Cars were smashed and tires burned in France last month in protests against the ride hailing app Uber. Less violent protests have also been staged against Airbnb, a platform for renting short-term accommodation. Despite the protests, neither platform shows any signs of faltering. Uber says it has a million users in France, and is available in 57 countries. Airbnb is available in over 190 countries, and boasts over a million rooms, more than hotel giants like Hilton and Marriott. Policy makers at the highest levels are starting to notice the rise of these and similar platforms. An EU Commission flagship strategy paper notes that “online platforms are playing an ever more central role in social and economic life,” while the Federal Trade Commission recently held a workshop on the topic in Washington.
Journalists and entrepreneurs have been quick to coin terms that try to capture the essence of the social and economic changes associated with online platforms: the sharing economy; the on-demand economy; the peer-to-peer economy; and so on. Each perhaps captures one aspect of the phenomenon, but doesn’t go very far in helping us make sense of all its potentials and contradictions, including why some people love it and some would like to smash it into pieces. Instead of starting from the assumption that everything we see today is new and unprecedented, what if we dug into existing social science theory to see what it has to say about economic transformation and the emergence of markets?
Economic sociologists are adamant that markets don’t just emerge by themselves: they are always based on some kind of an underlying infrastructure that allows people to find out what goods and services are on offer, agree on prices and terms, pay, and have a reasonable expectation that the other party will honour the agreement. The oldest market infrastructure is the personal social network: traders hear what’s on offer through word of mouth and trade only with those whom they personally know and trust. But personal networks alone couldn’t sustain the immense scale of trading in today’s society. Every day we do business with strangers and trust them to provide for our most basic needs. This is possible because modern society has developed institutions — things like private property, enforceable contracts, standardized weights and measures, consumer protection, and many other general and sector specific norms and facilities. By enabling and constraining everyone’s behaviours in predictable ways, institutions constitute a robust and more inclusive infrastructure for markets than personal social networks.
Modern institutions didn’t of course appear out of nowhere. Between prehistoric social networks and the contemporary institutions of the modern state, there is a long historical continuum of economic institutions, from ancient trade routes with their customs to medieval fairs with their codes of conduct to state-enforced trade laws of the early industrial era. Institutional economists led by Oliver Williamson and economic historians led by Douglass North theorized in the 1980s that economic institutions evolve towards more efficient forms through a process of natural selection. As new institutional forms become possible thanks to technological and organizational innovation, people switch to cheaper, easier, more secure, and overall more efficient institutions out of self-interest. Old and cumbersome institutions fall into disuse, and society becomes more efficient and economically prosperous as a result. Williamson and North both later received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.
It is easy to frame platforms as the next step in such an evolutionary process. Even if platforms don’t replace state institutions, they can plug gaps that remain the state-provided infrastructure. For example, enforcing a contract in court is often too expensive and unwieldy to be used to secure transactions between individual consumers. Platforms provide cheaper and easier alternatives to formal contract enforcement, in the form of reputation systems that allow participants to rate each others’ conduct and view past ratings. Thanks to this, small transactions like sharing a commute that previously only happened in personal networks can now potentially take place on a wider scale, resulting in greater resource efficiency and prosperity (the ‘sharing economy’). Platforms are not the first companies to plug holes in state-provided market infrastructure, though. Private arbitrators, recruitment agencies, and credit rating firms have been doing similar things for a long time.
What’s arguably new about platforms, though, is that some of the most popular ones are not mere complements, but almost complete substitutes to state-provided market infrastructures. Uber provides a complete substitute to government-licensed taxi infrastructures, addressing everything from quality and discovery to trust and payment. Airbnb provides a similarly sweeping solution to short-term accommodation rental. Both platforms have been hugely successful; in San Francisco, Uber has far surpassed the city’s official taxi market in size. The sellers on these platforms are not just consumers wanting to make better use of their resources, but also firms and professionals switching over from the state infrastructure. It is as if people and companies were abandoning their national institutions and emigrating en masse to Platform Nation.
From the natural selection perspective, this move from state institutions to platforms seems easy to understand. State institutions are designed by committee and carry all kinds of historical baggage, while platforms are designed from the ground up to address their users’ needs. Government institutions are geographically fragmented, while platforms offer a seamless experience from one city, country, and language area to the other. Government offices have opening hours and queues, while platforms make use of latest technologies to provide services around the clock (the ‘on-demand economy’). Given the choice, people switch to the most efficient institutions, and society becomes more efficient as a result. The policy implications of the theory are that government shouldn’t try to stop people from using Uber and Airbnb, and that it shouldn’t try to impose its evidently less efficient norms on the platforms. Let competing platforms innovate new regulatory regimes, and let people vote with their feet; let there be a market for markets.
The natural selection theory of institutional change provides a compellingly simple way to explain the rise of platforms. However, it has difficulty in explaining some important facts, like why economic institutions have historically developed differently in different places around the world, and why some people now protest vehemently against supposedly better institutions. Indeed, over the years since the theory was first introduced, social scientists have discovered significant problems in it. Economic sociologists like Neil Fligstein have noted that not everyone is as free to choose the institutions that they use. Economic historian Sheilagh Ogilvie has pointed out that even institutions that are efficient for those who participate in them can still sometimes be inefficient for society as a whole. These points suggest a different theory of institutional change, which I will apply to online platforms in my next post.
Vili Lehdonvirta is a Research Fellow and DPhil Programme Director at the Oxford Internet Institute, and an editor of the Policy & Internet journal. He is an economic sociologist who studies the social and economic dimensions of new information technologies around the world, with particular expertise in digital markets and crowdsourcing.