The sharing economy: A resurgence of trusting strangers online?

Image from Wired article

A Facebook friend posted a Wired article this morning titled, “How Airbnb and Lyft Finally Got Americans to Trust Each Other“. As someone who almost exclusively uses HomeAway & Airbnb  for vacations, I’m a big fan of the sharing economy and have had only positive experiences thus far. However, I know plenty of people who find it odd that I’m willing to stay in a stranger’s home on vacation. There’s still a general sense of “but you don’t know these people.” This article does a great job contextualizing and explaining the sharing economy that is (re)emerging online. It’s so refreshing to read an article heralding the benefits of online connections with strangers rather than the negative.

People often tell me they think the internet is making us lonelier and is contributing to an overall decline in shared experiences and trust. However, there is very little evidence to support these claims. Research demonstrates that we are less connected to people for a lot of reasons, but technology isn’t really a large part of the story. We are lonelier because we have moved to suburbs (that are largely isolated and disconnected from local communities), we follow our jobs across the country (or world) which means moving away from family support, middle-class work has become increasingly specialized and fragmented, we spend more time commuting in cars rather than shopping and working in local neighborhoods & communities (how many of us know the checkout girl at the major supermarket?), we have abandoned social organizations & institutions such as the church, community associations, & political parties that used to connect us with each other. For more evidence of these claims see Putnam who was writing in 2001 or Riesman, Glazer, and Denney who were writing in 1961 (long before today’s online culture). In other words, we might be lonelier than 100 years ago, but you can’t justifiably blame the internet (at least not as the primary contributing factor).

Example of early online community

Additionally, the early days of the internet (prior to the WWW) were heralded as being a community where people could connect with people all across the world – it was going to make us less lonely. The utopian ideals anticipated a revival of community, increased personal connections, the spread of democracy, and more shared experiences with strangers. Early writers such as Howard Rheingold have chronicled the beneficial and positive experiences that early users of the internet found via connecting and communicating with “strangers.” If you read early literature about online communities you won’t find large discourses of fear or risk associated with anonymous connections, rather you find people who had primarily positive experiences, formed legitimate bonds, and built strong communities and social networks that expanded their social capital.

Enter the 1990s. The World Wide Web served to mainstream and commercialize the internet. While it ushered in new possibilities and new users that had previously been excluded from participating in online communities, it also brought new concerns and fears. Instead of anonymity, social connections, and long distance communication being valued as a positive outcome, people were cautious of connecting with unknown people. There were several policies in the US aimed at preventing young people from communicating and participating online because of fears of predators and strangers (and porn). When I started my graduate research on girls’ blogs in 2006 the number one question I got from people was, “But how can you really know the blogs are written by girls and not creepy men living in their mom’s basement?” For many there was still a general and accepted distrust of anonymity and social connections online. While I couldn’t know 100% for sure I was communicating with girls, all indicators pointed towards the fact that these were legitimate girls’ voices and experiences. The blogosphere had many mechanisms in place that served to verify and validate online identities, communities, and experiences. Due to advances in algorithms, personal reviews, social networking sites, and identity verification mechanisms, sites such as Airbnb & Uber & Etsy actually work to ensure that you connect with communities and trusted social networks, not scary “strangers.”

When sites such as Craigslist make the news, it’s almost always to talk about a crime that was committed (usually by men against women) and is accompanied by a warning to be careful and not trust people you meet online. We tell children to not talk to strangers online and fail to acknowledge the benefits that can come from sharing your experiences, perspectives, creative works, and lives with diverse people who are outside your geographical communities. Most people have positive experiences on sites such as Craigslist, Airbnb, couchsurfing, Lyft, Ebay, blogs – if they didn’t, these sites would fail or be driven underground. But stories such as “Family Has Safe Vacation in Stranger’s Home” or “Partygoer Doesn’t Get in Drunk Driving Accident” don’t make headlines like the negative stories do, and so we don’t hear about them. Because we only hear about the bad, we tend to think of them as the norm rather than the exceptional.

Yes, the internet can be dangerous or scary, but so is the offline world. I’m much more nervous walking to my car late at night in a mall parking lot than I am engaging in transactions online with strangers. While much of the early mantras about the internet were overly optimistic, the pendulum began to swing too far towards the negative. We connect with, talk to, & do business with strangers in the offline world every day. When I make chitchat with the guy standing in line behind me at the store, I’m not worried he’s actually “creepy”, when I hand my credit card to the lady at the cash register I’m not worried she’s going to jot down the number & expiration date, when I need advice about which flowers to buy I’m not concerned that the sales clerk is “scary”. Yes, there are face-to-face cues that help me assess situations & at times I do avoid these interactions, but those are the exceptions. Similarly there are mechanisms online that help verify and validate connections and transactions with strangers (reviews, profiles, social networks that reveal other connections, algorithms that identify fishy interactions). As one of my friends wrote on my Facebook in response to the Wired article, “[people on Airbnb] aren’t creepy strangers, they are just people like you who need a place to stay.” So sites such as these (e.g. Airbnb, Lyft, Uber)  contribute to new economies of sharing that are built on mutual connections and trust. This in turn helps expand our social networks & social capital, which can aid in decreasing feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Copyright The Guardian

All of this is to say, it’s refreshing to see an article that highlights the benefits of online connections and transactions. The sharing economy works because we take risks and trust each other, but also because we utilize mechanisms that build community to minimize those risks. The sharing economy is also a powerful tool for bypassing hypercommercialized capitalistic economies that are often built upon exploited  labor practices and exorbitant prices. I think one reason these spaces tend to get so much bad publicity is because they directly challenge monopolistic commercial industries – they offer safe, affordable, and alternative options for citizens and consumers fed up with hiked up prices and corporate culture.

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