2 agosto 2011

Middleman 2.0

Being an extension of everydays life, it is normal that online communities have their horror stories. Myspace was full of stalking cases; regarding Facebook I remember the case of a girl who posted an invitation to a party publicly and got her house overrun by a horde of teenagers--such a stereotypical college story that I can almost imagine one of them with the face of John Belushi leading the rest of the gang--but that's another story.

Anyway, airbnb.com made its encounter with the harsh reality of human affairs last month, when a host got back from a trip to find her house literally devastated by a guest (and, presumably, other people) who had booked a week-long stay through airbnb.com's services. It sucks, and all my solidarity goes to the poor woman who found her shelter violated and her property stolen or damaged. But, of course, this is just the beginning of the story.

Apparently airbnb initially dealt with the crisis very badly, first being slow at responding at the calls from its customer and after trying to play down the safety issues that the case had made prominent. The worst part is that, allegedly, in an e-mail exchange with the woman, the CEO of airbnb asked her to restrict access to her blog (the story had gone viral at that point) in order to prevent bad publicity to the website to spread further.

Now, airbnb's management seem to have recognized that «they screwed» badly, and are willing to offer financial support to the woman and start an insurance program aimed at shielding hosts from any kind of future problem like this. I don't know if this is going to be any effective for the poor woman, but at least reading on Facebook it seems that people (i.e. other users) are reacting well to it. Nonetheless, still I can't help with thinking how stupid airbnb's behaviour has been in all this story. For a company whose business depends on the fact that people actually trust each other, and whose medium of communication is the internet, that is, an open medium by definition, it denotes really poor thinking to try to stop a story from going viral by asking to the actual victim of the whole story not to exercise her right to call for attention to her misfortunes.

The second thought is at how poorly innovative all these startups are, who supposedly are the most innovative forms of business out there. They all look to me to be just a more refined form of middlesmanship, i.e. the guy who tries to intercepts backpackers at the train station and offers them to help with the search for lodging--which usually ends up to be some stingy pension just a block away from the train station. If airbnb's service relies upon both parties to trust each other, I guess that offering hosts an insurance program against damages to their properties is not going to create more trust among hosts and guests. If these websites are really «social» as they claim to be, they should rather try to solve these problems in a social way. In a country where neighborhoods organize themselves in reporting suspected criminal activity, it shouldn't be that difficult to implement a system that would let hosts create something similar for guarding each other's places when they are away. Such a mechanism, having a neighbor or somebody trusted knock at the door routinely to check if everything is OK, would have prevented this bad story from happening.

Of course designing new social interactions for your website is not the kind of thing you do to respond to a crisis. In the short term, money will fix this problem. But it is exactly to counter this kind of unpleasant event that social norms have evolved for. In a way or the other, airbnb will have to find a real solution to its trust issues.