the word "share"Share, but verify.Photo: Carlos MayaCollaborative consumption is all the rage in hip green circles these days. Buzzwords aside, it just means people sharing things, often aided by online tools and social networks. Here at Grist, David Roberts has extolled its virtues and Jess Zimmerman has praised it as “the fine art of consensual mooching.” Car-sharing companies like Zipcar are the best-known examples of collaboration consumption, but you can also rent out your own car via RelayRides, share or rent your tools via NeighborGoods, offer up your couch via CouchSurfing, rent out your whole apartment via Airbnb, and trade your clothes via SwapStyle, to name just a few of the many sites and services out there

I’ve been dabbling in some collaborative consumption myself lately. My partner and I signed up for Zipcar so we can easily grab a pickup truck for an hour or so when we need to move furniture we’ve bought via Craigslist. And I’ve used Airbnb twice in the last few months, renting out an apartment in D.C. and a mother-in-law studio in San Francisco. I’ve loved it — cheaper, nicer, and a lot more fun than a hotel.

But while I’ve been happy to stay in other people’s homes, I have no intention of handing strangers the keys to my own house. Airbnb has tried to eliminate some of the risk — users create profiles on the company’s site (via Facebook Connect if they so choose), and they get rated by other users of the site as to whether they’re a good guest or host. It’s like the model we’ve seen on so many other sites — users get rated by other users — but it’s one thing to rely on that model when you’re buying a gadget on eBay and another thing entirely when you’re allowing a stranger unsupervised access to your home and personal belongings. Who’s to say a scofflaw wouldn’t be a model guest in 10 homes, racking up good reviews along the way, and then loot the 11th? Or make a copy of a house key and then wait six months to use it? 

Collaborative consumption is great when people are nice and no accidents happen. But not all people are nice and accidents do happen. So what’s to be done when collaborative consumption goes awry?

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Airbnb has had to confront this dilemma in a very public way in recent weeks. In June, a San Francisco woman calling herself “EJ” rented out her apartment for a week via Airbnb. She returned to find the place trashed, valuable belongings missing, and indications that her identity had been stolen. She described it all vividly on her blog, writing that the renters …

… rifle[d] through every document, every photo, every drawer, every storage container and every piece of clothing I own, essentially turning my world inside out, and leaving a disgusting mess behind. They smashed a hole through a locked closet door, and found the passport, cash, credit card and grandmother’s jewelry I had hidden inside. They took my camera, my iPod, an old laptop, and my external backup drive filled with photos, journals … my entire life. They found my birth certificate and social security card, which I believe they photocopied — using the printer/copier I kindly left out for my guests’ use. They rifled through all my drawers, wore my shoes and clothes, and left my clothing crumpled up in a pile of wet, mildewing towels on the closet floor.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

They also burnt some of her belongings, left vile messes in the kitchen and bathroom, and scattered bleach, ashes, and god knows what else all around. But worst of all, writes a frightened and seriously bummed-out EJ, they “stole my spirit.”

Airbnb majorly flubbed its response. While the company’s customer service reps were initially helpful and sympathetic, they weren’t clear about whether Airbnb would reimburse EJ for part or all of her losses and related expenses, and she stopped hearing from them after she put up her blog post about the incident. One of the company’s founders tried to get EJ to take down her blog post because it might damage the company’s efforts to raise another round of funding. Ouch.

In the wake of that epic screwup and PR fail, and news of another Airbnb ransacking, the company this week finally rolled out new security procedures, better user verification systems, more responsive customer service, and a $50,000 guarantee to cover property damage. 

The Airbnb lesson needs to be taken to heart by all people and companies building collaborative-consumption networks. Hope for the best, yes, but plan for the worst. What happens when the house is accidentally set ablaze or vandalized by a meth addict? When the loaned-out car gets totaled? When the rototiller breaks mid-project and injures the borrower?

Airbnb says that 2 million nights of homestays have gone right and just a handful have gone wrong. But sharing services have to be safety-focused and have systems in place to deal with the few bad cases. At the very least, if companies are not vetting users in any way, they have to clearly communicate that fact and not give the illusion that they are — something EJ accuses Airbnb of having done.

While Airbnb was caught with its pants down, some sharing companies have prepared much more thoroughly for potential problems. As Katie Fehrenbacher reports at GigaOM:

Peer-to-peer car-sharing companies, which include RelayRides, GetAround, and Spride Share, were able to launch their companies only after they figured out how to supply users with enough insurance, which called for some business-model innovation and successful lobbying for a bill to maintain drivers’ insurance while they participate in car sharing. RelayRides holds a $1 million supplemental insurance policy that goes into effect during each reservation period.

Collaborative consumption has so much potential to cut waste, save money, build community, and get people thinking about stuff and ownership in whole new ways. But if the networks aren’t built on trust and transparency, the online sharing trend won’t spread beyond tech-head early adopters and green-minded people wearing rose-colored glasses. Writes Fehrenbacher:

The major concern for me is that this budding movement of using the web to share stuff — which is a disruptive and sustainable new trend compared to ownership — could be dampened by companies that don’t invest enough in security and privacy tools. … If these companies don’t make their communities feel safe, they won’t have communities anymor
e. And the new green web-sharing economy could suffer.

As for me, I still look forward to using Airbnb to book funky accommodations for future trips. And I’m game to try out other services — in particular, I hope Car2Go, beloved by my friends in Austin, comes to Seattle, and I hope my fair city gets a bike-sharing program soon too.

But my favorite kind of collaborative consumption is just throwing a clothes-swap party with friends, splitting the cost of wifi internet with a next-door neighbor, or borrowing a ladder from the guy across the street and repaying him with home-baked cookies. Sharing doesn’t have to be newfangled to be great — and it can be even better with people you already trust.