During a visit to moscow years ago, it was a surprise to learn the local practice for hailing a ride: standing at the curb with hand upraised until a passing driver stopped. After a brief price negotiation, rider and driver would be on their way (the city apparently had commercial taxis, but Muscovites avoided them, for murky reasons that had to do with organized crime). To my sensibilities, this was trusting to the point of naive madness: rely on a stranger for a ride? You might as well have been eating apples from a childhood trick-or-treat bag without checking for those legendary razorblades.
My Moscow experience was a low-tech predecessor to today’s app-driven, citizen-cab services Lyft and UberX, and I recently took the plunge on the new sharing economy, electronically hailing a ride home from downtown Minneapolis and watching a moving blip on my iPhone tracking the Lyft driver I’d summoned. After he arrived and I piled in, Dave (not his real name) pulled into traffic while watching a parked Metro Transit cop in his rearview mirror—we were in something of a legal gray zone. Lyft has taxi companies crying foul because it provides a similar service without observing the industry’s fees and regulations; I felt a little like an accessory to something illegal, though I wasn’t quite sure what.
It didn’t take much prodding for Dave to extol the virtues of driving for Lyft: keeping his own hours, pulling in an extra $200 to $600 a week to supplement his income, and satisfying an extrovert’s desire to meet and interact with people from all walks of life. Presumably Lyft drivers court the risks to life and limb that accompany any job dealing with the public, but with a difference. Unlike the random taxi passenger and driver, Dave and I were linked by online accountability: We exchanged names and photos before we met, and I’d submitted my credit-card information when I first logged on. Maybe more importantly, Lyft protocol also required us to instantly rank one another when the ride was finished.
I was ranked (hopefully) as a trustworthy, reasonable rider, and Dave as a driver (he got five out of five)—thus building bona fides of responsible behavior that were essentially scores of social credit. The sharing economy purportedly promotes increased connection, and that’s true to a point—on vacation I’ve used Airbnb and become friends with both a garlic farmer and a retired clown. But I’m also on a first-name basis with folks who work at my skyway Starbucks. Business isn’t inherently impersonal, but it is business.
But like Lyft, Airbnb runs on the cornerstone of the sharing economy: the establishment of a verifiable and accountable online identity. By leaving an information trail about oneself, these personalized business interactions become possible—in the same way that crowded streets are often the safest. A Russian proverb made famous in the pre-internet Cold War comes to mind: Trust but verify.