Almost anything can be shared – our homes, cars and even our pets. There are thousands of daily transactions that happen under the banner of the ‘Sharing Economy’ and most pass without a hitch, but for many it raises new moral questions about how we interact with each other, and who we should trust and why…
Airbnb say that major incidents, like vandalism, are very rare. In 2011, they issued a statement referring to an apartment that got trashed in San Francisco, saying “it’s our first major incident in over two million nights”. And, in 2013 they managed six million guests and paid out only 700 insurance claims to hosts.
Most people are generally trusting, but the Sharing Economy is testing how far our trust extends. It requires us to trust an actual person, without many of the safeguards that traditional businesses offers. Our current system, with all its regulations and assurances, puts trust in organisations above individuals, and it’s something we’ve got used to.
From the baby boomer generation onwards, we’ve come to rely on the notion that big is better. We’ve lazily adopted a “you know what you get” attitude. The system tells us to trust the XL because the S is unreliable and will let you down. A thought best summed up in the 1980s advertising statement, “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.” It’s one of the most powerful marketing phrase ever created. Trust is worth a lot, and it’s no surprise that it’s one of the most popular brand values for big corporations. You could say it’s not in ‘God we Trust’, but brands.
We feel safe dealing with businesses. When things go wrong we can make a fuss (I’m thinking of those airport documentaries) safe in the knowledge that ‘it’s not personal’. The person on the other side of the counter is ‘just doing their job’, they’ve been trained to be sympathetic and there’s a relatively low risk of being punched. But, when an individual gets it wrong, we’re not so good at dealing with it. Think of the dreaded moment the hairdresser shows you the back of your head in the mirror. “I love it”, we say unreservedly. Suddenly it’s personal.
As transactions increase between individuals, we’re not going to give up the type of assurances offered by businesses. More likely, people will start to act and behave more like corporations.
Many of us are already building online reputation profiles through sites like Facebook, TripAdvisor, Linkedin and Airbnb. Whether directly or indirectly we’re increasingly able to judge a person’s trustworthiness. But what if our online rating starts to govern the way we behave, influencing the things we say and do? Maybe we’ll turn into versions of restaurant staff that smile whilst somehow managing to remain expressionless.
The premium taxi service, Uber, has seen drivers concerned about picking up a couple of bad reviews, falling below the acceptable rating threshold and getting fired. Some drivers go to greater and greater lengths to please their passengers, bending over backwards to open doors, play soothing music and offer complimentary bottles of chilled water.
There’s a human cost at the heart of the Sharing Economy that we haven’t begun to get our heads around. What happens if you get an unfair review? What if competitors try to trash your rating, as happens with TripAdvisor? What if the problem has been resolved in the real world, but still lingers in the online one?
That’s what happened to Mario Costeja Gonzalez. When you Google searched his name it kept bringing up a link to an unpaid debt 16 years ago. The problem had long since been settled, but the Google search didn’t go away. He took action this year through the European Court. He won. Google lost. The European Union is now considering a formal, ‘right to be forgotten’ law.
When it comes to trust, what seems certain is that we’re unlikely to give it blindly. The Sharing Economy is exactly what it says. It’s enables people to share stuff. There’s no suggestion in the name that it’s a gentler, more socially sensitive model. Pioneers talk about the democratising aspects of it, but as it grows, there’s no guarantee it’ll be fairer or any more ethical. It’s an alternative to transacting with organisations and corporates, but we’re not ready to give up on the levels of trust that have built up over the years.
When businesses get it wrong, we know what to do. We know our rights. We feel largely protected, especially when dealing with high value transactions. The Sharing Economy isn’t going to grow by asking consumers to take a risk. It isn’t good enough to say that people are generally trustworthy. As the Sharing Economy grows it will build its own set of protections and assurances that will work equally as well as traditional businesses. Rights unaltered. Rights protected. The consequence might mean more scrutiny of the individuals involved. Rating and testimonials will abound. And as I mentioned in the case of the Uber guy, it raises new moral and ethical questions that could, if taken to an extreme, start to shape the way we behave and interact with the world at large. The Sharing Economy marks a shift towards individual empowerment, but it might come at the price of our liberty. Whatever happens, what I know for sure is that trust needs to be built on something.