One of the most interesting things about so-called sharing economy companies is their mobilisation of users in defence of their political objectives. This is something which can prove uniquely urgent because of the sheer number of municipalities in which they operate, leaving them exposed to regulatory backlash particularly given their tendency to self-righteously disregard laws they see as antiquated. It’s easy to characterise these mobilisations as manipulative, but it’s important to recognise the self-interest and/or commitment of those who are mobilised in this way. Loc 4251 of The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, describes an Airbnb group in San Francisco which was (seemingly) entirely grass-roots:

Kwan decided to gather a group of hosts together to share information and navigate the emerging complexities of the so-called home-sharing economy. He announced the formation of his club on Craigslist and held the very first meeting of the Home Sharers of San Francisco in his living room in 2013. The group would eventually attract twenty-five hundred members. Seeking to avoid any conflicts of interest, Kwan decided the group would not allow Airbnb employees or city or state government workers to join. Kwan’s group got so large that eventually it had to start gathering in public libraries instead of living rooms. They shared hosting tips, talked about issues like insurance, and swapped stories of nightmare guests (always the most enjoyable discussion). Then things got serious. In the wake of Airbnb’s agreement to collect hotel taxes, the city’s board of supervisors was considering legalizing short-term rentals. The Home Sharers lobbied to keep the names and addresses of hosts private and to maximize the number of nights they could rent out their properties each year.

But the company also seeks to encourage these groups in a top-down fashion. I’m interested in the cultural resources deployed to this end, how the opportunity to participate in the great disruptive project is framed in a way which facilitates engagement by users. See for example the description on loc 4333-4347 of the Airbnb community festival:

The crowd stood and cheered repeatedly during the event, responding to rousing proclamations (“ You are truly revolutionaries!”), as if the speakers were blowing dog whistles. Occasionally the audience was yanked back to the other reality. “This generous idea is growing in Paris,” said Jean-François Martins, deputy mayor in charge of tourism, on the first morning. “But big ideas need some regulation to protect them from people who want to use it in a not very generous way.” Chris Lehane also appeared onstage and spoke to the gathered hosts as if they were infantry in the French marines. “We are going to have more fights and we are going to have more battles in the days, months, and years to come,” he said. “When this community is empowered to be a movement, we cannot be beat.”

From The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, loc 3490:

In January 2013, Chesky hired a new head of community who shared his devotion to the cause —Douglas Atkin, a former advertising agency executive who had written a 2005 book, The Culting of Brands: Turn Your Customers into True Believers, that drew business lessons from devotional sects like the Hare Krishnas. “The opportunity for creating cult brands has never been better,” Atkin wrote in the book’s epilogue. “Too many marketers have adopted a defensive attitude when actually they are on the brink of creating some of the most tenacious bonds between their brands and customers.” Atkin fervently believed that Airbnb wasn’t only a company but an ideology and a global movement that existed in a realm beyond provincial laws forged in a dramatically different age. One of Atkin’s first acts at Airbnb was to help start an independent group, called Peers, with the financial backing of Airbnb itself and a mission to support members of the sharing economy. Peers would hold meet-ups in cities where Airbnb and its fellow upstarts faced political hurdles and organize political actions to influence lawmakers. So Atkin’s advice to Chesky about the New York battle was clear —he wanted the company to stand up to Eric Schneiderman and fight.

This reflects a broader commitment that “the best tactic was simply to grow, harnessing the political influence of their user base to become too big to regulate” (loc 3582).

Reading this section in Brad Stone’s The Upstarts, it occurred to me this faith* displayed by the airbnb founders is an interesting example of what Nick Couldry describes as ‘the myth of us’. From loc 2171:

EJ had also raised fundamental questions about the safety of users on its site and Airbnb’s role as an arbiter between hosts and guests. Until that incident, Chesky had subscribed to the purist’s view of online marketplaces: Users were supposed to police one another by rating their experiences. Untrustworthy actors would be drummed off the platform by bad reviews, rejected by the web’s natural immune system. It was a libertarian view of the internet and had the whiff of Silicon Valley snake oil. The prospect of a negative review is of little use after a serious breach of etiquette —or a criminal act. But because of their shared faith in the power of self-policing marketplaces, Chesky and his colleagues hadn’t made serious investments in customer service or customer safety. The fact that Blecharczyk, as well as the company’s controller, Stanley Kong, had been put in charge of customer service at a company now with over 130 employees while the other founders looked for an executive to run the department was telling. “We viewed ourselves as a product and technology company, and customer support didn’t feel like product and tech,” Chesky says.

It is of course particularly easy to have faith in something when it’s making you a lot of money.

From The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, Loc 1519-1533:

In late 2009, a few months after it had graduated from YC, Airbnb appeared to create a mechanism that automatically sent an e-mail to anyone who posted a property for rent on Craigslist, even if that person had specified that he did not want to receive unsolicited messages. If the apartment was listed in, say, Santa Barbara, the e-mail would read: “Hey, I am e-mailing because you have one of the nicest listings on Craigslist in Santa Barbara and I want to recommend you feature it on one of the largest Santa Barbara housing sites on the Web, Airbnb. The site already has 3,000,000 page views a month.” All these e-mails were identical except for the city, and they typically emanated from a Gmail account bearing a female name. Dave Gooden, another online real estate entrepreneur, recognized the soaring popularity of Airbnb in 2010 and became curious about it. Suspecting what was going on, he posted a few dummy listings on Craigslist and then wrote a blog post in May 2011 about his findings, concluding that Airbnb had registered Gmail accounts en masse and set up a system to spam everyone who posted on Craigslist. He described Airbnb’s activity as a nefarious, “black-hat” operation. “Craigslist is one of the few sites at massive scale that are still easily gamed,” he wrote. “When you scale a black hat operation like this you could easily reach tens of thousands of highly targeted people per day.” 8

After so narrowly defeating the San Francisco ballot calling for restrictions on short term letting, Airbnb intend to step up their mobilisation of hosts and users to help defeat legislative obsticles to their expansion:

But when Airbnb’s executives look out at the world, they don’t see a fragmented puzzle of local politics and planning codes. They see Moscow, where Russians are renting out rooms on Airbnb as a means of surviving the country’s current recession. They see Havana, where Cubans were listing their homes in droves They see, as Lehane said to a room full of reporters over breakfast the morning after the election, a global network of guests and hosts that, if politically organized by and in favor of the company, could be enormously powerful.

And so organizing and training them is exactly what Airbnb plans to do, using its victory in San Francisco to unite Airbnb’s most passionate users into a series of clubs in cities around the world. The goal is to have created 100 of them by 2016. When election season rolls around that year, legions of customer advocates will be ready and waiting to come out against any group or individual who doesn’t wholeheartedly embrace Airbnb and what it stands for.

What I find particularly interesting about this is the role of vested interests on the part of many of the hosts. This begins to take on a rather feudal character when we consider that in some cases those being  mobilised are financially dependent on the income stream Airbnb opens up for them. 

There’s also an interesting observation in the article about the heterogenous policy climate that Airbnb, in common with many comparable platform companies, find themselves confronting on the municipal level. This results in a remarkably pronounced structural imperative to seek the harmonisation of regulation across the cities in which they operate:

While the company is headquartered in San Francisco and fought hard there, the company has property listings in 34,000 cities, each of which, according to global head of policy Chris Lehane, “has its own flavor.” The sheer variety of municipal legal codes has been repeatedly cited by Airbnb as the reason the company can’t create a customized product for each city depending on its laws. While cities like Philadelphia, Milan, Frankfurt and Amsterdam have, according to Lehane, embraced Airbnb and been willing to work with it on regulations, relations have been rockier elsewhere. Santa Monica cracked down on the company in the spring, and in October, Airbnb had to fight off regulations in Québec, the first of their kind in Canada.

This is another example of how corporate trends at the leading edge of digital capitalism intersect with a much longer term tendency towards post-democratic drift, one which is in many cases much further developed at the municipal level than at the national level. In essence: how well equipped are other local groups to resist the lobbying of platform providers and their mobilised user base? Are they less able to do so than they would have been previously?