The Sociality of Sharing, University of Warwick, 23 Sept 2015

This was originally posted on the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research blog.sociality of sharing conference

It’s been a while since I’ve had chance to attend a conference and the Sociality of Sharing symposium at the University of Warwick was as thought provoking as I thought it would be. Hosted jointly by Celia Lury and Adam Arvidsson the conference aimed to stimulate thinking and discussion around the ‘sharing economy’, and its implications for sociality.

Celia Lury started off by asking us to think about the idea of ‘borrowing, stealing, sharing’ and the distinctions between the three. Is there any difference between them in the ‘sharing economy’? Nate Tkacz, also part of the organising team, said that the sharing economy turns Marx’s traditional capitalism on its head. In my literature review I’ve talked about Marx’s labour theory of value and how it is being used by Christian Fuchs, among others, to conceptualise digital labour. That view was not shared by many here, especially by Adam Arvidsson who spoke about the value generated by Facebook and using the logic of derivative financial instruments. Adam argues that because derivative instruments are used to value intangible assets,  which are difficult to reduce, this approach is more suitable for calculating the value of Facebook rather than labour time calculations, which the likes of Fuchs and others draw upon when talking about digital labour. For my own research, these arguments are worth acknowledging but at this stage I’m not dwelling on them too much. What is important about Adam’s argument is that value in the case of Facebook especially derives from ‘immeasurable social relations’. Will it ever be possible to measure these types of social relations?

This event was called the ‘sociality’ of sharing yet the papers that were given highlighted the dearth of work about ‘the social’, particularly empirical work done with social media users. Carolina Bandinelli and Alessandro Gandini offered some useful insights into the sociality of knowledge workers in co-working spaces. A combination of ethnography and interviews with workers revealed some of the practices of sociality, such as people using co-working spaces to avoid isolation, network, and help to build reputation. More of this type of work needs to be done in relation to social media use, which is where my research will contribute.

Other papers given talked about crowdfunding and co-creative working in SMEs, before Trebor Scholz ended by talking about ‘platform co-operativism’ in the sharing economy. He talked about an intensification of digital labour and talked Amazon’s Mechanical Turk as an example of the precarity of online freelancing. Trebor argued that this type of working doesn’t protect people, despite the rhetoric of co-operative working “collectively changing the world”. He finished by saying that an “inability to imagine a different working life would be capital’s ultimate triumph”. Giving musicians, filmmakers, etc rewards for uploading their material to Vimeo is an example of what Trebor sees as a fairer co-operative ‘platform economy’ but how can this work?

There was much talk throughout the day about co-creativity, co-production, Uber, Airbnb and crowdfunding, but as Celia rightly pointed out at the end, there wasn’t much talk about sharing, not explicitly anyway. Is crowdfunding sharing? Especially when something is crowdfunded and it’s never delivered? Isn’t that stealing? Or is it borrowing?

This conference provided many more questions than answers. I haven’t thought about sharing as much in my own thesis yet there is so much emphasis on sharing in our everyday lives nowadays, especially on social media. And in a recent chat with a potential participant in my research, ‘sharing’ was mentioned many, many times. Are we moving into a ‘sharing economy’? And what implications does this have (if any) for cultural production?

Overall it was a useful day and I made some great contacts. It’s certainly got me thinking more about sharing, something that, in the social media age, is almost second nature.

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About Karen Patel

PhD candidate in social media and cultural work at Birmingham City University.

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