IC Researchers Highlight Design Implications as Venezuelans Turn to Facebook for Barter, Exchange

Consider a scenario in which economic turmoil and hyperinflation have made it nearly impossible to purchase many of life’s basic necessities. There are food and medicine shortages, and scammers purchase what is available in bulk in an effort to manage the flow and pricing of supplies at the expense of other citizens.

How, then, might honest citizens go about navigating the challenging circumstances to procure the items they need to survive?

It’s a familiar environment to Venezuelan citizens who, since an economic crisis gripped the country in 2014, have faced such barriers in their daily lives. Out of necessity, many have turned to online solidarity economies like Facebook groups that are dedicated to a fairer system of barter and exchange.

While these groups present attempts at mitigating some of the more turbulent aspects of the Venezuelan economy, they come with their own set of challenges, as well. In a paper being presented at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI), Georgia Tech researchers have examined the development of these online social ecosystems. They offer ideas for how the design structures of Facebook’s groups can better support such solidarity economies.

Why turn to online solidarity economies?

To understand how social media sites like Facebook can more effectively implement their group design, it’s important to understand how and why these groups came about in the first place, said Hayley Evans, School of Interactive Computing (IC) Ph.D. student and first author on the paper (Facebook in Venezuela: Understanding Solidarity Economies in Low-Trust Environments).

In 2014, the price of crude oil, Venezuela’s main export, collapsed, setting the stage for an economic and political crisis that has continued to deteriorate in the succeeding years. The country’s GDP has declined at an average of 6.83 percent over the past five years, there have been food shortages, failing hospitals, high rights of inflation, calls for humanitarian aid, and political opposition both domestically and internationally.

Such instability paved the way for the rise of “bachequeros,” individuals who place their own self-interests over those of the group by charging or demanding barters at high prices. Often, these individuals will buy goods in bulk with the intention of controlling the supply and price. With low levels of trust in the traditional exchange of goods, as well as high scarcity, many Venezuelans migrated to online economies most commonly taking the form of Facebook groups.

Evans and her co-authors examined three such groups, all on Facebook – a large one with over 45,000 members, a mid-sized collection, and one that is just slightly over 1,000. Other groups, as small as 10-20 also existed, likely made up of closer family and friends and individuals searching for a specific item, Evans said.

Although group administrators seek out fairness in moderation and price-setting, in many ways they are still operating as a self-regulated free-for-all.

“The government stopped setting the prices,” Evans said. “So, they kind of triangulate – they remember what the government set prices at in the past, what they’ve seen the price at online, and what they feel is fair.

“It can be as ambiguous as it sounds. ‘Fair’ is highly dependent on the person and what they believe.”

For example, one person might believe something is fair if it is double in price, but an absolute necessity. A mother whose son has asthma, Evans said, would be thankful to find asthma medication at only double the price. Someone else in a different situation might not.

Navigating design flaws

But with such ambiguity comes a stiff challenge in moderating such economies. Often, when an individual posts an item at a price the group deems unfair, they can lose credibility and, with it, the ability to barter in these groups. Attempts at regulations – like a three-strikes-and-out policy – have been made by at least one group administrator.

But those are difficult to enforce because Facebook’s design doesn’t offer any tracking method.

“We start to see that there’s flaws in the infrastructure and there’s flaws in Facebook,” Evans said. “So, this group, which set out to create a more stable community, becomes like every other group that is too big, difficult to manage, and doesn’t have the right tools.”

Evans and her team highlight some key design implications, based on Peter Kollock’s design principles for online communities. Interestingly, Evans said, while Venezuelan bartering groups violate all of them to some degree, they still work due to necessity. Looking at Kollock, though, they were able to come up with four:

  • buyer/seller reviews
  • an equitable marketplace indicator
  • prominent rule placement,
  • and tools for tracking offenses and implementing sanctions.

“These design affordances have worked well on other platforms like eBay or Amazon,” Evans said.

Evans added that one of the most interesting takeaways was the appropriation of the platform. While Facebook was designed for college students in 2004, it has become a vital tool to Venezuelans in an unpredictable economic crisis.

“This ingenuity merits attention,” Evans said. “Furthermore, we hope that there will be some incentive for Facebook to review this use, be it for business or humanitarian reasons.”

The paper was co-authored by Evans, IC Ph.D. student Marisol Wong-Villacres, IC Ph.D. student Daniel Castro, former IC Assistant Professor Eric Gilbert, IC research scientist Rosa Arriaga, IC Ph.D. student Michaelanne Dye, and IC Professor Amy Bruckman. It was presented this week at CHI in Montreal, Canada.

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