Speculations on Airbnb

Posted on | August 21, 2013 | 8 Comments

These notes arise from discussions at the recent ‘Privacy and Accountability’ workshop at Intel and from excellent conversations with Maria Bezaitis.

1. Who do we live with now? Airbnb allows a new scale of possibility for long-term and short-term intimacy. People share their house with strangers, every day of the week. The desire for proximity through property is reconfigured.

2. Like other matchmaking sites, Airbnb illustrates algorithmic living: strategic, convenient connections enabled through pre-defined parameters. This suits people who like some form of control over social interaction but who believe in the promise of uniqueness, i.e. the middle class.

3. Airbnb’s aesthetic attracts a self-selecting population. Clean design principles overlap with those of other lifestyle services to attract preferred users. Design invokes ideal types. For Airbnb specifically, the uncluttered page beckons an uncluttered guest.

4. Airbnb is the traveler’s version of an ideal speech situation. Just as the public sphere has certain conditions – terms of participation for entry – the form of the encounter inevitably brackets out unruly subjects. A kind of ease is assumed of the user in the ability to improvise the etiquette of the transaction. Digital literacy equates to competence in the shared aspiration of seamless connectivity.

5. Airbnb’s just-in-time provision and discovery of accommodation meets the needs of urban creatives, whose priorities determine the value of social space. The speed and precarity of the exchange reflects the work and lifestyles of those who routinely juggle intensity with vulnerability. Like the Google Bus that whisks away programmers from their community of residence, Airbnb also meets demands for an ‘entire place’, such that an encounter with proximate others can be avoided if preferred.

6. The host is an affect entrepreneur. The image of the room; the projection of pleasure and safety is produced through symbolic performance. Upon booking, immaterial labor gives way to the material provision of care and attention. The host extracts rent but does so in ways that obscure and domesticate the anonymity of the market. Sex work is the most obvious predecessor for this economy, which fits the character of ‘nightwork’ more generally.

7. The decision to host is based on judgment and adjudication. Future-oriented assessments of guests leverage minimal information in the process of selection. The social contract underwriting this sense of assurance is the most stunning of Airbnb’s accomplishments. It is why so many see promise in its business model.

Read positively, is Airbnb symptomatic of transformations to middle-class sensibility? Does entrepreneurialism respond, for instance, to the failures of community? Is ‘hosting’ an empowered response to loneliness, to the decline of recognition and reciprocity in public space, to the hyper-mobility and perceived anonymity of everyday life?

Is the retreat to the domestic scene – or, conversely, the delivery of intimate space to the market – about localising commerce in some way? If so, because I can rent out a spare room, should I? Will future norms include the social pressure to make use of all potential assets or risk negative perceptions? Are we all destined to be speculators?

What remains a concern is that Airbnb relies on two forms of enfranchisement that the US, among other places, does not bestow equally: access to credit and digital connectivity. Evidently, it exacerbates what are already pressing social tensions in major US cities. The site itself has global reach. A specific population enjoys the benefits of this data economy, culminating in a kind of ‘white flight’ from the hotel industry even as it paves the way for the further extension of distinct cultural preferences. Airbnb is a success in part because it fosters a new elitism in hospitality, one that can discriminate through algorithms in ways that formal workplaces and organizations can not. Its success therefore threatens to enshrine practices of discrimination that are part of a much longer real estate story.


8 Responses to “Speculations on Airbnb”

  1. Terry Flew
    August 21st, 2013 @ 4:11 pm


    I’m using AirBnB for the first time shortly. Looking forward to looking back on this post after that experience.

  2. Will Fitzgerald
    August 21st, 2013 @ 4:47 pm

    It might be worth comparing AirBnB with Mennonite Your Way, which many Mennonites and fellow travelers use in a very similar way.

  3. Yuan Cao
    August 21st, 2013 @ 7:54 pm

    Wonderful article on airbnb. But I do suspect if this domestication of market economy is an answer to the losing sense of intimacy in the public space. One may very well argue that the increasing weariness amongst the middle class towards the surveillance state makes their home a sort of last safe haven for longed privacy and intimate human contact without the obligation to entertain.

    Moreover, this talk of the potential of P2P economy altering middle class sensibility boards technology determinism. The age old debate of technology vs human agency is still going strong, but one thing has been sure that technology alone would not suffice for social change. In other words, people who like to share will share regardless, while those don’t wont’t.

  4. Melissa Gregg’s speculations on Airbnb | World Literature, Cultural Theory, Social Media Aesthetics
    August 22nd, 2013 @ 11:46 am

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  5. ana australiana
    August 23rd, 2013 @ 9:33 pm

    So interesting. I had my first Air BnB experience recently (via an enthusiastic family member, bet you can guess which one) and was struck by how much it depends on good manners, hygiene, politeness.

    Have you heard the argument about Lyft cutting low-wage cabbies out of the market all together as well? Similar kinda thing?

  6. In Their Words » Cyborgology
    August 25th, 2013 @ 9:26 am

    […] “Airbnb illustrates algorithmic living” […]

  7. ray
    September 4th, 2013 @ 8:46 am

    ive used airbnb 4 times now because its cheap and what i can afford…

    couchsurfing.com was a similar website but there was a fee to actually be a member so i just opted for aibnb…

  8. ana australiana
    September 4th, 2013 @ 7:56 pm

    All that is solid melts into AirBnB…

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