Business as a Social Object, the Shadow Economy and WOMnets

“Could business become nothing more than a social object, and individuals would collaborate via social networks, doing what businesses used to do” 

I put out this idea when I spoke at the Patchwork Elephant Conference about what the future could hold for social business.  Here’s a more detailed explanation:

18 months ago I wrote about the underlying shifts I could see happening towards a new social ecosystem with collaboration as its key.  I then focussed on the emergence of community based funding platforms like Kickstarter, the estimated increase in the use of the black economy and how governments were pushing to eliminate cash in favour of online transactions which could be monitored.  I’ve been revisiting those thoughts now, following on from work assignments and research I have been involved in over the last 18 months, and here are some more thoughts:

The Online Collaborative Economy

Funding based platforms: By May 2013 Kickstarter had passed 100,000 successfully launched projects with 44% successfully funded thanks to $535 million in crowdsourcing. Crowdfunding is here to stay.

Peer to Peer lending: These companies although have been around a while are enjoying a leap in popularity: “Andy Haldane, director of financial stability at the Bank of England, reckons that peer-to-peer websites – which link those who want to borrow with individuals who want a return on their cash – are becoming increasingly economically important.” comments The Telegraph.  Indeed, with Google investing $125 million in Lending Club, valuing it at a staggering $1.55 billion, this is an area set to grow exponentially.

Online currencies: Bitcoin is the increasingly popular cryptocurrency where the creation and transfer of Bitcoins is based on an open-source cryptographic protocol that is independent of any central authority.  It has however recently fallen under the eyes of the government who shuttered Silk Road, an online black market used to buy and sell illegal drugs with Bitcoins.

Crowds become the company:  Platforms which host companies where crowds become the company (essentially crowds doing what businesses used to do) are on the rise.  The room sharing company Airbnb and car pooling company Lyft are 2 prime examples of companies which are economically challenging the hotel and taxi industries.  Both have recently come to the attention of US regulators who view them as companies whose reigns need to be tightened.   Airbnb is currently fighting a subpoena from the New York Attorney General who is seeking information on more than 15,000 tenants who rent out their rooms on the popular website stating that they are breaking a 2010 law that prohibits renters from subletting their room for less than 30 days. 

3D printing and nanotechnology:   3D printing is here and if you happen to live near York, is available in an Asda near you .  3D printing and other new emerging ‘minituarisation of manufacturing’ tools are the “today” bit of the 40 year journey to nanotechnology which I discussed at the conference.  Although still in its nascent stage the promise of being able to create personalised products yourself or locally (from virtually nothing – for virtually nothing in the case of the proposed ‘personal nanofactories’) rather than relying on mass produced factory goods is perhaps not that far off – and the concept of needing neither shops nor factories suddenly doesn’t seem quite so strange at all.

Here are the beginnings of whole business structures being redefined with individuals collaborating via social networks and relying on trusted parties bypassing traditional hierarchical capitalist models.  Platforms are used by crowds to do what businesses used to do.

As I pointed out at the conference let’s analyse what this could mean for business in the future:

Screen Shot 2013-10-14 at 17.22.42

  • Production: whether goods were made at home locally on demand it could mean that large scale manufacturing would be knocked out.
  • Transport: if there were no goods to be moved around the transport industry would be under threat
  • Consumer facing businesses selling goods: would have serious problems
  • Sales & marketing: what for if there were no goods to flog
  • Business support services: would dwindle
  • Finance: a lot of the current financial system is based on betting on firms

In other words:

“Could business become nothing more than a social object and individuals would collaborate via social networks, doing what businesses used to do.”

Now I’d like to take it a little bit further…  Let’s talk The Shadow Economy which I spoke about 18 months ago.

Where may you find this new economy in the future?  In the Shadows?

The offline world has always had a shadow economy and as predicted its popularity is on the rise.  As unemployment has risen economists now estimate that the income generated by the underground economy is the US could be $2 trillion and Spain’s illicit economy is estimated to be worth 20% of the country’s GDP, according to a new report by Spain’s Foundation for Financial Studies (FEF) reports The Atlantic.

The offline shadow economy has always been difficult for governments to track and until recently much online collaboration where people have made money has managed to stay ‘below the radar’ of authorities.  Online collaboration has for most never felt at least like working ‘within the black market’ so to speak – until a time is reached when governments take note and step in as we have seen recently with Bitcoin and Airbnb.  The fact that all those who have registered to let out their rooms via Airbnb are now facing the possibility of having all their details handed over to the government because of the subpoena should be a wake up call to everyone involved in any form of online activities.

What is a WOMnet?

It is at this point that you wonder exactly how these networks could evolve…  As the collaborative economy continues to build will we be happy to accept being tracked and monitored knowing that every small thing we are involved in online is recorded for posterity?  Or could this lead to a deeper online Shadow Economy developing away from the ‘State Controlled Web’?

The obvious thing would be to create alternative internets and private spaces well away from the existing Web.  Unsurprisingly the beginnings are already emerging with alternative internets and new ways of using the internet appearing.  This also ties in closely with the VRM concept of tools being created for individuals to manage and control their own data, allowing access only to those to whom they give permission.

Perhaps in the future we will all have the ability to create and control our own private internets and collaboration spaces away from the main ‘internet’ and, just as in the offline Shadow Economy, rely on Word of Mouth to spread the word for us – ‘WOMnets’ so to speak.  We would then of course need to emply WOMbles to clean up any loose digital tracks that the everyday folk leave behind… 🙂



About Janet

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