The first time I ever interacted with an on-demand service app was when I downloaded Uber the summer after I graduated high school. I was in New York City for a couple of days, and having heard about the app from numerous people, I thought it was a great idea. It was the first time I’d heard of an app of this kind, and the experience was easy, seamless, and extremely convenient ‒ a cab was at my location in five minutes, the driver was really nice, and I got to rate him out of five stars after the ride.
Uber was just the beginning, though. Next came Delivery.com. I hate talking to strangers on the phone; I get kind of nervous ‒ who doesn’t? But with this app, all I had to do was click a few buttons, enter my credit card information, and half an hour later, someone knocked on my door and handed me a bag of Japanese food, almost wordlessly. I didn’t have to awkwardly fumble for a tip ‒ it was included in the charge. I enjoyed my sushi in peace, free of any form of social interaction. This all just kept escalating a few weeks later when my best friend showed me Postmates, an on-demand delivery app. The idea was that you could send someone to pick anything up from a store or a restaurant, and then deliver it straight to you. When we first started using the app, Postmates had a promotion going where you could sign up with an .edu email address and receive two weeks of free delivery. In other words, we only had to pay for the product we were buying, and the delivery part was free. Over Thanksgiving break, my best friend and I bought everything from orange juice to tampons (even though there was a CVS around the corner), and they’d magically appear at our doorstep fifteen minutes later. This also came in handy when we needed alcohol ‒ instead of going to a liquor store and showing a sneering cashier a crappy fake ID, we could simply order it from Postmates. It was utterly unbelievable.
My dad scoffed at me when I told him about how I spent Thanksgiving break holed up in a friend’s apartment, living in the ultimate state of bliss and perfect laziness as we lounged around and ordered items on the Postmates app. He gave the classic middle-aged man response, “It’s ridiculous what you can do from your phone now.” Then he went on that whole spiel: “When I was your age…blah, blah, blah” And then, I surprised myself when I instinctively began to defend the idea: “Why not? It was free, anyway, at least for the times we used it.”
Needless to say, on-demand apps have become a big part of all of our lives in the last couple of years. They combine the prominent technical component of everyday life with real-life services that make our days a lot easier. If you’re at Princeton you hear about these cool tech startup ideas incessantly, whether it’s the campus ambassadors armed with discount codes urging you to try this new app, or that COS friend you have who is applying for a job somewhere out in Silicon Valley.
Curious about the whole on-demand economy and how people within these apps operate, I found myself working at a tech-beauty startup this summer, which provides on-demand hair and makeup. I have pretty much zero interest in makeup and hairstyling, and how I ended up interning there this summer was a lot by chance, but I wanted to see what it would be like ‒ working at a small, new, tech-based company that provided a service like this. It was a simple idea: you pick from a menu of pre-made looks, you key in your address and credit card information, and then someone, dressed in a company uniform, comes into your office/home/hotel room and gives you your look in 90 minutes or less. They were the professional “artists”, usually freelance makeup artists or hairstylists who work part time in salons, and they’re hired by a selective process and then trained professionally to generate the exact looks on the menu. At first, I thought it was a pretty intimate on-demand service, as far as these apps go: unlike Uber or Delivery.com, you’re inviting a stranger into your home and letting them touch your face and your hair.
But I learned in my internship, actually, is that we had a ton of competitors. There were many apps out there that provided the same intimate services as we did, and more: you could get your nails done, you could get a spray tan, you could get a massage ‒ all at home. When my boss had me looking up competing apps or apps that we could possibly collaborate on projects with, I started to get curious.
Havenly allows you to decorate your home with the advice of a professional interior designer – simply take their personality quiz and then provide them with photos of your space. Dollar Shave Club sends new razors to your home every month automatically so you never shave with a dull blade again. DogVacay helps you find trusted pet sitters nearby. Healthcare is now on-demand, too ‒ Maven Clinic helps you book a doctor that shows up at your house within minutes. zTailors sends a tailor to you, because you need on-demand alteration services. Kitchensurfing sends a professional chef, armed with the ingredients and menu of whatever that day is, to your home in order to cook your family a meal. ClassPass allows you to access exercise classes all at the nearest gym, wherever you are. Technically, you can even see Tinder as on-demand sex. Too lazy to go out and interact with human beings on your own? Swipe right and you have an instant connection with someone who also wants to sleep with you!
It was around this time when I started to get overwhelmed by it all and started to worry about the mass amounts of apps out there. It seemed almost like there was a new one everyday. I read countless business articles about how young entrepreneurs all over the world were taking advantage of the increasing access to technology and creating new opportunities to provide people with services that I didn’t even know I needed, or wanted. Everyone else was hopping on the bandwagon, too. Go onto the official websites of any of these apps, and scroll to the bottom of the page or click on their link for press. Logos of technology business authorities ‒ the likes of Forbes, TechCrunch, Fast Company, and Mashable ‒ are displayed, and with each logo comes an endorsement. The Wall Street Journal promises: “If you need groceries in a hurry, the best choice is Instacart”, referring to an app that provides on-demand grocery delivery. Everyone was raving about these new and revolutionary services. My Facebook feed began to flood with ads for new apps, and it seemed like I was learning about a new one everyday.
I don’t deny that these apps have been useful. Uber is great when it’s late and you’re drunk and you can’t find any cabs and you really, really, really just want to go home and collapse in your bed. Airbnb made planning for a family vacation a lot easier. And not all these apps are expensive; some are actually alternatives to more traditionally pricey services. A lot of college students use Airbnb, for example, to find cheaper housing when traveling or working in a foreign place. Some help you connect with more trusted and safe services, by hiring, screening, and doing background checks on people before they allow their customers to book them.
But all of this honestly makes me wonder how many more services could possibly be out there: how many more are going to be created, and what this says about us as a generation. The on-demand economy is exciting to people like me: I’m a lazy college student who sometimes can’t be bothered to walk all the way to Hoagie Haven, so I can just get someone else to do it, as long as I’m willing to pay a fee. I don’t think of myself as a high-end diva who hides behind her phone and gets other people to do shit for her: I justify my use of these apps by taking advantage of promotion codes so that I get free or discounted service, or if I don’t, saying something like, “It was just really cold outside, and I just didn’t want to walk, okay?”
I think we can’t deny that we are slowly all becoming high-end divas as the services get cheaper, easier and more accessible. I find myself (and others) getting more and more reliant on these apps. Uber has become so integrated that it’s now part of my regular vocabulary ‒ when I described where I worked this summer, I kept referring to the company as “sort of like an Uber for hair and makeup”, and people can understand what I mean. I’ve heard about people taking Ubers back from the Street when it’s cold out, just because it’s easy, and sometimes the walk back is just too much too handle when you’re stumbling out of TI. Increasingly, I don’t find the need to justify myself for using these apps, which means that they’re becoming more of a norm. All these things we didn’t know we needed or wanted, and we just kind of accept them as the new extraordinary conveniences of the 21st century. And even though I’m sometimes a little cynical of everything being a little too readily accessible, I still end up using these apps. All these services slowly seep their way into my regular life, to the point where I stop thinking about it altogether. And it’s fine, it’s good, it’s exciting. I just wonder how far it’ll go.