Andrew Walmsley on Digital: The age of collaboration
Sites such as Zopa, swaptree and Airbnb show that the web is changing the way people consume.
When I first came across the web, the early tentative steps to commercialisation were being taken. It was 1994, but already it was possible to buy things online, if you were prepared to risk a credit-card number on the then-insecure net. The world-changing potential was clear to me, and I enthused about it to my boss, the media director at a well-known agency.
'So people can order stuff, then it gets delivered to your door,' I babbled. 'You don't have to go to the shops to get it.'
He looked at me with a pained expression. 'So no different from how things were when my mother was growing up then?'
Of course he was right, and the wind was comprehensively taken out of my sails, but reflecting on that conversation now, I realise that the lack of novelty actually underlined the power of what was happening on the web.
In his mother's day, people ordered things from shops for several reasons. Perhaps because the items were too bulky, cheaper or the shop too distant.
More than anything, because they could. They stopped doing it mainly because most people drove to the local shops, not because they didn't like it.
So when the web arrived, it wasn't delivery that was new, it was the liquidity of information about distant products that changed; we just re-adopted an old behaviour that, once again, became useful.
Often when we see surges of popularity around the latest services on the internet, they're driven by the creation of something that taps into an existing human urge. Facebook is popular because it allows people to expand and maintain the social circle that they'd have anyway. EBay succeeds because everyone has stuff they'd like to get rid of, but boot sales are inconvenient. YouTube and Twitter because people have always wanted to be heard.
That's why the theory of collaborative consumption outlined by Rachel Botsman at the recent Wired conference is so powerful. She points to sites that have enabled collaboration in dozens of areas, from Zopa (peer-to-peer lending) to swaptree (an exchange for swap items), to couchsurfing (travel the world and stay for free at people's houses). It is not a niche activity. Airbnb lets people rent a room out for a night, and in New York city, there will be more people staying in an Airbnb space tonight than there are rooms in Manhattan's biggest hotel.
Botsman's hypothesis is that we are moving from an age of hyperconsumption to an age of collaborative consumption, where ownership is no longer the key determinant of access.
The success of iTunes and Kindle demonstrates the consumer's willingness to decouple physical possession from the process of ownership, and Botsman argues that ownership is often inefficient, reminding us that owners of a power drill will use it for 13 minutes in its life; what they want to own is a hole, not a drill.
She contends that renewed interest in community, environmental and economic pressure and technological enablement have led to this upsurge in collaboration, and she might be right. More powerful, however, is the thought that we've always done this. Charles Darwin and, latterly, Richard Dawkins argued that collaboration represented an evolutionary advantage, and humans seem to be natural collaborators.
If this is true, Botsman is on to something; hyperconsumption has been a phase where ownership was necessary to derive benefit from products, but with the internet reducing information friction to almost zero, perhaps humans can return to a state they've been comfortable with for millennia.
Now, anybody want to borrow my Black & Decker?
Andrew Walmsley is a digital pluralist.
30 SECONDS ON ... AIRBNB
- Airbnb is an online service that matches people seeking holiday and short-term rentals to people who have rooms or spaces to rent. It claims that more than 2m bookings have been made through the service.
- It was founded in 2008 by Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia and Nathan Blecharczyk.
- In the summer of 2010, the founders' loft was still the firm's office, but the idea was taking off. That November, it said 80% of its 700,000 bookings had been made in the previous six months.
- Spaces available range from $10-a-night futons to a private island. In late 2010, the Evening Standard reported there were 700 properties listed in London, and that one London mother made £13,000 a year renting out her spare room.
- Airbnb has also attracted controversy. In August, a user called 'EJ' in San Francisco wrote that her place had been ransacked by thieves. She heavily criticised Airbnb's response, prompting Chesky to blog: 'We have really screwed things up.'
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk
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