During the past few years, web services that encourage sharing, selling and exchanging goods or services in local geographic settings have gained in popularity both in the US and in Europe. With widespread Internet access and the emergence of online platforms for exchanging goods and services, it is easier than ever to make the stuff we are not using available to others.
Yet, the availability and ease of use of web technologies alone do not explain user participation and non-participation in these systems. Behind all of the Internet technologies, interfaces and platforms, online exchange is fundamentally about understanding social uncertainties, risks, and rewards.
We conducted in-depth interviews with students who had participated in exchange activities in the Sharetribe community local to their university in Finland in order to understand better how they think about exchange and reciprocity in the context of local online exchange. Sharetribe (previously known as Kassi) is a web service that supports exchange in local communities, such as campuses and neighborhoods. The service encourages generalized exchange where reciprocity is balanced over time on the level of the entire community.
The biggest identified challenges of exchange activity were surprising: While participants did indeed discuss the requirement of reciprocity, they did so primarily from the viewpoint of avoiding indebtedness. Participants’ accounts revealed several user behaviors that lessen these negative feelings:
- offering small tokens of appreciation to exchange partners
- understanding and accepting the indirect nature of generalized exchange
- managing expectations by framing offers and requests carefully
- minimizing efforts needed in exchange processes
- bartering and exchanging for a third party.
Given the strong aversion to indebtedness and the various ways that participants handle uneasy feelings of obligation, what can we do as designers and practitioners of online systems to help address it in a real-world context? Indebtedness is clearly a negative feeling that was a prominent part of our participants’ experiences, but it would be a mistake to try to design away indebtedness. Instead, the key for designers is to redirect feelings of indebtedness towards positive, participatory outcomes rather than frustration, hesitation, and non-participation.
For more, see our full paper Indebtedness and Reciprocity in Local Online Exchange.
Airi Lampinen, Helsinki Institute for Information Technology HIIT
Vilma Lehtinen, Helsinki Institute for Information Technology HIIT
Coye Cheshire, University of California, Berkeley
Emmi Suhonen, Aalto University