Whether you are an avid traveler, occasional city-tripper or prefer a staycation, you are probably familiar with the peer-to-peer lodging platform Airbnb. As part of the ‘sharing-economy’, which focuses on sharing access to services and goods (Investopedia, 2020), Airbnb users can book a host’s home as an alternative to hotels and motels during their travels. Airbnb does not own these rental properties, but acts as an intermediary - a platform - between guests and hosts (Rawes & Lacoma, 2021).
As Airbnb has had a tremendous impact on both the travel industry and the housingmarket, this case study seeks to exemplify how the platform constructs a techno-utopian vision of the world by analyzing one of its most recent publications - the "Airbnb Report on Travel and Living" - and a tweet related to the "Live Anywhere" trend which plays a prominent role in the report. It will also consider the effectiveness of this discourse by analyzing its uptake.
Blurred lines between traveling and living
The Airbnb Report on Travel and Living was published in May 2021, and begins with the statement that a "new era in travel" has started. In the introduction it is argued how, as pandemic restrictions are gradually lifted, there is a shift taking place "from traveling at all the same times to all the same old places, to many of us living anywhere, at any time, for however long." (Airbnb, 2021, p.3). The company sees this as not just as a short-term response to a period of restrictions and social distancing. Their discourse seems to be an attempt to redefine what it means to travel and live in general: in Airbnb's ideal world these two activities "are one and the same." (Airbnb, 2021, p.3). Airbnb supports this claim with four main arguments:
- people can travel anytime as they increasingly work and learn remotely,
- they are traveling everywhere due to a decreased focus on the same (popular) destinations,
- their stays become longer and turn into living,
- and, finally, family travel has become the biggest driver behind the recovering travel industry post-pandemic.
Their discourse seems to be an attempt to redefine what it means to travel and live in general: in Airbnb's ideal world these two activities "are one and the same."
Throughout the report, Airbnb describes these trends through contrasting situations before the pandemic to situations after the pandemic. Take, for instance, the following quote:
"Before the pandemic, people weren’t limited in where they could travel. But for many decades, even centuries, they have been limited by the work week and school year in when they could travel. The pandemic reversed this for many, limiting where they could go but allowing them—through remote work and learning—to go anytime." (Airbnb, 2021, p.8)
The COVID-19 pandemic seems to be represented in the report not only as a period of crisis, but especially as a period of (predominantly positive) social change. Airbnb implies here that the technological changes which helped individuals adapt to life during a pandemic also form a core driver behind changes in living and traveling beyond the pandemic. This shift seems to be used to reinforce the technological-determinist assumption that technology forms the basis of society, shaping social and cultural phenomena (Chandler, 1995). Airbnb seems to treat the pandemic as a period in which a "technology-induced transformation of society" (Dickel & Schrape, 2017, p.48) took place on a large scale. In light of this, the company constructs and attempts to normalize a flexible lifestyle in which travel and living become interchangeable. The company discursively constructs a utopian vision of the world in which this new, nomadic lifestyle is seen as the ideal. For instance, workweeks and school years are seen as restrictive, while those who are able to work flexible hours, four-day workweeks or work remotely are seen as ‘fortunate’, as becomes clear from the quote below.
"But for many, travel has become newly prioritized right when work is changing to allow for more of it. Companies and governments are experimenting with flexible hours and four-day workweeks as well as remote working. For those fortunate enough to be able to work remotely, working from anywhere has become a viable lifestyle." (Airbnb, 2021, p.5)
Airbnb seems to treat the pandemic as a period in which a "technology-induced transformation of society" took place on a large scale.
This new, flexible worklife enabled by the 'right to work remotely' is seen as a crucial precondition for a new lifestyle, where life and travel fuse. Airbnb postions itself as the ultimate facilitator of this 'ideal' flexible lifestyle. This corresponds to one of the key tenets of techno-utopianism, an ideology according to which technological innovations are seen as the ultimate solutions to (structural) issues of inequality and access (Levina & Hasinoff, 2017). Although Airbnb explicitly mentions that there is no universal “shared future” (Airbnb, 2021, p.7), the report still argues that the world in its entirety will gradually reopen, and that more and more people will be able to work from anywhere, and in turn, be able to live anywhere. The growing number of individuals working remotely and living flexibly is described as an innovative process, with Airbnb leading the future of flexible living, and the rest of the world following its lead.
The Airbnb Effect
Of course, both the housing market and travel industry were heavily impacted by the pandemic, as many people have lost - or ran the risk to lose - their homes due to its economic impact (Rajagopal, n.d.). Airbnb positions itself as a solution to such problems, even though the company itself has a history of contributing to them. Airbnb has had a major impact on the housing market - often described as the 'Airbnb Effect'. The platform has, for instance, contributed to the gentrification of cities such as Amsterdam (van der Zee, 2016) and Barcelona, driving up their property prices, and reinforced touristification processes (Garay, Morales & Wilson, 2019). Airbnb does seem to acknowledge these issues in the report, however they position themselves as a sort of 'neutral' actor, merely reflecting changes in society through describing users' behavior on their platform. Even more, they seem to present the platform as a solution for the problem they helped create:
"People traveling to more places is a difference-maker for the travel industry’s health—making the industry more inclusive by lessening the burden on popular destinations and more broadly distributing the economic benefits of tourism. On Airbnb’s own platform in 2019, every 1,000 guest arrivals across a set of 30 destinations supported nine local jobs." (Airbnb, 2021, p.6)
The quote above illustrates how Airbnb not only views itself as the ultimate solution in meeting the demands for flexible living (and overtourism), it also positions itself as a driver of economic growth. The platform is presented in such a way that it conveniently corresponds tothe exact changes and trends described in the report. While the motive for this is not made explicit in the report, there is a clear business strategy underlying this discourse which is powerful precisely because it is so absent: discursively constructing this ideal flexible lifestyle, and therefore a new target audience of not just travelers, but of individuals who desire this flexible nomadic lifestyle, Airbnb seeks to maximize their profits in a time of less travel. This business strategy is disguised in a progressive techno-utopian discourse which describes the great social and economic benefits that make flexible living such an ideal lifestyle, while it is actually ideal because it is so profitable for them as a company.
There is a clear business strategy underlying this discourse which is powerful precisely because it is so absent.
'Live anywhere on Airbnb'
This techno-utopian discourse visible in the report is also communicated by Airbnb via other media such as Twitter. An example is one of their tweets postsed on June 9th 2020 (figure 1).
The tweet is about one of Airbnb's most recent campaigns ‘Live Anywhere’. For this campaign, individuals can apply to stay in Airbnb rentals for 10 months or longer, and have their accommodation costs and travel allowance covered by Airbnb itself. To do this, Twitter users can click the link attached to the tweet, which brings them to Airbnb’s official website. This tweet was posted during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which remote working became increasingly common for individuals across the globe (Mlitz, 2021). Furthermore, during a time when many were unable to travel due to safety restrictions, Airbnb offers a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’ that does open this door to travel for a selected number of applicants in the near future. In this tweet, Airbnb frames - in a quite salesy manner - flexible living as this unique chance which many people can only hope at least once in their lives.
Explicitly mentioned here is the target audience for this message: remote workers, empty nesters, digital nomads, and anyone else who is interested in living in Airbnb rentals for a longer period of time. Again, just as in the report, Airbnb creates a broad audience that consists of not just travellers, but of those who are interested in flexible living in general. This audience has new needs as well; The accessibility to homes is important, rather than having a permanent residence. In the report, Airbnb constructs one benefit for those who do prefer to stay in one place: economic benefits, but only for those who have a space available to host on Airbnb:
Homes are not just the travel of our time because of how they fill needs for guests—they are also the travel of our time because they provide an economic solution for hard-hit destinations and the people who live there. Hosting on Airbnb has met people’s financial needs at a crucial moment." (Airbnb, 2021, p. 19)
Further in the report, more indications are found as to whom belongs to their target audience for flexible living. Near the end of the report, it is mentioned that the majority of Airbnb Hosts are women (55%), and one third of their Hosts work either in healthcare, education or hospitality. According to the company, the travel and tourism industry plays an important role in supporting these hosts to make a living:
"The travel and tourism industry also has been one of the few industries to support a decent living primarily for women. The majority of Airbnb Hosts are women, (55%), in line with women in traditional hospitality (54%)" (Airbnb, 2021, p. 19)
Flexible living seems not only possible for those who are able to work remotely, but for virtually anyone who owns one - or multiple - vacant home(s) or room(s) which generate(s) a sufficient income to live on. Airbnb's ideal flexible lifestyle is thus an extremely privileged lifestyle which reinforces this privilege at the same time. The target audience seems to be more explicitly mentioned in the following quote:
"Travel is evolving from an activity that exists apart from day-to-day-life to an actual way of life. This shift may be starting with consumers who are privileged to be able to work remotely, but the rising popularity of homes means that through homes and hosting, post-pandemic travel is already off to a more distributed, more inclusive start." (Airbnb, 2021, p.19)
With the use of the words "more distributed" and "more inclusive", Airbnb seems to assume that access to homes is equally distributed, while glossing over the fact that there is a global issue of housing inequality, partly due to rising housing costs over the course of the pandemic (Crawford, 2021). This flexible lifestyle seems to be catered more to the guests than Airbnb Hosts, creating a power relation between these two groups in which guests are more privileged than the Hosts who depend on the platform to make a living. Still, in constructing the benefits for both groups, the company seems to only be concerned with generating profits from both guests and Hosts. Additionally, in the way Airbnb addresses an extensive audience of just about anyone who wants to live anywhere, they create the sense of universalism - which is very dominant in utopian discourse (Dickel & Schrape, 2017). In this specific case: a universal desire and future which everyone will eventually follow.
Airbnb seems to address an extensive audience of just about anyone who wants to live anywhere, creating the sense of universalism - which is very dominant in utopian discourse
Flexible living visualized
From a multimodal perspective, considering the image attached to Airbnb's is crucial in understanding how this flexible lifestyle is imagined; Two (white) individuals looking out of a window to an impressive view of nature. Clicking the link in the tweet leads to the official Airbnb website, where this image is used as a header at the top of the page. The way Airbnb uses this image as emblematic to their ‘Live Anywhere’ program is quite telling: it corresponds to Smith’s (2018, as cited in Smith, 2021) notion of promontory witness – a visual trope that, at least in contemporary visualizations of travel, concerns compositions in which individuals are portrayed as they view an impressive landscape from above. This type of composition of landscape-depiction has a long tradition, and can be linked to significations of possession that are deeply rooted in history. Such images usually portray an “uninhabited”, empty landscape as a sort of visual commodity, with one or more individuals in the image as its only consumers (Smith, 2021).
In the image from Airbnb, we see exactly that: two individuals looking out of a window, towards what seems like an uninterrupted view for miles. Such ‘semiotic silence’ is often used to communicate a certain exclusivity or status, and a sense of possession of such aestheticized views (Thurlow & Jaworski, 2010, as cited in Smith, 2021). In Figure 1, this sense of possession is reinforced with the sentence “make the world your home”.
‘Semiotic silence’ is often used to communicate exclusivity or status, and a sense of possession of aestheticized views.
Thus, this image reinforces the sort of privileged, ‘exclusive’ status of flexible living that already became apparent in both the report and the text of the tweet; Airbnb communicates this lifestyle as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’, while, simultaneously, aiming to normalize it
In order to avoid the fallacy of internalism (Thompson, 1990, as cited in Maly, 2021) - assuming that the meaning of the text is to be found only in the text itself - it is crucial to consider the uptake of Airbnb's discourse as well, especially when studying ideologies. In Ideology and algorithms, Maly (2021) refers to the concept of uptake as "(1) the fact that within the digital ecology users are not only consumers but also (re)producers of discourse, so-called prosumers; and (2) that algorithms and the interfaces of digital media play an important role in the dissemination and reproduction of ideas." (Maly, 2021, p. 3).
In this specific case, while Airbnb attempts to normalize their techno-utopian view of a world in which they facilitate the ideal ‘flexible living’ lifestyle that could provide so many social and economic benefits, it becomes clear that not many agree with this when looking at the uptake of Airbnb’s tweet in Figure 1.
Among the comments are numerous Twitter users expressing concern for their own financial situation, mainly as a result of not receiving a refund for cancelled bookings, or a lack of support for hosts for whom Airbnb provides a significant part of their income. Figure 2 shows a comment from a user who implies Airbnb does not seem to have its priorities straight. As Airbnb’s tweet seems mainly targeted towards the guests, the travelers, who make use of the platform, it becomes clear how much of their techno-utopian narrative regarding the flexible living lifestyle is constructed with the guests in mind, rather than the hosts. Figure 3 sheds some light on the guests point of view, mentioning how some Airbnb users end up having to pay a different price for their accommodations than was initially agreed upon.
The uptake of Airbnb's tweet illustrates how privileged this ideal flexible lifestyle actually is - only possible for a small group of intellectual labourers - and how non-universal its economic benefits actually are. Here, Airbnb is not positioned as a neutral platform which can realize social and economic benefits of flexible living, but rather as an unreliable company which reinforces already present socio-economic inequalities and cares first and foremosts about its own profit.
The uptake of Airbnb's tweet illustrates how privileged this ideal flexible lifestyle actually is - only possible for a small group of intellectual labourers - and how non-universal its economic benefits actually are.
The data in this case study illustrates how Airbnb attempts to redefine what it means to travel and live as being one and the same thing – captured in the concept of ‘flexible living’. This lifestyle, according to Airbnb, allows individuals to live anywhere in the world, whenever they want. How do they realize this lifestyle for themselves? The company provides a clear answer: simply booking Airbnb rentals is enough, as the platform caters to every need of this category of flexible travelers.
In other words, Airbnb views their own platform as the leading innovator towards the ideal flexible living lifestyle which the company praises for its social and economic benefits globally. This technological utopia in which the boundaries between living and traveling are blurred, made possible by booking through Airbnb, is actually a business strategy in disguise; The flexible lifestyle that Airbnb attempts to normalize – or perhaps sell – creates a new, larger, target audience, and in turn more possibilities for profit. This, however, is only accessible to a small, highly privileged group of individuals. Consequently, Airbnb’s utopian discourse reinforces the inequalities already present among Airbnb Hosts, especially in light of the pandemic.
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