The Trust Economy – When did we start trusting strangers online?

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

When a friend first told me she was going to Poland and would be sleeping on a strangers’ couch it’s hard to say who I thought was more mad – her or the person who’s sofa it was; ”What? For free? For no money? For Free?… She’s letting you stay? Free? But how can you trust each other?” My friend was exasperated.

Over the next few days, and once she had come back from having a great time in a new city with a fantastic host, it dawned on me that rather than be a horrific idea, this could actually be something fun, exciting and groundbreaking. Maybe the idea of trusting strangers has its place.

This is just one example of how the trust economy is building online across a number of different community platforms. People are giving utter trust – of their homes, their cars, and their belongings to complete strangers. And it’s strangely liberating. the site my friend used, allows people who are looking for a place to stay to get in touch with people who have places to stay. Easy.

It shows 92,403 users in my home town of London. That’s 92,403 people prepared to share their space. In my adopted hometown of Cape Town, there are 3,295 people registered and when contemplating a mini break in Barcelona I found over 14,000 people who were willing to host me.

But Couchsurfing is more than just about looking for a place to stay – people ask for rides, others to accompany them to gigs, museums or just to hang out! What it’s really about is making connections., where you rent people’s spare rooms/sofas is so popular it now offers a host on nearly every street in Paris. In these cash strapped times, more and more people are making use of their space, for a bit of cash and just as importantly, for a bit of company.

Sharing is Liberating

People are sharing with strangers more and more and you can see why…
The average car, for example costs 4000 pounds to run and yet sits idle roughly 23 hours a day – so that’s where car sharing companies such as Zip car and car pooling sites come in. When zip car took the keys away from 250 people, they lost an impressive 413 llbs between them from increased exercise, but more importantly nearly half didn’t actually want their car keys back as they found that sharing cars was actually more liberating than ownership. It’s not surprising then to find that over 30 million car rides have been shared across online communities.

Though the sites that are really striking are the ones where no money actually exchanges hands. Couchsurfing, again, or which puts people who have a spare bit of land in touch with those who want to grow things. And I’ve used The Guardian flat swap site a few times myself – staying in strangers’ homes in return for them staying in mine.

My favourite, however has to be Peerby, the Dutch site – which encourages people to ask their neighbours to borrow items. Their motto is ‘Save money, live green and meet awesome people’. They’ve taken the idea of popping round to your neighbours for a cup of sugar that little bit further… Need a lawnmower? See who’s got one in your area? A ladder? Or a drill (which on average is used 13 minutes in its lifespan)? The Peerby crowd can help… When you think how many of us own these items, it puts a whole new perspective on the need for us to actually own things. Reduce consumption and start sharing.

Reputation is everything

But how do you know who to trust? Well of course there are going to always be the bad eggs, but like on Ebay and other online sites, reputation is everything. People can of course, steal, cheat, lie and not return things, but the beauty of all of these communities is that they are open – users will feedback on behaviour and rate others. So any bad behaviour is quickly unmasked though if you do really want extra peace of mind, Peerby enables you to insure your items.

However, on the whole, in the new technology-enabled economy it seems that for now, people are more willing to trust each other than ever before. And if I haven’t convinced you, check out what Rachel Botsman has to say about collaborative consumption.

Now, who can lend me a quiche tin? I’ve got a drill I can offer you.