Trust me, I’m a microentrepreneur

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A bit less public than Tripadvisor

The age of the public review prompts some extreme behaviour – like the hotel that got ridiculed for charging £100 for posting bad reviews on Tripadvisor.

But it’s not surprising that the hotel management took Tripadvisor so seriously. Public ratings matter (and it’s worldwide: travelling in Uganda last year, every place we stayed at asked us to write them a review).

Customer feedback carries even more weight in the sharing economy, where services and resources offered by fellow citizens aren’t guaranteed by industry standards and where getting a refund is difficult, awkward or impossible. And it’s unbalanced: one bad review can outweigh ten good ones. Negative feedback can ruin the reputation and even livelihood, of the driver, DIY-helper, graphic designer, dog-walker – anyone who has decided to make their living as a microentrepeneur.

It’s one of the uncomfortable aspects of this new way of doing things (along with the driving down of wages, and the lack of benefits that Uber and others are willing to offer their workers): the issue of trust hasn’t quite been figured out yet.

In East London, a social enterprise called Echo has created a time-banking community that allows freelancers and small companies to trade skills. It’s more sophisticated, and offers more opportunity, than a direct exchange: in the economy of hours, you can earn one ‘echo’ by giving, say, an hour-long language class that you use to pay for an hour of web design or business planning advice or even room hire. But it’s not only (or even primarily) about the skills, said Matthew McStravick, Echo’s director, speaking at an event they hosted last week on the sharing economy: “we’re developing a marketplace to build trust”. Unlike what’s happening in the traditional economy, where consumers are able to think less and less about every transaction (contactless, ApplePay, one-click on Amazon…), Echo wants to create what McStravick calls “more positive friction” between people as they trade – because that makes you present in the moment, and that builds trust.

Getting people to trust each other was the “biggest challenge” in launching GoCarShare, said Drummond Gilbert, who founded the lift-sharing platform in 2010. I lived in Germany and France in 2003-4, and I remember being impressed by how easy it was in both countries to find a mitfahrgelegenheit or a covoiturage. In this country, less so.

So Gilbert broke down the levels of trust into three tiers. First, he said, he had to get customers to trust the idea itself. That meant being “really coherent about what we’re doing” – unlike the many iterations that startups go through, this one had to get the brand right from the start. Second, he had to get them to trust the company: starting out, the company used partnerships with events like Glastonbury festival as a badge of credibility. Third, they needed to trust each other as drivers or passengers – so GoCarShare required all bookings to go through PayPal, making every user traceable, and also integrated the site with Facebook so that users could see a certain amount of information about each other in advance.

The biggest beasts of the sharing economy know that trust is fundamental to their model. Airbnb reportedly has a 50-strong ‘trust and safety team’ (probably more than 50 by now), headed by a former military intelligence officer. As we get more connected and as ever more information about us is stored and shared, Gilbert even predicts that the concept of being a complete ‘stranger’ will die out – you’ll always be able to find something on that driver or host or dog-walker. But if that’s the case (and even if it’s not, since precarious and piecework looks set to become increasingly common), how we interact with and rate another individual as someone we do business with still looks complicated.

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