Cult of Hospitality
Are Airbnb's hosts profit-driving "products" or part of a movement to help shrink the world? When 5,000 of them swarmed Paris on the eve of last year’s terrorist attacks, Jeff Sharlet found that despite the company’s evolution from scrappy start-up to hospitality giant, home-sharing still has a heart.
Part One: Hospitality in Four Frames
I was on my way to Paris to report on the Airbnb Open—a sort of coming-of-age party for the “home sharing” company that in five years went from making about $400 a week to being valued at $25.5 billion—when a friend sent me this Instagram snapshot of an ecstatic handwritten love letter. It was from another Open attendee, a Danish host by the alias Casita_Ullita.
“Dear Airbnb,” she wrote, “I see what everyone else doesn’t! I see how Airbnb—you—are revolutionizing the way we travel…” She’d written the letter on the eve of the Open, after a night on the town, “bedazzled by the splendor (or the wine and Ricard) of Paris.” It was, she noted, her second letter to the corporate object of her affections. Jeff Sharlet
My own trip to the Paris Open had not been shaping up so well. Not for want of promised excitement. Five thousand Airbnb believers from around the world had paid $300 entry, plus airfare, to come to Paris to celebrate what Brian Chesky, the company’s 35-year-old co-founder, explains is not just a way to turn real estate into extra cash, but a “movement,” “a new reality,” a stage in human evolution.
On the agenda: workshops like “How Airbnb Can Foster World Peace” and “Hosting for the Soul.” Morning runs through the “real” Paris, soundtracked by Spotify. Guided tours of rooftop apiaries. Underground graffiti excursions led by certified locals. And—the hook that reeled me in when my editor proposed a story on the culture of Airbnb—hundreds of dinners that would simultaneously unfold in Paris homes, a sparkling constellation of the “sharing economy,” glittering across the night.
But I’d be seeing none of that. The first email I found on my phone when I landed in Paris began, “The truth is, many of the workshops you selected are host only, meaning no press allowed.” Even my request to attend a workshop on how to fold towel animals had been denied. Instead, I would be guided by handlers between keynotes and an airless pressroom, sealed off from the rest of the Open, for a series of informational sessions with corporate “communicators” that could answer other journalists' questions about the company's business and legal matters (the hot topics for most reporters). In the days ahead I’d hear these communicators refer to hosts as “assets,” “inventory,” and “the product.” The product would not be available for interviews, except for hosts preselected by Airbnb, with whom I was to speak only under strict supervision.
They would smile at me and keep smiling and speak dreamily of Brian and Joe by first name, and their voices would drop and they would lean in when they told me of the valuation, that $25.5 billion figure, as if it was a secret they were sharing. They would emphasize the number of guests hosted by Airbnb hosts on peak nights—a million—as if this great mass was housed collectively, as if by renting out a room or a house they were part of something larger than themselves. They seemed hypnotized by a corporate spell, even if in reality, they're the ones keeping the Airbnb balloon from popping.
At least I had Casita_Ullita. Or did I? Her Instagram gallery consisted of 25 minimalist photographs dedicated to Airbnb, and many of her two dozen followers seemed to be publicists or bots. Was she a publicist too, engaging in some viral marketing? Was she a bot? Casita_Ullita wrote of “meaning” and “self-actualization.” She described Airbnb as a parent and herself as its child. She spoke of Airbnb “manifesting,” as if it was a spirit taking corporeal form, which, when you think about it, isn’t a bad metaphor for Airbnb’s business model, essentially an idea in search of hosts. Another word for such transmigration is “possession.” But Casita_Ullita—Airbnb?—preferred the term “disruption,” which is either the business cliché of our day or—if you believe in the idea enough to handwrite love letters to a corporate entity with which you wish to merge in more than the financial sense—the theology of our times, the spiritual ideal of the sharing economy. Jeff Sharlet
I made my way by taxi to the Airbnb flat I’d rented in the Marais, with a balcony overlooking the famous Rex theater. That’s when I met Bertino. He was not, technically, my host, since he wasn’t the owner of the apartment. Bertino worked for the owner, or housesat for him, or maybe was a neighbor. It wasn’t entirely clear because his English wasn’t much better than my French, but he was the person waiting when I arrived, rotund and swarthy in a tight, royal-blue V-neck, and wearing a lot of silver—on his ears, around his neck, his wrist, and on each ring finger. Custom-made, he told me, signaling to his twin rings. When he bought them they’d been just skulls, which is to say, no eyes. “I’m not, uh, comfortable with this, em…” He looked for the word. “Not-seeing. I am not comfortable with this not-seeing.” So he bought eyes. Two sapphires for one skull, two garnets for the other. Now the skulls see. I asked if I could take a snapshot. “Of course,” he said. Guests always want pictures. Once, he said—well, I think he said—a guest wanted a picture, and it was early in the morning by Bertino’s standards, so he was still in his robe, a dainty little pink thing. Did that stop him? It did not. He is a host! Or, caretaker, at least. He believes in the sharing economy.
This I took to be a sign: maybe Casita_Ullita wasn’t real, but Bertino was. Maybe Airbnb had closed its Open to me, but it couldn’t stop me from paying 135 euro for a night in an actual apartment that mostly, if not entirely, corresponded to the pictures online. It couldn’t stop me from taking my picture. “Share this,” I thought. I planned to, when I got home, on Instagram—another facet of the vast sharing economy. “Airbnb doesn’t commodify us,” a host would tell me two nights later. “We commodify ourselves.” I wasn’t sure what she meant. Cynicism? Resignation? A simple statement of fact? I wanted to follow up with her the next day—but then, as they say, everything changed. Jeff Sharlet
The second day of Open was November 13, 2015. That night, nine terrorists made six coordinated attacks around Paris, killing 130 and wounding 368. I call your attention to the time stamp halfway down: 12:27 am. Maria Rodriguez, an Airbnb flack, was the first to warn me of the attacks, and she stayed with me by text into the early hours of the morning. She shared what she could.
We’d gotten off to a rough start, Maria and I. After the opening keynote, a press handler corralled the media away from the hosts and into the pressroom. There, co-founder Brian gave a briefing—emphasis on brief. I wrote down: “People in the audience are the stars,” “our product,” and “what we actually offer are our hosts.” The same points he’d just made at the keynote. Then he walked out. A French reporter shouted, “What? No questions?”
“That’s it!” said Brian. I stood up to leave. Maria wanted me to stay for another corporate presentation about a new study on Airbnb’s economic impact on France—“study” being a generous term for unsourced data meant to demonstrate the unmitigated good of the company’s French operation. I decided to pass.I wanted to spend the time meeting the product—I mean, the hosts.
Maria looked pained. She’d really rather I stayed there. I said, I’d rather not. “I’m not going to make you stay in this room,” she said. She said this several times. I asked if she was telling me I wasn’t allowed out into the Open. Maria has one of those warm, earnest faces, except when she’s telling you—repeatedly—that she’s not saying you’re not allowed out of the room. Not not allowed, exactly, but… I asked three, maybe four times. Not-not. Not-not. But she didn’t get out of the way. Oh my God, I thought, I’m being abducted by Airbnb.
Things with Maria mostly smoothed out after that. At one point I mentioned that I’d encountered less restrictive press control in police states and cults. She asked me if I wanted a pastry. It felt not unlike staying in the home of somebody with whom you don’t share a language. You ask how to get to the train station and your host points to a toilet and you both smile. Hospitality.
I’m joking, of course, but then, that’s what these text messages really were. I was less than a stranger to Maria, I had become an antagonist, and yet, when it mattered most, she stayed on the line—rather than texting her actual loved ones back home. Yes, it’d be bad for business if a reporter got killed at your convention, but I don’t think that’s why Maria kept checking in. I think it was because she was being a good host. Not a product, but a human being.
Maria’s first text had arrived as I was sitting down for dinner at a sidewalk café with my friend Tanja Hollander, a fine-art photographer from Maine in town for the annual Paris Photo show. Soon, another text arrived. Sarah Khatry was with a group of Dartmouth College students I’d taken on a term abroad to Dublin that fall, and she’d used a break in classes to tour Paris on her own. “Hey!” she wrote. “You ok? I’m ok.” “She’s ok,” I told Tanja. Then Sarah texted: “I don’t even know if you’re in Paris now. But just letting you know. And asking.” “She’s not ok,” said Tanja.
Sarah was in a restaurant five blocks from one of the shooting scenes; we were on the rough edge of the triangle drawn by the terrorists. To get to Sarah, we walked through streets shuttering and shuttered, draining of life. We found her outside the restaurant in which she’d been hiding. The other patrons had fled, but Sarah had had no place to go, so four waiters had stayed with her, watching the news behind steel curtains. They were relieved when we arrived; hospitality is not easy in the midst of terrorism. I suggested we walk the mile back to my flat, so we set off down Rue de Rivoli, following a stream of sirens. We saw a man running in the other direction. Huh. He stopped, paused, turned, and charged toward us. Huh. Skinny guy, early '20s, dark, scruffy black beard. “Are you French?” he asked in a thick accent. Hard to know what the right answer might be.
He nodded. “Seven men!” he said, pointing in the direction in which we’d been walking. Seven men what? Seven men with—he mimed holding a gun, two hands, the international sign for assault rifle. Thank you, we said. He nodded, turned, and ran.
We ducked into the only bar we found open. The bartender plugged in our phones. There we waited for hours. Tanja Hollander
This is Tanja Hollander, Sarah Khatry, and me at my Airbnb flat the morning after the attacks. A state of emergency had been declared and the death toll had climbed. I don’t remember the numbers, the points at which the count paused—18, 80, 100—just the ticking. Somewhere during those hours I wrote Bertino, asking if we could stay an extra day—the police, Maria had informed us, were asking people to remain inside. Bertino wrote back, “All is ok with me.” Then the apartment’s owner returned at 10 am; he wanted us out. Tanja fumed. “That’s not fucking hospitality,” she said. It wasn’t. But it was his apartment, so we had to leave. After all, he just wanted to crawl into bed in his own place after the worst violence in his city since World War II. We negotiated an extra 45 minutes to pack up our things.
Before we left, Tanja insisted we sit for a portrait. Since 2011, Tanja’s been traveling the world making portraits like this one, of the 626 Facebook friends she had when she began the project and friends she makes along the way. Her project, and the question she poses to our digitalized social life, is called, “Are You Really My Friend?” The morning after the attacks, when she added this photograph to her project’s vast archive, the answer was yes, even if none of us could manage a smile.
Social media and the sharing economy repackage that which is human into a post, a square, 140 characters, a yik, a yak; a home made over as an Airbnb “listing.” “Belong anywhere,” says Airbnb. “The thing is,” Tanja said a while after she’d made this picture, after our host had dispatched us, “you don’t ‘belong anywhere.’” You belong in the places that are particularly yours, the house you built, the apartment you grew up in, a mountaintop or a meadow or a deli you love. Everywhere else you’re just visiting. It’s not always easy to welcome the stranger. It’s even more difficult to be one. The sharing economy wants you to believe you don’t have to be, which is a seductive idea, “revolutionizing” even, except that it hides the cost. Consider the Greek word for hospitality, philoxenia, not a term for the lodging industry but one that reminds us of our English-language hospitality’s roots: “a love of strangers.” The price of a world with no strangers is a life without true hospitality, without the real risks of sharing when it matters most. Ed Alcock / M.Y.O.P.
Part Two: You Are Disrupting Robots
Much of the first day of the Open was dedicated to retellings of Airbnb’s creation myth, a story of two art school grads, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, in San Francisco, in 2007, who needed to make rent. Their solution was itself a symptom of a gentrification-driven urban housing crisis that critics say Airbnb has exacerbated: they decided to rent out three air mattresses on their living room floor after a design conference sold out every hotel in the city. Depending on whom you ask, they made either $80 a night from each of three guests or $1,000 on the weekend. (Officially, Airbnb says they made $1,000.) Each guest got hand-drawn neighborhood maps, local tour guides, and a couple of new friends—so say Brian and Joe, as every host I met called them.
In 2008, they invited their roommate, Nathan Blecharczyk, to join them in launching the endeavor online. At first nobody wanted to invest. So they sold cereal—repackaged Cheerios and Cap’n Crunch, poured by hand into boxes labeled for the 2008 election as Obama-O’s and Cap'n McCain’s. Amazingly, it worked. They raised $30,000, and more funds followed from the start-up incubator Y-Combinator.
Airbnb appealed to “millennials” seeking “authentic” travel experiences—its first expansion beyond San Francisco was to Austin’s annual SXSW music and tech fest—but the company’s bigger advantage may have been the financial crisis of 2008. Taking in boarders is an old solution to hard times, and Airbnb turned financial necessity into a form of creativity. You could rent not just a room or a house but your particular vision of home, as lovely and nuanced as your photographic skills would allow.
Chesky and Gebbia’s start-up grew fast—very fast—transforming from a company with $600,000 in seed money in 2009, to $7.2 million in financing in 2010, to a $10 billion valuation in 2014, and more than twice that the following year. And that’s despite the fact that it operates in many cities in a legal gray zone.
This uncertainty should make Airbnb a shaky investment prospect, but as much as it represent the creativity of the individual, the company might also be a perfect symbol for the soft libertarianism of the sharing economy. The culture of Airbnb is based on the fiction of “peer-to-peer” networks, which imagine the transaction of home-sharing as occurring entirely between a homeowner and a renter. That ignores both the traditional third parties—your neighbors, your landlord, the city that provides services—and the new one, Airbnb. Short-term-rental laws were designed to take into consideration the interests of the old third parties, but Airbnb calls those concerns “20th century.” It conceives of itself as the avant-garde of a new force in the world. “So big,” declares Airbnb’s “crisis communications expert” Chris Lehane—a former Clinton operative known as a “master of disaster” for his damage-control talents—“that no army could ever really stop it.”
Airbnb's Global Growth, by Check-Ins:
Based on self-reported data from Airbnb. | Illustation by Mara Sofferin.
Perhaps. But an unlikely array of allies—city governments, housing activists, and the hotel industry—are trying to slow it down. In 2014, the New York State Attorney General issued a 39-page report, “Airbnb in the City,” that concluded that 72 percent of private, short-term Airbnb rentals were illegal, and 37 percent of revenues came from 6 percent of hosts—power users running what amounted to hotels, minus any regulation or taxes. One such host had “shared” 272 of his or her—the host is anonymous—“homes,” for a gross of $6.8 million and $800,000 in fees for the corporation.
This corner of the sharing economy operates more like a big box store than you might think. Consider a Barnes & Noble. Readers choose it over their local independent—or used to, before Amazon supplanted it—for its convenience, yes, but also for the veneer of choice. You went to Barnes & Noble because you could find anything, because you loved the idea of an infinite library—and then you bought Harry Potter. So it is with the sharing economy. The individual, the particular, is what gets you in the door, but inside, it’s mass market by another name. That’s true of how the money is made, and also of much of what’s really on offer—beyond the truly remarkable Airbnb possibilities, there is a vast supply of rooms and apartments as sterile as any motel.
This past December, Airbnb tried to fight back against New York's attorney general by releasing a giant New York City dataset of its own, although “releasing” is a relative term. According to technology news site The Verge, Airbnb made 170,000 lines of data available, but only on Airbnb laptops, which journalists could review upon request. Plus, the data was redacted. And even with all those measures, the conclusion of those who saw the data was that it largely confirmed the attorney general’s characterization. “A transparent ploy by Airnbnb to act like a good corporate citizen,” declared Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, “when it is anything but.”
That’s just New York. Paris, Airbnb’s most popular destination, has begun dispatching inspectors to units suspected of being “tourist apartments,” maintained for the sole purpose of renting—at the expense of affordable housing stock in the city center. (The Airbnb apartment in the 11th arrondissement I moved to the day after the attacks was just such a rental; at my host’s request I paid the second and third days of my stay off the books, in cash.) And while Airbnb’s political campaigns in Amsterdam and London have led to friendly legislation, Berlin and Barcelona have passed new laws aimed at curbing short-term rentals. Closer to Airbnb’s home base in San Francisco, Santa Monica last summer announced new regulations it said would shut down about 80 percent of Airbnb rentals. Officials cited jacked-up housing prices and an erosion of the city’s very sense of itself. In San Francisco, Airbnb won an expensive referendum fight, but not before angering librarians everywhere with passive-aggressive bus stop signs: “Dear Public Library System, We hope you use the $12 million in hotel taxes”—a relatively modest sum—“to keep the library open later. Love, Airbnb.”
Airbnb's Global Growth, by Country:
Data, self-reported by Airbnb, is based off the first time guests booked a home in each country on New Year's Eve—Airbnb's busiest night of the year. | Illustration by Mara Sofferin.
At Open, Brian set the tone with a morning keynote. Pacing the stage, making only intermittent eye contact with the audience, he told the crowd: “A lot of times we’re misunderstood. Sometimes we are even attacked.” This was a theme, returned to again and again. “They don’t understand us,” he said, referring to city governments and activists, yes, but in a larger sense, anybody who wasn’t a part of the revolution. When he spoke of their resistance, his features would compress in the center of his face, his heavy brows making a V. He told us what it felt like to be rejected by your own city, and of those who look upon Airbnb and its political consultants, and see not a movement but a lobbying campaign. “They’re gonna learn,” he cautioned.
That was angry Brian. He wanted to show us loving Brian. He took us back to the beginning, “the original three”—the guest-disciples, Catherine, Mike, and Amol, with whom Brian and Joe had discovered the power of sharing that “compresses a yearlong friendship into days.” That compression—that acceleration—was part of what “they” don’t understand. What looks to the world like a fairly straightforward business transaction is, to the anointed, almost a new kind of friendship, one freed of the constraints of time and space. To belong anywhere, Brian seemed to be saying, you could add belong anytime—now, tomorrow, “1,000 years ago.”
To Brian, hosting is “a job of the heart.” And do you know what doesn’t have a heart? Tech. “Tech is never disrupting,” he told us. It can’t be, without a heart, and that’s how you know that Airbnb is more than a platform, for it has a heart, many hearts—thousands, right there in the hall. “Machines,” Brian told the assembly of hearts, “cannot create belonging.” There were audible sighs in the audience. “They” worry that there is something robotic in Airbnb’s apparent standardization of human generosity. “They think robots are disrupting people!” cried Brian. “But actually”—I say unto you—“actually, you are disrupting robots.”
Later, Belinda Johnson, Airbnb's chief business affairs and legal officer, qualified Brian’s statement. “Airbnb,” she assured the crowd, “is about dialogue, not disruption,” a process of “winning hearts and changing minds.” That phrase, it should be noted, was made famous by Lyndon Johnson as the name of the “pacification” program pursued in Vietnam. The language was unfortunate; so too was the news that “more people used Airbnb than voted,” as “master of disaster” Chris Lehane joyously declared, speaking of Airbnb’s political victory in San Francisco. Not that Airbnb is against voting. Just the opposite. That’s why, Lehane explained, Airbnb is organizing 100 home-sharing rights political committees around the world, completely autonomous, just like the hosts who’ll comprise them, free to make their own choices, with the support, of course, of skilled political campaign staff.Moyan Brenn via Flickr
Part Three: You Can Go to Paris, But You Will be Sad
Even before the conference ended abruptly on November 13, there were glitches. The Wi-Fi at the Grande Halle didn’t work; when Joe projected his email address on the big screens and told the audience to email him, they shouted they couldn’t. Joe shrugged. And although most people enjoyed the Cirque du Soleil acrobats hired to perform, they were followed by a balancing act set to a soundtrack of either heavy breathing or a whale humming—you couldn’t really make it out over the tromp of the audience decamping from metal risers. Glitches. Maybe that’s what the attacks of Friday night were: glitches in the sharing economy.
Earlier that day, Airbnb presented the bestselling pop philosopher Alain de Botton. Staffers handed out copies of de Botton’s book The Art of Travel so enthusiastically, I felt like I was in a human game of Tetris. I dodged them for awhile, but they just kept coming. In the end I couldn’t avoid accepting a copy, and then another. DM if you want one. It’s a collector’s edition, actually, made just for Open, titled Airbnb Presents The New Art of Travel—emphasis mine—with a foreword by Brian that begins: “‘You can go to Paris,’ Alain once told me, but you will be sad.” What de Botton meant, Brian explains—what Airbnb means—is that absent an in, you will feel “out of place.”
As it happens, that’s what I love about traveling, even if it can be uncomfortable, lonely. Sometimes that’s how you learn to see. “Staying with an actual Parisian,” writes Brian, “can change your life in ways that touring the Louvre or seeing the Eiffel Tower never will.” Perhaps, but I’ve stayed in three Airbnb flats in Paris on two separate trips, and none has a thing on the Eiffel Tower when it comes to life changing. At each of the three flats, I saw pleasant, hipsterish, middle-class design. At the Eiffel Tower, I once watched for an hour as pickpockets worked the edges of a shell game hustle set up on a little folding table. I watched as bicycle cops tried to break the whole thing up, grabbing anybody with a dark complexion near them. Some they took away, some they let go, and soon the hustle began again, only now I knew enough to spot the women in on the game, whom the police had ignored. The “real” Paris, right before my eyes, if only I was alert enough—patting my wallet in my breast pocket to make sure I hadn’t become an unwilling participant in the scene—to realize that I didn’t quite belong, that travel is about being out of place, in the country of the unexpected. For better, and yes—the glitch, the horrible glitch of November 13—for worse.
A few hours before the attacks began, I found Casita_Ullita. I’d grown convinced that although she’d written in one of her letters she wanted to work for Airbnb, she must already be on the company payroll. Following the letters, she’d posted a picture of her and Chesky, with the caption: “First day of the #airbnbopen and I meet this delicious poptart!!” She’d added a winking emoji. The only comment was from Airbnb: “We love this shot!” The next two pictures were of Airbnb design elements. But then, late Friday, I tried her number again, and this time there was an answer: Ulla Risager, a 34-year-old Korean-Dane from Copenhagen who owns a tour company in South Korea.
I told Ulla I’d wanted to meet a true believer. “That’s me!” she answered. She said things like “Maybe I’m crazy, or maybe I have a big dream!” She sparkled when she spoke. She was in Paris, she said, at the personal invitation of Airbnb’s “head of global hospitality and strategy,” Chip Conley. She showed me an email she’d sent him: “Do you believe in fate?” she’d asked. “Yeah,” replied Conley, “I believe in fate.” She told me about a new Airbnb initiative called Magic Trips, as yet unannounced. “I don’t know if I can even reveal this!” she said. I felt like she was selling it. So finally I asked: Is this real? Or is it just marketing?
Ulla chuckled. “I’ll tell you something very personal,” she said. I waited for a corporate slogan made over in the first person. “Actually,” said Ulla, “I have borderline personality disorder.” Oh. Another glitch.
She said she had it under control, that with proper sleep she could contain her emotions, that the night she’d written those Instagram love letters to Airbnb she’d been traveling and then she’d gone out to a bar with strangers until 3 a.m. “When I’m really sleep deprived and having a good experience,” she said, “I think that’s what they call ‘high.’” She said she’d been high, not on any drugs, but on the vastness of her love for her company. Well, not her company. She didn’t work for Airbnb, but she wanted to. She desperately, desperately wanted to.
Her next picture on Instagram, posted a few hours later, was a screenshot, a message from the Airbnb guest renting her apartment back in Copenhagen: “Hi, apparently something is happening right now in Paris…”
After that, the account I thought was viral marketing became grief, contagious: photographs from the next day of candles and flowers and graffiti for Paris, and then, that Sunday, a picture at dusk of Place de la République, which had become a gathering site for vigils. “All of a sudden,” Ulla writes, “I hear people panicking, screaming in French and running and I hear what I thought was gunfire and we panic and start running when somebody yells ‘Get down, get down.’” The terror continues until a man opens a door to strangers—Ulla and half a dozen others —who hide and cry as the sirens whine and helicopters thump-thump-thump down close to the streets.
I remember that noise too, because about a mile away, from the balcony of a flat I’d moved to across from the Bataclan, I watched a mourning crowd bolt; I heard the sirens and the helicopters. I thought, I should close the windows, pull the curtains. Maybe I would have, if I hadn’t been at Open—if I hadn’t been thinking Airbnb’s hospitality was a con, if I hadn’t been wondering what hospitality, a love of strangers, really demands. I ran down five flights of winding stairs and threw open the big iron doors to the building’s courtyard and shouted, “Over here! Over here!” Seven strangers came. Airbnb hosts in Paris for the Airbnb Open. Ed Alcock / M.Y.O.P.
Late on the first day, Maria Rodriguez, evidently worried that preventing me from meeting hosts might actually result in a more critical story than allowing me to speak with some, introduced me to a pair of superhosts—the overachievers of Airbnb hosts, if you will—Erika and Mati. Erika and Mati were extra-superhosts, really, since they were deemed worthy to represent the brand as part of the official conference lineup; they’d be sharing their experiences at a workshop on using Airbnb to foster “global goodness.” I didn’t expect Erika and Mati to depart from Airbnb’s painfully scripted account of itself as a paradoxical blend of authenticity and relentless amiability.
But Airbnb had come to Mati Young, a graphic designer from Boise, Idaho, because of sorrow, complex and rich. She’d brought with her a book she’d published herself, about the man who’d inspired her to begin home-sharing. She said she’d give me the copy, but Chip Conley had signed it for her. She began flipping through the pages. “This is Lew,” she said, the neighbor who taught her what it meant to share a home. Lew was not what I expected: he was an old man, visibly eroding page by page in the pictures Mati had taken with her iPhone. Visibly dying. She paused on a page of him peeling back his lower lip to reveal a mouthful of ulcers. She paused on a page of him flipping the bird at the camera, next to a caption that began: “Fuck cancer.” She paused on a picture of his dead body. On a picture of the cardboard coffin in which he went into the incinerator for cremation. On the ash and bone that emerged. “This is Lew,” she repeated. This was the beginning, for Mati, of homesharing.
Lew willed her his home, and now she uses it (and two other properties) to provide below-market accommodations for guests seeking medical treatment at Boise’s major hospitals. There was the family from Seattle with a little girl, seven years old, not long to live. There was another little girl, Mati said, so impaired that Mati had to move all the furniture out of a room so she could play without any chance of harming herself. Even so, there was trouble; her father accidentally locked himself out and, realizing that his daughter was alone, broke a window to get back in. He wanted to pay for it, but Mati wouldn’t let him. “I would have done the same thing,” she told him.
Mati had brought to Open a sack of black walnut halves, the heart-shaped interiors painted pink and turquoise and purple. She gives her hearts away. But Mati’s a tough lady. The point of the heart is that it’s in a hard shell. She’s like that too. If it had been her on the wrong side of a window, I doubt she’d hesitate to smash it. She didn’t doubt that, either. That’s why she decided she’d pay for the window. It cost her $300.
Mati rents to several hundred guests a year, but she’s never done the math; if she’s losing money, she doesn’t want to know. What she wants is what she had with Lew. “When people come to your house to recover,” she said, “they’re very vulnerable. They have rented your door, and behind your door, all sorts of feelings are going to come out. So as a host, I have to be somewhat vulnerable to make them feel like, ‘Hey, I got your back.’”
Lew had no family. Just Mati, his neighbor. She sat with him every one of his last days. She’s no saint—Lew was a hoarder, and just like a proper Airbnb guest, she loved snooping. (She told me about a find so good she swore me to secrecy because, she says, one day she’s going to make its story into a movie.) But then Lew moved to the hospital, and she sat with him there, too, and held his hand. He was unconscious by then, but he’d given her instructions, steps he wanted taken after he died, and the one thing he wanted to help let go: somebody to hold his hand. She said, “I got your back, I know what to do.” He wouldn’t let go, so she didn’t either.
I thought of one of the design elements Airbnb had plastered over the Grande Halle, meant to suggest, I think, diversity—a disembodied black hand gripping a disembodied white one: an abstraction of what it really means to hold on to each other.
I’d hoped to see Mati again before the Open was over. Then, of course, the attacks. The day after, Mati texted; she wanted to make sure I was okay. She’d spent the night with two other hosts in the cellar of a restaurant a block away from one of the attacks, ushered down through a trap door by the restaurant’s owner. Mati’s not religious—she’d visibly recoiled when I’d asked her if faith shaped her work—but the other hosts were. So she held their hands and prayed.
When I saw Mati again on Monday night, I asked if I could take her picture. That she wasn’t as comfortable with. So I said, What about Lew? And she opened up her book, showing me what remained of his body. Bones and ashes, just like Paris after the Open. Radical sharing; no economy.
I went to Paris, and now I am sad, and for this—for the sorrow of the attacks, for the heaps of flowers and candles that spread like pools of light in color outside the Bataclan theater, for the sorrow Mati shared, for all of it—I’m grateful. It’s true that Airbnb commodifies generosity. Mati didn’t deny it. “We are a commodity,” she said, but she meant it literally, like fruit on a vine. “We can flourish or rot,” she said, and she meant that literally, too, because the truth of being alive is that we’ll do both; we will belong and be out of place, we will feel joy and sorrow, and, if we are lucky, we will find someone like Mati, who will hold on. Because while it’s true that Airbnb packages generosity and sells it, smoothes away the strangeness, replaces photos of bones with pictures of spotless houses, the generosity itself? That part is real.