Why Google’s Waze Rider app will usher in the ‘friend economy’

waze android update
Credit: Waze

We’ve already redefined the word friend. It’s a picture you click on at Facebook, even if it’s someone you have never met and never will meet.

Now, those friends could become a little more valuable to you, judging from a recent development at Google-owned Waze.

While apps like Uber, TaskRabbit, and Favor are stuck in the old world of the gig economy -- a way to make a few quick bucks or even earn a living -- there’s an emerging trend that could work even better. Those “friends” could give you a ride to work. The recently announced Waze Rider app is only available to a select number of people in the Bay Area of now. You download the app and wait to get approved. When you find someone going to your same destination, you ping them from the app to get a ride. (The app suggests chipping in for the fuel.)

It’s intended for people from the same company to ride-share, not just friends. However, I’m seeing a bigger shift away from self-employment in the gig economy to what I’ll call the friend economy. And, I'm guessing it is making gig economy advocates nervous.

Here’s how it could work. Friends -- instead of strangers -- could provide help with an auto repair, lend you their laptop for the day, and even assist with some research on a project. You’d offer tips or a small payment, but mostly you’d return the favor. It would be like a living and breathing Reddit where you have a need and call on friends to help, everything from shopping for you to reading a book, doing your laundry, mowing your lawn, or installing a Wi-Fi router at your office. It might seem weird -- then again, the gig economy seemed weird at first -- but there’s some built-in trust that goes along with this, You “know” the person at least enough to know it’s a friend of a friend, or that they work at the same company or live up the block from you. There’s some history with that person, and some traceable information -- such as where they went to college.

One reason I know this could work is that it has three underlying strengths and benefits. First, we already do this in life. We ask real friends to help us, so it nudges that model a bit over to Facebook friends (and those on LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social networks). Second, trust is a powerful force. I don’t use Uber anymore after a rather stressful ride once last year. I Uber as a last resort. I’m OK with a Facebook friend coming over to mow my lawn, but maybe not a stranger. Third, the costs are much lower. We’re essentially swapping work. If you abuse the friend economy too much, you’ll earn a poor reputation and no one will help you out. Also, if you are constantly helping other people (since we all have an inherent desire to do that as part of our moral conscious) you’ll earn a good reputation -- finding help will become much easier.

This is already a common model online. Those who help the most on Reddit and Quora tend to have a good reputation. They give and then receive. Those who retweet articles and answer questions on Twitter tend to accumulate followers much faster. I could even see the friend economy expanding into areas that are totally untapped, like legal advice.

Another reason I like the friend economy is that I would use it myself. If Waze Rider was available in my area, I’d sign up and use it right away. If there were apps that provided other services through social media friends, I’d use those as well. One reason for me is cost. The Favor app, for example, is way too expensive. I once paid $10 for a bottle of water. If a similar app let me put out a request -- I’m standing in line at a conference, I’ll give you $2 for a bottle of water -- I’d use it constantly. And so would other people. It’s a powerful concept.

The only issue here? The business model is terrible.

Uber is one of the wealthiest tech companies known to man because they don’t really do anything. They provide an app, but they don’t hire the drivers or pay them insurance. The business model is brilliant, because they rake in the cash from people who use the app. It would be much harder to monetize the friend economy, although “difficult” does not mean impossible. If enough people donate $2 for a bottle of water to a friend, and the app takes a small cut, it could be a money maker.

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