find the same spirit of mutual help in the BlaBlaCar. model If the monetized model becomes systematic does this not sully the original concept based on the spirit of sharing?


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