Panopticism
October 10, 2018 5:24 PM   Subscribe

Airbnb and the commodification of home - "What does this to do our relationships with one another? When every interaction becomes a rateable exchange, we can no longer just be two humans holding a conversation: we are conducting a business transaction in which your ‘communication’ will be given a score out of five."
posted by unliteral (44 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
The never-sated maw of capitalism consumes all.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:37 PM on October 10 [4 favorites]


Like that one episode of Black Mirror.
posted by subdee at 6:00 PM on October 10 [9 favorites]


I’m not so worried about the AirBnB model, though. Renting out extra rooms in one’s home is something that’s been done literally for centuries. (Millennia?) It’s always been a relationship defined as transactional in nature, and word of mouth has always been a key part of getting more business down the road.

A guest room in your home that’s not being used, or a period of time when you will be away from your home and no one will be inhabiting the structure, those are legitimate cases of excess capacity, in which case it can be a great thing to be able to turn it to profitable use.

I’d differentiate this from something like Uber or Lyft driving, though. There, your labor has to be devoted minute-by-minute for the wage you earn, meaning it’s just like a normal job. Except the compensation and benefits are for many folks marginal at best and exploitative at worst. Or, as I say, like a normal job.
posted by darkstar at 6:36 PM on October 10 [7 favorites]


The problem with the AirBnB model is that it's supposed to be renting out empty rooms, but it becomes people buying entire apartments and renting them out for high nightly prices. This has the effect of raising housing costs, and taking housing stock off the market. AirBnB lets a landlord make more money from temporary occupants as they would from a full-time tenant.
posted by SansPoint at 6:40 PM on October 10 [64 favorites]


Airbnb (and the gig economy as a whole) also serves as a tool to extract pockets of untapped value in people's property and funnel it to the wealthy.
posted by NoxAeternum at 6:53 PM on October 10 [16 favorites]


True, SansPoint, though this seems to be more a variation of the same rent-seeking problem that occurs on a monthly rental. Wealthy investors buying up houses or condos to turn them into rentals, for more per month than a mortgage would cost an owner. The AirBnB just provides the communications network to make the rent-seeking exploitation more efficient.
posted by darkstar at 6:54 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


The problem isn't Airbnb or commodification of whatever, as pointed out by darkstar, the problem is nimbyism, the "white picket fence" fantasy, and zoning. It is patently absurd that there are 80-storey condos going up a block from single family detached houses. (E.g. North York in Toronto). People are always going to sell and buy shit. It's when the systems have been rigged so tightly to benefit the rentier class that, as NoxAeternum points out, exists solely to mine wealth from the lower classes and transport it upward.

However while it seems like addressing the root causes (capitalism etc) are going to take a long, long time, pulling the levers that we can reach (regulation of specific business models) will have to do.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:01 PM on October 10 [8 favorites]


Airbnb is a hotel chain, don't fall for propaganda that states otherwise. Companies rent houses that should be apartments
posted by eustatic at 7:03 PM on October 10 [3 favorites]


I agree that there should be better regulation of the model. Limit it to private-individual-owned, residential domiciles, and for a maximum number of days per year, as a start. Basically, some key structure to filter out corporations and investor-class aggregators from exploiting the system.

AirBnB would definitely lobby against that, because it would greatly reduce their profits, of course...
posted by darkstar at 7:11 PM on October 10 [4 favorites]


I was shocked the other day when I took an Uber (something I rarely do) and the driver started grilling me on my previous Uber experiences. apparently I have a rating (passengers have ratings?) and it was 4.7, which means someone must have been upset with me in a previous ride and given me a 1.

For whatever reason, I found that particularly galling. it's a commercial exchange, I don't really care what the driver thinks about me, and as long as they drive and get me where I need to go, I don't really think much about them. I'll give them a rating of 5 stars as I know Uber has awful gamification nonsense. but still, the idea that somehow I needed to be engaged in these commercial exchanges in some sort of emotional way - as if buying gas, or a pack of gum, required me to somehow be smiling and chipper throughout - it's just totally wrong.

We had an AirBnB room we rented out in our house in a fairly touristy area of France back in 2012, when it was a newish thing for the area. it was a lot of fun, but we didn't go all superhost-y about it, because frankly we provided a very good price for a safe and reasonable accommodation, and isn't that good enough? It seemed to work just fine for us. but the rating thing, that was always a challenge to try to stay on top of it... it feels like some kind of new peasantry.
posted by EricGjerde at 7:16 PM on October 10 [20 favorites]


I give this article 2 stars out of 5. Nice location in mindspace, but they haven't really done anything with it.

>In answering this question, I think it’s worth bringing up French philosopher Michel Foucault.

Make that one star.
posted by msalt at 7:17 PM on October 10 [19 favorites]


I think it’s also about the transient nature of a post-internet society that’s moving more into the idea of living globally local instead of living locally in a permanent home base from which you travel globally outward then return back to.

Also, the idea of a home and owning in general is just kind of weird to me. This all is encapsulated by Jaron Lanier’s argument that tech needs to decide if it wants to be socialist or libertarian because it can’t be both at the same time. I fall on the “make it all socialist” side of the equation myself.
posted by nikaspark at 7:20 PM on October 10 [4 favorites]


Airbnb is a hotel chain, don't fall for propaganda that states otherwise. Companies rent houses that should be apartments

That's exactly it. She asks a lot of questions:
"We must try to see the flaws that others will be quick to note in a review. Just what is the right amount of friendly for a host? How much noise is acceptable and what time can it start? If I was a guest, how would I view this carpet, those towels, this bedspread? Would I think this shower was clean enough?"
Those are the very same questions I asked myself when I worked at a hotel. Because for those nights, her home is effectively a hotel. Of course she would need to have a clean shower for someone who was paying. Of course she would need to change out the pillowcases. I would do the same thing for just a friend staying at my home.

I think a much more interesting question here isn't Foucault (oh god, Foucault, really?) and the transactional Meow-Meow Bean nature of gig economies, but how people manage to divorce themselves from parts of their homes if they are hosting, and how that impacts their concept of home, and the emotional costs attached to that.

There's a series on Netflix, Stay Here, about people remodeling their spaces to attract higher rates and higher ratings on AirBnB etc. A fascinating part of it is how so many of the homeowners have a whole process where they need to separate their own tastes and needs from what a guest might want. They are told to remove all personalization. One woman, a recent widow, gets counseled to remove family photographs. One man gets very shaken over buying a couch the designer insists on because it's a style he would never buy for himself.

Like many people, I'm a homebody and I deeply feel like my home is an extension of myself. It's not perfect but it's mine. And although I could certainly use the money, I'm not renting out a room in my private home because the disruption would upset the balance I have here, my feeling of security and privacy and being able to leave a spoon in the sink.

Instead of hopping on the well-worn track about ratings, I wish that instead she'd written about the things you let go, and whether it's worth it.
posted by mochapickle at 7:34 PM on October 10 [15 favorites]


"What does this to do our relationships with one another? When every interaction becomes a rateable exchange, we can no longer just be two humans holding a conversation: we are conducting a business transaction in which your ‘communication’ will be given a score out of five."

All that is solid melts into air, one might even say.
posted by kenko at 8:01 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]


They are told to remove all personalization. One woman, a recent widow, gets counseled to remove family photographs. One man gets very shaken over buying a couch the designer insists on because it's a style he would never buy for himself.

Don't mistake reality TV for reality. I'm an Airbnb host, no one has ever asked or suggested or even hinted I do anything like that. And yes, I am a SuperHost. I describe my house as what it is -- a bookish, arty, quirky urban space -- and people either like that or don't come.

So a reality TV showrunner dredged up drama for a cast member to emote on screen? OK. But that's not about Airbnb.
posted by msalt at 8:25 PM on October 10 [9 favorites]


And although I could certainly use the money, I'm not renting out a room in my private home because the disruption would upset the balance I have here, my feeling of security and privacy and being able to leave a spoon in the sink.

We have kicked around the idea of buying a house now in the place where we will eventually retire and renting it out until then.
But deep down, I have similar feelings as you about other people inhabiting my space, so we never do despite the economic sense it would make.
posted by madajb at 8:43 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]


Oh, no, those scenes weren't really played for drama. The whole show is breathlessly positive re: vacation rental, and I think those were just presented as illustrations of something a host might experience -- prioritizing the business over their own personal taste to find their niche in a competitive and lucrative market. Clearly you have found your niche and it works for you very well, but that would be very hard for some people.
posted by mochapickle at 9:00 PM on October 10


I'm sad that AirBnb thrived after Couchsurfing had already existed for years. It seems that a lot of people truly prefer to have more transactional interactions and fewer peer-type interactions with others.

I'll never forget my middle-aged co-worker laughing and calling me an idealist for preferring couchsurfing over airbnb. He really seemed to believe that bringing money into the picture somehow made airbnb safer. Even though you're still staying with a stranger who might kill you.
posted by scose at 9:30 PM on October 10 [7 favorites]


I wanted to like Couchsurfing and listed my couch briefly, but I got the sense that at least here in New Orleans, either the site or my listing wasn't attracting people I wanted to spend time with. It was kind of an ask/guess issue, too, I think.

I'd get requests from sort of jam band bro types who were just outside the city and wanting to stay an indeterminate number of days on a couple hours' notice, or people who wanted to cram like five people into my living room for a holiday weekend. People who tried to book in advance usually impled they wanted to hang out together *a lot* or have me be their tour guide for days.

It all sounded exhausting.
posted by smelendez at 10:39 PM on October 10 [8 favorites]


It’s not that every interaction between two people is a rateable exchange - I mean you don’t call your best friend up and then rate her on the quality of her conversation. This is a business interaction where you’re paying for a service so of course your opinion or recommendation matters to their success, and since man started selling things, this has always been the case.
posted by Jubey at 11:17 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]


Not quite the same thing but I've been mad lately at how much emotional labour basic transactions increasingly request/demand. The grocery store I shop online with sent me an email begging me to review items from my recent order, most notably a 100g bag of sesame seeds. I have nothing to say about 100g of sesame seeds; I miss the days when you could just buy a damn thing without receiving an email begging you to take a 15-question survey about how the damn thing made you feel while you were buying it.
posted by terretu at 3:09 AM on October 11 [35 favorites]


mad lately at how much emotional labour basic transactions increasingly request/demand

This is due to the reduced cost of asking. Ie, every digital transaction can force you into a mini-survey to aid their market research.

Re: AirBnB, I don't see the need to go all post-structuralist on it. Kinda like Jubey, the actual renting of space doesn't seem like a new thing at all.

The rating/review system is the novelty and this is where everything, not just accommodations, gets weird. By themselves, ratings help legibility, which is helpful. But the gamification from within and without is not sorted yet, because there's no arbiter of these things.

Eg, Grace is a restaurant in Portland that's a pretty good upscale spot. But it gained notoriety a few years back when they made a statement about guns in their restaurant and had their google rating nuked by gun advocates (it's finally starting to recover, but was down in the 2s at one point).

And maybe you could argue that they invited controversy, but they probably didn't expect it to become an internet-wide clarion call for gun advocates to do stuff like this:


★ 9 months ago I was also refused service based on my political beliefs :( but I'm sure the food is good anyway
2 Share
Response from the owner 9 months ago
This is a fake review based on my views regarding responsible gun control legislation.



The issue with internet/digital (rating) systems is that they are increasingly subject to gaming the metrics or even scaled astroturfing. And while some of us know this, many consumers of the ratings have no idea. Our online literacy hasn't caught up to the machinations going on.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 5:35 AM on October 11 [6 favorites]


A guest room in your home that’s not being used, or a period of time when you will be away from your home and no one will be inhabiting the structure, those are legitimate cases of excess capacity, in which case it can be a great thing to be able to turn it to profitable use.

At least in my area, that's not what's happening. Landlords are buying up buildings here just for the purpose of putting them on AirBnB thus making normal monthly rentals more scarce and increasing the transient nature of the neighborhood.
posted by octothorpe at 5:52 AM on October 11 [6 favorites]


The problem of landlords buying property in order to increase profits from short-term renters/tourists is a massive problem.

However...when it works well, it is amazing for consumers. I’m currently staying in an AirBnB in an expensive Canadian city where a comparable hotel room would cost over 3x more. Meanwhile, in this modest basement apartment, I can experience life in a residential neighborhood (as opposed to the extra-$$$$ downtown area near the hotel) and I have a washer/dryer in the unit, and a full kitchen, and a little patio. If reform ever happens to fix the AirBnB problem, I really hope to retain the ability to rent apartments when traveling.
posted by witchen at 6:27 AM on October 11 [2 favorites]


In Reykjavik the situation with AirBnB is pretty frustrating. It is definitely driving up costs, not to mention creating a new underclass of "AirBnB Servicers" who are paid below minimum wage under the table to change sheets and tidy up in houses that have been converted into hotels. At the same time, the public discussion as well as the regulations all center around this pseudo-hotel model, when it seems to me that you can basically solve the problem with one regulation: It is your primary residence, where you live for the majority of the year, or it is a hotel and must follow those rules, including zoning and insurance. However, the people with the money don't want that rule.
posted by Nothing at 6:31 AM on October 11 [7 favorites]


Mentally, I substitute the words "gig economy" with "Can't I just pay a pleb for that?"

Try it and see if it ever fails. Then see how you feel about that.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:18 AM on October 11 [8 favorites]


If reform ever happens to fix the AirBnB problem, I really hope to retain the ability to rent apartments when traveling.

The whole Airbnb problem is widespread rental of apartments and other residential spaces, though. You talk about it being a great deal for you (and having spent the last two weeks looking for housing arrangements for an upcoming trip, I question how much of a deal it really is), but that's because the system is letting you ignore all the externalities involved. But those externalities don't go away - they just get borne by the community.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:29 AM on October 11 [9 favorites]


One of the things I really love about my condo building is that it features exactly this: the bylaws make it perfectly clear that it is absolutely forbidden to rent out any part of your space for less than three months at a go. We have 80% owner occupancy and the rest are very long term tenants.

It's a community of people who are make their homes here and give a shit about their own units, the shared space, and each other because we all have to deal with the effects we have on each other long term. I've been here just three months and I know most of my neighbours on our floor, and recognize others from the elevator. In a couple years I'm sure there will be some tight friendships. We look out for them, because they'll look out for us.

I know TFA isn't necessarily about AirBnB per-se, but the note about continuity is super relevant -- if everything is nearly anonymous and no one has anything invested beyond the moment of a transaction, how does the fabric of society not break down?
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:46 AM on October 11 [10 favorites]


Her main complaint or uncomfortableness in the article seems to be she doesn't fully appreciate what running a business renting out part of your home as a hotel involves - guests are paying customers and will have expectations as such.
posted by JonB at 10:05 AM on October 11 [2 favorites]


Portland (OR) has a "AirBnB" problem. There are regulations in place but it is kind of like gun laws in Mexico. It wouldn't be too hard to crack down but it would cost money and it seems to me that the public is sort of ambivalent about the whole thing. I think it is actually kind of corrosive to have rules but allow them to be flouted. AirBnB made a deal to locate an office here and they make a big deal out of how they actually talked to the city unlike the other "AirBnB" services. I guess that is worth something but to be honest listening to their communications director being interviewed about the problem I taste a little vomit.

The Auditor's Report

Articles about above: 1, 2, 3

What is hyper irritating is that our city has accessory dwelling unit zoning in which they waive the development charges (15k ish) as incentive. A lot of these units are used as AirBnBs in violation of rules, or not, depending; and now the city is planning on rezoning almost the entire city to allow many more small units of housing including multiple ADUs again waiving the development charges. As a fig leaf you have to sign a paper that says you won't use the ADU as an AirBnB if you are getting a waiver. The math of the penalty on paying back the development charge if you are caught means to me that any remotely atavistic AirBnB Hotelier is going to smile and sign and think the city a sucker, which it is. I don't oppose ADU development per se but I do think there tends to be an unjustified belief in laissez faire positivism and no one seems to work out what would be worst case outcomes and try to head them off.

Fundamentally I feel like the idea of AirBnB is not terrible but I do think it is now more about arbitrage between regulatory regimes than travel and exploration. To me this is essentially about cashing in an intangible, (and hard to describe,) public asset for private gain, both the app makers and the hoteliers.
posted by Pembquist at 10:08 AM on October 11 [1 favorite]


If I never hear the phrase "side hustle" again in my life it'll be too fucking soon.

I don't know how to frame what I'm thinking quite correctly, despite half an hour's revisions, but what keeps coming to mind is, we're trying to cash capitalism's checks, and they're bouncing, but we feel obligated to pretend they are not.

Airbnb succeeds partly because we have all become accustomed to travel as an experience widely available to the middle class, and this is unsustainable when both airfare and hotel costs are skyrocketing. It's the same with ridesharing. The promise was, you can get where you're going, Regular Person. Whether it's a train or a cab or owning a car. Hell, it's the same with jobs. Capitalism bounced the check and these gig economy services are all of us scrambling for payday loans to cover for it.

There's a snarky comment under the article about why can't the author just scrimp and save and do without (and Always, Always: stop going to cafes. What is it with sanctimonious frugal assholes and cafes?). And this is, quite frankly, stupid, because we all know $4 saved by brewing a coffee doesn't pay your $700 monthly insurance premium or your 50% rent increase.

BUT.

There's something to be said for shifting one's mind from, "I need these 4 side jobs to maintain my middle class veneer" to "holy shit, I'm not middle class, I'm fucking poor, and it's because those motherfuckers stole all my shit."

At the very least, constantly having to maintain a veneer of genteel prosperity that you do not really feel can only inhibit the connections we're talking about right? You can't get close, be honest -- then they'd see you paddling frantically beneath the surface. It could even make one a less-charitable reviewer in transactions, since a big part of that veneer is high standards and a certain amount of entitlement.

As long as we're all pretending we're middle class, we will never feel compelled to feel or demonstrate solidarity with the poor -- even though they are us.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:14 AM on October 11 [30 favorites]


That's a tremendous insight, faith, and I agree. The middle class has been vanishing for a couple decades, and the "gig" thing is it winding down to the last few ratchets above waking up and despite working 60 hours a week being unable to pay the bills.
posted by seanmpuckett at 10:35 AM on October 11


What's wrong with Foucault, by the way? I haven't read him since college, when I liked him a lot, but that was a long time ago.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:16 AM on October 11


> It seems that a lot of people truly prefer to have more transactional interactions and fewer peer-type interactions with others.

Well, yes, in this context. I've booked places with Air BnB or VRBO when traveling with my extended family, because we want to stay together in a house or apartment and not in a handful of hotel rooms. We're not visiting your city to make friends, and you're probably not interested in being our friend, either. And that's okay!
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:19 AM on October 11 [3 favorites]


You talk about it being a great deal for you (and having spent the last two weeks looking for housing arrangements for an upcoming trip, I question how much of a deal it really is)

Sorry, I don’t think I follow? The conference hotel room would be $279 USD per night (plus taxes and fees). The apartment I found on AirBnB is $91USD per night (plus taxes and fees). I enjoy more space, the ability to do laundry, and a kitchen so that I don’t have to eat all my meals at restaurants. It’s a fact that the $91/night place has a kitchen and that the $279/night place does not.

Yes, I acknowledge that there are hidden costs. It’s a problem. But what is the question about how much of a deal it is for the consumer?
posted by witchen at 12:40 PM on October 11 [1 favorite]


Yes, I acknowledge that there are hidden costs. It’s a problem. But what is the question about how much of a deal it is for the consumer?

Because with my search, I was finding that extended stay hotels (which provide the same amenities as an apartment stay) had competitive rates to the apartment rentals I was seeing in my search. (Not to mention that many of the apartments included in their "fees" a $90-100 "cleaning fee", which basically was adding another $10/night.)
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:59 PM on October 11


It's a shame that the most optimized rent-seeking behavior always takes over, because those true-blue stay-in-someone's-actual-home visits can be so nice. They beat hotels any day, and I'd gladly choose them even if they were the same rate.

I have fond memories of airbnbs in Milwaukee (they had the sweetest dog, described as "the least loyal dog ever," who loved guests as much as her own guardian even if she did have a habit of pushing the guest room door open at night whenever she felt like paying a visit), Virginia (the host couple invited me to join them for their amazing Indian dinners every night, and even calibrated their own food to my preferences), and Israel (in a family home, I stayed in one of the kids' rooms - and the elementary-aged kid had left a whole handmade "guidebook" for me that included a list of reasons why I had the best room in the house.)

These ratings, or other criteria for success (gorgeousness on instagram comes to mind) always start out as an imperfect measure of the desirability of an entity, but they gradually grow into a measure of just how well a rated entity plays the ratings game. This is apparent with universities, SEO, airbnbs, tourist destinations, whatever. We all lose.
posted by mosst at 1:12 PM on October 11 [2 favorites]


Because with my search, I was finding that extended stay hotels (which provide the same amenities as an apartment stay) had competitive rates to the apartment rentals I was seeing in my search. (Not to mention that many of the apartments included in their "fees" a $90-100 "cleaning fee", which basically was adding another $10/night.)

This is highly location-dependent.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 3:40 PM on October 11 [2 favorites]


Vancouver has decided to crack down on AirBnb, and it looks like it may be working. You now are only allowed to use AirBnb to list your primary residence (aka when you are out of town), you must have an individual business licence for each listing to do it, and the business licence number must be listed in the AirBnb posting. Fines for non-compliance are up to $1000/day. AirBnb agreed to cooperate. That, combined with the empty homes tax, may do something to put a couple more rental units on the market.

However, it took us ages and ages of watching the housing crisis get worse and worse to get here. Developers were renting out scores of brand new condos on AirBnb while they waited to sell them to investors who would have them sit empty. Candidates in the current municipal election are now talking seriously about zoning and development, but it took a crisis level situation to make it happen.
posted by lookoutbelow at 6:02 PM on October 11 [6 favorites]


> Vancouver has decided to crack down on AirBnb

That's great. I like the idea of Air BnB and similar companies and don't think it should up to the visitor to know if the place they're renting is legal.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:25 PM on October 12 [2 favorites]


That's great. I like the idea of Air BnB and similar companies and don't think it should up to the visitor to know if the place they're renting is legal.

The problem in the US is that Airbnb happily hides behind Section 230.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:00 PM on October 12


Fortunately only 2 of the top 10 airbnb cities are in the US - we Americans don't always have to be the leaders or the testing grounds of new regulatory approaches. In fact, maybe it'd be better if we weren't.
posted by mosst at 2:42 PM on October 12 [1 favorite]


What's wrong with Foucault, by the way? I haven't read him since college, when I liked him a lot, but that was a long time ago.

I recommend The Greeks and Greek Love, by British classics professor James Davidson. It's a long, witty, discursive, queer-centered and wildly entertaining rethinking of ancient Greek sexuality (and a million other subjects). He singles out Foucault and Kenneth Dover, two very different authors who together created a highly distorted picture focused on domination and sex that couldn't imagine that two men might actually, you know, love each other.

That's highly simplified, as I'm not that far into the book, but here's a taste comparing the two scholars:
While Dover itched to own up to a quasi- "nance," an almost-murder, Foucault was the "man of secrets" determined to bury the confessional project of the age of sexual "liberation," ostentatiously refusing to come out as a gay man and, with less ado, as a person with AIDS.
posted by msalt at 12:51 PM on October 30


'Ostentatiously' was exactly the right way for Foucault to refuse to come out. I mean, we're not talking about Lindsey Graham here.

Anyhow, the article is (weakly) gesturing towards Foucault's Discipline and Punish, and I can't figure out why people would have a problem with that, other than the weakness of the gesture.
posted by feral_goldfish at 3:11 PM on November 9


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