Technology is giving the average Joe and Joanna new ways to exchange goods and services – sometimes for money, sometimes for free – with strangers they connect with online.
British-born author and public speaker Rachel Botsman calls this way of interacting for mutual benefit “collaborative consumption” and she maintains that the “currency of this new economy is trust.”
Botsman gave a TED talk about the phenomenon in 2012, and wrote about it in her book “What’s Mine is Yours: How Collaborative Consumption is Changing the Way We Live,” published in 2010.
The possibilities keep expanding. You can rent out a spare room (Airbnb), a parking space (pavemint.com), drive people around (Uber/Lyft), hire someone to assemble your Ikea furniture (taskrabbit.com), locate a pet-sitter (rover.com) – even find a mate (match.com).
Reilly White, assistant professor of finance at the University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management, has been watching the trend. From an economic perspective, he sees it as the latest development in a long history that stretches back to when people used to barter for goods instead of exchanging currencies.
“It’s almost a return to that age of bartering where people possess assets and they realize they don’t need or use all of the assets fully so they’re able to lend out those assets,” he said. “So we see it as something that’s been there all along, but this has been an increased formalization of it, an increased awareness of it and certainly an increased market of it.”
The great technological challenge, White says, is being able to assure those on each side of the deal that everything will be above board and ethical. In other words, how to generate trust between people who haven’t met each other face to face.
Botsman contends that the ability for each party to rate the experience is what builds a reputation, and thus trust. For example, on Couchsurfing.com – a website where members can arrange homestays or offer lodging for free – hosts can read references before deciding to accept a request from a visitor seeking accommodations. Similarly, Uber drivers and riders are prompted to rate each other. Good references or ratings create a good reputation, and vice versa.
“It’s using the power of technology to build trust between strangers,” Botsman said in her TED talk.
Ryan Jacobson, associate professor of organizational behavior at the Anderson School, said the extent to which ratings affect trust perceptions is open for more research. However, he said, extensive research has demonstrated that people tend to evaluate others based on perceived warmth and perceived competence.
“The warmth judgment plays a very large role in determining how much we like and trust others,” Jacobson said.
Santa Fe residents Kerry Brock and his wife, Mary Lawton, have arranged dozens of house-swapping vacations through HomeExchange.com and haven’t had a bad experience.
“We’ve questioned ourselves about trust – Santa Fe is our only home and it’s beautiful and we’re a bit anal about it,” Brock said. They decided early on to only do direct swaps, where the other homeowner stayed in their house. They check the other homeowner’s references on the website and exchange multiple emails and photos before they proceed with an arrangement.
“By the time we do an exchange, we have a good sense of the people,” Brock said.
Bob and Annie Foley have been finding house-sitting opportunities for five years through Housecarers.com, a website that matches homeowners with house sitters. House sitters benefit from free accommodations in return for caring for the owner’s home and pets.
When he finds an interesting house-sitting opportunity, Bob Foley said, he contacts the homeowner through the website, sends references and asks to chat via FaceTime or Skype.
“I place a great deal of importance in a video face-to-face. Plus pictures of the home are essential. Over the years, 20 percent did not feel right. But 80 percent have been terrific,” he said.
Once trust is established, the collaborative consumption enterprises can offer unique ways of meeting new people and appreciating other cultures.
Austin, Texas, resident Annabelle Peskin frequently uses Couchsurfing.com to find free accommodations when traveling, including a recent stop in Albuquerque.
“I Couchsurf to have a local experience and meet city locals, hear their stories and see the city from their perspective,” said Peskin.
Avid cyclist Martha Rosenau has used Warm Showers, the bicycle tourist’s version of Couchsurfing, to find accommodations in New Mexico and other states.
“Hosts turn you onto all the best aspects of their area and help out-of-towners feel right at home,” she said. She’s also hosted cyclists at her Colorado Springs home.
“I enjoy having houseguests. It’s a wonderful opportunity for companionship and community and connection,” said Rosenau.