How Airbnb Kills Our Ideas of Privacy
To make its home-away-from-home vibe work, the online housing broker insists on a level of transparency from hosts and guests that creates a level of intimacy bordering on the unseemly.
One of my memorable Facebook status updates went something like, “How long before newsreaders realize that we all know that the social networking website Twitter is a social networking website?” I got a lot of good feedback from that one, including someone I used to fancy prodding his thumb up at it. The day took on a subtle shine, and I kept returning to Facebook to check how my little aperçu was doing, like looking through the oven window at a rising cake. The news may now be on first-name terms with Twitter but, as I write, the same cannot yet be said for the private holiday rental platform Airbnb. When telling vacation stories, people will still say to me, “Do you know that thing … Airbnb? We used that.”
However, Airbnb is poised for common parlance; it will no doubt soon lose the red, corrugated training wheels of Microsoft’s Spell Check.
Airbnb is one of the increasing number of cyber-services that demands its users have fixed, 4D bodies—a chain-store identity. It is an apt illustration of how we are asked to materialize online as contained, knowable people, to enter into a community of fully realized digital subjects. We are required to accumulate an online history of consistent, amiable personhood, so that we can be recognized wherever we crop up in digital space. This paradigm rings a death knell for the bodiless shape-shifter of the early web, despite one of Airbnb’s slogans echoing the spirit of the first popular web browsers: “The only question is: where to go next?” A common reason that people travel is to try to outrun their old lives, to experience fresh starts, to be blissfully anonymous, a mysterious stranger blowing through town. But in order to journey with Airbnb, we are required always to bring ourselves with us. Our pasts become a travel document; we’re not allowed to shed our digital skins.
By the time these pages reach your eyes, providing a working definition of Airbnb may well be as useful as explaining what a vacuum cleaner does, but in case of some amnesia plague or an impending and terrible turn in the company’s fortunes, I will say that Airbnb is a service that coordinates the temporary letting of people’s homes to travellers desiring “unique” and generally cheaper accommodation. The second “b” of “bnb” (I’m reminded of Homer Simpson’s BBBQ) is largely ornamental, since the host is not contractually obliged to offer up a tempting array of fruits, cereals, and yogurts, with perhaps a cooked or continental option as well. So if you choose to enlist your home on Airbnb, yours will join the gaggle of rooms competing for attention in your neighborhood. You must provide pictures of your interiors, as well lit and handsome as possible, much like the best-face-forward approach to online dating.
There’s some degree of pathos in Airbnb’s turning of the home inside out for financial gain and pitting it against the other items in the windows, which perhaps more reflects the western housing crisis than it does a utopian adoption of Bedouin hospitality. Hosts in New York City, one place where Airbnb has been most interrogated municipally, have claimed that the Airbnb supplement makes their rents affordable. Likewise, visitors say that they wouldn’t have chosen to visit New York without access to such economical and pleasant accommodation.
In some ways the concept of Airbnb is a practical, exciting evolution of the hospitality industry, but, to make such a business possible, what old instincts about the sovereignty of the home and about the stranger at the door have been outmaneuvered? If you go back to around 2011, it’s clear that these old instincts were still in place, since online discussions of Airbnb frequently drifted into talk of ax murderers. The format can produce a mutual paranoia in which both host and guest become both predator and prey. Fairy tales exploit the primordial vulnerability of occupying an unknown house (“the first bowl was too hot, the second too cold . . .”), as well as the reluctance to open up your own to strangers, particularly those bragging about their lung capacity.
Until recently I lived in the top flat two floors above a small-scale pizza takeaway, which made for impolitic moments when my Papa John’s delivery pulled up outside. Between us there was a small dwelling that, when I moved in, was without a doorknob and padlocked shut. The occupants were a mother and grown-up son whose pastimes included chain-smoking and quarrelling vigorously. They liked me because in my craven way I agreed to them storing a bicycle that occluded 80 percent of our bottleneck hallway. I saw them rarely and heard them always, a discordant symphony of footsteps, wailing, and slammed front doors. On Valentine’s Day they moved out, headed for a bigger place farther west. “It’ll be nice and quiet now,” the mother said when I met her and her possessions on the street. “This was only ever a temporary thing.” A van was parked by the pizza scooters with its back open, blinking its hazards. Two years later, letters still arrived for them, often of an urgent nature or from the NHS.
The flat stood empty for months, and then a doorknob appeared and footsteps returned to the stairwell. On two occasions I bumped into two different people who gave me the same name and who turned out to be squatters. After the lesser-spotted cockney owner evicted them, months of vacancy would be interrupted by the comings and goings of unseen and furtive new inhabitants. On one of those unholy nights when you know that the sleep demon is standing at the foot of your bed, I holstered a rolling pin in one of my mattress’s side-handles, entertaining wild thoughts about the latest mystery guest below.
During my second summer there, envelopes addressed to a professor began to appear. One morning I heard the yaps of a dog in the hallway. A writer had bought the flat of shadows, and she greeted me in a boiler suit, announcing that she was going to finish painting the floor and then go on Open Book. I tentatively returned the rolling pin to its drawer. Unsurprisingly the flat was only meant as a pied-à-terre, and during her absent times, the writer said, she would be accepting guests from Airbnb (“Do you know it?”). And so it was that my life continued to be perched above a thoroughfare, with none of the reassuring routines of constant neighbors.
At startling times the main door would open and strange, woollen voices would come through the walls, except that now they were often joined with the huffs and strains of suitcase haulage. Indeed, while the revolving door continued to spin, a significant change had occurred. The place had been transformed from a secretive refuge for the temporarily dispossessed and the desperate—a black-hole asylum whose boiler never ran and where letters could be lost and demands evaded—into a spruce and transparent little crash-pad for the global traveller.
I looked up the flat’s listing on Airbnb, and soon found the first name and picture of my professor, smiling politely in her good pearls. I could read both the reviews of her visitor-customers and her thoughts on them: the acts of kindness and mutual goodwill, as well as vivid details about one disastrous stay involving (separately) improper linen usage and a toilet bowl full of steeped urine. A man I had seen leaning against the tree outside the pizza shop was now in the gallery of client-friends, and by clicking on him I could see where he lives, goes to university, and peruse samples of his prose.
A key writer in the late-Victorian vogue for the fourth dimension was Edwin A. Abbott, whose 1884 novel Flatland is both a social satire and an allegory of inter-dimensional travel. In the story a three-dimensional being visits the two-dimensional plane-world of the book’s title, which is inhabited by sentient lines and triangles and priestly circles. The 3D visitor, a sphere, describes to a Flatlander his higher perception of two-dimensional space: “From that position of advantage I discerned all that you speak of as solid (by which you mean ‘enclosed on four sides’), your houses, your churches, your very chests and safes, yes even your insides and stomachs, all lying open and exposed to my view.” Airbnb relies precisely on this kind of exposure, a 4D scrutinizing of our three-dimensional world. The flat below me had become like Flatland. Its ceiling had been blown away and I could, if I liked, peer inside it, see its tables and chairs and carpet without ever passing through the front door. And in the case of bad reviews, it is often the private messiness of the body that is revealed, its unsporting excretions and stains, the clots of hairs in the plughole that soil the reputations of slovenly guests.
The growing popularity of Airbnb testifies to our sense of everywhereness, which enables a feeling of continual connection to the safe and the familiar. Wherever we go, part of us is always at home. A thousand miles from our loved ones, we can pull a stranger’s blanket up to our chin and manage not to feel eerie, soothed no doubt by the night lights of our phones and laptops. In this sense, our tentacular digital bodies help us to defeat an age-old dread of being cut off from the familiar and cast into an unknown environment.
These primordial fears have been famously depicted in the psychodramas of children’s stories. The initial horror of the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” is that it’s a collision of two strangers under one roof. Having grown too tired to complete his long journey home, Beauty’s father checks himself into the Beast’s imposing lodgings, which are at once homely and unhomely, both comfortable and desolate. We are told how “the pleasant warmth of the air revived him, and he felt very hungry; but there seemed to be nobody in all this vast and splendid palace whom he could ask to give him something to eat.” He eventually finds a room that is, in accordance with the magic of the place, vacantly hospitable, with an inviting plate of supper quietly steaming on its tray. In the morning, having still seen no one, he reasonably assumes that this disembodied generosity extends to his plucking a rose for his daughter from the palace gardens. It is at this point that he encounters the Beast, who is enraged by his thievery.
Since he is a bewitched prince, the Beast symbolizes the concealed body. His true self is obscured by the spell, while, to him, Beauty’s father appears to be a sticky-fingered trespasser. After hearing some desperate explanations and apologies, the Beast is merciful. “You seem to be an honest man,” he growls, “so I will trust you to go home. I give you a month to see if either of your daughters will come back with you and stay here, to let you go free.” Like many online entrepreneurs from the distant future, the Beast offers a month’s free trial. The catch, however, is far worse than landing a second month’s subscription at full-whack price. If the father can’t convince a daughter to become the Beast’s next and final guest, then he will have to surrender himself for ever.
This exchange is a prototype of what Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky calls “the trust economy,” the growing range of digitally coordinated enterprises based on members of the public sharing space or cars or other typically private resources. Beauty’s father is an anonymous guest and so the Beast’s trust is a product of instinct and concealed gentility. However, as with the irony of today’s commercialized version of trust, it is hollowed by the fact that the Beast’s powers of surveillance and capture make trustworthiness irrelevant. The father’s oath to honor this deal and the Beast’s sensing of this honor are mere adornments to the transaction because of the Beast’s final warning: “Do not imagine that you can hide from me, for if you fail to keep your word I will come and fetch you!”
The Beast is a creature of his fairy-tale world not only in appearance but also in his professed ability to short-circuit the anonymity of strangers. If you can be traced then you aren’t anonymous. In a 2013 interview, Chesky describes the milieu in which Airbnb operates, while presenting the same contradiction as the Beast: “You can call it the sharing economy. Or the trust economy. I think there’s something really special about that. A year from now everybody [on Airbnb] will be required to verify, meaning share their email and their online and offline identity.” Airbnb’s million dollars of insurance coverage for each of its hosts, and the demand for user transparency, seem to indicate the opposite of trust, which by its nature is the sum of our reckonings with the unknown.
Disney’s account of the fairy tale foresaw the perfect Airbnb stay in the song “Be Our Guest,” in which the Beauty, Belle, is serenaded by the anthropomorphized objects in the Beast’s palace. Jigging crocks are a Disney shorthand for joie de vivre, and these crocks are delighted to treat Belle to a spectacular feast. “No one’s gloomy or complaining while the flatware’s entertaining,” sings the candlestick. The motherly teapot can’t wait to start bubbling and the champagne bottles are popping their corks, all of them reveling in a quasi-erotic desire to be used. Those Airbnb-ers who stay in the lived-in homes of intermittently present or fully absent owners experience a muted version of this hospitality-by-proxy. In such a model, the guest communes with household objects that act as avatars, the feathered plumpness of the duvet, the pedigree of the kettle, the heft of the cutlery all speaking to the host’s virtue. In their Hospitality Standards section of the website, Airbnb tells us that “Every day, hosts around the world create magical experiences for thousands of guests.”
Freud naturally had much to say about the home and the idea of homeliness. The German word for homely is heimlich, and Freud, with the help of others such as the philosopher Friedrich Schelling, emphasized a glitch in its various definitions. Heimlich means homely in the English sense of something or somewhere friendly, welcoming and convivial, emanating warmth and safety. However, the same word can also evoke notions of concealment, secrecy and even conspiracy. An obsolete German term for a privy councillor—a keeper of secrets—is Der heimliche Rat. This darker shade of homeliness arises from an image of the home as a private, secluded space of unknowable thoughts and deeds. Freud’s interest lay in the fact that the word unheimlich is also used to convey something that is concealed and therefore potentially malevolent. He concludes: “Thus heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich.” The English word for unheimlich is “uncanny,” which in its Freudian sense, among other things, refers to strangely familiar experiences or, perhaps more horrifyingly, a sense of estrangement in what should be a familiar, homely situation. The upshot for Freud is that, like the Beast’s palace, all homes are unhomely: cosy, talkative candlelight throws deep shadows, and for all the merry teatimes there are people withholding things from each other, unable to express the most meaningful parts of themselves.
Airbnb has set up shop in this uncanny valley. The guarded and enclosed aspect of homeliness diminishes with Airbnb’s mandating of the inside-out house, the home whose rooms one can browse online, but even this transparency entails a certain uncanniness. As Freud remarks, “Everything is uncanny that ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light.” I ought not to have known about that steeped urine!
In the comments sections, the secrets of private life are broadcast, and strangers become familiar. Indeed, the whole enterprise is predicated on a classically uncanny oscillation between strangeness and familiarity. Airbnb invites its travellers to feel at home in the domestic space of a stranger, but in order for this situation to be tolerable, the uncanniness needs to be minimized. In other words, the stranger has to be converted into its opposite. Since in this paradigm being unknown is the same thing as being untrustworthy, the Airbnb website offers such assurances as “We make it easy to get to know hosts like Michelle.” For her part, Michelle seems like an honest person, standing in her modern kitchen arranging daisies. One might wish to overlook the blur of three sharp knives stuck to a magnetic strip behind her left shoulder. Chesky’s social vision certainly holds the stranger at knifepoint, since for all the chumminess there’s a threat at the heart of his ethos. “Some people,” he says, “will choose to be anonymous their whole life. That’s okay. But if you don’t opt into this online identity, you’ll have less access to the services that require it. The rest of us build a history. We build a brand online.’”
Some people will choose lifelong anonymity? What freaks! While not having much time for the naturally retiring among us, Chesky also seems to think that history and branding are the same thing. While branding often invokes “tradition”—Mr. Kipling wandering through a dappled orchard, or the peasant matriarch simmering blood-red pasta sauce—such commercial narratives are usually a smokescreen to the unlovely history of mass production. If brands are not, as Chesky implies, synonymous with history—if by history we mean what actually happened—then they’re perhaps more aligned with what Chesky sees as a “built” history. The manufactured nature of cyber-identities, while deemed vital to Airbnb’s aims, is simultaneously an obstacle because of the connotations between manufacturing and illusion. What is to stop these selfie-brands from being dismantled and rebuilt in new shapes? How would you know it was me? For those who demand that the 4D body be as robust as its 3D precursor, there is always the threat of being duped by a dummy. As of 2014, Airbnb users in America were required to have their government ID scanned in an attempt to freeze the quicksilver out of their online selves. Responding to this move, Chesky said, “We don’t think you can be trusted in a place where you’re anonymous.” For a pioneer trust-economist, he seems wary of overestimating the scope of human integrity. This policy change is designed to intertwine the founding biometrics of citizenship with our brand image, composed of online displays of sanity: wholesome Facebook musings and non-violent tweets, scores of friends and followers, combining to make a thickly woven reed boat, whose density of woof and warp somehow assures the world that someone of substance is on board.
Excerpted from The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World, copyright 2016 by Laurence Scott and reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Laurence Scott is the author of The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World. His essays and criticism have appeared in the Guardian, the Financial Times, and the London Review of Books, among other publications. A lecturer in English and creative writing at Arcadia University, he lives in London.