Dear Airbnb, I don’t know who you are anymore

Uber, Airbnb, Etsy…their success is built on a beautiful promise: that of workers, all kinds of workers, finally cashing in on their existing resources. We are lured by money-making opportunities for home renovations, by safe and affordable pick-ups from the airport, and by successful at-home business ventures. We’re swayed by pundits and our own frustration with the status quo — over priced services, inadequate incomes, and workplace drudgery. We’re told that “the sharing economy has democratized markets and industries largely controlled by large corporate interests, allowing disruptive companies…to shake things up and provide needed services at decent rates as well as opportunities for workers to take on new projects.”

These promises and our collective buy-in have meant that Airbnb is now projecting it will earn (before interest and taxes and depreciation) as much as $3.5 billion a year by 2020. Everyone wins!

Or do we?

Uber broke hearts through a litany of negative headlines, and downright criminal behaviour. Only time will tell if those actions permanently debilitate the company, making room for Lyft or others. Funny story: while recently on a conference trip to Atlanta, I decided to use drivers exclusively, over public transit or taxi cabs. Having bailed on Uber based on its Trump support, I chose Lyft. I got all but two female drivers, and glowing endorsements for the company from each one — a small and clearly biased sample, but they gave me some pretty compelling rationales for choosing Lyft over Uber. They cited safer driving conditions and better vehicle inspections. One driver told me how she regularly sends other Lyft drivers to pick up her kids from school, trusting the company’s checks (of both drivers and passagers) and appreciating the app’s vehicle tracking functionality. This is Lyft’s promise: a safer experience for its drivers and passengers.

One of the many communications from Airbnb about my cancellation “fuck-up”.

The Airbnb Promise

I’ve been an Airbnb guest for two years, and a host for just over a year. I couldn’t wait to have a home with an extra bedroom so that I could house wayward friends and economically-minded travellers. Couch-surfing and, by association, Airbnb had my total buy-in. No fear.

About a month ago, I had a booking from a couple in Montreal. All was well, then I received this message:

Message from our guest. I responded that I couldn’t get rid of the animals (they were, in fact, listed in my ad), that I completely understood, but that she would need to cancel her booking (as per Airbnb instructions).

She eventually decided to put a towel under the guest door and stay anyway.

A week later we had a family emergency which would take us out of town for the first day of their booking. I agonized over what to do, and considered asking a friend to let in our guests while we were away. I would have, except for the cat issue: do I let someone who doesn’t enjoy the company of animals stay in my home with them and without me? That seemed like a disaster waiting to happen. I looked and found plenty of similarly-priced Airbnbs in our neighbourhood (the guests would be able to find another stay), notified them of our emergency, and cancelled the booking. Our exchange was polite and that was that.

So I thought.

The pitch to become a host on Airbnb.

Have you seen Office Space? If you haven’t, do. There’s a famous bit where the main character forgets — one time — to put a cover sheet on his TPS report, and is subsequently reminded of the policy and his mistake by layer upon layer of middle-management. That’s been my life with Airbnb since the cancellation. I have received numerous communications from Airbnb ranging in tone from finger wagging to threatening. That’s after one cancellation. Ever. That’s the opposite of peace of mind.

Peace of Mind.

While I understand that part of Airbnb’s business is protecting guests, at some point they seem to have forgotten what they’re selling: my home, and their promise: offer a platform that makes me love becoming a host to strangers. I do make money while hosting but, to be honest, the money isn’t so great (and the effort is substantial) that I wouldn’t be willing to bail on the whole endeavour. I do this because — currently—I still believe in Airbnb’s promise that this is fun, interesting, and worth my while. I also appreciate other aspects of their business, though I am weary of giving credit to a company when the actual work will be done by decent individuals. My buy-in, however, isn’t permanent and like with Uber I am willing to switch loyalties if I feel promises are no longer being kept.

So,

Dear Airbnb,

Here’s how you can better keep your promise.

  1. Look for patterns of behaviour, don’t assume them; avoid making anyone feel shitty about themselves.
  2. When you say “you’ve never done this before, so we won’t punish you”, mean it. Don’t subsequently act in punishment. Alternatively, have a clearly-stated consequence, enact it, then move on.
  3. Remember why you exist: because a group of people (who live complex lives outside of their Airbnb) are willing to share their homes with strangers, and because another group of people are willing to sleep in a stranger’s home. The whole point of this venture is that these homes are not hotels, and the visitors are guests — both sides must expect to take some reasonable, pre-negotiated chances.

Still Curious?

I teach, design, and research as a feminist scholar, usually located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. You can see some of my work, or find out more about me, at http://milenaradzikowska.com. I am on twitter as @candesignlove. I also run a small design agency with my partner, Chris Shaddock: http://www.twohotsoups.ca

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