New Study Notes Solidarity Among Sharers

Reseachers at the University of California, Berkeley, are starting to back up with studied data what a lot of us know from life experience – online sharing and bartering groups build communities more so than do paid-for exchanges. Sites like Freecycle and Couchsurfing were singled out in the new study recently published in Administrative Science Quarterly that surveyed more than 1,300 online users and that indicates a burgeoning gift economy is gaining ground on consumerism.

Robb Willer, assistant professor of sociology and psychology at UC Berkeley, noted, "We found that being active in online gift-giving communities like Freecycle generates strong feelings of solidarity and identification, which in turn drive people to give more gifts in the system. This dynamic may help explain why the membership of sites like Freecycle and Couchsurfing has taken off in recent years."

Partnering with Stanford University on the project, UC Berkeley researchers compared the experience of users of Freecycle versus those of Craigslist in a bid to gauge the dynamics involved in the top two goods trading sites on the Internet. In addition to answering questions, survey participants were asked to rate statements like "The group I belong to is an important reflection of who I am," and "My group membership has very little to do with how I feel about myself." Not surprisingly – and in support of the original hypothesis – the Freecyclers experience a heightened feeling of solidarity and identification with others using that “generalized exchange system” as compared to users of Craigslist who engage in a “direct exchange system.”

"What we found is that a site like Freecycle is uniquely good at generating pro-group sentiments like group identification and solidarity," observed Willer, who co-authored the study Francis Flynn, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, and Sonya Zak, formerly with Stanford. "The more people receive gifts through these systems, the more they come to identify as members of the group and view the group as cohesive and high in solidarity, more so than Craigslist members. These pro-group feelings in turn motivate members to give to the group."

The wider implications of these findings bodes well for the sharing economy: "If a critical mass of contributions can be harnessed, it may spark a sort of 'virtuous cycle' that leads groups featuring generalized exchange to achieve productivity and maintain group members' giving."  And fee-based services should take note.  Given the power of giving to bring people together, a possible direction for sites such as Airbnb and RelayRides, which are fee-based sharing platforms, is that they encourage users to give in ways that are ancillary to the core service to increase loyalty, community cohesiveness, and trust. For instance, services could enable users on both sides of transactions donate a portion of payments and fees to a favorite charity similar to what eBay and other online retailers do.

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