Airbnb and Trust

July 16, 2014

I saw David Brooks’ June 30 column, The Evolution of Trust, several days after the New York Times published it. Hmmm, I wondered, trust evolves? And in which direction?

The first lined grabbed me. “I’m one of those people who thought Airbnb would never work.” As it happens, we’re Airbnb-ers, Ms. J, the daughter, and I. Months ago, after a hotel booking problem, Ms. J found herself needing a bed for two nights in San Francisco, on a not-so-small-but-this-is-SF budget. Enter Airbnb. Ms. J stayed in a deluxe Soma loft, with the owner, for two nights. Great stay. Pleasant company. Fair price.

So I took a look at Airbnb for the DC-NYC trip in May/June. New York places did not look wonderful, but I saw a very nice basement studio on Capitol Hill in DC. Owners lived upstairs with their two young daughters. Three nights, all in, with about 600 square feet, in a city where hotel rooms are often less than half as big. $475. True, beds needed to be made, but so what! Another great stay! (We also had a washer-dryer, full kitchen, etc.)

So what about the trust thing? Mr. Brooks notes the impact of the economy:  hotels are expensive, but people with extra space can also help make ends meet by renting out that space. He discusses liberal arts majors “with a hunger for travel and local contact, but without much money.” (That’s our daughter!)

Then, he focuses on the role of trust with respect to institutions and individuals, noting the breakdown of institutional trust, and the willingness to establish relationships with others which may be short-term and situational. I think he’s on the right track here, for I see it with that certain person in our family. I’m confident that she doesn’t have close personal relationships with her 1350 FB friends, and when I see her in action I see lots of interactions that seem qualitatively different from those I had when I was young. (Of course, I’m doing some speculating here, for who can remember much from “back then.”)

There must be some trust when you stay in a stranger’s home, with him or her, or when you let a stranger stay in your home. And vehicle sharing, lending tools, etc.—all noted by Mr. Brooks—also embody the same concept. (These enterprises provide vetting and review tools, so you’re not blindly connecting up.)

The trust thing shows up in other ways too. E-Bay exists because people trust one another, for it depended solely on its return and complaint department, it would not exist. We see more communal tables in restaurants than we did 20 years ago. Collaborative workspaces are hip. Etc.

In many ways we’re reverting to a bygone era, where people stayed in rooming houses with communal dinners, travel by stage coach was not uncommon, bartering occurred routinely, and communities came together on behalf of one another. For reasons I don’t understand, progress meant speed and isolation. Flying became the preferred travel method, despite the fact that, well, have you flown lately? Awful, just awful. Progress is a small hotel room, where you have privacy and contact with others means, with any luck, a decent casual conversation at the hotel bar.

So if Airbnb, E-Bay, the car sharing services, collaborative work spaces, and the like are the wave of the future, bring it on. Here’s one old-timer who like the notion of a future borne out of better times.

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