The Help

Gig-economy apps affect more than the economy—they’re changing what it means to be a friend.

Two people moving a couch, but one has been illustrated to wear bunny ears.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

My first job as a TaskRabbit was easy. A woman who lived in my Brooklyn neighborhood needed someone to wait in her apartment, just a 10-minute walk from mine, for her new bed to be delivered while she was at work. For around $20 an hour, I sat in her kitchen typing on my laptop and hoping the delivery guys would arrive at the end of the window so I’d make more money. I cannot believe I’m getting paid to do this, I thought. I was in luck: I left $72.45 richer.

Afterward, the client offered to take me out for a glass of wine as a thank-you. That would be great! I texted back, and I meant it, sort of. It was a nice gesture, and I liked the idea of getting to know one of my neighbors, but the premise for getting drinks also struck me as odd. This wasn’t a favor between friends—I’d been paid for my time. We never actually met up.

Gig-economy apps like TaskRabbit, Rover, Uber, Postmates, and others promised to revolutionize the future of work. But they’re also changing our concept of community — and not in the idealized way some startups sell, where hiring a neighbor to run an errand or “hosting” strangers in our spare bedrooms is supposed to bring us closer together.

“We are witnessing a financialization of activities that used to be an expression of social capital,” writes Trebor Scholz, a professor of culture and media at the New School, in Uberworked and Underpaid: How Workers Are Disrupting the Digital Economy. “What used to be favors among friends now has a price tag: the pickup from the airport, hauling clothes to the laundry, or helping to paint the apartment.”

Social capital, as defined by Robert D. Putnam in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, is the value of our interpersonal relationships and the “norms of reciprocity” they engender. If I bring in my neighbor’s mail while she’s on vacation or pick up my brother’s kids while he’s stuck at work, the thinking goes, they’ll be there for me when I need it.

Of course, taxis, movers, handypeople, and cleaners aren’t new, and wealthy people have always hired help. However, smartphone apps have made it possible for people who aren’t rich—but have enough disposable income to throw some money at a problem—to hire someone on demand at a relatively accessible price. When these companies’ affluent, city-dwelling target market is increasingly strapped for time—or “at capacity“ in one sense or another—outsourcing can become an attractive option.

For those who can afford it, or run in circles with people who do, paying for these services often goes from a backup plan or a special treat to a social expectation. It can be jarring to realize your peers aren’t dealing in pizza and beer anymore—especially when you’re not as flush as they are.

“Instead of asking a friend or relative for a favor that’s repaid with a pizza or a couple of beers, a homeowner or renter using TaskRabbit gets a jack-of-many-trades who might bill, in this market, $35 an hour,” Martha Quillin explains in North Carolina’s News & Observer.

Originally launched as RunMyErrand in 2008, TaskRabbit once billed itself as “an old school concept—neighbors helping neighbors—reimagined for today.” Founder Leah Busque came up with the idea after she and her husband were headed out to dinner one night and realized they were out of dog food. “Wouldn’t it be nice to go somewhere online and say, ‘We need dog food,’ name a price we’d be willing to pay, and find someone in our neighborhood, maybe at the store that very moment, who could help us?” she recounted in a 2011 interview with Business Insider.

I find her choice of words interesting: not someone who could do the job, but someone who could help. This frames the task almost as a favor, while simultaneously acknowledging that it should be compensated—because few of us would run a stranger’s errand for free, and without getting money involved, Busque wouldn’t have a business model.

Many Americans no longer have the kind of relationships where we can ask a neighbor to borrow a cup of sugar, let alone pick up a bag of dog food. According to a 2015 report by the think tank City Observatory, a little more than one-third of us have no interactions with our neighbors, compared with about 20 percent of Americans in the mid-1970s. Besides, those of a certain class can Postmates that missing sugar mid-recipe if they really need it.

But favors like feeding your neighbor’s cat or helping the college kids downstairs put together their new kitchen island can build social ties. I once responded to an urgent TaskRabbit request to pick up a dog from the groomers; I took the subway to get there and walked the nervous pup back to his owner, who was stuck at home watching a sick kid. It felt good to be helping a mom out on a rough day. If we’d been connected socially, this might have been the start of a deeper relationship. Instead, it was just a job, for which I received $40.80.

Whether between neighbors or friends, favors make us feel like part of a community. A friend of mine recently moved to a small city in Oregon, where she reconnected with a grad school classmate. She told me she’d be flattered if this woman hit her up for a ride to the airport, because it would confirm they’ve moved out of acquaintance territory: “It means they feel our friendship is deep enough that they’re willing to ask.” I felt the same when my colleague at a relatively new job asked if I wanted to housesit for her. In many cases, people really enjoy helping, and our fears we’ll be rejected if we ask for a favor are overblown.

Despite this, I often feel awkward approaching my friends for help. I hate feeling like a burden, and the hassle of getting across New York means even a small favor might require two hours of someone’s time. As a member of the generation suffering from what Anne Helen Petersen dubbed “errand paralysis” in her viral essay on millennial burnout, I’m conscious of how much other stuff my friends have on their plates. A favor? In this economy?

So sometimes when I’ve had the money to do so, I’ve turned to TaskRabbit. Rather than asking a friend to help me put in my air conditioner and coordinating a time that works for both of us, I paid someone to install it on my schedule. Hesitant to ask my friends to help me move again, only eight months after they’d hauled my stuff up three flights of narrow, hard-to-maneuver stairs, I hired someone to do it instead.

Outsourcing these tasks was freeing but also felt somewhat shameful: it’s a waste of money, and anyway, I should have more people in my life who can help when I need it. “TaskRabbit can get the job done, but it can also save you from depending on others outside of economic exchanges,” Sarah Sharma writes in “Time to Care Less,” a chapter in the anthology Appified: Culture in the Age of Apps. Yet relying on others is what holds us together—in families, romantic relationships, friendships, and as a society at large. Instead of worrying about putting someone out, I’m trying to think of it this way: If I don’t ask for help, people may not ask me to help them and my social network will weaken.

Of course, it’s possible to take advantage, and some “favors” really should be paid gigs. “People would ask: ‘Can you help me move?’ ‘Can you run to the store?’ ‘Can you pick me up spaghetti sauce?’ ” a former pilot with a flexible schedule told the Wall Street Journal. “Eventually, I felt, ‘Why am I doing this for free?’ ” As a freelancer, I can relate. I was happy to pick up a friend from a medical appointment recently, but I can’t always rearrange my entire day to help out. Now more than ever, my time is money.

In one sense, apps can enable us to maintain needed boundaries with loved ones and acquaintances alike. Sorry, I can’t come over and help you move that couch, but this TaskRabbit I hired was great. No, I can’t meet your flight at two in the morning, but let’s get you an Uber. On the flipside, as Scholz writes, these apps have monetized some of the ways we’ve traditionally showed one another we care.

When it’s possible to summon a stranger with the touch of a button, a favor from someone you actually know can feel extra special. Another friend of mine who works for the foreign service says she asks for and offers help much more often when she’s living overseas. “I love to take soup and meds and tea to friends when they are sick, especially because I had a stockpile of American soup and meds,” she told me. Back in the U.S., she says, “I’m more like, ‘There are 700 delivery apps and 57 CVSes, meh.’ ”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.