Once upon a time, Airbnb’s
story of creation goes, thousands of designers from across the world were flocking
into the magical kingdom of San Francisco to attend the biennial conference of
the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design. Two local
designers, struggling to afford their rent, decided to supplement their income
by renting out three airbeds in their shared home to fellow conference
attendees. They designed a simple digital platform, offering fellow conference
attendees to round their little lives with a good night’s sleep on an airbed.
The rest, as we know, is the stuff of which dreams are made — a dream come
true. Our protagonists live happily ever after in cloud-capp’d tow’rs and
gorgeous palaces in San Francisco. The platform they constructed enables
millions to overcome barriers to entry, to ‘monetize
their extra space and showcase it to an audience of millions’, to share
hospitality with well-matched guests’.
But how do jurists
and legal theorists read and write Airbnb’s story? Do they narrate it as a
Cinderella story, the fairy-tale rise to power and glory of three drudges? Do
they recount the story of a rare and fantastic ‘unicorn’, a start-up company
that reached a $1 billion valuation? Do they retell the ballad of Robin Hood, a
heroic outlaw, who robbed the rich to give to the poor, a model of ingenuity,
altruism, and popular justice? Do they adopt the economic rhetoric of
competition, describing the relations between Airbnb and hotels, and between
Airbnb and states, as David-and-Goliath battles between stodgy giants and an
innovative newcomer? Do they warn Little Red Riding Hood against the Big Bad
Wolf? Or do they caution the three bears about Goldilocks, the gentrifier?
The first question
jurists and legal theorists debate is whether the conduct of the platform
provider, or the conduct enabled by the platform, is ‘lawful’ or ‘unlawful’
under ‘existing law’ (mostly, tax law, business licensing regulations, and planning
and zoning laws). The second bone of contention is the appropriate or most
effective legal response. If the conduct is unlawful, should more active enforcement
steps be taken? Should new regulations be introduced to support, assist, and
strengthen enforcement efforts? The third matter under debate is the
‘welcomeness’ of the developments in question. What should be the legal status
of the conduct engaged in by the company and by users? If it is considered
lawful, should it be made unlawful? If it is unlawful, should it be legalized?
Should recent developments be welcomed and accommodated?
The various participants in debates about Airbnb may take different positions, but, I would like to suggest, they nonetheless share common ground. What they disagree on forms a platform for exchange. And what is being debated is not Airbnb; it is its legal status. Framed as a question or, rather, a set of questions, the concept of ‘legality’ makes possible, grounds, underpins, and informs the discussion. It creates an opening for and welcomes disagreement, but also structures, orients, contains, and limits it.
deconstructing, looking back, inward, the interlocutors interrogate a ‘new
arrival’. They frame
the ‘foreign’ subject as
a question of law, calling its status into question. They submit it to investigation, assessing compliance
with principles, criteria, or conditions of hospitality. They determine its
status. The question of
hospitality remains unwelcomed, the generation of surplus value through the
assignment of value/meaning to ‘hospitality’ uninterrogated.
To problematize the valuation of hospitality, this blogpost examines the interplay between different dispositifs that, so to speak, value ‘hospitality’ – tourism, and also migration and citizenship. The economic discourse, as Teubner’s contribution to this symposium suggests, is not the only discourse that reproduces, transforms and authorises itself by generating surplus value. All discourses do, self-referentially, by imbuing terms with meaning. Various discourses, in other words, value ‘hospitality’ differently, but their internal processes of valuation make use other discourse’s processes of hospitality valuation as material for construction. The economic discourse on hospitality, in other words, indirectly influences political discussions about hospitality, but it is also, indirectly, ‘(in)formed’ by these.
In recent years, a growing body of literature has been discerning and critiquing the commodification, marketization, and neoliberalization of migration and citizenship – the so-called ‘politics of belonging’. This blogpost focuses on not only the indirect effects of economic discourses on political exchanges, but also the indirect effects of the politics of belonging on the economic valuation of hospitality. It illustrates this relationship of structural coupling by investigating how Airbnb generates surplus values by imbuing the term ‘hospitality’ with meaning/value.
Open to the public
since 2007, Airbnb is an ‘online marketplace’ that enables registered ‘hosts’
to publish ‘listings’ on the platform and to communicate and transact directly
with registered ‘guests’, as stipulated in section 1 of Airbnb’s Terms of Service. And, indeed, in
early years, the company presented Airbnb as a platform for short-term renting,
emphasizing the economic benefits of hosting. Users were invited to ‘monetize’ extra space and generate
supplementary income. The term ‘hospitality’ was used namely to denote ‘what’s expected of hosts’, the
‘basic requirements’ they must
meet. For example, hosts are expected to be responsive, avoid cancelling on
guests, and maintain cleanliness.
Through the years,
however, the platform has been self-constituting itself as a political
platform for promoting ‘hospitality’ and ‘belonging’. And it is, I suggest,
the iterative construction of these terms, their imbuing with meaning/value,
that engines this process.
Since at least
2012, section 14 of the Terms
has prohibited inhospitality in the form of discrimination and harassment. Pursuant
to section 15, the company
can decide unilaterally that the provision has been breached and may impose a
variety of sanctions, including ‘excommunication’
– termination of its agreement with the user and removal from the platform.
In 2014, the ‘entire Airbnb experience’
was redesigned to ‘better
reflect’ what Airbnb ‘really’
is and is ‘really’
about. The transformation of Airbnb into ‘something bigger and more meaningful
than we ever imagined’, the company’s co-founders explained, made them
realize that ‘the Airbnb community has outgrown the original Airbnb brand’. The
way Airbnb had been represented to the world had not ‘fully captured’ what made
the platform ‘a little different and special’. Airbnb is ‘really’ a community
‘united by the universal,
powerful, human desire to connect, to understand, and to belong’ – ‘the desire to feel welcomed,
respected, and appreciated for who you are, no matter where you might be’.
And Airbnb is ‘really’
about promoting a ‘shared
vision of belonging’ and ‘creating
a world where everyone can belong’.
Two years later, in June 2016, the company initiated a ‘comprehensive review’ of its platform to help ensure that it is doing ‘everything [it] can to fight bias and discrimination’. The following September, a series of policy and product changes was announced, including a new Anti-Discrimination Policy. The Policy declares ‘inclusion’ and ‘respect’ as the community’s ‘foundational principles’. All members of the community, including all Airbnb representatives, agree to do ‘everything’ they can ‘to help eliminate all forms of unlawful bias, discrimination, and intolerance’ from the platform. In addition, use of the platform was made conditional on acceptance of a ‘Community Commitment’ to ‘treat everyone in the Airbnb Community – regardless of their race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or age – with respect, and without judgement or bias’. More than one million users who declined the Commitment have been denied the ability to use Airbnb.
have mostly followed accusations of discriminatory behaviour on
Airbnb’s platform and increased
media scrutiny. A 2015 study
conducted by researchers at the Harvard Business School revealed widespread
discrimination against Airbnb guests with distinctly African-American names,
further finding that Airbnb’s design choices facilitated discrimination. In
of users took to social media to
share (with the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack) their
negative experiences and to report the discriminatory conduct of other Airbnb
users. One of
them, Gregory Selden, later filed a putative
class action suit against Airbnb Inc under the Civil Rights Act
and the Fair Housing Act, though Airbnb’s motion to compel arbitration and stay
litigation was granted.
Until late 2016, the focus on discriminatory conduct by users
against other users – the being-in question of discriminatory behaviour on
Airbnb’s platform – has framed and (in)formed the construction of terms such as
‘belonging’, ‘inclusion’, ‘respect’, and ‘hospitality’, as well as the service
provider’s powers and obligations. The US perspective
of the company has further affected processes of meaning/value generation. The
conceptual framework of US antidiscrimination law was not only translated into
the ‘language of Airbnb’, but also used to distinguish the platform and
persuade us of its ‘added value’. Changes introduced by the service were
celebrated for holding ‘community members’, as well as Airbnb representatives,
standard that goes above and beyond what is required by [US] law’.
Terms such as
‘belonging’, ‘inclusion’, ‘respect’, and ‘hospitality’ are, however, less and
less cited to
evaluate behaviour on the platform or to determine the scope of the company’s
responsibility to prevent and sanction ‘inhospitable’ user conduct.
Since 2017, the
service provider has been invoking its ‘commitment’ to promoting ‘belonging’ to
oppose the imposition of political borders, legal barriers and conditions to
entry, and travel restrictions, primarily by the US government. ‘Airbnb’s
purpose is to make it possible for anyone to belong anywhere’, the company reiterates,
and at its core is the belief ‘that you should be able to travel to, and live
in any community around the world, regardless of your race, religion or
ethnicity – that the power to travel makes us all better’. ‘[B]elonging is
fundamental to supporting community’ and ‘the freedom of travel foundational to
advancing the human condition.’ To restrict travel
is to limit human potential. In addition to supporting various IGOs and
NGOs and using its website to raise donations,
the company launched its Open
Homes program, inviting and assisting members to host (for free) refugees, asylum
seekers, and people in need of emergency housing.
Following the issuance of Executive Order 13769 (the ‘Immigration Ban’), it announced
that it would provide free housing to refugees and anyone recently barred from
entering the United States. In February 2017, together with 96 other companies,
it filed an amicus
brief in State
of Washington and State of Minnesota v Trump, 847 F3d 1151 (9th Cir 2017),
challenging the validity of the Executive Order. In November 2017, it filed an
amicus brief in Trump v
Hawaii 585 US ___ (2018), unsuccessfully challenging the
constitutionality of Presidential Proclamation 9645. In April 2019, it declared
its support of the National Origin-Based Antidiscrimination for Nonimmigrants
(NO BAN) Act and, in January 2020, it issued a public
announcement opposing the expansion of travel restrictions.
At the same time
as the ‘commitment’ to belonging has been invoked to advocate for unconditional hospitality
and the dismantling of political barriers to entry, it has also been deployed
to demonstrate that Airbnb values, strengthens and empowers localism. Especially
since 2016, the commitment has been cited in response to claims that the
platform facilitates gentrification,
fragments communities, and upends
local markets. Construing it as including a commitment to lowering barriers
to entry, supporting ‘greater
economic and social empowerment’, and promoting economic
participation, the company has been highlighting the empowering
potential of the platform, its positive
impact on local markets and communities, and its continuous efforts to live
up to its mission. An ‘economic empowerment engine’, the About Us page today declares,
Airbnb ‘help[s] millions of hospitality entrepreneurs monetize their spaces and
their passions while keeping the financial benefits of tourism in their own
this blogpost has argued by illustrating, self-reproduces, transforms, and
authorizes itself by iteratively generating surplus value, and this is done by
imbuing ‘hospitality’ with value, meaning. Its political discourse deploys
hospitality and so does its economic discourse. Each values hospitality
differently, but uses the other’s processes of valuation as material for
surplus meaning generation. To value hospitality, furthermore, is to pose it as
a political and economic question, as what needs to be assessed and determined.
It is, finally, to simultaneously include and exclude, open up and