Algocult: Airbnb says "work from any home"

The platform is gentrifying space in new and exciting ways!

This newsletter is another edition in an ongoing series of short essays on algorithms and culture (“algocult”), the ways technology shapes our aesthetics. Did you know you can leave comments on Substack? I’d like to have discussions about this stuff; add a note at the bottom.

For a bunch of years now, I’ve been interested in the way that Airbnb provides an interface between digital and physical space, using an online, algorithmic platform to regulate our access to geography: a network of homes and apartments scattered across the world now open to its users. In 2016, I labeled the kind of frictionless geography that Airbnb creates “AirSpace,” a realm of generic minimalist furniture, instant coffeemakers, and strong wifi.

The pandemic initially looked like it might hurt Airbnb, which was marketed as a product for vacationers, replacing hotels. It laid off a quarter of its staff as revenue cratered. But the platform has found a new purpose: helping all of us non-essential remote workers work from (someone else’s) home. Today’s press release rebranded the company as a tool to make living through quarantine easier. Just look at this picturesque family in their multipurpose condo with mom still dressed up formally for her work Zoom:

(re: the homogenous style of AirSpace, that’s a pointy Joybird chair in the left corner, in front of a fiddle-leaf fig tree and a snake plant, and the file name identifies the space as a “loft” in Downtown Los Angeles. Look at those bent-plywood dining chairs!)

The release explains that Airbnb itself is going remote-forever: employees can plan to work from home for as long as they want, making it easier to make pandemic-era decisions like fleeing a city and buying a house in the countryside with schools that are open. But the company also predicts a larger wave of remote work. It already sees more people using Airbnb for longer-term stays (28+ days) in more rural locations:

— The volume of reviews by US guests mentioning “remote working” or “work remotely” since the start of the pandemic has nearly tripled from the same period last year.

— The pets are coming, too. The number of amenities searched using the “allow pets” filter jumped 90% compared to last year. 

And here’s where people are trying to stay:

— Stratton, Stowe and Windsor County in Vermont

— Portland and Western Maine

— Whitefish, Montana

— Summit County and Steamboat Springs in Colorado

— Shenandoah National Park in Virginia

— Utica, Saratoga Springs and the Adirondacks in New York

These are places where nature is abundant and perhaps a little farther from cities than the most popular vacation areas were last year. Hudson Valley and the Catskills were already booming, but Utica and the Adirondacks are more attractive for New Yorkers staying more than just a weekend — the drive has to be worth it. (Part of my family lives near Utica — I can’t say I thought it would become a destination any time soon. Just wait for the winter.)

In the past, Airbnb was a force of gentrification in cities, raising the prices and lowering housing stock in high-demand neighborhoods. Now, it’s accelerating the pandemic-era gentrification of the countryside. According to Redfin, prices of homes in rural areas went up 11% in July, a higher increase than in cities.

Airbnb cites “profound shifts in the way we live and work.” In the short-term, I think it’s more like changes in what lifestyles are most in demand. With indoor restaurants, cafes, and bars still closed for the foreseeable future, nature and space are looking a lot more appealing. When cities’ attractions open back up again (likely before offices do), then urban housing prices might speed back up. Instead of looking for a cabin in the woods, we’ll be searching for live/work lofts, like that family in the photo. Airbnb’s motto has always been “live like a local,” the message being that simply by renting an apartment you can roleplay an artist in Berlin. Now it’s “work from anywhere,” a much less fun prospect, which foregrounds the fact that real estate (not community, lifestyle, experiences, or “authenticity”) is Airbnb’s core product.

So this is a fun demonstration of the current lifestyle aspirations of the upper-middle class, who can afford to temporarily bail on their homes. But how does it fit in to the overall thesis of this newsletter, which is that algorithmic digital platforms are warping our experiences of culture and non-digital space? I think it’s that systems like Airbnb accelerate any change that’s happening and enable users to switch their consumption habits instantly — in this case, the consumption of space. City apartments are feeling cramped during quarantine; thanks to Airbnb, anyone who can afford it can just hop into a farmhouse or cabin that suits their taste. Internet-enabled mobility then changes the places that users are being connected to: suddenly, Utica gets gentrified faster. Lots of new listings are popping up as local homeowners realize the fresh demand and shape their properties to attract it, composing their interiors into glossy Airbnb photos.

The structure of the platform (how its data is organized, for example) also influences the way that we consume through it. When I was trying to book a cabin upstate with a group of friends earlier this summer (note: I am definitely part of the problem), I was reminded how terrible Airbnb’s search function has become. You can’t search keywords; only towns. It’s still hard to filter for things likes strong wifi. The platform wants you to pick a place, not be too choosy about a property, and get there as fast as possible. Now you might stay there for months.

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