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The Passions and the Interests: Unpacking the ‘Sharing Economy’

Digital platforms generally placed under the ‘sharing economy’ and various other labels match different groups of users and providers and enable the increase in scale and speed for traditional transactions such as selling, renting, lending, labour trade, and provision of services. In many cases, these platform-mediated activities involve peer-to-peer or peer-to-business transactions that occur in a regulatory vacuum. Since 2014, the phenomenal growth of a few large commercial ‘sharing’ platforms, the increasing number of economic sectors affected, and the conflicting interests among the stakeholders involved have made the ‘sharing economy’ a domain of conflictual rhetoric and public controversies, legal disputes, and even violent protests. The various expressions used to refer to ‘sharing’ platforms, by now appropriated by practitioners and stakeholders, are ‘floating signifiers’ for all sorts of different activities, in what can be called the rhetorical politics of platformisation. Terms and concepts are used in such confused and confusing ways that it is at times difficult to ascertain whether advocates, opponents, regulators, and policy makers are discussing the same phenomenon. There is a closed self-reproducing loop between conceptual ambiguity, rhetorical controversies, and lack of sound measurement and empirical evidence. This loop, in turn, limits the space for a rational debate of alternative policy options and contributes to the fragmented regulatory approaches which currently address the ‘sharing economy’. This theoretically-inspired and empirically-informed critical essay (i) unpacks the ‘sharing economy’ rhetoric, (ii) clears the field of semantic and conceptual ambiguity by providing a heuristically-useful and empirically-grounded typology, (iii) maps the controversies against available empirical evidence on the functioning and on the impacts of ‘sharing’ platforms, (iv) reviews the debate and the literature which focuses on regulatory and policy issues, and (v) discusses all these aspects in terms of their policy implications, and of future European research on this topic. It does so in a unique way, because of the extensive evidence base used and the inter-disciplinary approach it takes in which theoretical and empirical economics, sociology, anthropology, regulatory and legal studies, and rhetorical analysis converge. The evidence comprises: a) 120 media items (newspapers and magazine articles; blogs especially by ‘sharing economy’ advocacy groups and organisations; industry briefs etc.); b) in-depth analysis of a purposive sample of 70 platforms (website, blog, public relations and self-reports, etc.); c) 140 sources, consisting of scientific items (115) and broadly defined reports (25), selected using a formalised protocol and systematically reviewed; c) about 60 reports released by interested parties (industrial associations, platforms own reports and public relation materials); d) 70 indirectly relevant scientific contributions and policy reports.
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