" Sharing" in Unequal Spaces
In this dissertation, I argue that questioning the relationship between technological change, specifically the new types of markets and practices enabled by the “sharing economy” and inequality has become an urgent need. While the sector promotes itself as the harbinger of egalitarian access to economic opportunity and consumption, independent studies of its operations and impacts point towards significant discriminatory dynamics favoring the already privileged. As the sector keeps growing, understanding its impact on inequality becomes ever more critical. I focus on one sharing economy platform, Airbnb, which facilitates the practice of “home-sharing,” or more accurately short-term rentals. I investigate the relationship between Airbnb and inequality in three papers that focus on how the deeply unequal urban settings where much of the economic activity on Airbnb takes place operate within the context of economic activity enabled by the platform. The analysis for all three papers is based on the data for more than 450,000 Airbnb listings and the demographic and economic characteristics of the neighborhoods they are located in. In the first paper, I look at how race determines the patterns of participation and outcomes for people who rent out their properties. I show that the economic opportunities generated by the platform are unequally distributed across the urban landscape. There are fewer listings in areas with higher concentrations of non-White residents, the listings that are located in these areas charge lower prices, and have lower earnings. The second paper investigates the relationship between the public reputation system on Airbnb and racial discrimination. I show that characterizing the reputation system as a racially neutral tool, which has the potential to reduce discriminatory outcomes, is highly problematic. Airbnb listings located in neighborhoods with higher percentages of non-White residents have a harder time generating reputation information when they first come on the platform and tend to have systematically lower ratings. The third paper focuses on how short-term rentals generates new dynamics of gentrification in cities, by providing evidence for a new type of “rent gap” between long-term and short-term rentals, and how property owners are exploiting it. I argue that short-term rentals, in the absence of further effective regulation from governments, are likely to drive increasing levels of gentrification as they remain highly profitable and occupy an increasing number of housing units. I believe that studying these aspects of the sharing economy contributes to a fuller understanding of technological change and its understudied interaction with inequality. Moving beyond the mostly theoretical and aggregated understanding of change inherent in the SBTC literature, my research promotes a more concrete and empirical engagement with change in line with some of the research on the “digital divide,” and the emergent literature on inequality on online platforms. Ultimately, I think such an engagement can serve as the basis for a broader theoretical reckoning with the increased pace of technological change as more and more of our social life is “disrupted” by technological interventions, with significant consequences.