Airbnb’s announcement of its new #branding struck the tech community on a lot of levels, not least of which were the many genitalia-related ways in which the logo can be interpreted. What I find most interesting in the new branding, however, is the way in which it articulates a logic of corporate nationhood very similar to that of Facebook—making the “companies as countries” ideology of Facebook into not just one social network’s ambition but into a genuine tech trend that raises interesting questions about the future of platforms.
Local v. National
Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky narrates Airbnb’s mission origin story in his blog post publicizing the new Airbnb. “We asked ourselves, ‘What is our mission?’ . . . For so long, people thought it was about renting houses. But really, we’re about home. . . . what makes this global community so special is that you can belong anywhere.” The advertised difference here is between renting a room—a transactional exchange in which money is exchanged for space—and participating in a community in which you belong simply by membership in Airbnb. This concept of belonging is described first as having insider access into a locale on your travels: the hidden discos, the off-the-beaten-path galleries. And insofar as a traveler seeks “authentic” entertainment, the inside information one gets through a local stay is valuable. “Belonging,” defined as “going where the locals go,” gives the Airbnb renter something unique, and thus makes business sense to advertise as a perk of the platform.
But what’s interesting about Airbnb’s announcement is that Airbnb is not content to stop with the idea of “belonging” as a stay that provides a bit more local access than a hotel. Rather, the real force of “belonging” for Airbnb is to belong not to a particular neighborhood but to Airbnb itself (via a “shared brand identity” that “cannot be separate from all of you”), which is imagined as a rich, welcoming nation that spans the world, complete with its own flag, to symbolize that the inhabitants of a house are allegiant to the culture of Airbnb. In this way it is not at all dissimilar to Facebook’s vision of the world as a set of interconnected nodes that Facebook hosts under its own, square “f” logo.
Best Western, the early hotel platform
Airbnb’s sense of the world as a set of connected spaces under its brand umbrella can also be seen as mirroring the way in which chains like Best Western franchised the Best Western brand to various independent hotels beginning in the 1950s, creating a global hotel network where each hotel is nonetheless independently run. However, Best Western’s corporate identity stops at the business level, seeking no particular emotional or moral commitment from either its guests or its franchisees. When you stay at a Best Western hotel, you don’t leave the hotel feeling pressure to fly the Best Western flag in your home or promote Best Western values in the world. Best Western and its guests have a business relationship: the guest pays to stay there, and when they leave, the relationship ends until the next time they need a hotel.
The value of staying in an Airbnb, according to Chesky, is not the space you rent in which to sleep but the emotional connections you forge with other people in the process. Renting becomes a technology of social and spiritual connection, not merely housing. “However we first entered this community, we all know that getting in isn’t a transaction. It’s a connection that can last a lifetime. That’s because the rewards you get aren’t just financial—they’re personal.”
Keep corporations weird?
As anyone who has used Airbnb before might feel, Chesky’s focus on the personal connection is a bit, well, weird. For one thing, many Airbnb rentals do not involve so much as a meeting between host and renter—this function is performed by the website, which allows the renter and host to arrange the transaction without having met (and often the purpose of the exchange is to allow the hosts to rent while they are away from the house, in turn helping pay for their own vacation). Chesky’s desire that the host and renter come to love one another on a personal level is thus rather emotionally demanding; but why? What does insisting on the intimacy between host and renter do for Airbnb? Why do they need us to join an Airbnb nation?
Airbnb’s insistence that we participate in their community for the love of Airbnb echoes Facebook’s insistence that we use Facebook not for efficient exchange of updates and photos but because we believe in Facebook and Facebook’s mission. Facebook, that is, wants us to belong to a “Facebook nation,” and it does so for a practical business reason: Facebook relies on the increasing exchange of data between users for its growth, but the platform does not compensate users financially for the exchange of their data. Thus, Facebook asks users to believe that by providing information to Facebook for free we are participating in a global, transcendent project of connection under Facebook’s roof, where our own personal and national boundaries gradually dissolve and we are finally one with (or at least fully known by) Facebook’s elaborate algorithmic machinery (and by extension, the billion other people seamlessly connected to that machinery). My early history of Facebook, The Boy Kings, examines this ideology in more detail.
Airbnb, similarly, wants us to overcome our suspicion of strangers (and crucially also any mistrust we might have of the Airbnb platform) in favor of the achievement of a personal connection with the platform and our fellow Airbnbers.
This focus on personal connection submerges some practical issues regarding the space being traded. For one, humans who have no real obligation to each other are, as the tragedy of the commons states, not necessarily going to assume mutual interests, and renting to strangers means a risk to property. But under the new logic of “sharing,” this becomes an opportunity to “trust” and thereby make things more personal.
What differs from Facebook in Airbnb’s focus on “trust” over financial exchange, however, is that Airbnb users are being compensated for their exchange of personal property, unlike on Facebook where the exchange of personal data is done without monetary compensation to users. The whole premise of Airbnb for most people I know is financial: it allows you to occupy space somewhere for slightly less money than a hotel, and the owner of the space can be compensated for allowing users to occupy it. Given that, for most, this is the real value proposition of Airbnb, Airbnb could, in another marketing universe, imagine itself as the Best Western of freelance house rentals and simply focus on being the most efficient and trusted place to transact rooms. But it could do all of this without relying on the users themselves adopting the nation of Airbnb, flying its national flag and posting its logo in their homes, committing to “sharing” and “connecting” (two words that are also foundational to Facebook’s mission) with renters rather than simply providing a comfortable space to sleep.
A Facebook for space?
Given all this, I am left with several questions after consuming Airbnb’s new #brand: will Facebook and Airbnb eventually become competing corporate “sharing” cultures—one based on sharing through the Facebook graph and the other based on sharing through the Airbnb space graph? Does Airbnb want to be the Facebook for physical space, and will Facebook and Airbnb eventually have a merger, given that their ambitions to become global sharing networks are so aligned? Airbnb has already replicated the social network profile aspect of Facebook as a means of promoting trusting social transactions; wouldn’t it make business sense to conjoin the networks completely?
And finally: with Airbnb on the ascendant, are corporate hotel chains like Best Western going to become the new, hip model of space-renting, in that you can stay at a Best Western for a night and just sleep, without the social networking imperative to develop deep personal attachments with the #brand, its philosophy, your hosts, and your fellow guests?
Kate Losse writes about the culture of technology and is the author of the 2012 memoir The Boy Kings, a book about her time working at Facebook.