“We really thought this would be very pro-social, pro-collaboration, pro-environment. We were starting with this theoretical baggage,” Bardhi says. And then she and Eckhardt conducted in-depth interviews with 40 Zipcar drivers in Boston. “And when we looked at the data, we were not finding any community,” she says. “People were very utilitarian, very individualistic.”
It’s always been hard to tell whether Zipcar’s efforts to promote community among its users is something sincere and organic or a bolted-on branding strategy. Their business model is referred to as car-sharing, but sharing is something that’s generally done out of generosity, and for free.
Perhaps the idea was that Zipcar members would think of themselves as a tribe of savvy, like-minded urbanites who like to travel light, free from old-fashioned encumberances like car payments, registration fees and insurance. But, beyond that, what do they really have in common, other than the occasional, brief need for a car? There’s no status-consciousness because not owning a car isn’t a high-status choice. There’s no “us vs. them” brand affinity because in most cities, Zipcar has no competition.
Chances are that people who feel a sense of community with their fellow “Zipsters” are people who tend to be community-minded and people who are purposely careless with the cars or steal things they find in them are also behaving the way they normally do. The rest of us are somewhere in the middle, feeling not much more community than we do with other people who might once have lived in the same apartment building or used the same cab company.