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The Internet Part 3: Hansel and Gretel

“Now give me your hand!” he said. “We’ll get home safely, you’ll see!” The tiny white pebbles gleamed in the moonlight, and the children found their way home.

Hansel and Gretel

–The Brothers Grimm: Hansel and Gretel 

I started this series with a look at a TED talk given by Rachel Botsman, an expert on collaborative consumption. As I said in Part 1, that’s a fancy way of saying she’s an expert on how people buy, sell and swap on the internet. That same video is embedded at the end of this post.

Today, I’m opening with a quotation from Hansel and Gretel because I’m searching for an analogy to explain the success of people like Botsman. I’m trying to understand why information consumers believe most of what they see, read and hear on the internet. If you think speakers like Botsman aren’t taken seriously, here is a segment of her bio, taken from her website:

Rachel Botsman is a global thought leader on the power of collaboration and sharing through network technologies to transform the way we live, work and consume. She has inspired a new consumer economy with her influential book What’s Mine is Yours: How Collaborative Consumption is Changing the Way We Live.  TIME Magazine recently called Collaborative Consumption one of the “10 Ideas That Will Change The World”.

She consults and writes extensively about the collaborative age and her work has featured in WIRED, The Guardian, Harvard Business Review, CNN, New York Times, The Economist and Fast Company.

She has presented at high profile events including The Clinton Global Initiative, TED, HP, Google, and No.10 Downing Street. She was recently nominated to the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Sustainable Consumption.

I don’t know what a “global thought leader” is and I’m not convinced a single individual can “inspire a new consumer economy;” however, I do know the language used by Botsman and others like her is unfailingly (and annoyingly) self-serving and optimistic. This is hardly surprising given her endorsement of Airbnb, an online accommodation service that regularly quashes negative reviews.

In Part 2, I referred to speeches like Botsman’s as having an “Oprah Affect,” and that’s because there’s a very strong whiff of the revolutionary and the rehabilitative about them. It’s as if we’re being asked to view our pasts, those pasts without these new technologies, as hopelessly obsolete. It’s our futures that hold out the promise of being “magic, wonderful, brilliant and fantastic.” These are adjectives I won’t let students use in their essays, but they’re getting quite a workout in Botsman’s hands.

Unfortunately, when it comes to vocabulary like this, Botsman is not alone. Just ask the people at Monocle, a print and web publication described as “a lifestyle magazine for young, stylish, business-oriented jetsetters.” They’ve given her the honour of being one of the “top 20 speakers to have at your conference.” I’m not sure what this is saying about the intellectual lives of said jetsetters, but I suspect it’s not as overwhelmingly positive as Botsman’s speech.  

Che Guevera

Why? It’s because I think of Botsman as being the TED equivalent of a Che Guevera T-shirt. Owning it might make you feel like a revolutionary, but it sure won’t make you one. 

Let’s take a look at some of her claims:

.…people are realizing the power of technology to unlock the idling capacity and value of all kinds of assets, from skills to spaces to material possessions in ways and on a scale not possible before.

In some ways, the internet has allowed for easier trading. However, Botsman’s use of the phrase “not possible,” when referring to how things were done before everyone got online, is misleading. In the past, people advertised in local newspapers, posted ads in grocery stores or even distributed flyers. Classified advertising was how my parents sold fruit and vegetables from our farm and rented out the properties they bought. It was quite possible for individuals to place an ad, include a phone number, and sell goods and services. I know because I grew up doing it.

Moreover, many newspapers, in the years before Kijiji and Craigslist, offered $1.00 classified ads. The newspaper my mother read, one that serviced a city of 130,000, had pages of them. The fact that one had to pay for these ads, usually with a credit-card and over the phone, provided some level of security. The ad-placer’s identity was linked to the ad. Now individuals with nefarious intentions can either place or answer ads in under a minute and can use redirecting sites to hide their identities.

Yes the internet provides more pathways, and getting nostalgic about newspapers isn’t realistic, but is it really better? And is the internet responsible for creating greater consumer need, as Botsman’s overall argument suggests? Of course this is an idea entrepreneurs at TED conferences want to hear — an expandable market is never bad news — but it seems to me the marketers here, in this instance anyway, are being manipulated by some rather clever marketing themselves.

…this is a fantastic example of how technology is creating a market for things that never had a marketplace before.

Before Airbnb and online services like TaskRabbit, people booked through travel agencies or hired handymen or house-cleaners. The advantage of using a travel agent was that they often had reliable information about accommodations; moreover, if you did end up at a stinker of a hotel, you stood half a chance of either being moved or getting a refund. The money you paid for a trip did not disappear into a diaphanous and corporate ethernet. When you came home, you could make complaints to real people at real locations.

When it comes to the kind of tasks TaskRabbit peddles, handymen and house-cleaners did these jobs and were often recommended via word of mouth. A friend or neighbour or colleague could tell you if the person was reliable. For example, the contractor who did 10 years of repairs and renovations on my home was recommended to me, in person, by a friend.

I came across this fascinating study by the Pew Center this week that revealed that an active Facebook user is three times more likely to believe most people are trustworthy.

It’s the term fascinating study and the reference to the Pew Center that dominate in this sentence. Think of how different its meaning would be if instead of saying Facebook users are three times more like to “believe” most people are trustworthy, it said Facebook users actually “find” them to be so.

This is how hyperbole and name-dropping work to make us believe we’re hearing something substantive: a front-loaded superlative (fascinating) and the name of an impressive-sounding institute (Pew Center) eclipse a mostly meaningless statement about what a group of people “believes” about “most” people. That might sound like real data, but is it?

Here’s the reality: What online consumers believe about a good or a service won’t prevent them from being disappointed. A belief that Airbnb is a reliable site, for example, isn’t going to stop a consumer from getting stuck with a substandard room in a foreign country. This is especially true when one considers that Airbnb’s only attempts at quality control are limited to pulling negative reviews off the net.

However, it could be Botsman, and other purveyors of internet magic, want us to believe that fostering a “belief” in the trustworthiness of others is in itself a good idea. I’m not so sure. Isn’t practising discernment equally important?

Evgeny Morozov

And this brings me to my final point. I started with a line from Hansel and Gretel. It occurs to me that the success of the Rachel Botsmans of this world rests on a simple idea expressed in that fairytale. It’s the trail of white pebbles that bring Hansel and Gretel home: all of us want one heading into the future. We want certainty; we want knowledgeable guides; we want to know where we’re heading. But like wicked witches and evil step-mothers, not everyone’s up to the task of helping us. We need to know who to believe and sometimes that means looking closely at the words and the language coming at us.

I’m going to write about TaskRabbit in Part 4 of this article. I’m going to close with a quotation from Evgeny Morozov, a man who knows a thing or two about politics and the internet. This is from the introduction to his book, The Net Delusion: The Dark Site of Internet Freedom.

It is for…chiefly historical reasons that the internet excites so many seasoned and sophisticated decision makers who should really know better. Viewing it through the prism of the Cold War, they endow the internet with nearly magical qualities; for them, it’s the ultimate cheat sheet that could help the West finally defeat its authoritarian adversaries. Given that it’s the only ray of light in an otherwise dark intellectual tunnel of democracy promotion, the internet’s prominence in future policy-making is assured.

Here are the links to Parts 1, 2 and 4 of this article:
Part 1:  http://ireneogrizek.ca/2012/11/08/4341-people-lie-no-way/

Part 2: http://ireneogrizek.ca/2012/11/11/the-internet-part-2-disappearing-bad-review/

Part 4: http://ireneogrizek.ca/2012/11/16/the-internet-part-4-the-land-of-intellectual-infomercials/

Here is a video of Rachel Botsman’s TED talk on collaborative consumption.

Tags: Internet, Rachel Botsman, Airbnb, TaskRabbit, Evgeny Morozov, Hansel and Gretel


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Airbnb, Che Guevera, Clnton, Evgeny Morozov, Hansel and Gretel, , Monocle, , , taskrabbit,

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