An article in Atlantic Cities recently caused a stir on the web by suggesting that (gasp) people who use ZipCar don’t really care about the other people using the service, and have no feeling of community with other users. The article cites a study in which, among other things, ZipCar users complain about having umbrellas stolen by other users, and admit to renting the cars for the sole purpose of having somewhere to smoke pot.
The study’s authors use these data points to suggest that sharing services are not really sharing at all, and suggest we use the term “access-based consumption” instead.
That of course is utterly ridiculous. ZipCar, AirBnB, bike share programs, and the like are sharing (though each exists at a different point on the spectrum of sharing). What the authors have uncovered is not that these sites aren’t about sharing, but that sharing sometimes breaks down. More specifically, sharing, and communities that make use of it, can easily suffer from the tragedy of the commons.
The tragedy of the commons is what happens when individuals act in their own self interests on a collective resource. A shepherd with access to public land lets his sheep graze there a bit longer than on his own land, because hey, it’s free grass to him right? The effect is that collective resources get continually degraded as everyone takes what they need and nobody maintains the resource. The end result is public resources of less value to everyone. Or in ZipCar terms you get stolen umbrellas and car upholstery that smells like pot smoke.
But the tragedy of the commons is nothing new or noteworthy, and people have been circumventing it since the beginning of time. And in today’s world of massive-scale, networked sharing, there are still some good rules of thumb to keep sharing prosperous and prevent any tragedies from creeping in.
Here are some simple ways to keep your own sharing service from falling victim to the tragedy of the commons:
1. Align people’s self interests
Creating good sharing and avoiding tragedy of the commons requires aligning self interests between users. People are going to act in their own best interests, always. A good sharing system doesn’t try to suppress that, but actually highlights it and uses it as the engine of the system. If I have a resource I’m not using and I want to make some extra money, and you need that resource and are willing to pay a bit to borrow it, our self interests are aligned. If you want to be able to borrow something again in the future, and want me to trust you the next time, our interests are again aligned – we both have an interest in you not damaging the resources I lend to you. Making sure users’ interests are always aligned and never in conflict is rule number one for creating a good sharing system.
2. Make people visible to each other
The tragedy of the commons occurs to a large extent when people are able to act anonymously. If you can get away with stealing that umbrella, certain that nobody will notice, you just might. The antidote to this is to make everyone, and everyone’s actions, visible to everyone else. When I know my actions are being seen and evaluated by the rest of the people using the system, I am much less likely to try to game that system. I know that if I do it will hurt my reputation and lessen my ability to interact with people in the future. Making people and their actions visible to each other within a sharing service is a simple and effective way to keep that service honest and healthy.
3. Create a “Sharing UX”Have you noticed there is such a thing as a “sharing UX”? There is. A good sharing experience encourages sharing and best behaviour in people, while a bad one encourages mooching off of the public, lurking in shadows and acting anti-social in general. For a good sharing UX, see AirBnB – everywhere you go on the site, you are prompted to tell people about yourself, link to your profiles on other social media sites, and put your best foot forward with other members of the service. When you accept someone as a guest into your home, AirBnB sends you notes telling you how to make your guest’s stay nicer and outlining the company’s expectations for you as a host. Everything about the UX brings out the best in the users. For a bad – no, terrible sharing UX, see Craigslist. With it’s anonymous posts, web 1.0 interface, and lack of linking with other social sites, CL practically screams “hey you scammers – come use this site!” The wise and honest people, reading that subtext, either engage cautiously or stay away altogether.
Sharing, and the growing set of services that make use of it, is a very powerful phenomenon, one that a recent study from UC Berkeley suggests “is gaining ground on consumerism.” It is already transforming the way we think about transportation, lodging, and swapping stuff we don’t want anymore. It can and will go much farther in the next decade as innovators and entrepreneurs explore new ways to give people access to goods and services for less. As this movement continues to unfurl, keeping these services free of “commons tragedies” will be more and more crucial – and will increasingly become a part of our everyday lives.
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