As our gig economy expands throughout Grand Rapids, and the United States, who is profiting from it? And who isn't?
As a student of communications, I understand the need for feedback in any transaction. Now a fully vested member of our new economy and many years past college, I’ve witnessed the transactional economy become an important new bedfellow rooted in relationships that will thrive or fall based on the cultivating of the human capital embed in each deal.
The Perils of Tommy Allen — a nod to The Perils of Pauline
serial film series from 1914 — began on my recent trip to San Francisco, where I had sought to connect with a few friends as I explored the landscape of a city where much of our attention is focused these days, from the board room to our incubator pop-up office spaces all around West Michigan.
It is not as if I was trying to harvest any secrets that have not already permeated our culture, as is very clear from Facebook, AirBnB, Uber, and a host of other apps that rest on our web browsers’ home screens to our handheld devices that go everywhere from the boardroom to the bedroom to the bathroom. (Seriously, you need to put that phone away if you are calling someone like from the urinal. The President might get a free pass, but, honestly, lining up a date for Valentine’s Day from the stall? You are not that important, much less date worthy.)
But I digress…where was I?
Oh, yeah. Gigland, USA.
As I navigated the landscape of San Francisco, from the airport to Uber to AirBnB and back again on repeat, I would approach each with the open eyes of one who has used these services locally (or within an automobile’s gas tank distance), only this time I was truly on my own as a solo traveler for the first time leveraging all of these services.
The character of Pauline in her film series is portrayed as a damsel in distress, and while I was at times “distressed” for a host of reasons, just like the protagonist, upon later analysis I would discover these experiences provided learning opportunities to showcase just how resourceful we can be when observing our surroundings with fresh eyes.
The gig economy came to be through the ease of setting up a personal business or digital storefront via platforms originally created for desktops before migrating to our handhelds and now wearables. It was also born out of opportunity and something we all recognize has contributed to what Thomas Friedman called the flattening (once again) of our world. It uses many of the same elements that brought out the last flattening during the end of the last century, like the ease and access of travel and the advent and societal integration of the internet in our culture, from AOL to wearables.
Gig culture in many ways is different too from the more traditional economies we have known in past, as it enables us, through the use of immediate feedback, to banish that classic damsel stereotype Pauline was subjected to in her weekly adventures.
For example, while I recognize the economy often drives us to opportunity at all levels, from those who offer a service to those who contract with it through short-term transactions, it is not without a risk of someone getting squeezed for a profit.
Locally, we have all jumped in an Uber — chasing its fast delivery instead of the too-long-to-wait local cab service — only to be held hostage on occasion at this late night hour by your driver’s tales of woe. Sure, you can say you are tired or want to sit in peace, but, in the end, you know that they know where you live so you often just nod along.
For a spell in our city, the topic of tipping would be slipped into a late night conversation by my Uber driver. Some were truly marvelous for their storytelling abilities and some would make even Grand Rapids comedy anthropologist Constance Rourke race back to update her American Humor: a Study of the National Character
(1931) had she witnessed a few tales I have heard locally.
And while I no longer hear them anymore (probably as a result of Uber’s new Terms of Service agreement with their drivers), I understand the motivation even more so after my trip to San Francisco.
For while it is true that you do not have to tip an Uber driver, the headlines in big cities are filled with clues of what is surely to be the topic soon within our local off-duty drivers as they begin to talk in Beer City, USA: Who is profiting in our gig culture here?
Through my adventures in Gigland, I quickly discovered that I’m telling myself I am being an environmentally sensitive consumer, foregoing the service of UberX or UberXL, where I am the sole passenger stuck in a car ironically stuck in lane of brake lights. The UberPool service I do select (and offered in bigger markets like San Francisco) means that my 25- to 30-minute ride across town is one that I am sharing with another person heading in the same direction. My portion for this ride is just over six dollars.
Talking to my fellow passenger, I would discover that they were also paying about the same rate. As we snail pace crawl to my drop-off spot, I quickly in my head factor that this half hour was worth $12 to the driver but that’s without considering the costs of fuel, maintenance for a vehicle, payments, not to mention what Uber will take and the cost of what the person’s time is worth. When I factor in the bonus round of what it costs to live in Gigland now, I feel downright dirty.
As I reached my destination, as customary with Uber standards, I would be expected to bolt up and out of the car closing the door behind me. Now armed with fresh guilt, I jump out but turn to toss a few dollars to my driver before disappearing into the city. Clearly, this is not sustainable, but, like most of us as to how we deal with any resource issue, labor has now been cheapened here to the level of how we deal with trash removal and its impact after it enters a waste bin before hitting the landfill.
Getting a Lyft
However, companies in San Francisco are trying to address the holes in our gig economy. Trying Lyft — another car service much like Uber — I would discover offered something quite remarkable that was confirmed by the locals. Lyft drivers would appear to be much happier folks.
Lyft offered all the same services as the other similar services and is built on the same cheap labor platform, but with an element of service the others did not offer: the ability to tip your driver right on your phone after your ride is over.
Immediately, a light came on in my head that lit up a far distant memory from my time in the service industry. The ability and ease of tipping via your credit card (in an ever increasing cashless society) suddenly became the great equalizer with Lyft.
As Uber continues to face everything from disgruntled drivers who spray paint their costs of operation on their windows, thus placing in your face the inability to ignore discrepancies of using their service, Lyft, it would appear, while not perfect, has discovered a business code patch that translates to a better system.
Looking at other new sharing economies I have used while traveling, I have come to better understand why some are working, and why others might be at risk of collapse without the aid of listening and building empathy into their business plans — beyond just providing the so-called opportunity of, as artists are told, “It’s great exposure.” To which I reply often, “You know you can die from ‘exposure.’”
Finding a place to call home away from home
AirBnB seems to be another one who gets it right most of the time. Not only is this home-sharing service offering an alternative accommodation for those seeking a more affordable option or insider’s edge for travelers, it is also a great tool for locals hoping to attract folks to be engaged in a city but in a more meaningful way.
At each of my AirBnBs where I have shared a home or rented a room from an owner, I have walked away with a richer-= experience in my host city due to their knowledge and proximity to the culture, but in many cases I added a few friends along the way in the old fashioned, pre-Facebook manner developed through in-home, in-person conversations.
And while I still use hotels when I want to be left alone or when the rolling of the dice on a too-good-to-be-true AirBnB can mean the risk of getting stuck in a bong smoke-filled apartment, truth be told, because of the positive experiences, I now make AirBnB my first go to site, foregoing online travel sites like Travelocity or Orbitz.
My needs have changed, like much of our world has under the gig economy, but it is important also for all those destination sites to remember one important factor binding them all: while tastes are not fixed, they are fluid. Diverse offerings means that change can flourish as a result.
The ability to have more options is always a good thing and not without its risks, too.
I worry about a near future where one is able to use AirBnB to deny one a room simply based on the color of their skin but can hide behind a host of reasons that shield their prejudice. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a JW Marriott, for example, asking to see your completed profile before accepting your reservation.
I think it is important that while we may not have the questions or experiences I have had in San Francisco — the epicenter of Gigland — we do need to ask these questions now, so that the infrastructure collapse, leaving a void and a possible dent in this emerging economy that will just result in the old guard standing on the sidelines with arms crossed, saying the words no person of youth wants to ever hear, “I told you so.”
My final recent experience came by way of Fiverr, at a time when the creative talents of our city are struggling to make the market rates that other regions offer — and during a time when market rate is often equated with apartment rental rates.
In my desperation to tighten up my personal business, I tiptoed into this area, looking at all services being offered, and, while I still prefer local, upon news that a service I needed desperately was no longer an option, I turned to Fiverr.
Sure, my labor was being performed in a foreign nation and at a far cheaper rate than a local, for a moment I felt like a true capitalist, having unlocked the joys of cheap labor. But it would be a short-lived dream, as I quickly understood the hidden cost was buried in having to chase my project, monitor time zones, as I would wake up at 3 a.m. to talk with my contact in South Africa, and finally the heartbreak that when they missed their deadline, claiming a family matter got in the way. It became clear I was getting just what I paid for with Fiverr’s cheap labor platform.
Quickly, I as I sat by the phone like a teenage girl hoping the prom date would arrive in time, my momentary fantasy that I was on my way to become the next General Motors faded as the deadline came and went.
When the order was completed — a full two days past our agreement — I was faced with the daunting task of rating my Fiverr user experience.
Having been a member of our slow-growth economy as a local creative for so many years now, and having just spent the weekend with my own family emergency, I gushed in my review as to how much I enjoyed the experience sharing that after a few bumps in communication, the work was completed to satisfaction.
The gig economy is personal. It is here among us and is probably what will save the gig economy and make it viable in the future, if the multinational corporations who run them will listen to their buyers and sellers.
Right after I hit send on Fiverr, I, like Pauline, was faced with my own cliffhanger of whether or not to tip.
To find out how much I left, be sure to tune in to the next installment of The Perils of Tommy Allen: My Adventures in Gigland.
The Future Needs All of Us.
Publisher and Lifestyle Editor
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