Bad news for umbrella men: The sharing economy has come for them. In the latest iteration of what has also been called (mostly by Margaret Eby and myself) the “stranger economy,” an umbrella sharing app is seeking funding on Kickstarter. Called Umbrella Here, the app functions as a small, light-up plastic donut placed on the pointed tip of a user’s umbrella, which alerts nearby umbrellaless Umbrella Here users of its availability. Umbrella Here is steeped in much the same utopian, stranger-loving rhetoric as other second-wave stranger economy startups like Wakie and Cab With Me, which both serve a purpose and aim to make the world a nicer place, which somehow always involves meeting a stranger.
The inspiration for Umbrella Here’s light-up feature is the light on an unoccupied taxi, except instead of payment, Umbrella Here users pay for “rides” with benevolence and companionship. The app even offers a friending function, by which users can search later for their umbrella sharer or sharee by the location and time of their meeting. This sounds charming, but in New York it’s sort of terrifying. The ability to disappear into the crowd is one of the most precious gifts the city bestows on those who choose to live here. If everyone we interacted with in the course of a day could later check up on us, ask us out for coffee, the very framework of our dense urban living could come crashing down around us.
This framework is what keeps strangers at arm’s length, for better or worse. It’s what keeps an hour-long morning subway commute from devolving into a soul-numbing eddy of chit-chat and small talk. Some days, especially rainy ones, the assurance of not needing to speak or listen to anyone is the only thing keeping a lid on the impulse to move to California or somewhere else better and with less rain. It’s charming to think about a rainy meet-cute, taking an umbrella to the subway with some dreamy fellow New Yorker, beneath the rain shield of destiny—the stuff of cologne ads and diamond commercials—but that’s not how New York works.
Not that New York is necessarily Umbrella Here’s target market. Maybe it’s a Pacific Northwest thing—they seem friendly, and there’s more than enough rain. But wherever Umbrella Here takes root (assuming it reaches its funding goal, currently about at $10,500 of $15,000), it’s another symptom of over-application: An app could do that, but does it need to? Instead of scouring a map on your phone for an available umbrella, why not, like, just look around? It’s pretty easy to tell whether or not nearby umbrellas are at capacity.
The irony of inspiring interactions between strangers with highly developed apps is that it effectively eclipses the possibility of spontaneous, un-tech-mediated interactions like, for instance, making eye contact on a street corner in the rain and inviting a wet person you don’t know to share your umbrella for a few blocks. Burying yourself in a smartphone in order to inspire real human interactions is like burying your head in the sand to be better attuned to the weather. (Speaking of, Umbrella Here also has a weather function, where it changes color to tell you whether it’s “hot” or “cold” outside.) The technological aspect of this and other strangershare apps is supposed to remove the supposed awkwardness of human interaction, but instead replaces that awkwardness with a larger structural awkwardness, in which instead of asking to share an umbrella (or buying one, I mean come on), you chase dots around on a map, looking for a dry spot.
Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.