What Wikipedia Can't Tell You About The Digital Economy.

The advent of the internet has signalled a change in how companies do businesses and how we as individuals interact with them. While previously consumers and the businesses that supplied products and services were distinct from each other the internet has blurred these lines (Bruns, 2008 in Helmond, 2015, p.3). It has created a means of levelling the playing field by allowing consumers greater access to the brands that create products and services and who ultimately, they choose to purchase from. It has captured their attention and allowed them to feel like active participants rather than simply passive users. Both individuals and businesses have gained in flexibility in regards to labour and potential for innovation. Users through their involvement on platforms and in networks aid with product innovation, technological advancement, and free labour. All of which most certainly aids businesses in their profit-seeking aims. The question is, does the internet make business fairer, less fair or make no perceptible difference at all? To find out more keep reading.

A penny for your thoughts?

The internet, a virtual location where individuals take part in a “perpetual auction with ideas instead of money” (Ghosh, 1998). It’s a virtual meeting place that allows for connections to develop sooner, for alliances to form much more quickly and creates the means by which to develop new goods and services in unprecedented ways (Kelly, 1997) and where “the ability of anything to be produced, traded and consumed is enough” (Ghosh, 1998). The participants themselves create the value by developing the resources which lead to a more robust and successful meeting place for all. When we talk about participants in this network, we aren’t necessarily only talking about individuals who actively engage with social media platforms and company websites by creating content like blog posts or videos but also individuals who take part in a more passive manner by, for example, clicking on an advert or liking a post. All these interactions provide valuable information so that businesses can construct customer profiles with “real people with real interests” (Van Dijck & Nieborg, 2009, p. 866) and therefore real commercial implications.

Collaboration not competition

The internet heralded as one of those many opportunities is indeed a tool for creating opportunity for many with “…online labour exchanges, also known as ‘crowdsourcing’ or ‘cloudsourcing’ platforms, ‘peer-to-peer networking’, the ‘sharing economy’, ‘gig economy’, ‘on-demand’, etc.” (Huws, 2016, p.17). It is through these labour exchanges that individuals can “co-create value rather than being mere consumers of products” (Kohler, 2018, p. 98) and that by the same token businesses can innovate “in a more efficient, effective, reliable, personal or faster way” (Kohler, 2018, p. 99). Certain proponents of the advantages of the sharing economy which is powered by the internet will say that individuals are empowered to become “proto-entrepreneurs able to work on flexible schedules” (Kenney & Zysman, 2016, p. 62). Opponents will argue that “the logic of the sharing culture (collaboration, collectivism, user participation) undercuts the logic of economics (shareholder value, company profits)” (Van Dijck and Nieborg, 2009, p. 867). They also cite that fact that though “the ideal consumer is active, emotionally engaged and socially networked” (Jenkins, 2006 in (Van Dijck and Nieborg, 2009, p. 868) most users are in fact not ideal customers who contribute value to the economy.

I got a sense of deja vu…

In a sharing economy “value explodes exponentially with membership, while this value explosion sucks in yet more members” (Kelly, 1997) which is why “many agents, users, and competitors create the network's value” (Kelly, 1997). Consumers become co-creators of value through curating content and creating groups of compatible individuals with comparable tastes and lifestyles (Van Dijck and Nieborg, 2009, p. 865). Businesses, public relations firms, and advertising agencies no longer need to have large budgets to research what their target audiences want as their audience has in fact already done the work for them and for free (Van Dijck and Nieborg, 2009, p. 865). So, it can be argued that businesses are “less interested in co-creation” and far more interested in the “connections (of the creators) that yield valuable information” (Van Dijck and Nieborg, 2009, p. 865). It is far more about businesses “commoditizing (the) connections” (Van Dijck and Nieborg, 2009, p. 865) of individuals and “capitalising on the relationships and social behaviour” (Van Dijck and Nieborg, 2009, p. 865) of these individuals and therefore monetizing these “value-creating human activities” (Kenney & Zysman, 2016, p. 62). The value created is not shared or more evenly distributed but is very much contingent on “mobilising (many) human beings to contribute” (Kenney & Zysman, 2016, p. 62) in order to sustain itself.

Tell me who you are not what you are not

An individual’s willingness to contribute is very much contingent on the platform being used. Each platform attracts a different audience and each audience places a different value on their contribution and those of other users. The “material and design features, the site’s perceived culture and the interaction of these elements within the wider social media environment” (Highfield & Leaver, 2016 in Scolere, Pruchniewska & Duffy, 2018, p. 4) of a business may affect how users interact with it. So, although the audience as defined by the beliefs of “media creators, executives, advertisers, and more” may be one thing. The actual audience may be something entirely different as many users resort to a “calculated deployment of multiple social media ‘selves’” (Scolere et al, 2018, p. 2) thereby misrepresenting the user to some extent and resulting in flawed profiling. The same user is therefore not presenting the same persona irrespective of the platform or network they are using. The risk inevitably then is of users choosing to take advantage of this new economy to alter, steal, or reverse engineer products and services by, for example, creating multiple user accounts under false names.

Beware the boogie man

Proponents of the benefits of the sharing economy cite the “new values of sharing, peering, and openness bring to society a more sustainable model of entrepreneurship in which companies are socially responsible by dedicating part of their energy to ‘common causes’” (Van Dijck and Nieborg, 2009, p. 866-867) but there is indeed a very real risk for individuals also. Although all involved would like to think that it will “replace opaque, top-down business models, yielding to transparent, democratic structures where power is in the shared hands of responsible companies and skilled, qualified users” (Van Dijck and Nieborg, 2009, p. 855) this might simply be a utopic reading of the situation. The data that users so eagerly provide in order to contribute to this new economy can be traded like any other resource by unscrupulous businesses (Fekete, 2006, p. 749). The value provided by users with ideas can also lead to the development of “platform-dependent products and services as well as methods for the technical obstruction and legal prohibition of interoperability” (Fekete, 2006, p. 749). Neither privacy issues, platform-dependent products or interoperability issues are in the interest of users who may find themselves no longer able to use products and services they helped to develop or that they no longer trust enough to use. Furthermore, it can also lead to issues like tax evasion by businesses, the violation of anti-discrimination laws, the flouting of fair labour standards and wage theft (Scholz, 2016, p. 7-9).

Sharing is caring and some don’t care

Some may say that “it is a far stretch to extend the spirit of collectivism to all (commercial and non-commercial) endeavours on the internet by assigning a collective, goal-driven consciousness to all users” (Van Dijck and Nieborg, 2009, p. 862). Indeed, not all individuals may contribute in order to benefit the whole or in fact may not contribute at all. The question remains whether the sharing economy is really redistributing or making the resources and benefits of capitalism more accessible to all by creating “self-supporting contractors….rather than stable workers in an employment economy, or are they just extremely vulnerable gig worker” (Kenney & Sysman, 2016, p. 67) thereby creating a burden rather than a boon for the economy? May we then argue that this sharing economy is, in fact, an “on demand service economy” (Ehmsen and Scharenberg in Scholz, 2016, p. 1) where businesses “innovation lies just as much in evading regulations as in developing new technologies” (Scholz, 2016, p. 1).

Same old, same old?

Technological advancement brought about by individuals participating in the sharing economy may have an impact on the resources of a business. The added free labour, mental and social effort, provided may have its impact on the value of the various platforms and networks that are preferred by individuals and may indeed increase profits and make businesses more efficient, but the question remains whether individuals indeed reap any benefit from these interactions. Perhaps this shared economy is no fairer then economies of the past. The value gained by businesses may in fact always be greater than the value gained by individuals even with the same resources.

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