Social trust in the United States may be declining but one writer argues two new services are providing space where Americans can start trusting a little more:
The sharing economy has come on so quickly and powerfully that regulators and economists are still grappling to understand its impact. But one consequence is already clear: Many of these companies have us engaging in behaviors that would have seemed unthinkably foolhardy as recently as five years ago. We are hopping into strangers’ cars (Lyft, Sidecar, Uber), welcoming them into our spare rooms (Airbnb), dropping our dogs off at their houses (DogVacay, Rover), and eating food in their dining rooms (Feastly). We are letting them rent our cars (RelayRides, Getaround), our boats (Boatbound), our houses (HomeAway), and our power tools (Zilok). We are entrusting complete strangers with our most valuable possessions, our personal experiences—and our very lives. In the process, we are entering a new era of Internet-enabled intimacy.
This is not just an economic breakthrough. It is a cultural one, enabled by a sophisticated series of mechanisms, algorithms, and finely calibrated systems of rewards and punishments. It’s a radical next step for the person-to-person marketplace pioneered by eBay: a set of digital tools that enable and encourage us to trust our fellow human beings…
That’s the carrot side of a more intimate economy, the idea that treating people well will result in a better experience. There is a stick side as well: Act badly and you’ll be barred from participating. Nick Grossman, a general manager at Union Square Ventures and a visiting scholar at the MIT Media Lab, says that while Uber drivers are generally positive about the service, he has spoken with some who worry about picking up a couple of bad reviews, falling below the acceptable rating threshold, and getting fired. (The same holds for passengers: Manit, the Lyft driver, says she won’t pick up anyone with less than a 4.3-star rating.) “There’s a legitimate question: How do we feel about living in an environment of hyper-accountability?” Grossman asks. “It’s very effective at producing certain outcomes. It’s also very Darwinian.” Just like residents of pre-industrial America, sharing-economy participants know that every transaction contributes to a reputation that will follow them, potentially for the rest of their lives.
Two things seem critical to increasing social trust in these systems:
1. The willingness of enough Americans to trust technology to solve problems and be willing to serve as early adopters who work the kinks out of this system. As the article notes, some users have been burned. But, this then gives each service a chance to respond and get it right in the future.
2. These services provide enough guidelines to help people feel safe. This is quite different from stories in recent years about sharing within a neighborhood or a barter system. Those rely on face-to-face interaction, often with people with whom one could expect to have future interactions. These services provide mediated interaction that leads to some face-to-face interaction. The long-term effects of mediated interaction (this is also what social media tends to offer) might be quite different.