How Airbnb is Making Us Rethink “Stranger Danger”

By: Alyssa Murphree, April 19, 2017

Earlier this afternoon while scrolling through my Facebook news feed, I came across a TED Talk that resonated with me on a personal level. The talk was given by one of the founders of Airbnb, Joe Gebbia, in February of 2016 and was called “How Airbnb Designs for Trust”. Having had a few experiences with Airbnb, I found the perspective of one of the founders to be interesting in terms of how the app originated and the challenges they encountered in generating trust between total strangers.

Airbnb is an app that allows homeowners to rent out their house/apartment, room, couch, or air mattress for short periods of time to travelers, and for travelers to arrange to stay in said house/apartment, room, couch, or air mattress. Staying in an Airbnb is typically much cheaper than hotels and allows you to socialize with your host and get a feel for what life is like in the area you are staying in. To find a place, you search by location and then use filters to narrow down your search by price, amenities, house rules, etc.

According to Gebbia, here was the company’s pitch to investors:

“We want to build a website where people publicly post pictures of their most intimate spaces, their bedrooms, the bathrooms — the kinds of rooms you usually keep closed when people come over. And then, over the Internet, they’re going to invite complete strangers to come sleep in their homes. It’s going to be huge!”

Anybody who knows me would believe that the concept of Airbnb would be my worst nightmare. They would be correct. I am independent as much as I am an introvert, so the concept of staying in somebody’s home where you can’t really keep to yourself was far out of my comfort zone. To date, I have stayed with three Airbnb hosts and I consider my Airbnb experiences to be some of my biggest moments of personal growth and belated teenage rebellion (sorry mom).

My first experience with Airbnb was on an existential crisis fueled whim last summer, when I ventured to New York City via Bolt Bus with no plan. I ended up winning a Broadway ticket lottery to see the musical ‘Fun Home’ for $35. I quickly opened Airbnb to search for an accommodation that would accept an instant booking and ended up making arrangements to stay in an Upper East Side apartment for $70. Fast forward to around 11 pm and I am standing at the stoop of an apartment building waiting to be buzzed in. I was either about to make a memory, or the biggest mistake of my life. Turns out, despite not being the fanciest place, it was quite comfortable and I was greeted by friendly faces. I did not know there would be other occupants upon my arrival, but I ended up chatting for a bit with the Chinese student in the bunk below me and the British student on the couch beside us. He was not there when I fell asleep so that part was quite weird. The only times I interacted with my host was when he let me in and when I left. Most of my socializing was between the other guests and I. Overall, a very mellow, non-traumatizing experience.

Since Fun Home was so great, I wanted to go see it one more time, as well as catch a music festival on Coney Island last Memorial Day. Back to the Airbnb app I went and I booked another $70 stay, but this time in the Financial District. What I did not know is that I would actually be sharing a room with my host, Jason, a 30-something year old data scientist who works on Wall Street, on a couch in his small studio apartment. Jason ended up being one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. He was intrigued by my studies as an equine major so we discussed that, and he showed me his guitars, the music he composed, and the software he uses for work along with an unnecessarily in depth explanation of the stock market. Once we started chatting about music and our favorites bands however, things really took a turn. We ended up watching music videos on his big screen TV until 1 am. This experience would probably be one of the greatest testimonials for Airbnb and what they stand for.

My last Airbnb adventure cost $25 and consisted of a futon in the living room of an apartment belonging to a hip young couple in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia, and what are probably the most well-socialized cats of all time. It was a quick in-and-out stay after seeing a concert at The Fillmore that night. I was given a key to get inside where the futon was made up and everybody else had gone to bed already. I didn’t sleep much that night due to the couple’s two overly affectionate cats. Every hour or so I would be woken up by the one kitten pouncing on my feet, snuggling into my arm, racing around the room, or sitting on my chest and staring at my face. Honestly? I didn’t mind any of this at all. Just writing this is making me miss those cats. Does a hotel have cuddly, attention seeking cats? Definitely not.

You may be wondering, “how is this safe?” “How can I trust any stranger enough to stay with them overnight?” Airbnb has many security features in place to ensure safety on both the host and traveler’s ends. Any Airbnb host can require their prospective guests to obtain “Verified IDs” before booking, meaning that they are required to scan a government-issued ID to verify their identity. When searching through the listings, you can also see which hosts are verified as well. Airbnb accounts can also be linked to peoples’ Facebook profiles so you can confirm that they are a real and legitimate person. You also have the ability to private message your host before booking.

The looming concept of “stranger danger” has been the company’s biggest obstacle on its path to success. In the TED Talk, Gebbia discusses one of the ways they’ve updated their app in order to instill trust in their users, which is by requiring user profiles so that members can learn about their hosts and guests ahead of time, and by establishing a rating and review system. While browsing for hosts for each of my trips, user reviews were a huge factor in making my selection, so I can attest to the importance of this feature.

“I’ve always believed that turning fear into fun is the gift of creativity,” said Gebbia. For the up and coming generation fixated on using technology as a means of making human connections, Airbnb is finding its footing and way to success by doing just that. When you design a form of trust between others via technology, anything is possible.

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