Outsourcing Curiosity

How Airbnb experiences are not what you think

We’re all familiar with the way that social media companies monetize our desires and impulses by selling placements in our feeds to advertisers. Now, sharing economy companies like AirBnb are trying to do something similar by offering a marketplace of “experiences,” supposedly targeted directly to us. The negative impact of AirBnb on municipalities, housing prices, hotels, and hotel workers is already well-documented and continues to stretch regulators thin. What kind of impact should we expect from this new marketplace of experience? Not satisfied with their 153% global compound growth rate and multi-billion dollar valuation, AirBnb is looking for more revenue by providing a platform for the property-less to market themselves.

Since 2016, the company has transitioned from being a lodging site to offering full travel experiences and trips which are often hosted by skilled, creative people. These experiences and trips are paid for and booked like any other service, most often by the day or hour. In CEO Brian Chesky’s mind, if you do not have a room to rent, then Airbnb is the perfect place for you to sell your time and skills. Chesky hopes to have 100 million people making money on AirBnb before he dies. In order to materialize this new vision, the company has created what they call the 7-star experience. It is designed to exceed expectations and to go well beyond couch-surfing. This grand idea began as a way of finding out how to get people to use Airbnb again and again. When Chesky explains the concept behind this 7 star design, the experience should be unfathomable: your favorite wine should be stocked, you favorite incense burning, favorite music playing, etc. The company is working to embed this into all parts of travel, even the airplane you fly in. They are looking to sell a mood, an attitude—an experience.

There is no doubt Airbnb sees good in what they are striving for, but their new vision is an attempt to commodify human creativity through the mirage of a personalized travel marketplace. It seems as though their goal is to engineer your life experiences. With this new vision of travel, the influence of Airbnb grows more insidious. One must question the fact that these experiences rarely seem to go beyond what’s offered by normal travel sites or from the pamphlets you see in a hotel lobby. The site does offer the occasional unorthodox experiences like a 4.6 rated psychic reading in LA  or 5.0 rated cat yoga in Barcelona––Chesky himself never fails to mention the wolf hiking tour they offer. The most common offerings are more like a travel yellow pages; a platform for local tourist businesses to advertise. A scroll through the offerings of most any major city shows predictable walking and food tours, paid photo shoots (think instagram), amd bar crawls, listed among typical guidebook city offerings. The direction Airbnb is taking their idea of travel does not seem to be a positive one — evidence is emerging that the tech sector’s efforts to produce personalized, curated experiences via algorithms have largely failed. Comfort is becoming more an essential part of the travel experience than challenge or growth. 

Where else have we seen these personalized failures? Facebook is an easy target for its role in the negativity behind their content pages. In the same way that Facebook curates the content page to your likes and personality, Airbnb will create a similarly tailored experience for travel. A more arcane example is the hyper data-driven analytics which now coordinate Netflix show developments. These digital curation techniques are designed to give us more and more of what we want, but based less on our own intuitions. When it comes to human growth in these new digital platforms, should we only ever consume exactly what we want? Where is the joy of accidental discovery? The isolated content vacuums, described as filter bubbles, have rippling consequences. Instead of adventure and the joy  of accidental discovery, this kind of travel would seem to offer us only a reaffirmation of our beliefs and expectations. It is hard to believe that a platform with this type of clandestine curation for travel and experience can promote creativity and community. The homogenization that these Airbnb experiences produce cannot be overlooked. Each of these companies, not only Airbnb, uses algorithms that manifest as an Oz-like presence that drives the recommendations on their platforms. It’s important for us to look behind the curtain to see just how pervasive these algorithms are. 

Airbnb’s overall claim is that the net result from their vision will be authentic experiences where community can be fostered and the traveler will enjoy aesthetics that organic, autonomous experience fails to produce. They have done well to offer options of broad social impact, but even the curation of such options lends itself to scrutiny in the same way one can be critical of the monetary flows of the Red Cross. Airbnb’s decision to transition from a company merely offering a marketplace for lodging and into one attempting to commodify the entire travel experience should not be seen as a natural transition. Following a neoliberal pathway, Airbnb’s ethic will connect us more through buying than doing.  In some sense, it is the last step of neoliberalism: the commodification of ourselves as a brand. This commodification has expanded into all corners of our social and political lives, with increasingly dire consequences. Adam Smith wrote of his unease with this concept when he said a society governed by nothing but transactional self-interest is no society at all. This transition into the world of experiences is a massive experiment across a global marketplace.  

Airbnb’s transition is analogous to Google’s in an important way. One of Google’s problems is that it gives every user different search results based on various personalization factors. This is problematic, for example, when comparing searches for “the capital of Israel” versus a query for “the reasons behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The first query is a question of geography while the latter is much more nuanced. Each demands two different types of results. Where the first query will always yield the same result, the answer to the second will be personalized. The latter search will produce different results based on a myriad of factors that are, in essence, pre-determined based on what Google’s algorithm thinks one wants to see rather than objective lists of source material. The implications of this algorithmic analysis of our desires are potentially far-reaching. It’s one thing to find a list of bedrooms at a certain price, but predetermined experiences based on what an algorithm thinks we want out of life is another. Do we believe that algorithms can know us that deeply? Even if they can, should that knowledge be monetized? And should the power that comes with that knowledge be entrusted to unaccountable private companies?

We have a crisis of global authentic experience that Airbnb is working to exploit. One of the initial reasons Airbnb was created stems from such indicators like high rents and lower incomes. The company supports a society where we consistently have these fundamental failures in our communities. The rise of the experience phenomenon taps into the crisis of humanity and technology that is upon us in the 21st century thanks to the neoliberal order. We can see it in the increasing homelessness in our streets and the opioid-influenced obituaries of the dying newspapers. We see it in increasing depression and suicide rates, and in astronomical student debts. We’re overworked and under-compensated, with dwindling hopes and diminished social connection. Is it possible that when there is a crisis of experience, experience becomes marketable? 

If we do have a crisis of experience and despair, we can’t let private enterprises like Airbnb solve it. There is no market or political gospel for salvation in the age where our data and personalities are for sale. Imagine a world where Airbnb goes through with its IPO–– how will the marketplace for experiences react to the demands from shareholders and boards of directors who will force the users and hosts to submit to the market? Will there be transparency as to how it’s decided what is shown on the marketplace? Will these places still be authentic once Airbnb-fueled rent hikes have pushed out the locals? The company sees a way of forming community through curated transactions rather than organic experience and serendipity, but the world it envisions is still one of haves and have nots. The spread of such a platform will create an even more competitive world, when what we need is a collaborative one.  

Our planet has an organic communion of differences that must fight homogenization on platforms like Airbnb. That travel has grown so commonplace is a blessing, and even more beautiful is its potential to make us all more cosmopolitan and alive. But if we don’t travel to Italy, Japan, or anywhere for something deeper than the ramen joints, Neapolitan pizzas, and instagramification of a locale, we will continue to be no more enlightened than before. There is no doubt that Airbnb can help create positive travel experiences and community, but their rhetoric is masking a deeper crisis. We cannot wait to exhaust alternatives, as the (re)discovery of shared values is too valuable to squander. We cannot cede the autonomy and self-determination of our decisions and experiences to a platform like Airbnb. 

We need a new body politic with the imagination to realize better alternatives to the problems of modern cities. Companies like Airbnb must be held accountable for their disruptions as much as they are lauded for their successes. And the people should take note. We should search for more emancipatory platforms and marketplaces owned by creators, that are centered around the common aspirations and shared rules for all. We must affirm by our work and actions that the world we seek is not one of commodified experiences; we must manifest a world of unbound organic experience. This is where we must direct our efforts, our thinking, and our sacrifices. A global experience of shared dignity is at stake.