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The Problem With Zipcar: People Suck At Sharing

Turns out we can be pretty big jerks when it comes to services like Zipcar. What helps: interaction with another human.

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Think back to a time when you went to the library and checked out books. Possibly the only thing more mortifying than the walk of shame to the counter with a V.C. Andrews novel was the return trip, a pizza grease-stained copy in hand, primed to face the librarian's wrath. Even for the cowards that crept slowly to the drop-off bin, it didn't matter: Eventually you'd have to show your face when you wanted the sequel. There was no hiding.

Libraries were perhaps the pioneer sharing service, but now you can pretty much rent, borrow or share anything you could ever need. The only problem is, without the human-to-human exchange (or library shame) to keep us in check, our moral compasses often go awry, a new study on Zipcar drivers and their attitude toward collaborative consumption shows. Beyond just Zipcar, the researchers believe their findings will apply to other sharing services, varying slightly based on what's being shared and how.

Marketing researchers from Suffolk University believed in the utopian idea of car-sharing, and were surprised to discover such blatant I-don't-give-a-shit attitudes from Zipsters (a term that no one but Zipcar actually uses). The researchers interviewed Boston Zipcar users and learned that most people felt no sense of community and little accountability, unabashedly taking forgotten umbrellas or hot-boxing the cars, indifferent to the next driver.

"There's a very romanticized view of collaborative consumption," Giana Eckhardt, one of the paper's authors, told me. Any sense of collaboration or community was so nonexistent, in fact, that the researchers decided to call this "access-based consumption" instead.

The downfall of the Zipcar community can be attributed in large part to one of its biggest successes — reducing human interaction. (Zipcar argues otherwise, based on "quantifiable and qualifiable internal research.") There's no dealing with rental car agencies or having to meet a friend to get their keys, but this ease of transaction and anonymity between drivers seems to have created a complete disregard of not just the car, but the other humans driving it.

Other sharing services like RelayRides and Airbnb recognize the importance of putting a face to this shared object, be it a car or home or hammer, and have built their businesses around the in-person exchange. "Zipcar was really the early precursor to sharing services, but their shared economy model is a corporation that manages a fleet of cars and rents them to consumers," Emily Joffrion, Airbnb's director of consumer strategy and insights, told me. "With Airbnb, it's owned by a person, you see their photos, their art, their clothes in their closet — that's really personal." But they've also had to build in safeguards: After a renter's home was trashed last summer, Airbnb initiated a million dollar guarantee (not the same as an insurance policy). Hosts are now allowed to require security deposits from their guests as well.

Similarly, seeing a pair of sunglasses or extensive CD collection in a RelayRides rental (a sharing service for neighbors' cars) reminds people that this car belongs to a person — not to mention that you'll eventually be returning the car to said person. Founder and chief community officer Shelby Clark also has a more positive, or perhaps naïve, view of it's members: "People are generally good, we believe.” He argues that the study's findings don't apply to RelayRides because the "interpersonal dynamic changes the entire way that renters view the car."

But even with the lack of face time or personal ownership of clothing, Rent the Runway CEO Jenn Hyman says they've seen a community take shape over the past three years. "There’s interaction amongst our users on our social media as well as a willingness to share dress and accessory reviews," she told me in an email. Rent the Runway lets members borrow designer goods on loan, but like Zipcar, there's no knowing who had a fancy dress before you or who will have it after — although I'd imagine no one's really trying to ruin a dress they're currently wearing.

What's more disconcerting than the absence of a tree-hugging, "Kumbaya"-singing Zipcar community is that Eckhardt thinks this general idea — that people inherently don't care about things they don't own — will hold true for most sharing services. The data from this study doesn't point to this, nor were their findings meant to be generalizable, but she thinks that as more researchers study collaborative consumption models they'll find similar attitudes. "It's human nature," she says.

If human nature is to not give a shit about anything I didn't purchase myself, that's a pretty dismal outlook on the state of humanity. I want to be able to keep borrowing, sharing, and renting the things I can't afford to own (which are a lot) — and it'd be nice to be able to do it as easily as picking up a Zipcar.

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