Are Services Like Uber and Airbnb Driving a Digital Divide?

Touchscreen Smart Phone with Cloud of Media Application Icons. Vector Image
Touchscreen Smart Phone with Cloud of Media Application Icons. Vector Image

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By Lucy Bayly

If caring is sharing, then America has warmed to the new digital economy. According to a new survey, 72 percent of Americans have used at least one "on-demand" service, such as online home sharing, ordering groceries via an app, or using a ride-hailing service.

The survey of 4,787 American adults, conducted by the Pew Research Center, is the first to break down the demographics of the sharing economy and the related socioeconomic shift. And it uncovers an obvious digital divide: While three-quarters of Americans have used services in the sharing economy, not only have the remaining 25 percent never used any services at all, but they are “wholly unfamiliar with the tools and vocabulary of the new digital economy.”

Additionally, the very economy that sprung up to provide streams of revenue to people without the capital investment to start their own business, seems to be benefiting mainly those who are well educated and better off. American households earning upwards of $100,000 a year are three times more likely to use an on-demand service than those earning $30,000.

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The study also revealed some thought-provoking details about prevailing attitudes to our digital distractions. People aged 18-29 who live in cities are most likely to use apps such as Lyft or Uber — no surprise there. But, interestingly, only 11 percent reported feeling that such services “collect too much personal information.”

Just over one in 10 Americans (11 percent) uses home-sharing sites such as Airbnb — even though 42 percent of respondents said the rentals tended to look better online than in real life. And it’s not all millennials swiping for stays. The average user is 42, with the 35-44 age group almost two times morre likely than the 18-24 group to book lodging via a home-sharing site.

Supporting that theory is data that show 87 percent of users said the sites were best for families. Only one in five (18 percent) of people feel the sites are “generally too risky to use,” and more than half (52 percent) disagree with local authorities who say homeowners “should not have to pay any local hotel or lodging taxes” for short-term rentals.

The study also reviewed crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe, determining that around 20 percent of adults have donated to a cause, usually to raise money for someone in need, with the average donation maxing out at $50. Around 63 percent of contributions were for family members or close friends, versus seven percent for public figures.

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Among all the categories included in the survey, there was only one in which lower-income Americans were better represented: clothing rental sites. Although only two percent of people had used this type of service, five percent of them were aged 18-29, and most earned under $30,000 a year.

“The sharing economy has been the subject of much ongoing debate,” concluded study author Aaron Smith, associate director at Pew Research Center. Although some Americans have "deeply integrated these platforms into their day-to-day lives, a larger number exist on the fringes.”