Share If You Dare
Thoughts on the hazards of the “Sharing Economy” and the liabilities of life, as illustrated by To Kill A Mockingbird
The Sharing Economy is terrifying. As brilliant as every new app, new startup, new great idea is, each comes with the risk that something can go horribly wrong. In November, journalist Zak Stone shared the story of his last encounter with Airbnb, the home/apartment sharing platform that has rocketed in popularity in the past few years. The piece, titled “Living and Dying on Airbnb” chronicles the death of his father, who wrongfully died on the property — killed on a idyllic tree swing by a broken branch outside their rented Austin cottage.
Stone’s is truly a tragic story, which outlines the transformation of Airbnb from a cool, friendly idea, to a corporate behemoth that is still acting like a parent’s garage start-up: cutting corners on safety and liability to maximize profits. Like Stone, I used to read articles about Airbnb — and by extension, other Sharing Economy businesses like Uber — with sympathy towards the startup. Those neighbors just can’t embrace change! Who cares if it is too loud! The hotels and taxis should suck it up — they brought this on themselves with their exorbitant costs! U-rah-rah, Millenials!
But I am now singing a different tune. The more articles I read, the more I realize that these horror stories of death, rape, assault, and damage are not isolated incidences, but symptoms of a larger disease: companies that capitalize on the idea of community without taking any responsibility for the safety and well-being of those in that community. What may have started out as feel-good companies about opening up your heart/home/car/shopping cart to others has turned into a market run by greedy monsters.
Maybe I am especially sensitive to these nightmarish accounts because I too have been in the eye of a liability storm. When a pitbull attack in my friend’s living room landed me in the hospital at sixteen, my friend’s mom refused to help my single mother out with medical expenses, and her landlord’s insurance didn’t cover “that kind” of incident. It was hard enough — and ultimately fruitless — to fight for help or compensation within long-established property and rental laws; I can’t imagine what would have happened had that dog been in an Airbnb in a big city, not a ranch-style house in the Midwest. Our only consolation prize from that delightful incident was a personal phone call from the sheriff to tell me “if they don’t get that dog put down, I’ma shoot it myself.”
What is most striking about much of the calamity caused by the Sharing Economy is that it often befalls women. The website “Who’s Driving You” keeps a sobering list of sexual assaults, kidnappings, and deaths at the hands of Uber and Lyft drives. The Chicago Tribune reported on a case of sexual assault by an Uber driver in Lincoln Square, back in December 2014. More recently, an entry on the list from June 2015 reads “Uber Driver in Chicago Allegedly Exposes Himself to a Female Passenger, Uber Admits He Should Have Failed Background Check.” A similar site called “Airbnb Hell” also collects stories of rape and assault — user-reported stories that they claim have gone unanswered or ignored by Airbnb. The Sharing Economy way be wildly irresponsible for user safety, but it seems to be especially negligent towards women.
Ironically, I got bit by that pitbull because I was a woman. I was on my period, and the dog smelled blood. Do we stop going to our friends’ house to gossip about high school and watch American Pie because they might not have renter’s insurance? Do we stop walking down the street on our periods in case a dog walks by? Do we stop using Uber, Airbnb, Amazon Prime’s 2-hour delivery when we forget to pick up cat food and our kitten is meowing in rage, because we might get raped, kidnapped, assaulted? Or killed by a freak tree branch accident?
We shouldn’t have to ask ourselves these questions to begin with, but ultimately, I’ve decided: no, we don’t stop living our lives, don’t stop using these services. But just because we won’t stop doesn’t mean the corporations that facilitate them shouldn’t help people when things go wrong — and it certainly doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t do everything in their power to prevent these horrible things in the first place.