THE SCIENCE OF SHARING
WHAT MAKES A COLLABORATIVE ECONOMY WORK
Several months ago, Lena Dunham—creator, writer, and star of HBO’s Girls— unwittingly pointed to a larger trend when she tweeted, “To be clear: I can't drive and as I've aged it's gone from cute to pathetic to intriguing to tragic #strandedforlife.”
While Dunham jokes about her ineptitude behind the wheel, as the so-called voice of her generation, she represents a massively growing number of twenty-first century Americans who don’t want to drive their own car, do their own laundry, or make expensive purchases. Instead, they collaborate to get where they need to go. Access, rather than ownership, has become a consumer’s new goal. Why drive or even own a car when you can borrow a vehicle or driver at a fraction of the cost?
While cab services, rental car companies, and hotels still bring in tons of business, some people are eschewing those standard services for a more collaborative, grassroots approach (and one that saves big bucks). Thanks to technology, we can share with people whom we’ve never met with the mere swipe of a touchscreen. People around the country are lending cars, apartments, clothes, and outdoor gear to their neighbors—or even to complete strangers. This willingness to share valuable possessions with likeminded peers represents an unprecedented shift in how people interact in the world.
For those wondering how this new trend has developed, look no further than successful services such as Airbnb for vacation rentals, Lyft for ridesharing, TaskRabbit for errand sharing, Rover for dog sitting, or Poshmark for fashion. You’ll find a common thread: intelligent use of mobile technology to facilitate reliable interactions and to create an environment of safety for customers.
This new phenomenon—known as the sharing economy or collaborative consumption—was born out of a simple realization: people own far too many possessions. And when people aren’t using their surplus of stuff, the goods are essentially useless. Why let your car sit in a driveway all day when you can make money by allowing someone else to use it? Why leave your home empty during your vacation when you can profit by renting it out?
Zipcar, a subscription-based car-sharing service launched in 2000, is often credited for the growing success of the collaborative economy. Zipcar, which is still popular today, lets members reserve nearby vehicles quickly and affordably, just by going online. Since 2010, ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft have built upon Zipcar’s success, disrupting the taxi industry in major cities around the world. Uber and Lyft, however, require a higher level of trust than Zipcar, requiring you to hop in the car with a stranger who’s often driving his or her own private car.
What makes ridesharing services work is that both parties feel in control, making the experience more comfortable. Driv- ers have the credit card information of passengers before they even enter the vehicle, ensuring fair payment. And both the driver and passenger can see the identity and ratings of the other through the app interface, helping both to feel safer.
An August 2014, New York magazine profiled four female Uber drivers who felt drawn to the job because of its flexible hours and greater level of transparency, which the traditional, male-dominated taxi industry doesn’t provide. “I pick up a lot of school kids on the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side; their parents trust them to ride with me by themselves,” said Sugey “Raquel” Ramos, a 38-year-old female driver.
People using Airbnb, whether to list their own home or apartment or to book a place to stay while on vacation, report a similar assumption of safety. “I chose Airbnb during a trip to Europe because I was going for an extended period and staying in a real person’s apartment made it feel like home,” said Alice Preminger, a recent Brown University graduate. Yet Preminger admits that it was still a leap of faith.
Technology helps to make this leap of faith more palatable. Letting someone use your most expensive possessions is easier when the other person is held accountable. Peer reviews, such as on sites like Yelp, eBay, and Airbnb, help drive this new level of trust; real people submit recommendations or criticisms, and sometimes you can even contact those reviewers for more information. While some suggest that social media breeds narcissism, it also leads to greater transparency and a more magnanimous spirit toward strangers. Suddenly, sleeping in a stranger’s bed doesn’t feel so creepy when you see that you and the host have mutual Twitter followers.
“This is the reason that Airbnb works,” said David Nour, author of Relationship Economics. “There's sense of shared responsibility, a presumption that you’ll treat [the borrowed item] like [it’s] your own.” He also notes the advantage of being able to find bookings on your own time and on the device of your choice.
This is just the beginning. With entire industries becoming passé as technology rapidly progresses, there are increasing opportunities to break into the sharing economy and revitalize once-dying trades. “Now we have the opportunity to make people think differently about what they're doing and how they're doing it,” said Nour.
It’s easy to blame mobile technology for causing people to forgo real-world interactions in place of virtual ones. But the sharing economy is telling a different story, proving that when we use technology to create a solid infrastructure for sharing, people can safely interact and connect with each other in the real world in extraordinary new ways.
“SLEEPING IN A STRANGER’S BED DOESN’T FEEL SO CREEPY WHEN YOU SEE THAT YOU AND THE HOST HAVE MUTUAL TWITTER FOLLOWERS”.
Melissa Kravitz is a writer living in New York City. She freelances for various newspapers, magazines, and websites, and is working on a novel. She likes reading, going for long walks, cooking, and ordering food from various apps. You can find her on Twitter @melissabethk.