Hitch-hiking on social media 

Ridesharing groups on social media are an example of the sharing economy. However, the downsides of the sharing economy warrant more attention, says researcher Juhana Venäläinen.

Text Sari Eskelinen Photos Raija Törrönen and Varpu Heiskanen

Finland is a country of long distances. In areas affected by downsized public transportation, a message to a ridesharing group can secure a ride from one’s home to the desired destination at the price of split fuel costs. Easy and convenient!

Traditional hitch-hiking is increasingly being replaced by ridesharing groups on social media. Finnish ridesharing groups have nearly 250,000 members in them, with big cities and university towns boasting the largest numbers of groups.

“To some extent, ridesharing groups focus on routes in eastern and northern parts of Finland, where public transportation is limited,” says Juhana Venäläinen, who studies ridesharing groups.

Ridesharing, if anything, is a good example of the sharing economy. According to Venäläinen, the discussion around the sharing economy is linked to a wider discourse on the role and future of the welfare state. There is a global tendency to move in the direction of a new model where people take greater responsibility for the production of services.

“What kinds of services can be produced by communities, and to what extent? That’s a question we need to ask. Ridesharing is not a public service, nor can it become one. People need to have real possibilities to live outside metropolitan areas,” Venäläinen says.

 

In addition to the sharing economy, ridesharing could also be described as a form of the solidarity economy. According to Venäläinen, various social and cultural trends inspire sharing among people. For instance, many are concerned about the environment, trying to find increasingly effective solutions and cutting down on consumption.

“Cars parked on roadsides inspired the founder of Blablacar to create a ridesharing service.”

Ridesharing is also strongly motivated by the desire to cut down on fuel costs. Other forms of the sharing economy can also help earn some extra money.

“This, in turn, is linked to the wider issue of how work is changing. It’s worth considering whether the accepted reality in the future is that our livelihood comes from several smaller sources of income, such as renting out a room or driving a ‘peer-to-peer taxi’.”

 

New digital tools also motivate the creation of economic communities, as they facilitate collaboration between people who do not necessarily even know one another. According to Venäläinen, the role of sharing platforms warrants increasing attention. He feels that marketisation, for example, is not discussed as much as it should be.

“The excitement around the sharing economy is sometimes naive and lacks critical assessment. Does the sharing economy really democratise economic structures or does it consolidate economic power via digital platforms? That’s also a good question.”

The sharing economy’s various side-effects also raise concern. A concrete example can be found in the Airbnb community, where people specifically purchase apartments to make them available for rent to those who can pay for the service.

“Sharewashing is something that comes up in connection with the sharing economy. If you make something available at market rate and call it sharing, there really isn’t much difference between what you are doing and what constitutes market-driven activity,” Venäläinen says, making a critical observation.

 

Critical questions should be posed. For the time being, the sharing economy is something that supplements available services.

“However, alternative forms of economy can be seen as possible versions of the world we will be inhabiting in the future. For instance, what would the social consequences of the sharing economy’s expansion be?” Venäläinen asks.

From a legal viewpoint, the sharing economy is a grey area that is often challenged by its operators –the difficulties of Uber in Finland being a recent example.

“The idea of testing boundaries is ingrained in the sharing economy. Nation states will have to adapt to major economic developments in the future.”

 

Despite criticism, the sharing economy is associated with plenty of goodwill and not-for-profit mentality. In Finnish ridesharing groups, the sharing of a good feeling is emphasised.

“An interesting aspect of the sharing economy is whether economic activities are based on private gain, or whether they could be built with more regard to values. If economic activities are looked at from a narrow perspective, what really motivates people is overlooked.”

“When ridesharing, you can share experiences with an interesting person and this exchange can turn out to be meaningful for the rest of your life.”

UEF Bulletin 2018