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Psychology : Applied

Has AirBnB Lost its soul? The breaking dream of the sharing economy

The Internet was supposed to be the great disruptor. It was going to unleash a “sharing economy” that would enable people to interact with each other without the need for a corporate middlemen. This new revolution in person to person sharing was supposed to democratise everything, taking the power and limitation out of the hands of the few, and bringing it to the masses – enabling us to share. Whether it was making your way from Wigan to Kathmandu couch by couch or something more prosaic like borrowing a neighbour’s dog, we were going to be able to do this between ourselves.

It’s global, but it takes a village

The Internet may be global, but for a while it seemed that we could make it a village too. Alongside couchsurfing, AirBnB was going to take our global community to a whole new level – optimistically, world peace, one room at a time. It would be the great new disruptor that would enable us not only to avoid the big hotel chains, but to better integrate into the cities and villages we were visiting by staying in local’s homes. Rather than just being a place to stay, it would be a vehicle for building relationships; instead of supporting a corporate behemoth, we’d be putting money into local communities. After all, their hashtag is #BelongAnywhere.

– Time to contact the advertising standards authority?

Personal experience seems to portend that this is changing. Two of my last AirBnB stays were clearly run by individuals or companies using the service to run their growing buy-to-let empires. Instead of a home with a real local host, an idiosyncratic bookshelf to browse, and a lovingly laminated visitor’s guide to peruse, we found fresh towels and a clean shower – but no personality, no humanity, and no soul. Is AirBnB losing its soul, and if so, is the sharing economy a broken dream?

Perhaps the enthusiasm I shared in this BBC Radio 1 programme aired in 2014 was a little optimistic.

I’m not the only one asking the question of whether or not services like AirBnB are losing their soul. While it seems to be arising in casual conversation amongst users who are experiencing a similar hollowing out of the sharing economy’s early aspirations, a recent report by the Royal Society for the Arts authored by Brhmie Balaram looks into the state of the sharing economy today and it’s effect on the more than 100 million users across the UK and USA alone. In the report Balaram notes that for those of us attracted to the social promise of the sharing economy, many are expressing a sense of disappointment. As Ufi Ibrahim of the British Hospitality Association outlined on Newsnight last night (January 13),  47% of London AirBnB hosts alone are professional landlords. If that’s the case, it means that nearly half the bookings in London are not revolutionary integrated stays, but quasi-hotels that are both unregulated and untaxed. Is this what it was meant to be about?

In two recent AirBnB stays of my own, Amsterdam and San Francisco, I was disappointed not only to find that the “home” I was staying in wasn’t a home – because nobody lived there outside of AirBnB tenants like myself. Both stays lacked a that very sense of “belonging” that AirBnB touts as its main selling point. Further, without the loving care and attention given to offering one’s home on the sharing economy’s market – tenants can often feel at the very least let down, and more commonly, plainly fleeced. Rather than feeling a part of something, one feels as if if they were simply an opportunity for someone already kitted out with a nice property in a desirable city to make another buck off their back. This is particularly infuriating when the booking was made with AirBnB precisely because the prospective tenant wished to keep it local and keep it personal.

While it seems fair that someone struggling with the astronomical housing costs in cities like London, New York, or San Francisco can make some extra cash from their spare room by way of AirBnB while taking the opportunity to build relationships with people from around the world, it seems a bit insulting that opportunistic landlords are making stacks of cash on top of their already bulging property portfolios. Instead of funneling money into the giant hotel chains, many tenants are simply funneling it into smaller or larger private landlord empires.

San Francisco, CA, USA

AirBnB reports that it contributes to the economy of San Francisco (where it is based) because its tenants tend to stay two days longer on average than those that opt to stay in hotels, and about half of its hosts use the cash they earn from it to contribute to their mortgages and living expenses within that rather expensive city – but what of the other fifty percent? In London, probably due to its extortionate housing values, AirBnB reports that over 80% of hosts are renting out the homes they live in, going up to 87% in New York (this number is curiously not available for San Francisco). So if you want that real life #BelongAnywhere experience, perhaps you’d better do your homework first. If AirBnB becomes a conduit whereby landlords cryptically capitalise off their investments without marketing themselves as basic “aparthotels” or “short term lets,” it strikes me as dishonest, and destructive to the spirit of the sharing economy as a whole. As Ibrahim argues on Newsnight, they are also cheating the wider economy by withholding the tax revenue from it that would normally be collected as they are masquerading as a small scale “sharing economy” venture. Further, they may not be maintaining the high safety standards required by the regulated market in which they should property be trading. Something about this is all wrong.

As sharing platforms have scaled, they’ve found it difficult to sustain their intial social value — RSA Report

The RSA report suggests that in order to combat this phenomenon,  “shared regulation” should be brought on board to control the issue. Such regulation is neither a top down governmental nor regulation by industry in question itself . Rather, “shared regulation encourages greater participation from platform users (consumers and workes), community organisers, legal and administrative professionals, investors and designers tacking issues”. The report argues that such regulation is necessary despite the supposed de-centralisation the sharing economy claims to offer. I would agree.

Stand up and use your people power

In the meantime it is important to use your people power to ensure this trend towards the non-sharing use of the sharing economy is brought into the light. Reviews are crucial to AirBnB hosts – corporate or not – and tenants need to be clear in their reviews what knd of stay they are having. If you are staying in a corporate let, rather than someone’s home, call it out, state it in your review. Even if the towels are clean and the beds are comfortable, if it’s not a home, let us all know in the style of my Amsterdam review below:

Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 13.58.01

If an individual wants a corporate let, they have the choice to pursue one – what we shouldn’t have is a corporate let masquerading as an AirBnB #BelongAnywhere within the idealistic frame of the sharing economy. AirBnB should take responsibility for this phenomena before it startst to lose the good will of its users and their desire to #BelongAnywhere by using its service.

The Social Psychology of it All

I argue in my book The Psychodynamics of Social Media that the psychological essence of social media is built upon the innate desire to be in relationship with others, but often gets caught up within the demands of ego demands. Elements of the sharing economy offer us something different from this. The sharing economy offers individuals the opportunity to place relationship over ego. It has the capacity to encourage and spread trust and encourage social cohesion. When we open our homes to others, and those others respect our property, this can increase trust. When we rest our heads on the pillows of others, we demonstrate our will to trust them. When we reach out for more by asking “Where should we go? What should we do?” and our gracious hosts show us a side of their city that the average hotel-staying tourist would miss, we do something much much more for our global village.

While there remains a degree of risk in choosing outside the mainstream conventional world of hosptiatliy, as revealed in this Guardian story, such events are rare. AirBnB reported that in the last year, out of 35 million stays, there were only 540 cases of “significant damage”. These odds are way in your favour. Ultimately, for every friendly stay, a little bit of interpersonal trust is built in the world. The possibility to use the Internet to encourage the sharing economy and increase the growth of interpersonal trust is immense. Pioneers of this exciting new economy need to take responsibility for their offer. They must remember that despite the money to be made by the professionalisation of services like AirBnB – the potential loss of trust and goodwill far exceeds the risk of shutting down its services to those who are in it to make a buck outside of the principled will to increase social trust and cohesion.


More on the psychodynamics of online life in my book,

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