We tried the apps your mother warned you about (and survived)

Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

Thanks to your iPhone you can couch surf, catch a ride downtown, find a date or maybe even source a freebie for dinner.

The sharing economy has gone mainstream, filling our smartphones with apps that run counter to your mother’s admonitions. You know, those common sense “Stranger Danger” rules we’ve all had drilled into our heads about talking to strangers, letting them in our houses or accepting stuff from them.

But it’s one thing to talk about these apps and another to actually use them.

So we did. Cult of Mac staffers jumped into cars with strangers, let them stay in our houses, took random jobs and put out free treats for the taking. The results were, uh, mixed.

Let us know in the comments what your experience has been!

Taking Rides From Strangers

lyftcar

Mom always said never take rides from strangers, but she never met the friendly drivers with funny pink mustaches on their cars from ridesharing service Lyft.

Lyft is a taxi-like service app for iPhone launched in 2012 that lets you request a ride with just the tap of a button. The odds of successfully flagging down a cab on the streets of Phoenix are so laughable no one even considers trying to get around by cab. Yet, after arriving just a few weeks ago to the area, Lyft is already starting to take off with Arizona State University students and bar crawlers in Scottsdale, so I put mom’s advice aside to take a spin with a pink-mustached stranger.

Using Lyft is incredibly simple, which makes it easy to see why cab drivers were quick to hate the service. Once you’ve downloaded the app you sign in with Facebook, type in your credit card info and you’re ready to go.

To request a ride, open the app and you see a map with little Lyft cars in your area. Drop your balloon where you want to be picked up and in a couple minutes you’re riding shotgun with one of Lyft’s friendly drivers.

Conversations always seem forced and uncomfortable when riding with a stranger, but Lyft tries to make ride-sharing fun and light-hearted. After requesting a lift to Mill Avenue in Tempe, I was scooped up in minutes by a Lyft driver named Kelsie who quickly encouraged me to hop up front after I plopped down in her backseat.

Kelsie’s bubbly personality immediately put me at ease and we had a great conversation the entire ride, which made it seem like I was just bumming a ride from a friend – the company’s slogan is “your friend with a car” — except you pay them a “donation” at the end. In fact, my driver said she enjoys the job so much that she just does it on the side from her full-time job as a property manager  just because she likes meeting new people.

“I keep expecting to have a crazy experience, like something horrible happening while dropping a guy off at a seedy strip bar, but all my passengers have been great,” Kelsie said. Sure, she admits there have been a couple of rude customers, most of them drunks, but the overall vibe is chill and friendly.

We pulled up to our destination and my iPhone buzzed with a notification that the ride is over and to pay the suggested “donation” amount that can be raised or lowered. (For the record: I paid $10 to go 3.5miles.) Tap another button and you’re done paying without the hassle of giving your driver cash or swiping a credit card. Another screen pops up at the end asking to rate your driver. If you had a rough ride, you can give them 3-stars and the two of you will never be paired again, but if every Lyft driver is as friendly as mine, you don’t even think twice about tossing them five stars and hope you’ll bump into the pink mustache strangers again.

–Buster Heine

Opening Up Your Family Home

home

Last summer, five different sets of people stayed at our house over a two-month period. We had three home exchanges and two Airbnb renters. It was hard to rent on Airbnb because we only had a two-week window to work with, so I had to adjust my prices several times to compete with the other listings. (You can play around with prices, security deposits and cleaning fees to make your house more desirable.) Good pictures and descriptions are a must. In the end, we rented to a family of four from Paris for $140 night and the second week to six Canadians for $160 a night.

Both sets of renters were great! We exchanged info through emails and I got a key code box so and gave them the code so they were free to come and go as they pleased. I left them tons of maps and guides and a house information sheet. Before we left, I went through the house, room by room, packing away everything valuable in a locked closet or at a friend’s house.

I also like to de-clutter the place and try to make it as empty and clean as possible. I put most of the clothes and toiletries away in plastic bins in the basement. I have stayed in several cluttered houses where your stuff gets mixed in with theirs. That’s a drag!

In the end, most of what I have is not that important and if it went missing or broken, I wouldn’t care that much. We put photo albums and important paperwork or art stuff away, too, but I’m always surprised when I go to houses that don’t do this. Most people stuff all their belongings into drawers — we have come across money and credit cards just lying around.

We have been lucky so far with our renters. Nobody has trashed the house or stolen anything. The last renters replaced a pot they broke and the printer cartridge because they used a lot of ink. And they’ve often left stuff for us: wine and food mostly. Oh, yeah, and underpants. We found a couple of pairs around the house last time. Speedo-type, so I know they were the Europeans. I didn’t bother asking if they wanted them back.

–Traci Dauphin

Offering A Girl A Free Drink

ladiesnight

For those entrenched in the bar scene, Ladies Night promises to be the least-confrontational way to get the nerve to finally ask that hottie in the corner if you can buy her a drink.

Users create profiles and then open the app while out on the town to see who’s nearby and interested in getting a drink. Guys send girls digital offers to buy them a drink and if the girl accepts you can then chat in the app and have to buy them a drink. For women who are tired of Prince Charming pussy-footing around all night, they can also see which guys are nearby and invite the guy to offer them a drink.

Ladies Night could be a great way for girls to mooch free booze all night long, but after taking the app for a spin on a Friday night I found the user base to be shockingly small – as in, not a single dame was in sight for me to seduce with an onslaught of free beverage offers.

To offset the abysmal number of users, TelliApp CEO Joshua Weiss suggests using other social media to invite people nearby to use the app. “Within the Ladies Night app, users can see Twitter users who are nearby and tweet to them to download the app. When users attract other users this way, the two users can see each other regardless of their distance from one another.”

Maybe the app will take off in the future, but until then it looks like the good old fashioned way of gathering your manhood and talking to the intimidating beauty in person is still the most efficient way to score a drinking buddy for the night.

–Buster Heine

Hooking Up With Friends

down-new

Bang with Friends caused quite the stir earlier this year when it launched on the App Store and promised to anonymously hook users up with other friends who are interested in, well, banging. Apple banned it but, undeterred, the company returned with an app called Down that includes the same anonymous pairing feature as before in a slightly more discreet package.

The idea behind Down is that you and your Facebook friends have a lot of repressed sexual energy, but are too shy to solicit a casual hook-up. To speed up the lovemaking action, Down allows users to flip through their list of friends and anonymously mark who they want to bang. If a friend also uses Down and says they’re interested in you, the app connects you, opening the way for some risky business.

Down might be a neat idea for sex-crazed Millennials, but when it comes down to getting down no one could possibly use this app seriously. Sure, it filters by male or female, but you can’t set age boundaries or filter out people who are already in a relationship. There’s also the fact that it asked me if I’m down to bang with my Aunt Sandra, cousins, sister, even my mom. Gross.

–Buster Heine

Make Easy Money

giga-walk

If you’re looking to make a quick buck, picking up projects on the fly with your iPhone sounds almost too good to be true. As a freelancer used to feast and famine – as far as work is concerned – the idea appealed to me.

I started with Gigwalk. It’s a quick sign-up – either login with Facebook or add your name, birthdate, current occupation, employer and education level (the default is high school) – and you’re on to the gigs.

There are about 20 open gigs in San Francisco and a handful near me, most of them photographing restaurant menus for $4 each. You have to take three sets of pics to earn – what, the cost of a latte? – outside the place, the entire menu (including breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert) and the interior. The purpose? “This information will be used on a website to help customer (sic) discover menu information.”

The $6 gig at a nearby supermarket snapping pics of milk labels seemed more bang for the buck, so I applied. But I made a rookie mistake – say you’ll complete the gig in three hours, instead of 31, and you have a better shot at getting it. I opted for the longer window, then tried to change it – to no avail. If you withdraw your application, the gig no longer appears for you.

Annoyed, I hop over to TaskRabbit. It’s a similar if even more minimalist sign-up process – use either your Facebook login or name and email – and I’m in. All the jobs here look like, well, real work.  The kind that no one wants to do – help clean out a garage, pick someone up at an airport late at night, clean out a three-bedroom Airbnb flat. Ugh.

At TaskRabbit, you bid on the jobs, further driving down possible earnings. One job involves buying two sci-fi ebooks at your own expense for “less than $7,” skimming them and giving your opinion about whether they aimed at the same audience.

TaskRabbit provides an estimate so you know how much to bid — this one is $8-$13. So once you purchase the ebooks, your take home is about $6, at best. If skimming two books might take you an hour, that’s well below $10.55, San Francisco’s minimum hourly wage.

Fuggedaboutit. I move on to iSecret Shop, hoping it offers more diverse (and better paid) jobs. The sign-up here is longer – your home and cell phone numbers, your home address – and they email me back a “dossier.” It’s a nine-page PDF that includes a section on ethics and conduct as well as essential skills (“You should appear nonchalant while performing the evaluation and/or using the application.”)

Before you can start earning points that will eventually earn you coupons or money, you are encouraged to complete online training with the secret shopping software platform. Some clients “might require you take specific coursework” before you go stealth.

Aiming for low-hanging fruit, I skip the training but am stymied. It’s not clear how to start – after logging in, it says I “can accept (null) shops,” which is a shame because in addition to shops they have tourist attractions and some pretty stellar restaurants to check. Also, the fees don’t seem bad and you get reimbursed for meals, checking out mobile phones and buying stuff at thrift shops. The gigs are from local secret shopper agencies, too, not faceless random individuals.

But I’m on deadline, so it’s back to Gigwalk. After applying to snap a cafe  for $4 that’s near the office and turn it around in three hours, I await notification. It comes quickly and I’m off.

Late in the afternoon, the forlorn-looking cafe in question has just two patrons hunched over laptops. I buy a cookie ($2.70!) to justify my camera happiness. When the woman at the counter asks why, I say I’m an Instagram freak and get on with it. There are three menus – drinks, lunch and daily specials. I get them all, snap the inside, watch them all stare as I snap the exterior on my way out, trailing remains of a vegan ginger cookie that was probably a dog biscuit.

Half an hour later, I go to upload the pics to find that there’s a 10-question survey that wasn’t included in the initial gig description – details about the hours, wheelchair accessibility, etc. Right. After getting through that (fortunately I took notes) I try to upload the pics, but the client won’t accept them – because the location information wasn’t turned on my iPhone. The app lets you message clients and, fortunately, the client agrees to look at my pics without the EXIF info. I send them,  the client accepts (adding that they were once a Gigwalker) and $4 is in my PayPal account within minutes.

–Nicole Martinelli

leftover

Take Food From Strangers

If your eyes proved bigger than your stomach for that supersize burger with extra fries, now you can give what’s left on your plate to a total stranger. That’s the freecycling idea behind Leftover Swap, which launched in September.

I watched my hometown app’s first “swaps” go up with skepticism: if you’re really giving away a half-eaten burrito to someone, at least cut the bite marks off it for the pic, right? Many of the early entries seemed like a joke, like the offerings from a half-eaten plate smeared with ketchup  – or a really creepy way to lure someone to your lair. Who really needs to go across town for an unopened bottle of water?

Co-founder Dan Newman sent an email blast announcing that the first successful swaps were PopChips, in both New York (where there are many pins) and San Francisco. So I tried give away something easy: 10 packs of snack-sized Cheetos in a Halloween bucket. (I bought them because they were billed as glowing in the dark, but disappointed to find out only the bucket glows. Not the Cheetos.)

On the morning I posted it from the Cult of Mac offices in the Mission District, there were only three other pins in San Francisco. The most recent one was some leftover wine pictured in a dirty glass from three days earlier; the oldest some vegan chili two weeks prior.

Five days later, not even Dan will take my Cheetos. (He’s in Seattle, as it turns out.) He apologizes for the lack of takers, adding “since we don’t have any money to advertise to gain users, we rely on word of mouth and press.”

The Cheetos are still available, if anyone wants them.

–Nicole Martinelli

This story first appeared in Cult of Mac Magazine.

About the author

Buster HeinBuster Hein is Cult of Mac's Senior News Editor and lives in Phoenix, Arizona. Twitter: @bst3r.

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