How Airbnb transformed our online use of travel accommodation booking into a a photogenic-based contest

How Airbnb's focus on photogenic accommodation listings transformed our use of the internet.

Figure 1: Screenshot of search results from the hashtag '#airbnb'. Screenshot taken by me.
Figure 1: Screenshot of search results from the hashtag ‘#airbnb’. Screenshot taken from Instagram.

The rise of photogenic vacation homes online

In recent years, it is common to see users’ posting and engaging with ‘#airbnb’ content of glamorous looking vacation homes on social media sites like Instagram and Pinterest. The users’ ability to experience living in such a luxurious looking home can be attributed to the business within the sharing economy, that offer such a service.

 

That is to say, everyday citizens are able to experience the luxuries of life at a fraction of the cost, as they do not have to ‘own’ the aforementioned home, but rent it out for a day. These individuals would most likely post and share photos from their recent experiences, thus the cycle of vacation photos online increases.

 

At the basis of this cultural act lies Airbnb, the revolutionary business that transformed the hospitality industry. Therefore, it is safe to say that Airbnb transformed the travel accommodation industry by commoditising the altruistic sharing values of the sharing economy, into a photogenic contest of vacation accommodations.

 

What is Airbnb?

Airbnb is a privately held company owned by five individuals, three of whom were its co-founders, in San Francisco, America (“Company Overview of Airbnb, Inc.”, 2018). Although it lists millions of accommodations across the world, it does not own any of its listed real estate.

 

Instead “hosts”–the people who own the accommodation, list their property on the website for “guests”–customers, to book.

 

Simply speaking, Airbnb is a digital platform that provides a peer-to-peer network (P2P) for users who are:
  1. looking for short-term holiday accommodation
  2. wanting to rent out their own accommodation (be it a full house or a spare bedroom)
  3. 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.

Figure 2: How AirBNB works. Screenshot taken from Airbnb.

 

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.

 

However, this cannot be further from the truth. Unlike Airbnb alternatives, as seen in Figure 3, hosts on Airbnb see this as a business opportunity and guests use the space for personal gain (Kaplan and Nadler, 2015, Oskam and Boswijk, 2016).

 

Figure 3: Airbnb’s media ecology map.

 

In order to unpack this topic, this essay will argue that:
  1. How Airbnb established itself within the sharing economy of accommodations
  2. Airbnb’s business model is built on trust from professional photographs
  3. How Airbnb formed a political economy that focuses on its photogenic accommodations
  4. The underlying affects of Airbnb rentals

 

What is the sharing economy?

A sharing economy is a form of collaborative consumption where people ‘share’ goods and services (Kaplan and Nadler, 2015; Sundararajan, 2011). However, ‘sharing’ here is more so a shared interest in crowd-based commoditising of typically expensive products such as cars or homes into objects of trade (Sundararajan, 2011).

 

As such, both parties engage in this ‘sharing’ as one receives monetary reimbursement while the other is able to utilise something they would have not been able to attain.

 

Figure 4: Photo of woman and child experiencing adventure. Photo by sasint. Pixabay License.

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.

 

Building on this use of the sharing economy. This essay will utilise John’s (2017) explanation of ‘sharing’ as a value, to analyse how Airbnb transformed the sharing economy of the travel accommodation industry by:
  • 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

Accomodation bookings have historically been similar to the linear model of communication (Cinque, 2010).

 

Back then, the only way to book holiday accommodation online would be through the websites of official businesses, which are listed as the ‘competitors’ in Figure 3 (Oskam and Boswijk, 2016). These websites only provided one-way communication of information from business to the user.

 

This form of communication reflected socio-political values of big businesses dictating what the ‘little people’–meaning everyday citizens, were able to book.

 

As such, when Airbnb introduced its P2P network, it completely transformed the way people could perform accommodation booking tasks online.

 

The previous linear business of accommodation booking now expanded into a new culture of multi-sided business between users around the world.  Now, users around the world achieved socio-political liberty from corporations by having the ability to be part of a sharing economy, independent of existing accommodation companies (Oskam and Boswijk, 2016).

 

At this point, Airbnb established a reputable site for the cultural act of ‘sharing’ accommodations. It commoditised the sharing values which John (2017) suggested, by creating a sharing economy of people who want to rent out their space and people looking for a space.

 

Figure 5: Photo of the Airbnb app in an accommodation. Photo by TeroVesalainen. Pixabay License.

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.

 

As Bell (2016) would explain, this was a start to a global redistribution of renting out travel accommodations. This was all made possible through the rise of context collapse–the way our digital social environments merged, and zero distance of tourism around the world (Papacharissi, 2010; Sears, 2016).

 

Thus forming a new social norm of networked publics for travel accommodation (Varnelis, 2008; Boyd, 2010)

 

With the increase user engagement with Airbnb, the types of accommodations listed has increasingly diverged from traditional forms. Now, it is not uncommon to see offerings from tree houses to ‘glamping’–glamorous camping, on its website.

 

However, popularising this newfound means of communication and market for niche accommodations only provided the foundation for Airbnb’s success. Its true transformative effect on our online media use today can be largely attributed to its focus on displaying professional photos of photogenic homes.

 

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.).

 

Figure 6: Screenshot of Airbnb’s professional photography service on its website. Screenshot taken from Airbnb.

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.

 

Conclusion

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.

Through Airbnb’s

  1. utilisation of context collapse and commoditisation of the sharing economy within P2P travel accommodations
  2. new business model that focuses on marketing photogenic images of accommodations
  3. establishment of a political economy from said business model
  4. 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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About Celine Chong 5 Articles
A penultimate student at the University of Sydney. Currently completing a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in digital cultures and design. I am passionate about empathising and understanding users and I hope to have a successful career as a user experience designer.

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