How the sharing economy is strengthening human connections

Digitalisation has often been accused of dehumanising our interpersonal relationships. We hear that too much time is spent on smartphones, texting, posting comments on social networks, or playing games, rather than living the moment. 

As MIT professor Sherry Turkle highlighted in her 2012 Ted Talk, ‘Connected, but alone?’, being constantly connected might be making people more isolated, as users distance themselves from the world around them in favour of what’s happening online, and less able to forge meaningful, trusting relationships with one another.  

Collaborative platforms, however, are showing another face of digitalisation: a human one. One that actually enables personal, ‘real-life’ connections, by using tech to enable face-to-face experiences and exchanges that would never have happened otherwise.

In today's collaborative economy, individuals are interconnected and empowered to meet each other’s needs directly by sharing their time and resources, creating affordable solutions to a wealth of challenges. On AirBnB, a user can stay in a tree house, a loft, a cosy home or a boat. On Getaround or on Drivy, a user can get access to someone else's car in their neighbourhood, whether they need it for a few hours or a few days. Thanks to the sharing economy, a diverse and instantly-available supply of otherwise-unused resources are being unlocked; and with this, technology is creating human connections that exist outside of a computer or a phone, encouraging and enabling stronger personal connections than ever.

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Every quarter on BlaBlaCar, close to 12 million members share long-distance car rides with each other. These people hail from all manner of walks of life, and cover a huge variety of ages, professions or cultures. They might never have met otherwise, but they have chosen to share a city-to-city trip together in the same car; they’re not only sharing a ride, but a conversation, and an enriching social experience: in fact, half of our members say that ridesharing has made them more open to others. 

We’ve seen first-hand that, far from making people isolated, technology can bring people closer together than ever before. However, there is a crucial element to our personal connections that can’t be overlooked: trust.

In order for people to feel comfortable making personal connections online, collaborative economy platforms work hard to understand what strengthens the sense of trust between online peers. It’s important that users are given everything they need to help them overcome their apprehension of the unknown, and to help them to choose the people with whom they want to engage online.

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Over the years, and through many iterations with our community of ride-sharers, we’ve found that there are six essential ingredients that sharing economy platforms can use to foster digital trust amongst their communities: declared profile information, reciprocal and transparent ratings, binding financial commitments, a public record of users’ activity levels, content moderation, and the integration of social media profiles.

Over the past year, we worked in close collaboration with NYU Stern Professor Arun Sundararajan, author of ‘The Sharing Economy’, to analyse what creates trust online and the resulting personal connections that this helps to build. This research, titled Entering the Trust Age, revealed that when provided with the right information, people are ready to trust someone they’ve never met before more than they trust their neighbours or colleagues, and almost as much as they trust their friends. A striking 88 per cent of over 18,000 of our ride-sharers across Europe and Russia said that they held high levels of trust in BlaBlaCar members with a full profile. Once this trust has been built, people are happy to meet offline, interact, and enjoy great experiences together in the real world. Our research also revealed that the use of sharing economy platforms can have a spillover effect: as users familiarise themselves with new social codes, and become more trusting of people they’ve never met before, they become more open to trying additional sharing economy services.

When you think about it, the sharing economy is really enabling new relationships that would historically have been constrained by time, distance, a lack of information, and other physical limitations. Technology isn’t giving people a means of shying away from the world around them: it’s giving people the means to extend their circles of trust, and empowering people to connect and interact with others like never before. 

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