Monetizing Neighborliness

Apps like eNeighbr are seductive in their seamlessness, but do they encourage the kind of community that we want to live in?
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eNeighbr exudes entrepreneurial spirit, but does it foster the kind of community we want to live in?

Last Friday, I saw a flyer in my New York City neighborhood advertising a new service called eNeighbr, a service that allows people to make money accepting packages for their neighbors.

My immediate gut reaction: something didn't feel right. I took a picture and tweeted:

I also posted the photo and my commentary to Facebook, where a couple dozen friends agreed with me in expressing their shared discomfort about eNeighbr. The following day, the folks at eNeighbr shot back in response to my original tweet:

Shawn Chittle, a designer for eNeighbr, also chimed into the Twitter conversation calling the service "a great idea" and linking to a blog post reporting on recent thefts of packages in our neighborhood.

I needed a bit of time and certainly more space than Twitter to respond to their question, "Why not let my neighbors make a little money?" Here is my response:

From a moral or ethical perspective, I don't actually have a problem with my neighbors (or a tech startup like eNeighbr for that matter) making money by providing a service that solves a real problem. Mail is being stolen. Rent is too damn high. Everyone's got to hustle. Extra money in hand is a good thing. I get it.

This is not a case of moral or ethical black and white, but it is worth some mindful reflection. It's not about good or bad, but it is about values and the kind of relationships we want to have.

I actually commend eNeighbr for their entrepreneurial initiative in starting something and putting it out in the world. I teach design and entrepreneurship at the masters-degree level, and I honestly think that eNeighbr as a business venture has a textbook-perfect elegance to it.

They have:

  1. Identified an actual problem: people's packages are getting stolen
  2. Found a market opportunity : The app-driven "gig economy" is growing. (Well, maybe...)
  3. Designed a solution (eNeighbr) that addresses the problem (1) and takes advantage of a market opportunity (2)
  4. Launched the solution (3) into the world for validation

Still, something is not sitting quite right with me about the whole thing. The idea of monetizing neighborliness makes me uncomfortable. My colleague Liora Yukla put it in blunt perspective:

Well, another solution to your problem would be to just get to know your neighbors, get friendly and cover each other's backs -- it doesn't have to be the retailers paying your neighbors to still not get to know you, but just hold your packages. All this service does is turning your neighbors into postal pick up stations and makes your relationship about money -- if you need their help, it would be possible to just go interact with them in person."

Basically, this service is saying -- screw just being friendly to your neighbor, do it for money!

Would Mr. Rogers charge $ to be a good neighbor?

Do we really need to an app rather than asking a neighbor for a favor?

Maybe getting to know your neighbors isn't an option. You've just moved into the neighborhood. You work long hours. And your neighbors do too. You never see each other. And when you do, nobody initiates a conversation.

How about asking your neighborhood bodega if they would receive packages for you? You could leave them a tip, or just return the favor by becoming a regular repeat customer.

Or maybe the bodega thing isn't an option either. Ok, I don't doubt that an app like eNeighbr might come in handy in some cases.

What Liora and I are concerned about is what happens when apps like eNeighbr, and the kinds of interpersonal interactions that they engender, are no longer a novelty, but have become the default. Apps like eNeighbr are seductive in their seamlessness, but do they encourage the kind of community that we want to live in?

I'm sure an app like eNeighbr would reduce the friction of figuring out my package delivery. It saves me the trouble of having to meet, talk to, and coordinate with my neighbors beforehand. But in turning a simple favor into a commercial transaction, albeit a small one, it fundamentally shifts our relationship with our neighbors.

Putting a dollar amount on an interaction previously outside of market logic can fundamentally change the nature of our relationship to the people involved in that interaction.

In his book Cognitive Surplus, author, consultant, and my former teacher, Clay Shirky, cites a research paper called "A Fine is a Price" by Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini. I won't go into detail about Gneezy and Rustichini's study here, but you can find a good summary of their experiment on the Freekonomics blog.

According to Shirky, Gneezy and Rustichini's research demonstrates that:

Adding a price to a previously nonmarket transaction can reduce our willingness to treat each other as people we might have long-term relationships with. (It echoes the old observation about prostitution, namely, that men are not only paying for sex, they are also paying the women to go away afterward.)

This insight begs the question: do we want to have long-term relationships with our neighbors? Do we want to live in the kind of community in which neighbors have long-term relationships with each other?

Do we want our neighbors to get paid for receiving our packages and then to go away? Or do we want neighbors we can count on to water our plants when we are out of town, and to keep an extra eye out for our pets and our children?

Do we want a neighbor who can "lend" us a cup of sugar when we need it? Or do we want a marketplace app that "empowers" our neighbor to sell us some surplus sugar? Hashtag #Microentrepreneurship.

Alright, I'm getting snarky now.

via GIPHY - Getting to know our neighbors can be a delightful adventure.

But this is about more than just eNeighbr. It is about what eNeighbr stands for and what implications it, and services like it, have on our relationships and on our communities.

On their "About" page, eNeighbr describe themselves as:

Something good for the consumer, good for the retailer, and good for the carrier.

It's a win/win situation. It makes perfect sense in the logic of the market. But do our neighborly interactions need to be market-mediated?

eNeighbr also claims to be good for the environment.

What we ended up with was a product that increases the number of packages being successfully delivered on the first attempt, which drastically reduces per-delivery carbon emissions.

What's not to like? Seriously. If you need help receiving your packages, or want a way to make some extra money, I sincerely encourage you to check out eNeighbr.

But let us first reflect as designers, entrepreneurs, and simply as neighbors. Does the market-based solution need to be the first recourse? Or can we go out of our way to forge a new relationship with a neighbor and ask for a favor? Does neighborliness have a price? What is our price for it?

p.s. If any of my neighbors happen to be reading this: I often work from home, and I'm happy to look out for your packages. I also have some sugar if you need some. FREE! You know where to find me.