Why you should care
Sharing-based businesses are great for the economy but unleash some uncomfortable questions about manners.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
If the economy has one bright spot, they say, it’s the rise of businesses based on sharing. The Airbnbs, Lyfts and Meal Sharings of the world are growing, as people from all over see the upside of renting out their personal assets. In theory, it’s very nice. Sharing is good. Wasting is not. And the sharing economy fosters egalitarianism and connection in a way traditional commerce doesn’t. With Airbnb, after all, you’re not a renter; you’re a guest.
And yet. By remaking the relationship between customer and provider, and by trying to make transactions less transaction-y, the sharing economy demolishes barriers I quite like. It doesn’t replace them with anything substantial, either. When I step into a taxi, I feel no obligation to make nice, to communicate, to listen, to talk. After all, the customer is king, and the king has a reasonable expectation of privacy. But were I to summon a Lyft, says the company, it would be like getting a ride with my best friend. Except that I would pay — er, excuse me, make a donation — at the end of it.
Ugh. I want neither to pay my friends nor to befriend my driver, let alone be best friends with him.
The potential for etiquette snarls is massive. It’s not just unwelcome hitting-on, though that happens, as this (unverified but believable) tale of a Lyft gone bad suggests. It’s more mundane, confusing and heartbreaking than that.
The Sad Divorcé needed a therapist, but instead he decided to post on Airbnb.
Consider the case of the Sad Divorcé, my first Airbnb host, in Silicon Valley. While his three-bedroom apartment was perfectly fine, SD himself was not, really. Having recently moved from the house he shared with his wife and three children, SD was dealing with a lot: the trauma of separation, money woes, lawyer problems. On top of that, he just missed his kids.
SD needed a therapist, but instead he decided to post on Airbnb. His listing bore no hint of the trauma and turmoil within. At the time, we were launching OZY. My workdays were intense, long and filled with words and people: words in stories, in meetings, in interviews, in arguments, in brainstorming sessions. After 10 or 12 hours of it, I wanted no one to talk to me.
’Twas not to be. Every time I opened the apartment door, no matter how late it was or how bedraggled I tried to appear, SD wanted to talk. The first night, I succumbed before I really knew what was happening and heard about his relationship with his kids, what went wrong with his wife, and how it related to his upbringing. During the 10 subsequent nights, I threw out every nonverbal cue I knew: I declined to have a seat, I nodded silently or not at all, I inched back toward the door of my room, I even looked at my watch. None of this seemed to register.
Later it hit me: I’d paid upwards of $90 a day to be his therapist. It is not such an uncommon experience, anecdotal evidence suggests. When I told a friend the story, she outdid me with her tale of an Airbnb host who, weeks after her stay, still called her for advice and help.
Then there was the Sidecar driver I’ll call Disgruntled WASP. En route from a friend’s house to the train station, DW regaled me with his life story, which, as he saw it, entailed an unjust decline in his fortunes. DW had gotten his college and MBA degrees at Ivy League schools, lived in Asia for many years and returned to helm two startups that never really launched. That’s when he turned to Sidecar.
Another time I might have summoned compassion, but then, DW seemed to be doing pretty well. He boasted about annual donations to his alma maters that were intended to give his kids a legacy edge in the admissions game. More to the point: DW was so focused on demonstrating his credentials that he missed three turns on the way to the station. I sprinted to make my train.
Maybe it’s just California. I grew up in eastern Iowa, where people had a sort of modesty when it came to their personal lives. Residents of New York, where I’ve lived much of my adult life, are generally more attentive to boundaries. The daily scrum of people on the sidewalks, in your apartment building, on the train, makes it necessary.
To be sure, not all my experiences in the sharing economy have been bad. I think with fondness and respect of the Hippie Abuela, a 50-something Latina whose political commitments and sunniness drew me in. Whenever I had a nightcap, I poured one for her. Then she’d take three sips and proclaim herself woozy.
Yet what I appreciated most about HA was her ability to leave me alone. She never waited for me to come home, she never hovered, she never overshared. Let it be known: Hippie Abuela is a master of the sharing economy. She managed to cajole someone with mid-century reservations about mingling commerce and intimacy into something kind of like … friendship.