I used Uber yesterday. And the week before. And two weeks ago in Berlin. That’s just what happens when something handy becomes available the touch of a button. It was the same with Just Eat during a final year at university now lost in a haze of Indian takeaways. Don’t get me wrong, the product itself has to be decent and affordable, but accessibility and ease of use are the tempting devils on either shoulder…
Internet marketplaces are nothing radically new. Ebay has been around since 1995, for example, although it certainly feels a lot older than that. But today’s sharing platforms have taken things to another level. What the likes of Airbnb and Uber do is offer an affordable solution to problems faced by us all, whether you want a cheap taxi on demand or a room for a short stay in Paris. It’s no coincidence that these companies, alongside the likes of Etsy, began to spring up in the wake of economic hardship following the financial crisis. Buyers get better deals in a competitive market, whilst on the seller side these platforms offer the chance to earn a little extra money in an extremely flexible way. The success of Uber, Airbnb and all the rest has created an entire generation of sharers, more than comfortable with getting into a stranger’s car or travelling half way across the world with only the promise of a key under the door mat guaranteeing their accommodation.
A new wave of peer to peer marketplaces is allowing people to band together to trade services, disrupting established industries and giving customers more for their money.
As soon as you join you’ve got the backing of an entire community, and access to all of the traffic that it pulls in as a collective…
I spoke to Etsy trader Roisin Astell about what tempted her into setting up a small business online. She confirmed that “without the Etsy platform I would have thought twice about starting my photography business. As soon as you join you’ve got the backing of an entire community, and access to all of the traffic that it pulls in as a collective…”
All this disruption doesn’t come without a dark side though. Airbnb are facing legal challenges in Barcelona, Berlin and New York – just to mention a few – for breaching tourism laws relating to short stay rentals. Unsurprisingly the hotel industry isn’t very happy with having an unregulated competitor on the block. And Uber, understandably for a company which seeks to challenge local taxi firms and undercut traditional transport methods, hasn’t received a very warm welcome in any of the cities it operates in. They’ve been banned in several countries for violating transport laws, clamped down on in France after protests by established taxi drivers brought Paris to a standstill, and been put under heavy pressure by disgruntled black cab drivers in London.
But it isn’t just destroying the competition that’s giving Uber a bad reputation. Whether you agree with it or not, there was widespread outrage in Sydney and London as prices were hiked up during times of incredibly high demand. The London Tube Strike saw fares rise to over three times the normal rate, and during a hostage situation in a café in Sydney last year fares were quadrupled.
Despite the ideal of a ‘sharing economy’, this is surely capitalism in its purest form, with the laws of supply and demand even permeating through ‘community’ marketplaces. But perhaps the sense of equality is found in the opportunities these peer to peer marketplaces provide. Uber drivers, for example, don’t have to undergo tests anywhere near as stringent as London’s black cab drivers. Etsy shop owners simply have to register to gain access to the huge amount of traffic that passes through every day. Becoming an Airbnb-er puts you a just a few clicks away from easy, regular cash – if you’re willing to have strangers in your house that is.
So what does the future hold for Uber and its fellow peer to peer platforms? As long as they continue to challenge established enterprises, they will no doubt come under fire and find themselves restricted in markets they have blown wide open. But not all community marketplaces have to cause so much controversy. Have you heard of Streetbank or Zipcar? If not, you probably will do soon. Both are leading the way in community based sharing schemes. Streetbank offers access to a huge network in your local area, full of people looking to offer services, give things away and swap their stuff. Zipcar manage thousands of cars which you can pick up and rent for the day. Both aim to empower communities and save you money by sharing with others.
Whatever happens with Uber, it looks as though the sharing economy is here to stay.