Our Sharing Economy Experience

Millennials, people born between 1981 and 2000, are expected to be familiar with all of the up-and-coming trends, especially those linked to the almighty smartphone. The sharing economy—and its many incarnations—fits this description. But when the three of us began our reporting on this project, the only sharing economy service we were familiar with was Uber. It’s the go-to ride service option for our generation, requiring us only to press a button on a screen rather than speaking to another human being. But throughout our reporting, we’ve become familiar with the broad scope of the sharing economy—not only the services contained within it, but also with common themes that define it.

The triple threat

Perhaps the most prominent link between the sharing economy and our generation is the way in which “renters” and “sharers” communicate. It’s not just text. It’s not just e-mail. It’s not just in-app messaging. It’s all three.

The way that we contacted our potential providers was through their services’ messaging apps. Their messaging features were the most convenient method of contact. But invariably, when you sign up for these services, you must submit an e-mail address, and a phone number.

In order to get enough Airbnb hosts for our story, we had to “play the odds” by contacting about 20 listed properties in hopes of getting a few of them to agree to show us their place on camera. And when they began responding, chaos ensued. Our smartphones were inundated with responses.

And it wasn’t just for Airbnb, it was for other sharing apps as well. Each response meant three “bings” and vibrations—one for a text, one for an e-mail, and one for an in-app message. Three notifications for one message. It became overwhelming and distracting at times, and was a constant reminder of the sharing economy’s strong ties to smart phones and millennials.

The sharing economy ignored

Ever heard of Meal Sharing, Turo or Spinlister? Neither had we, until we began our research for this project. And it doesn’t appear that they will be going mainstream any time soon.

We found listings for these three apps online. These sharing economy services sounded cool to us; we could have a meal at a stranger’s home for a low price, Turo would let you rent someone’s car for a day and Spinlister lets you borrow somebody’s bike. But our experiences with all three services underscores that sharing services require attention on both sides of the transaction. Sometimes people who create a service lose interest.

Perhaps Gavin Fox, business professor at Washington and Lee University, best describes why not all sharing economy efforts are successful.

“The reality of it is most of those apps probably are not really being checked.”

Patrick McCarron rents a Spinlister bike and takes it for a ride on the Roanoke River Greenway.

Patrick McCarron rents a Spinlister bike and takes it for a ride on the Roanoke River Greenway.

He might just be right. Let’s look at some numbers:

  • There were a total of four Meal Sharing listings in Rockbridge County’s cities and surrounding cities. None of them responded to our meal requests.
  • We requested a bike from nine “Spinlisters” in Harrisonburg and Roanoke. We received two replies—one from Aaron who graciously let us rent his bike, and one from “Jeff G.”:

“That sounds cool but I don’t have any bikes for rent. I set up Spinlister several years ago and honestly forgot about it because no one around here uses the service.”

  • We contacted three of the more affordable Turo listings in the same area, hoping to borrow a car. We got one response:

“I would normally be down, but this weekend happens to be my wedding weekend. I’m leaving this Thursday to go to DC. I won’t be back with my car until later this month. Sorry! I hope you find someone.”

We did, however, receive nearly a 100 percent response rate from Airbnb hosts.

A personal touch

Our hypothesis: the sharing economy is more than just a transaction; it’s personal. Trust is a major component on both sides. How do I really know that my Airbnb guest won’t trash the place? What if my Spinlister bike sharer gives me a bike with a broken chain?

Antonia spoke to us and showed us around her 250 acres of land for about three hours. Mary took interest in what we’d be doing after graduation and also told us all about her own son. Aaron appeared to have taken time off work to meet us at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon to lend us his bike. He even allowed us to reschedule, since it rained the first day we were supposed to rent the bike and Spinlister has a very strict cancellation policy on its website.

None of them had to do these things, but they all appeared to have cared about us and our project.

The sharing economy is expanding rapidly, with different services popping up constantly. It has been fascinating to study the phenomenon in rural, western Virginia, which we’ve learned is just a spec on the world sharing economy map. While we are used to seeing Uber in the cities that we come from, we are surprised at the apparent success of Airbnb. At same time, the local community uses services like free, shared blue bikes, which in our opinion, could not succeed outside Lexington.

We won’t be surprised, though, if when we return one day, we might just take an Uber to reach our Lexington destination.