Use Airbnb, Uber or Lyft? Beware. There can be a dark side to sharing with strangers
Earlier this year, RJ Walker, 28, lived through what he calls a “sharing economy nightmare.”
The part-time Lyft driver arrived home after work to discover strange cars blocking his driveway.
He cautiously approached the three-bedroom house he called home for nine years to discover a group of strangers lounging around.
“Five random people were basically living in my house,” Walker said. “They had a key. They were eating my food and using my dishes. They used my soap, shampoo. They did laundry using my detergent. They were hoteling in my house, and I was expected to be the maid.”
After some back-and-forth with the surprise guests, he discovered that his landlord rented out the spare bedroom on Airbnb. Walker’s property was listed as amenities.
Just days after the short-term rental company Airbnb promised to ban “party houses,” in November, an 18-year-old girl was reportedly beaten and threatened with a gun at a mansion dubbed “Airbnb house.”
Airbnb, Lyft, Uber and others say these types of occurrences are rare.
Experts say the sharing economy horror stories have emerged due to a primary friction point in the market: Trust.
We trust strangers to walk our dogs, assemble our furniture and help us do basically everything in our lives, but humans are inherently flawed. We trust that companies will have our best interest in heart and give refunds if things go awry. That doesn’t always happen.
“We’re imperfect. Yet we need to trust the other people and the platform in order for the sharing economy to successful,” said April Rinne, a sharing economy adviser. “Trust can and has broken down on both of those levels.”
It’s not that the sharing economy is any more dangerous than life before Uber and Airbnb. It’s that several of the companies that built fortunes on people sharing have grown rapidly. So growing with more users has led to more high-profile slip-ups.
Walker said he contacted local Salt Lake City news because Airbnb couldn’t do anything to help his situation. He was evicted after the story ran on TV.
“It’s always been the Wild West out there,” said Charles Green, who has advised companies on the role of trust for over 20 years. “It all started off as very much person-to-person, and that’s what was very cool about it. You heard more success stories. Now, it’s on a bigger scale, and you see all the scams and negative parts that were there since the beginning.”
Also, as sharing economy startups have grown, the sector that was built on intimacy has become more transactional.
“The interpersonal component no longer plays a distinguishable role,” Green said. And “you have people pushing the boundaries of whatever the law will allow.”
Sharing has a history
Sharing is not a new concept. Humans have shared food, roadways and library books for centuries.
But instant access to the internet has enabled the peer-to-peer market to thrive, and widespread adoption of smartphones was a game-changer.
Sharing began upending the traditional ways of the retail market with Napster in the early 2000s. The service allowed people to share MP3 files with one another for free before being hit with a mountain of copyright infringement lawsuits.
“Years ago, people didn’t get it. They’d ask, ‘What can be shared?'” Rinne said. Nowadays, the conversation has shifted as startups have created innovative business models to lending goods and services.
“I used to draw the line at toothbrushes and children. Those can’t be shared,” Rinne said. “But a lot lies within the scope of sharing.”
While sharing clothes and cars have become more common, it’s harder to convince people to lease their most prized possessions or tools they use every day. It’s also hard to persuade people to return goods that they see as disposable.
“Things that are low-cost are the worst candidates,” she said, referencing the Chinese-based umbrella-sharing company E Umbrella, which folded after people stole the $3 umbrellas. A startup named BrellaBox pitched a similar idea on “Shark Tank” in 2016. Panelists called it “the worst idea ever heard.”
Still, the company said in a blog post that “the Sharks were wrong.” BrellaBox’s social media accounts haven’t been updated since 2017.
“The asset wasn’t expensive enough for the penalty to hurt or for people to find a place to place it back,” Rinne said.
Where the sharing economy is going
Despite all the sharing disasters and hazards, the business sector is growing.
The professional services firm PwC projects the sharing economy to grow from $15 billion in 2014 to $335 billion in 2025. Cars, consumer goods, hospitality and entertainment are key drivers.
And resourceful millennials and Generation Z, who don’t mind sharing assets to save money and the planet, are expected to keep the trend going, experts said.
At some point, the sharing economy becomes an even more integral part of the overall economic pie, Rinne said. “Ownership doesn’t disappear. There is just more sharing, access and lending on the menu.”