Airbnb and the importance of trust online

Trust is the most important currency of the online world. It is fundamental to everything from online transactions, to e-commerce, to social networking. This trust in the online world is crucial for modern life and enables much of the success and development of societal interaction.  

In the offline world, we are taught early on never to trust strangers, let alone talk to them. They pose unknown risk and threat. Conversely, online, strangers are invaluable. They curate and add invaluable content. We rely on strangers to create and supply cultural and societal touchstones. Nevertheless, technological innovations that depend upon the interactions between strangers are continually attacked and berated. Mistrust of the online world causes the media and others to make exaggerated, oversimplified statements that foster fear. This stifles some of the most promising web based innovations.

Recently, Airbnb, a platform for people to rent their homes to others, was subject to this phenomenon. During the Airbnb crisis, in which a woman rented out her house and was victim to extreme vandalism, headlines such as “Criminals Kill Airbnb” “Airbnb horror” and articles “exposing the explicit danger” of the service were widespread. The story even became known as #RansackGate and was trending on twitter.

Airbnb is culpable of not responding appropriately to the situation and maybe even for not having established sufficient safeguards. But the above statements are inflated and breed unnecessary fear. This type of outcry and exaggeration does not fairly evaluate the situation and risks the growth of revolutionary technologies that like any business model, requires trust in others.

Airbnb is a facet of a growing movement towards peer-to-peer asset sharing, one that I see as having exciting potential and application. It uses the Internet to enable collaborative consumption and is a paradigm of the “sharing economy.” This “sharing economy” is primarily founded upon basic trust in one’s peers, community, and in strangers. 

Services like Craigslist, CouchSurfing, and eBay, which are now respected in mainstream America, are similarly built around the idea that people are “fundamentally good.”  Many of us have not only rented out homes to strangers, but even share them with roommates found on Craigslist. In the long run, these services have actually helped to cultivate guidelines for online conduct.  

As the growth of online sharing platforms continues to progress with services like Airbnb and GetAround that collectivize property, trust in people is even more necessary. The Internet itself is a collectivized idea that often requires some basic common sense, but overall has laid the groundwork for modern innovations and benefits.

In response to the Airbnb ransacking, CEO Brian Chesky announced a much needed $50,000 guarantee. This serves as an insurance program for renters to protect them from any damage by guests.  Today I received yet another email from the company detailing the launch of its customer service and “Trust and Safety Center.” But, is $50,000 enough to overcome the fear mongering and exaggerated media response to this story? I certainly hope so since the success of the company depends on the strength and value of those who use it. Hopefully the few inevitable abuses of the system won’t be overblown and spoil it for all, jeopardizing the promise of peer-to-peer, Internet based services.

In the end, our fear and mistrust of new technology proves mostly unfounded. Social networking is not the demise of socializing. Craigslist is not a hosting site for corruption. And using Airbnb isn’t an invitation for looters to trash your home. We need appropriate precaution and must use common sense. In fact, as technology evolves, we will benefit from advanced safety measures and not vice versa.

To continue to use fear mongering and decry the dangers of the Internet each time something like this happens, will only stifle positive innovation and growth.  I hope no startup falls victim to public fear of technology, because few have the resources to recover like Airbnb.

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