Zipcar: No Commune

Monday, July 23, 2012

A couple of academics who, in their own words, had "[drunk] the Kool-Aid on collaborative consumption, on sharing" decided to study Zipcar customers. The car rental company actively cultivates the notion that its customers form some sort of pristine virtual hippie commune, but what the study found was, oddly enough, a collection of individuals who just wanted to rent cars for a variety of reasons.

Perhaps more instructive than the fact that this news comes as a surprise to academics and journalists is why it does: The researchers and the journalist reporting this at The Atlantic wrongly assume that selfishness is wrong and do not really know the difference between acting in one's own actual self-interest and simply preying on others.

"We really thought this would be very pro-social, pro-collaboration, pro-environment. We were starting with this theoretical baggage," [Fleura] Bardhi says. And then she and [Giana] Eckhardt conducted in-depth interviews with 40 Zipcar drivers in Boston. "And when we looked at the data, we were not finding any community," she says. "People were very utilitarian, very individualistic."


[J]ust about everyone Bardhi and Eckhardt interviewed hopes to one day own their own car. In the meantime, they feel no sense of shared ownership over Zipcars. They aren't particularly connected to each other and don't want to be. And they view Zipcar itself as the enforcer that keeps other drivers from screwing them over, not as the facilitator of a community.
It is interesting to see some of what passes for "individualistic" and "utilitarian" later in this story: customers stealing items left behind in cars by previous customers or doing things with the cars (e.g., double parking, generally being careless, or driving while intoxicated with marijuana) that they wouldn't do with their own cars. In other words, you have a sort of tragedy of the commons meets capitalism. It is to the extent that Zipcar acts as an "enforcer" (i.e., protects property rights) and not like a "community" that short-range behavior by irreponsible individuals is curtailed and customers are happy. No wonder so many eventually want to own their own cars, having taken even this whiff of communal ownership!

Stealing, carelessness, and recklessness are anything but selfish. And attempting to form a "community" by pretending that there is no need to protect property rights or that everyone will behave responsibly (i.e., in their best self-interest) is a fool's errand. Zipcar should quit paying homage to collectivism and proudly tout itself as the innovative short-term individual transportation provider that it is.

-- CAV

No comments: