Airbnb has provoked people to reconsider the meaning of home

It was good fun to be interviewed by journalist Cristina Sáez Torres on my new book “Hospitality, Home and Life in the Platform Economies of Tourism”. Among other questions, Cristina asked me about the meaning of ‘Airbnb shame’, which some hosts and guests experience at times. We also spoke about the changing meaning of home in the Airbnb economy and the role that housework and care play in that. The article has been published in Catalan: Spanish: and the English translation can be found on the second half of each page:

“Airbnb has provoked people to reconsider the meaning of home”

During the last decade, tourist platforms such as Airbnb have gained significant popularity and at the same time, they have raised serious concerns about their impact on urban life, housing, and the formal accommodation sector. Postdoc researcher at UOC’s Faculty of Economics and Business Maartje Roelofsen started to study this type of platforms in 2014, when writing her doctoral thesis. Since then, she has been researching in the fields of tourism, geography, and planning.

In her last book, “Hospitality, Home and Life in the Platform Economies of Tourism”, she explores how digital platforms in the realm of tourism and hospitality have shaped social and material worlds and analyses the impacts of those platforms on the scale of the city, the home and the everyday life of individuals.


Why your interest in tourist platforms such as Airbnb?

I am interested in the platform’s impact on everyday life at home, and those living close to those Airbnb-ed homes. As an experienced guest, something that really struck me every time I stayed with people in their homes was: aside from money, what motivates people with relatively little experience in hospitality to offer up their private lives and intimate spaces to accommodate strangers? How does this new economy change the way they relate to their homes, how does it shape relations within the household and what implications does this have for domestic work? How is this work divided and are there any inequalities that drive these divisions of labor?

What was your aim when writing the book?

Rather than considering a platform as a “neutral” piece of software that simply derives commissions from establishing connections between hosts and guests, I wanted to know how a platform mediates, prioritizes, and disallows certain interactions. How does a San Francisco-based platform, which operates its business globally, understand ‘hospitality’ precisely and how does it value it? What does a platform (implicitly) expect people to do in their own homes? How do users respond to such digital mediation?

The book tries to answer these questions and it really tries to zoom in on the very intimate scale of everyday life. But it also extends beyond that intimate scale and shows how daily interactions in Airbnb-ed homes affect neighbors, neighborhoods, and entire cities.

The book is based on several years of extensive ethnographic work field and you chronicle your own experience being hosted.

A home is not merely a material house, it comes about through the social and emotional relations that take place in that space. It was important to me to show in my book how homes and hospitality in these platform economies are not just the result of a host’s efforts. Airbnb homes are also made through social interactions between hosts and guests, which are different every time a new booking is made. Even when hosts do not stay with their guests in the home, guests remain important agents in home-making efforts, how they relate to neighbors but also to domestic workers, property managers and others who are sometimes employed to do the work.

For my research the large majority of stays concerned staying with hosts in their usual homes. Recurring practices during these stays were negotiating the internal borders of the home; there were spaces that me or the host would not enter during the stay because we considered them the “ultimate” places for privacy and intimacy. For example, during the home-introduction-tour, hosts would rarely show me their bedrooms, this space remained firmly off-limits to me. Like me, some hosts admitted that they would stay in their bedrooms during a stay most of the time to avoid disrupting or being disrupted by the other.

Hosting travelers in private accommodation for money is nothing essentially new. It has existed for millennia. So, which are, in your opinion, the novel aspects platforms such as Airbnb offer?

The role of digital platforms in designing and providing software to scale these economies, to capitalize on them and to create monopolies, accruing huge amounts of venture capital and power in the process. Since its establishment in 2008, millions of people around the world have decided to make fundamental adaptations to their everyday lives and homes to accrue income through the platform. Some hosts who I speak to have been doing this for over a decade and have normalized this practice to such an extent that they have made their entire social lives, daily routines, and financial commitments like mortgages dependent on it.

It is also well-documented how the platform has been appropriated by actors who have nothing to do with the casual “home-sharing” rhetoric that has long underpinned the platform’s promotional machinery. Utilizing the platform, landlords, property management agencies and other professional actors have been able to convert long-term residential housing into touristic and short-term accommodation, allowing them to increase their profits and avoid any long-term legal obligation towards potential tenants who actually need housing in places where they work and live. Many governments have been complicit in this practice and for long have turned a blind eye to the platform’s expansion.

In this sense, you talk in the book about “Airbnb-friendly mortgages”.

Yes, they are promoted through the platform and the related banks. If you follow Airbnb’s social media accounts, you will find numerous posts that normalize the purchase of second or multiple homes to extract profits out of them. They can do so because homeownership has been normalized as a means for making income, promoted by governmental policies, and heavily promoted by the real estate industry.

For me, Airbnb was an interesting case study in that it provoked people to reconsider how they understood home and how they re-appropriated that space; even if they were not part of that economy many were still confronted with its effects.

You state that the platform redefines the meaning of ‘home’, both for the host and the guest, and link it to reputation and sharing economy.

In its very basic form, Airbnb turns homes into a commodity, also changing its use and meaning. It also raises expectations, for example, in relation to cleaning: Airbnb guests tend to expect a level of cleanliness and amenities that the hosts themselves do not usually have when guests are not there. This is not necessarily the case for platforms where money is not part of the exchange. For example, some Airbnb hosts whom I interviewed had hosting experience on Couchsurfing. When they hosted Couchsurfers they were not concerned with the provision of hotel-like cleanliness standards and focused more on the social aspects of hospitality.

In many instances, having a stranger in the house changes the social and emotional relations at home. Housemates, parents and children, they tend to have agreements about how they behave and interact with the guests, and which tasks they each carry out. People adapt their daily practices and interactions to make space for a guest and to give the guest a “pleasant” experience. Reputation and review systems play an important role in this. They work to nudge people to perform hospitable behavior according to certain standards, although it is not explicit at all what “hospitable behavior” really is, there is an enormous space for interpretation.

It’s a paradox: we don’t want an Airbnb apartment in our building, but we do stay at Airbnb accommodations when travelling abroad.

This ambivalence towards Airbnb is something I have encountered in my conversations with both Airbnb hosts and guests. There are almost no Airbnb hosts whom I have interviewed who are not aware of the negative impacts of this economy on the affordability and availability of housing in their cities. They also tell me that they sometimes feel embarrassed towards their neighbors about the impacts of their guests presence. Keep in mind, these are mostly hosts who rent out a room in their home or only occasionally rent out the home in which they live. They usually have some sense of responsibility towards the communities they live in and are not merely driven by financial gains.

Yet, they still choose to use the platform and pay commissions to Airbnb and (implicitly) contribute to its growth, despite available alternatives like the platform Fairbnb. Unless they are presented with new regulations by their (local) governments, they often think it is acceptable to continue offering their homes on the platform. To a lesser extent, I have spoken to Airbnb guests who feel “Airbnb-shame”. They sense that they are complicit in an economy that in some instances is paradoxically detrimental to their own and other livelihoods.

Airbnb has also given rise to countercultures, as you explain.

Yes, social groups who now prefer forms of touristic accommodation that are not based on extraction or monetary exchange. Or groups who have revalued the formal character and standardized offering of hotels and motels; where you simply check in and out without expected emotional investment and where there is less ambiguity about the spaces we can and cannot transgress. Examples of more ethical forms of tourism are many, yet it is also up to governments and media to emphasize and encourage these. Airbnb has partially become so big because it has received an enormous platform in the media over the years to promote its business. And it has leveraged its accrued power to lobby, to influence legislation to its advantage.

So, Airbnb ‘Belong anywhere’?

Home in the Airbnb economy is an aspiration or desire and is shaped by the practices by hosts and guests; oftentimes at the costs of the habitual practices that make people feel at home: to be (relatively) unrestrained in their interactions and movements. While that desire to be “at home” while travelling may be satisfied through Airbnb, it has unquestionably contributed to feelings of unhomeliness among “those residents who now, unwillingly, have to share their livelihoods [and neighbourhoods] with short-term visitors and tourists who usually contribute little to the long-lasting relationships and practices that are needed to create durable feelings of homeliness.”

In the book and in a recent study with colleague Kiley Goyette, I also provide a feminist critique of the idea that Airbnb is “new”, that somehow homes and household labour now suddenly have significance in the platform economy because they are paid for. This is a flawed idea. Homes, housework and care have always already been essential, productive and integral to paid work under capitalism, but they have historically been ideologically devalued.


Original source: