Commons Are not the Sharing Economy. A comment to Ossewaarde & Reijers (2017)

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This was written in the context of the research project"Creating Commons". And while the paper I'm commenting on it not particularly good, it's symptomatic for a lazy-left critique of the commons and thus warrants the comments.

Ossewaarde, Marinus und Wessel Reijers (2017): „The illusion of the digital commons: ‘False consciousness’ in online alternative economies“, Organization 24/5, S. 609–628. (paywalled)

From the abstract:
“Digital commons such as Wikipedia, open-source software, and hospitality exchanges are frequently seen as forms of resistance to capitalist modes of production and consumption, as elements of alternative economies. In this article, however, we argue that the digital commons cannot by themselves constitute genuine forms of resistance for they are vulnerable to what we call ‘the illusion of the digital commons’, which leads to a form of ‘false consciousness’.”

This is both an interesting and annoying article. It's interesting as it details how „sharing“ can be put into the service of profit-driven centralization. It's annoying because it uses a small number of cases to make sweeping claims that feel more than a little disingenuous.

For example, while Wikipedia and Open Source Software are mentioned in the first line of the abstract, they play no role in the subsequent analysis. That focuses entirely on three “hospitality exchanges”: Airbnb, Couchsurfing and BeWelcome.

I'm not sure why Airbnb is included in a critique of the digital commons. Since its beginning in 2006, it has clearly been a profit-driven service for short-term rental. For years now, its aggressive business-practices have been attracting scrutiny from municipal governments around the world. Airbnb would better be compared to Uber and other online market-places for third party services. Such a comparison could serve as critique of the “sharing economy” as expanding commodification and precarization. That would not be a very original critique by now, and, more importantly, it's not the aim of the paper which claims to be a critique of the digital commons.

More interesting is the case of Couchsurfing. Started 2003 as a non-profit, peer-to-peer exchange platform financed through donations, it was converted into a for-profit company in 2011 and attracted at least two rounds of venture-capital funding. Unlike Airbnb, which lists straight-forward rental prices and takes a 6-12% (or more) cut as service fee, also the commercial version of Couchsurfing lists no direct prices. So guest pay no money, host receive no money and the platform cannot take a cut. The commercial model seems to focus on user tracking and data generation. Thus it could very easily be classified within the framework of “surveillance capitalism”.

When Couchsurfing changed to a for-profit mode, quite a few users protested what they saw as a transformation from community to commodity, but beyond leaving the service, there was little they could do as they did not control the infrastructure on which they were relying.

Ostrom, in her famous Design Principles for Local and Global Commons (1992), points, among others, to the need for “Collective-Choice Arrangements” by which she means that “most individuals affected by operational rules can participate in modifying operational rules.” In the case of Couchsurfing, these are clearly missing. The inability to participate in making the rules by those affected by the rules, is one of the crucial problems of many “sharing platforms” and it's usually design feature to centralize control (and, eventually, profit). It leaves users of the platform entirely dependent on the owners of the platform, who can change their policies at any moment (as Couchsurfing did).

The contrast to BeWelcome is interesting. On the surface, both offers similar services which are free to users. BW, however, is non-profit organization, it's platform is open source software and users have a say in changing the mode of operation. The platform is run by volunteers and collects donations to cover the costs of providing the service. Thus, the sale of personal data is prohibited. For those interested in the active development of the community, there is a membership process that allows to participate in a General Assembly which elects the board of directors. Thus there are, in Ostrom's terms, “collective-choice arrangements.” Strangely enough, they are not mentioned in the paper at all.

Thus, the paper fails to provide any criteria to differentiate between the capitalist “sharing economy” with its well documented problems of commodification and precarization and a-capitalist “commons” as integral institutions that relate financial and social aspects in different ways and allow for participatory decision-making. Instead, they choose to paint everything with the same brush as “as arrangements of ‘false consciousness’.” This leads to the totally unsubstantiated and rather absurd claim that “digital commoners, in their resistance to large organizations, tend to engage in the lone wolf endeavors of what Sloterdijk calls ‘embittered loners’. That is to say, technologically mediated ‘commoning’ leads to cynicism that alienates commoners from the very practice of commoning.” (p.624) Wow, one wonders what ax the authors had to grind there.

In terms of an analysis of the digital commons, the paper can serve to highlight – if this wasn't clear already – that technological arrangement are part of social arrangements and that control over infrastructures is a potent source of power.


McGinnis, Michael D. und Elinor Ostrom (1992): „Design Principles for Local and Global Commons“, Linking Local and Global Commons (Harvard Center for International Affairs, Cambridge, MA, April 23-25)


PS: The article is published behind a paywall and access to it costs $36.00. This says a lot about the possibly 'false consciousness' of some academics.