Letter From San Francisco

The New Share Economy is Making Us All Better People

"Do New Yorkers find time in their busy lives to listen to a stranger’s tale, just because their Airbnb review depends on it?"
(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

SAN FRANCISCO — The reputed inventor* of the modern Mission burrito – the Chicano food tube that’s sustained entrepreneurial San Franciscans from the 1849 Gold Rush through both dot com booms, has a problem. Judging by Yelp, the historic Mission eatery has been coasting along more on tradition than taste. Even OG’s aren’t impervious to the brash rules of the review economy, thus a beleaguered La Cumbre rep toils online, addressing their poor reviews one by one.

I’ll paraphrase an exchange: Yelper: This place ain’t that good. Their burritos, once allegedly good, now have undesirable qualities. Burrito Inventor: Dear Customer, we apologize that our seminal dish does not meet your exacting standards. Please accept our apologies for this affront and the shame it has brought upon our family.

It’s a lopsided exchange, with the playing field tilted in favor of the visiting squad: custies. So a cat who’s been flipping burritos his whole life finds himself kissing up to Suzy from Cincinnati, who’s had maybe four burritos her entire existence, yet has developed strong opinions on the subject.

Yelpers wield an unfair advantage. This inequity is most apparent in anonymous commenting, of course, where humanity’s snarkiest side emerges to express disdain for everything from puppies to politics with complete impunity.

But how does our behavior change when both parties are held to the same standards?

Airbnb, Lyft and Getaround were born in San Francisco, and along with other peer-to-peer sharing services are an increasingly important part of the way people here get things done. With these services (unlike Yelp) both buyer and seller are equally vested in each other’s opinion. This levels the terrain, and both parties now have an incentive to do right by the other. Surely a game theorist can explain why this happens with an elegant equation. But there’s a significant byproduct I’ve noticed as I use these sharing tools in my daily routine in San Francisco. It makes people extra nice.

All the share economy interactions I’ve had in San Francisco have been upbeat, eye-opening and in a few cases life-affirming. And it’s altered the way I behave as well. Say I’m feverishly texting someone and manage to snag a cab in New York City. Odds are my exchange with the cabbie will amount to a muttered destination without looking up. The cabbie couldn’t care less – he’s on the phone, too.  But when I catch a Lyft in SF – essential in this city of sparse cabs – I tend to pause and acknowledge the driver, or vice versa, which almost always leads to an actual conversation. With Lyft, you ride shotgun. In the back of both our minds, there’s a third party that will ultimately rate our exchange, so we’re both incentivized to put our best foot forward from the jump. Basic human nature takes care of the rest. When someone smiles first, you smile back. In our hectic and fragile world, mutually assured review destruction might be the artificial spark needed to ignite a friendly exchange.

The other day I rented a car on Getaround (Airbnb for cars) from some dude I’ve never met, and about ten chipper text messages later we’re cracking jokes about something unrelated. A few weeks ago, I stayed at an Airbnb spot in the Haight where the hosts, a cool older couple with some mobility issues, treated me so well I’ve found myself dropping by to say hey and see if they need anything. They call to see if I’m eating ok. The surfer who gave me a Lyft last weekend was so irie I completely forgot to stress about being 45 minutes late to an important meeting.

In short, the new dynamics of the sharing game are conducive to more pleasant interactions with others. The question is if this can break down existing cultural norms elsewhere. After all, people in San Francisco have always been less aggro than their East Coast counterparts. Will share economy interactions turn Massholes into cuddly teddy bears? Will the City of Brotherly Love finally live up to its name, one Lyft at a time? Do New Yorkers find time in their busy lives to listen to a stranger’s tale, just because their Airbnb review depends on it?

I’m from Argentina, a country that’s been justly described as a war of everyone against everyone. In other words, interactions there are bound by the inevitable suspicion that the other person is out to get you, so your optimal strategy is to screw them over before that happens. Except that’s their optimal move as well, which results in a quick draw competition where everyone shoots each other in the back, and collectively in the foot. (We have one word for snow, but multiple ways of expressing subtle differences in fucking someone over) That will be the ultimate challenge: If these share companies can force an Argentine to think twice about throwing his brethren under the bus, softening up a gruff New Yorker should be cake.

Fernando Cwilich Gil is an artist and writer observing the tech scene in San Francisco.