The sharing economy (or more accurately, the Smart Way To Use What You Already Own To Make Money economy), is booming.
For a fee, you can borrow other people’s bicycles and boats, park in their driveways, work in their garages, have dinner at their house, look after their dogs, sleep in their beds, camp in their gardens, drive or get a lift in their cars, take stuff they don’t want, and use food recipes they have created.
You can even ‘share’ their money, which has to be counted among the all time top euphemisms for ‘debt repayment loan’. Forbes actually counts Lending Club as one of the pioneers of the sharing economy! But what the sharing economy is or isn’t and who fits into it (or doesn’t) is missing the point of this post. Which is that, under the banners of ‘Collaborative Consumption’ and ‘Sharing’, we have developed some odd practices.
Take letting out your home, for example.
That sacred feeling of safety and privacy that we associate with our homes means that room/home letting in this way goes against natural instincts. Furthermore, letting strangers sleep in your home while you are there is one thing. Letting strangers sleep in your home while you are not there is completely different.
Paula Pant, of Afford Anything fame, ran an ‘Airbnb experiment’ – basically reporting on her experience as a host. She actually used several platforms to advertise her room, not just Airbnb. After hosting a guest who misbehaved, she says:
I’ll approve new guests with caution: I [now] spend quite a bit of time chatting with them online, getting a better sense of the individual.
It’s difficult to get a sense of who someone really is these days, because of the digital nature of communication. Our judgement comes from a profile picture, a description they have chosen, and words exchanged through online messages. Realistically, most people entering someone else’s home will fit into the description of ‘stranger’, no matter what we (currently) do.
It’s also odd to ‘review’ someone and their house if you’ve just met. It doesn’t leave a nice taste in the mouth, which suggests there is a lot more to interpreting reviews on home letting sites than just judging them by the stars – by nature, people (especially British people!) find it easier to say ‘everything was fine’ than risk offending someone or complaining. On the flip side, opening your house to possibly severe public criticism is also a new oddness.
Odd or not, it’s very popular: 17 million people booked a stay through the airbnb website last summer, and it has roughly 1.5 million listings.
Looks like renting out your home is here to stay. Which means we should work out a way to create as safe an environment as possible, for hosts and guests. This means doing all we can to avoid situations where valuable items are stolen and wild parties are held without the owner’s permission.
One problem is that it’s still easy for misbehaving guests to give fake names and pictures to hosts, especially when they know the host won’t be there to meet them, or be around for the duration of the stay. If things are stolen, or one guest turns out to be 20 guests who then have a party, it’s unlikely that the host will be able to find the individual responsible. This often results in a game of who-blinks-first with the platform they advertised the room on. Some offer to cover the damages, others do not.
Who is responsible for making sure people are who they say they are? If it is the website, then should all of them implement some type of identity verification system – and make it mandatory for everyone, hosts and guests?
If it’s to be the host’s responsibility, how can this be achieved in such a way that minimal time, effort and cost would be incurred? Skype calls and passport copies in the post are not a viable solution for today’s digital, mobile society.
We think that it is possible to create a person to person digital identity system. In fact, we’re working on it right now. In early 2016, you’ll be able to ask someone to confirm their real name, age, and face through your smartphone as easily as sending a text, whether they are stood next to you or a thousand miles away. For free.
To try out our early test version, or to be notified when the full version is ready, enter your email into our homepage.
By Alex Harvey
Ask me anything: @alextharv