The rise of photogenic vacation homes online
What is Airbnb?
looking for short-term holiday accommodation
wanting to rent out their own accommodation (be it a full house or a spare bedroom)
trying to plan out their holiday (offering experiences and food adventures in its recent updates)
Due to the vast features currently available on Airbnb, we will be focusing on the basic accommodation booking features it started with. Figure 2 explains this process in more detail.
A critique of Airbnb
Many individuals like (Zervas, Proserpio and Byers, 2018) often see Airbnb as a form of altruism within the sharing economy. Their examples mention hosts who just so happen to have a spare bedroom and guests who are looking for a cheap place to sleep at night while on vacation.
How Airbnb established itself within the sharing economy of accommodations
- Airbnb’s business model is built on trust from professional photographs
- How Airbnb formed a political economy that focuses on its photogenic accommodations
- The underlying affects of Airbnb rentals
What is the sharing economy?
Oskam and Boswijk (2016) explains that its rising popularity and profitability is largely due to the younger generation’s cultural value of seeking and sharing experiences, over ownership of the assets that allow for that experience. A common example of this cultural value is a young adult choosing to use Uber to hire a car, instead of buying a car.
aligning users with a common interest: hosts who want to earn money and guests who want to rent a space
dividing accommodations into: renting a bed or full home
How Airbnb established a sharing economy through P2P communication
As Kaplan and Nadler (2015) explains, Airbnb led the charge of a new economic group within the sharing economy, one were people acted as business.
Airbnb’s business model and culture
Airbnb’s business model is rather simple, it provides a well designed multi-sided marketplace and earns revenue through the booking fees of its users (“How Airbnb’s exponential business model works”, n.d.). The properties are managed and owned by the hosts and guests can pick and choose which properties they want to stay in and ‘live like a local‘.
However, what many business analysis of Airbnb forget to mention is the trust and decision-making of guests and hosts.
Instead, studies such as the one conducted by Zhang, Lee, Singh, and Srinivasan (2016), uncovers the real effect that professional photos of accommodations had on booking rates. In this study, they addressed the consumer culture of uncertainty around online bookings and security and safety issues arising from making a booking.
Airbnb identified that is order to be an economic success, the accommodation listings had to have professional looking photos. As such, they invested USD$5,000 into a camera and personally went to the listings to take professional photos themselves (“Airbnb: The Growth Studies you didn’t know”, n.d.).
Shortly after, they implemented a professional photography service. With this service, hosts could hire a professional photographer to capture the unique features and overall image of their listings and their business shot to success.
It instilled a culture that fully commoditised the value and appeal of photogenic images to attract customers. As such, we can see how Airbnb started to transform the perception of travel accommodation by utilising new media to capture the photogenic properties of its listings and commoditising on it.
This has since scaled into an established political economy which Airbnb currently operates in.
The photogenic contest and political economy of Airbnb
Through the beauty of context collapse, Airbnb has echoed the idea that photogenic accommodations sell across its multiple channels. As Figure 7 shows, Airbnb hosts are taught to engage customers by utilising the design principle of storytelling and photogenic aesthetics of its listing photos (Lidwell).
Figure 7: An instructional video on how to make a successful listing on Airbnb, posted on the Airbnb Youtube page.
As evident from Airbnb’s growth story to its current marketing approach, we can see how Airbnb’s photo-focused business started transforming online culture. At this stage, Airbnb started operating on a political economy that commoditised the ‘sharing’ economy of aesthetic accommodations and its photogenic properties.
The function of Airbnb’s political economy was to create aesthetically pleasing accommodations which varied in style and size to suit the mass market. This mass market need ranged from more affordable prices to more options during typically busy tourist events (Kaplan and Nadler, 2015).
In this political economy, Hosts produce the accommodations which are often aesthetically appealing. These accommodations are also highly marketed–thanks to context collapse, across social media sites in order to attain attention and boost its position in the Airbnb algorithm (Sheikh, et. al., 2003).
The main value proposition–the value a customer gets from the business (Tomitsch, et. al., 2018), of Airbnb is a glamorous accommodation at a fraction of the price of hotels.
Airbnb–as the digital platform, would then moderate the content of its website as hosts and guests are free to interact with one another on equal socio-political ground. It also owns and governs over the monetary trade of bookings.
Here its evident that Airbnb’s political economy transformed the ‘sharing’ value of the sharing economy, into an online marketplace for people to earn money and attain a place to stay. All of which is part of its functioning political economy.
The illegal culture of Airbnb
An over-focus of renting the most photogenic accommodations leads to what Zhang, et. al., (2016, p.17) describes as an established “neighbourhood image”. A good image leads to more rentals and vice versa.
This image goes far beyond booking rates on Airbnb, but translates to volatile housing prices and illegal rentals of ‘on-demand’ locations.
Unlike before, Airbnb’s new version of ‘people as a business’ means that they are not subject to the same regulations as hotels and other businesses. As such, Airbnb’s photogenic based political economy can sometimes lead to a neglect of local safety laws, despite its approaches to educating its users.
The topic of ownership in the case of legal issues and regulations has often been covered in news media.
Figure 8: A satirical explanation of Airbnb’s focus on photogenic accommodations over safety regulations.
As much as news media covers these concerns, the entire culture of aesthetics over functionality is unlikely to diverge. That is, unless Airbnb takes drastic measures to ensure its users follow laws and regulations. Due to the scope of this issue, it would be best to expand on the legal ramifications and housing issues caused by an increase in travel accommodation in another essay.
To summarise this critical analysis, Airbnb has transformed the travel accommodation industry through the commoditisation of altruistic sharing values in the sharing economy and utilised new media to form a photogenic contest of travel accommodations online.
- utilisation of context collapse and commoditisation of the sharing economy within P2P travel accommodations
- new business model that focuses on marketing photogenic images of accommodations
- establishment of a political economy from said business model
- lack of ownership over legal issues
we can see how Airbnb transformed our linear use of the internet to book an accommodation has transformed into a diverse marketplace where users can communicate, book various travel accommodations, run their own business.
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