The Counselor - From Seat 9F - May, 2010

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Friends, MACOs, and Sharing

Few forms of change are more irksome than change in the meaning of a word.  Sheman Alexie, who knows a lot about words, said “I’m tired of people saying ‘I have Facebook friends.’  I have friends.” Better words may be out there for the people who claim a formal electronic relationship.  Perhaps “He’s a MACO of mine” (Met At Convention Once) or “We’re BCBs” (Business Card Buddies) could work. Those who use “Friend” to include online pals are forced to use “BFF” to describe someone with whom they converse beyond thumb-typing.


A possible exception to this dilution is the word “share.”  Yes, it’s suffered –the college roommate “shares” a tweet that he just fed his dog is doing nothing for this venerable word.  But social networking is doing a lot to make it easier to share stuff.  Historically, one needed strong credit to borrow expensive things.  An apartment, a rental car, a wood chipper all required two things to borrow them – documented credit, and a company willing to rent them.  One of these is being removed, and the other  is being pushed to the extreme.


Baltimore-based Relayrides permits car-sharing along the lines of Zipcar or I-Go, using internet-based, hourly car sharing.  The difference is that members provide the cars.  Credit checks, scheduling, accountability and payment are all handled by the organization, but members can schedule time to use your car (if you’re willing) and pay you for it.  Owners can earn thousands each year, while retaining access to a car for the days they need it.


Vélib, the Paris bicycle-sharing system, doesn’t ask for your bicycle, but it stretches credit to apply to tiny transactions.  Members (you can join from a kiosk) can use a card or a code to grab a bicycle, ride it around Paris, and drop it off somewhere else.  The first half-hour is free, and the fees are reasonable if you keep the rides short.  Billboard company JD Decaux owns and maintains the bikes and the system. 


Friction is leaving the systems by which we rent things.  Transaction fees are now tiny enough to make a 1€ bicycle rental fee practical.  Feedback scores give Ebay members the confidence to buy nearly everything from individual strangers.  Musicians, software writers, and car lenders have the tools to collect real money, in tiny chunks, from songs, apps, and rental fees.  Young, capital-free entrepreneurs offer bicycle tours of Paris, relying on Vélib for the bikes. 


Usage patterns are changing as well.  Philadelphia and Chicago car sharers showed an increase in walking and using public transportation.  Owners based commuting patterns on low marginal cost of gas and parking.   Car sharers consider the high marginal cost per hour, and don’t drive as much. 


It won’t be long before Facebook Friend Counts and Ebay feedback scores start showing up on resumes.  Creating a good LinkedIn page is already the accepted first task for the newly unemployed.  More and more, our behavior is scored, totaled, and follows us around.  This creates a basis for trusting strangers with our money and our property.  Consider what this means for anything you need, but don’t like owning.  Behind every garage door in suburban America are lawnmowers, snow blowers, cars, and more.  All are expensive.  All need maintenance, and all are largely idle.  If all this stuff were in a nearby garage, cheap, in good condition, and available when you need it, would you keep the ones you have?  Or would you tear down the garage and expand the garden? 

Copyright 2010 - Noah Shlaes