Indebtedness and Reciprocity in Local Online Exchange

During the past few years, web services that encourage sharing, selling and exchanging goods or services in local geographic settings have gained in popularity both in the US and in Europe. With widespread Internet access and the emergence of online platforms for exchanging goods and services, it is easier than ever to make the stuff we are not using available to others.

Yet, the availability and ease of use of web technologies alone do not explain user participation and non-participation in these systems. Behind all of the Internet technologies, interfaces and platforms, online exchange is fundamentally about understanding social uncertainties, risks, and rewards.

Sharetribe supports everyday exchange in local communities.
Sharetribe supports everyday exchange in local communities.

We conducted in-depth interviews with students who had participated in exchange activities in the Sharetribe community local to their university in Finland in order to understand better how they think about exchange and reciprocity in the context of local online exchange. Sharetribe (previously known as Kassi) is a web service that supports exchange in local communities, such as campuses and neighborhoods. The service encourages generalized exchange where reciprocity is balanced over time on the level of the entire community.

The biggest identified challenges of exchange activity were surprising: While participants did indeed discuss the requirement of reciprocity, they did so primarily from the viewpoint of avoiding indebtedness. Participants’ accounts revealed several user behaviors that lessen these negative feelings:

  • offering small tokens of appreciation to exchange partners
  • understanding and accepting the indirect nature of generalized exchange
  • managing expectations by framing offers and requests carefully
  • minimizing efforts needed in exchange processes
  • bartering and exchanging for a third party.

Given the strong aversion to indebtedness and the various ways that participants handle uneasy feelings of obligation, what can we do as designers and practitioners of online systems to help address it in a real-world context? Indebtedness is clearly a negative feeling that was a prominent part of our participants’ experiences, but it would be a mistake to try to design away indebtedness. Instead, the key for designers is to redirect feelings of indebtedness towards positive, participatory outcomes rather than frustration, hesitation, and non-participation.

For more, see our full paper Indebtedness and Reciprocity in Local Online Exchange.

Airi Lampinen, Helsinki Institute for Information Technology HIIT
Vilma Lehtinen, Helsinki Institute for Information Technology HIIT
Coye Cheshire, University of California, Berkeley
Emmi Suhonen, Aalto University

About the author


Airi Lampinen is a researcher at Helsinki Institute for Information Technology HIIT and a PhD Candidate in the Department of Social Research at University of Helsinki. Her research focuses on interpersonal boundary regulation practices in the context of social network services.

View all posts


  • Interesting work! Do you think even in competitive markets such as eBay, where the good exchange negotiation often involves sniping other bidders or waiting until the last moment to bid to get the lowest price (implicitly at the expense of the seller), this same effect occurs in more subtle facets such as the choice to give positive feedback to the seller or buyer? I could see getting a good buyer rating being something that makes the buyer feel indebted, so they may be more likely to ‘pay back’ the seller by leaving positive feedback.

  • Thanks for the good question, Walter! The short answer is that our study doesn’t warrant us to answer: Although Sharetribe allows for negotiated, monetary exchanges too, those were not the focus of our analysis.

    But if we speculate a litte, even once money and competitive bidding are involved, I would assume some of these social dynamics remain at play (although emphases are likely to differ). For instance, managing expectations and making the process as effortless for one’s exchange partner as possible presumably still help in achieving successful exchanges that motivate keeping the wheels turning.

    As for your thoughts on reputation of buyers and sellers on eBay, you might enjoy this article: Resnick, P., Zeckhauser, R., Swanson, J., and K. Lockwood. (2006) The Value of Reputation on eBay: A Controlled Experiment. In Experimental Economics 9 (2).