Over the weekend Beijingers were the first to experience the latest advent of the sharing economy to revolutionize public life in China: shared stools.
Indistinguishable from your garden variety stool except for a scannable QR code, they were strategically placed by a Beijing company at major transport hubs across the city on Sunday. Responding to online buzz about the innovation no one knew that everyone was waiting for, a Beijing Morning Post reporter arrived at a local bus station to find only four of them left standing. Commuters could be seen ogling the stools and scanning the QR codes, but few went so far as to actually relieve themselves of the burden of standing.
Passengers were split on the product’s arrival, which truly put to the test umbrella-sharing startup CEO Zhao Shuping’s claim that “everything on the street can now be shared.” Some considered the stools harmless — one even called them fun — while others worried that they will only add to the unmitigated assault on Chinese sidewalks by shared bikes.
The Beijing company losing the lion’s share of its stools just hours after their debut is about as surprising as breaking a sweat while bathing in a vat of red hot chiles. It was the latest in a well-documented series of ill-fated attempts to enter the sharing economy.
However, a company representative was unfazed, telling the Beijing Morning Post, “We saw this coming,” and calling the initial rollout both a “public good” and a publicity tool for the company. What at first glance seems like another rookie failure to outfit shareable stuff with GPS technology may actually telegraph something about the company’s intentions.
Zhu Wei, deputy director of the propaganda research center at China University of Political Science and Law, suggested that the company was using the stools as a self-promotional vehicle. “Strictly speaking,” he told the paper, “They’re not considered part of the sharing economy.”
Perhaps the best proof of that thesis comes from an accompanying news analysis printed alongside the original report that identified four major areas of concern for the sharing economy: safety, quality of service, market monopolization, and personal privacy.
The stool industry shares none of them.
While the shared cook market has been dogged by anxiety over food poisoning, and the shared ride economy by fear of kidnapping, the greatest threat to public safety posed by shareable stools is that an unsuspecting geezer might trip over one and break a hip.
Quality of service, too, seems oxymoronic when applied to a phenomenon that most frequently inspired reactions of nonplussed awe among commuters at the existence of something so unnecessary.
Unlike hotel managers and taxi services, whose very business models are under siege by Airbnb and Didi Chuxing, it’s safe to say that Beijing’s traditional furniture craftsmen aren’t losing any sleep over this. The company in question may lay claim to a monopoly over the shared stool market, if only because no one else has yet managed the cognitive gymnastics required to consider entering it a good idea.
Nor would it seem your financial data will be compromised should you be among those lucky enough to take one of the maiden squats atop these scannable thrones.
By Henry Knight
[Images via Sina / Pear Video]
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