A processual exploration of Airbnb

If how we see a place is a product of where we stand and what tools we use to look, Airbnb is an intriguing case for the Data Civics Observatory. Addie McGowan’s doctoral research explores the processes of Airbnb and how they reconfigure our sense of place, both online and off.

Airbnb is a popular peer-to-peer travel platform used by over 150 million people across 191 countries. Since its founding in 2007 it has been taken for granted as one of the most disruptive innovations of our time. However, Airbnb’s success has come, not from its genius alone, but rather its ability to develop and maintain its technical, social, and cultural system. 

A look into the sociotechnical history of Airbnb shows the work necessary to make people try the concept, use the platform, and produce enough listings to create new users. By considering its biography I identify an essential Airbnb process: it must make users, and those users must produce content and relationships with each other that strengthen the platform. In conversations with Airbnb hosts, I find that Airbnb must keep order in its massive, messy, social system by ensuring that users follow certain rules and guidelines when interacting with each other and creating content. It does this with a process I call user governance, done both by the design, censorship abilities, and automated rankings built into its platform and with the help of employees who work with users directly, keeping them using Airbnb successfully. 

My exploration of Airbnb’s technical platform finds it is made up of entities, like Homes and Experiences, and their associations with each other. At a global scale, this necessitates a massive data structure – the knowledge graph –  which powers Airbnb’s platform and connects its information in a readable way to the wider internet. To ensure its diverse parts work well together, the knowledge graph must engage in several platform processes: standardization, classification, and association making. These reshape user generated content like Homes and Experiences listings to uphold the goals and logics of the company. Both user governance and platform processes work together to power Airbnb’s final process of placemaking. Placemaking involves representing places on the platform in a way that creates them as desirable Airbnb travel destinations. Finally, as people travel with Airbnb, certain material adaptations to homes and communities around the world are required to make guests happy and come back to the platform, shaping physical places as well. 

In short, my work reveals how Airbnb makes users and governs them to use the platform in certain ways, shaping how Homes and Experiences and ultimately even places, both online and offline, are configured to meet Airbnb’s business goals. As other platforms like Google, Facebook, and Amazon continue to be the main providers of our digital connective infrastructure, it is increasingly important to develop an understanding of the processes, like these and others, that sustain them. Researching Airbnb provides an example of how to study platforms and identify these processes that endure through change. This contributes to a kind of ‘sociological platform literacy’ that informs the need to develop multifaceted, interdisciplinary approaches to digital research.

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Project lead

Addie McGowan

Addie McGowan

Postgraduate Research Fellow

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