Airbnb’s algorithmic telling off

being told off by airbnb

Its kind of weird being told off by Airbnb.

I’ve always been pretty good with Airbnb but recently I had a volleyball derby match which went on way past its set time due to a thrilling end after 5 sets. Plus it was the last match of the year. This meant turning up late, although I did warn this might happen.

Then I had to cancel for the first time on guest who was due to be arrive at 0130am. I did say originally I couldn’t do it but decided since I wasn’t going to Sheffield Docfest anymore it would be possible. So I accepted the request to find out a week later, I would be going to Edinburgh for the DIS 2017 conference.

So I had to cancel for the first time in 2+ years… but it didn’t take long for Airbnb’s algorithm to kick in and tell me what a bad person I am and how my account will be suspended!

Anything but perfection is unacceptable according to Airbnb it seems?

Airbnb hosting standards

Of course it doesn’t really matter too much to me, as I don’t care so much about being a superhost but what I don’t like is being told off by Airbnb for canceling on a guest who to be fair was asking a lot at the start and for the 1st time since I started hosting over 2 years ago.

I wonder what a decentralised airbnb would look like with a federated trust system?

Rating people, reciprocity and more…

Black MIrror s3ep1

I also like Doc Searls have a problem with rating people.

I’ve hated rating people ever since I first encountered the practice. That was where everybody else does too: in school.

After all, rating people is what schools do, with tests and teachers’ evaluations. They do it because they need to sort students into castes. What’s school without a bell curve?

As John Taylor Gatto put it in the Seven Lesson Schoolteacher, the job of the educator in our industrialized education system is to teach these things, regardless of curricular aspirations or outcomes:

  1. confusion
  2. class position
  3. indifference
  4. emotional dependency
  5. intellectual dependency
  6. provisional self-esteem
  7. that you can’t hide

It’s no different in machine-run “social sharing” systems such as we get from Uber, Lyft and Airbnb. In all those systems we are asked to rate the people who share their cars and homes, and they are asked to rate us. The hidden agenda behind this practice is the same as the one Gatto describes above.

I use Uber now and then especilaly when outside of Manchester for work. I also have used Airbnb and of course host on Airbnb. I’m under no illusion how the rating system influences peoples opnions and behaviour too. Its meant to weed out bad behaviour but always seems to cause unintended consequences. I’m sure the people behind the scence have good intentions but fail to think about the law of unintended consequences.

To be clear I don’t have a problem with rating a piece of media or something non-human, for example I rate most of the media I watch. But rating a person feels a little hostile/weird. As the Black Mirror episode nosedive (s3ep1) clearly demostrates to great effect.

Recently I have been in a few Uber’s for other people (not sharing the fee) and its been interesting to see how people have rated each other. More interestingly is the social contract/mulipulation which spring into action. It starts with the driver stopping the journey and saying “I’m going to rate you 5 stars.” My friend then turns around and says they will do the same, and does. This is classic Law of Reciprocity as described in Influence.

As I tend to think about these things too much, I also find the loop holes in the system equally interesting.

On my holiday to Iceland, the host(s) moved me to another room and I went along with it because I was fed some line about helping them out. But actually there was something dodgy going on, as I met the Airbnb which was moving into my room I had booked.

I was peed off but not quite enough to want seek a refund, I wanted other people to be aware of this and my review explained exactly what happened.  Also brought this up with the hosts the day of this happening and private messaged them through Airbnb. My rating was fair I felt because it was unfair to lie to me about their motives, especially when I’d be very open with them. No rating system could really capture this.

The system is your review goes live once the other person also writes a review. Part of the review is rating out of 5 stars which is the bit which bugs me, because boiling down everything to 5 starts seems too simple.

Generally I only rub sholders with this stuff every once in a while. For example my Uber rating is 4.92 out 5 (partly because I don’t use Uber that much and treat the drivers like people not drivers, I talk to all the taxi drivers regardless). I’m also a superhost on Airbnb because I don’t take a lot of people and very careful who I host at my own place.

Due to these ratings I get a skewed view on each of these system. On uber I only get uber drivers which are rated 4.5 upwards (I hadn’t noticed till one of the drivers pointed it out to me a while ago). With Airbnb I have the luxury of being stricter with who I accept, partly because I don’t need to have guests all the time. However as a guest myself, things are different. Here are my 3 guest experiences

  1. (Japan) was so bad I stayed for 30mins and complained to Airbnb, getting my money back after a long back and forth with Airbnb & the host in question.
  2. (Portugal) was perfect
  3. (Iceland) was good till the end when the host lied and “double booked” the room (see the review here).

But this is about rating people…

Ratings are misleading and a horrible way to understand human complexity. They can be gamed and easily used to spread inequality. We play along unaware how we all contribute to this all.

Seeking the Aurora in Iceland

Northern Lights (Aurora)

I have always wanted to see the Northern Lights / Aurora Borealis and finally there is a very good chance this might finally happen. Flights and Airbnb is booked for this yearly quarter and of course I’ll be happy to catch up with Brian too, especially since he nicely sent me the Iceland Aurora DVD.

I’ll be staying in Reykjavík, so if you think theres something I should be doing besides visiting the golden circlerelaxing in hot spas and of course seeing the northern lights. Do add a comment or tweet me.

Northern Lights

Can’t wait! Even got my winter trainers today, perfect timing…!

Airbnb is weird because people are weird?

Stay wild stylised

Reading the guardian’s recent piece about Airbnb, I was taken by this paragraph.

No matter how glossy and cool the Airbnb advertising is, with all the shiny shots of people staying in Airstreams in Texas backyards or converted air-conditioned food trucks in New Orleans, staying in an Airbnb is weird because people are weird, and their lives are complicated, their routines idiosyncratic and their bookshelves are windows into their souls. Conversations are curious, and awkward silences are things to be negotiated. You cannot be on automatic pilot at an Airbnb because strange things happen in other people’s homes, on their patch, across their kitchen tables.

As I have written about previously, I have had my ups and downs with Airbnb. Mainly ups but also some weird experiences too, including 2 experiences with cheese in my fridge.

Its certainly makes for a interesting life.

A workspace with such a view?

IMAG3085
Imagine if you’re workplace had such a view…

The blog I wrote about my Airbnb hosting experience to date seems to have gotten quite a bit of interest.

A few friends have decided it might be for them but I also received a email about vrumi from Claire. Vrumi is different from places like Zipcube because its tackling the long tale of usually forgotten spaces; spaces like my own living room!

Could my flat be the perfect place workspace during the day?

London is full of rooms that lie empty during the day because their usual inhabitants are out at work, away at university, or have left home altogether. There are all sorts of spare rooms – box rooms, underused dining rooms and sitting rooms – gathering dust. And there are rooms that were designed for a specific purpose – a home gym or music room, for example – which don’t get the use they might.

What if all this empty space, in a city in which property is at a frankly eye-watering premium, could be put to work? And why stop at London?

Its basically Airbnb for workspaces and is about to include Manchester.

Sunset over Manchester

I like the idea and think its a good one but not quite for me personally. Don’t get me wrong I know quite a few people who have been inspired by sitting in my flat looking out the windows. A few of my Airbnb guests have sat and marvelled at the view, while others have felt inspired enough to get a ton of work done. Heck when the Tesco delivery people come, they always say something about what an amazing view.

But I have a small flat and its really made up for me. If I was in something slightly bigger, I might have considered it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the vrumi grows and grows with the price of space going up, the nature of work changing and coffee shop culture clashes a real thing. It looks like you can rent a space cheaper than places like ziferblat, and likely have a better experience?

Whats it like to be a Airbnb host in Manchester?

AirBnB kinda sucks

Zoe pointed me to the medium blog One year hosting on Airbnb.

I thought was actually quite interesting, so I thought I’d do something similar but maybe less quantified.

I moved to Manchester 8 years ago and moved to my own flat 6 years ago. I bought a two bedroom flat mainly so I could have family & friends over without building a bed in the living room each time. Originally it was going to be my computer room complete with server and all type of tech. But I ended up putting a sofa bed in there and never really using it much. It was a bit of a waste to be honest, and I always felt a little bad about that.

As one of the earliest movers to Manchester from London as part of the BBC’s move to media city UK. I saw the potential for maybe renting my spare room to people moving up and finding their feet. Heck I’m right by Piccadilly station and they were building a new tram station by me (new Islington) making getting to media city easy as pie. There is a private Facebook group for movers and I kept an eye on that for potential people.

There was quite a few people doing the same and they would list their places on spare room and elsewhere. I was going to do the same but never around to it. I didn’t really want someone for months at an end because I wanted the flexibility if a friend wanted to stay over. I had previously had a flat mate (Tim) and he was great (saving my life and all) but I said to him that I was going to live mainly alone. It was something I just needed to do

I had heard of airbnb but thought of it like couchsurfing which another friend (Dave) had used a lot. It was somewhere between needing to put my spareroom somewhere to show people on the Facebook group and half looking for a flat mate, partly from the guilt of not using the spareroom much. That make me actually look into it and ultimately put up the listing.

Skies above Manchester
Double in Manchester City Centre

My listing was very honest, maybe too honest. The photos are a little crappy and I didn’t stage anything (no ironing of the sheets, photo retouching, etc). I also didn’t use a wide angle lens like airbnb’s photographers do. Nope the room is small but has a proper double bed, some draws and a mini wardrobe. I decided the biggest selling points of the flat was the separate bathroom (I tend to use my on-suite for everything), the amazing views, its location and my flexibility. This is why I made the first photo a sunset from the living room. I keep thinking I need do better about the photos but frankly i’m happy with the little extra money and I’m not doing it to get rich (unlike some people)

On that front, I actually add restrictions to put certain people off.

  • You can not book my room on the day. I had enough of last-minute requests and frankly the kind of people putting in the request seemed a little sketchy. The weirdest one is a man who wrote a message like I had already accepted his request, he wanted to know where to go to meet me!
  • I always get into a conversation with the person. If I get a bad feeling I make an excuse and reject their request. I need to know they are coming to Manchester for a purpose not doss at mine, eat my food (there is a story there) and drink all my cocktail spirits.
  • I wouldn’t do instant book, for the reason above I don’t use instant book, I need to get a feel of who the person is. I’m also ruthless with checking their previous bookings, social media profiles and offline ID. My bare minimum acceptable is a verified phone number, email, at least one social media profile. I need a good photo of the person and one or two positive reviews. If no reviews I’d need to know they have done the offline ID check. It’s off-putting but it’s my home and I want to know exactly who they are. Also I checked with my insurance and this is important if Airbnb’s insurance doesn’t cut it and I need to use my own.
  • All guests need to go through verification. I turned this on because it made sense for me.
  • I charge over the recommended price. Airbnb has data on all the places similar to yours and how well they are doing. The algorithm then calculates a recommended price which will attract people and earn a good return. The problem for me is I don’t want a lot of people, I don’t need the room always in use. It’s optimised to get more people and thats not for me. It also requires you really change it quite a bit or rely on them changing the price. I swear a few times I seen the price go as low as 19 pounds a night, this is not workable for me.
  • I have a list of things which I’m allergic to which I have listed on my profile. The big one is no cooking baked beans in the flat. I can deal with almost anything else but I can’t have that in my flat. To be fair most hosts don’t let people cook, but I think thats pretty tight (imho) and unfair if you are there for over a week.

Some numbers. To date I have had a lot of enquiries for my spareroom (73, I took the time to respond to). Some months it’s every week some months I get nothing. I have had 15 people in the years I have been doing it. The average stay is about 3-4 nights and I mainly get males (unsurprisingly), but had a good number of females. If you count actual bookings, its not far off half. But its only because Caroline rebooked many times. My next guest is female. Exact earnings I do know because Airbnb does tell you but I’d rather not say, but it’s worth saying I did look up the maximum you could earn before paying excess tax and I am quite a way off. Paypal did think I was doing some money laundering and cut me off for a while, which was painful.

Most of my guests are from the UK but I’ve had a couple from the states and western europe. Once again if I was doing things by time, Portugal would be the biggest percentage by far with the UK second and America third. I don’t tend to get many people just wanting to party, mainly becasue of the restrictions I have put in place I believe.

Incidents? Nothing major my front door has been left open, somebody complained I didn’t have enough takeaway menus (I have none to be fair) and I have found something very surprising in the fridge one day.

I have heard of some real bad stories and to be fair my own experience in Japan does remind me how bad things can get. Also how tricky getting help out of Airbnb can be. I would do everything I can to fix things myself before embarking on getting help out of them. Although to be fair they have quickly modified peoples reviews when they break the guidelines (not deliberately or maliciously)

Positive experiences, I have many!

Catherine was the first woman who stayed at mine and she was wonderful, shes also the one who finally convinced me I should finally go to the ballet I was thinking about. Darren was so pleased about the place and was kind enough to let me cousin and friend stay in the living room while he was there. I don’t even know where to start with Caroline…

She certainly stayed the longest at just over 3 months but was a pleasure to be around. We had some great conversations and had a routine of watching the Affair together. She certainly became more like a flat mate than a airbnb guest which was fine, except I needed to redecorate my flat, which also involved storing stuff in the spare room. It was a shame to see her go, but things were not working out for her career wise too.

All of these people wrote me glowing reviews and gave me a lovely present to say thank you. Caroline even wrote me a number of lovely post it notes during the months, one still exists on my noticeboard. Will have to encourage more guests to do this after seeing Rehan’s book.

Having Vivid Lounge downstairs is incredible and always gets super high praises from guests, no wonder it was voted one of the best thai restaurant in Manchester recently. Most of my guests drop in there for drinks or food at some point. I’m actually writing this while sipping a coffee in Vivid, trying to get use to British Summer Time

I would encourage everyone who has a spare bed in their house to list their space on Airbnb (if that’s legal in your country). It’s a great way to boost the economy of a city/country because there are thousands of other tourists who like to visit different cities but are not able to do it because the hotels are too expensive.

As for me, I am deeply honoured to have been a host for the hundreds of guests who stayed at my apartment and gave me a chance to contribute to their first amazing experience of Amsterdam.

I would echo most of Rehan’s thoughts.

But I have to say you have to sensible about everything. I know friends who have taken on Airbnb and been unflexible or not willing to trust the person with keys, etc. Trust is a two way street and my faith in humanity is strong, but I’m not blinded by making huge amounts of money. This is the classic money clouding judgement/decision making process. Yes you could make quite a bit of money but you will end up taking more risky people and do you want the hassle of replacing stuff after someone decides to have a party in your flat with a bunch of friends or even people they met that night?

I know theres a lot of tension about Airbnb, especially with what Berlin did, others are sure to follow suit. Some of the Manchester flats management agents won’t allow Airbnb to happen within their flats. But as I said previously, we need to think differently about the people who are renting a whole apartment or house from those like myself who are renting their spare room or a sofa in the case of Rehan at first. Its a great way to meet different types of people and its always a interesting talking point in conversations, dare I say it could help make you interesting?

Berlin places restrictions on Airbnb?

Berlin Wall

It was Oliver who first alerted me to the new rule Berlin has just applied to Airbnb.

 apply. When what exceptions are possible, is still unclear.

Some friends on Facebook (my fb is public, so its readable/findable) added some comments to my kind of retweet from talking with Oliver.

Jennifer wrote: There are so few affordable flats available for people who actually live here. The Airbnb market has affected the available rentals so much here that it’s driven prices up, and it’s a nightmare.

Helen wrote: There are similar restrictions in Barcelona. You need a licence to rent rooms or apartments but the local government is not issuing new licences. Same rationale…lack of affordable housing, makes for unpleasant living when your neighbouring apartments are all on short lets, changing the culture of neighbourhoods. That said, there’s no shortage of rentals in Barcelona on AirBnB and elsewhere. Fines are being issued but not widespread yet.

As someone who does Airbnb at my own flat, I think there should be a difference between a spare room and a whole place. I do have everything legally needed including smoke alarms, exit signs and fire extinguisher but it feels like there should be slight difference. I understand the concerns and the damage of short term lets on a community. Some apartment blocks have banned Airbnb in Manchester for example. But if you are there too, its no real different than having a short term lodger? I guess there is an argument about how you prove you are there, but thats a different arguement.

Its a shame its come to this but alas thats what happens when you let market forces run out of control?

Little chance of a cheap Airbnb for Berlin now, I thought but theres still quite a lot on Airbnb still… We shall see what happens in May.

Airbnb’s new slightly creepy advert?

The nextweb say airbnb’s advert is a little creepy…?

And I have to say there are not wrong… Not quite sure what to make of it. Of course Airbnb have their reasoning.

But if you do book my spare room, please don’t think…

Sleeping in my spare bed will fill you in on my dreams. This really sounds like the promising start of horror film…?! Honestly what on earth Airbnb? Human? More like scary movie?

Lets change the world?

I won't change the world....

Its not unknown for me to say “Lets change the world

But Umair Haque writes about why this kind of thinking drives him up the wall.

Auughhh. Like yours, my skin crawls every time I hear it. “Changing the world” is the latest nails on the chalkboard of Modern Life…an eye-rolling platitude…a gut-churner of a buzzword…shouted daily by thousands of high-fiving business-class wannabes in chinos…the worst invention since the Company Theme Song.

Ebola? Who cares!! Dude!! We’ll call them emergency Ubers!! Climate change? Buddy, chillax!! We’ll send the flood victims tacocopters!! No life? No problem!! Everyone can have robo-friends!! They’re better than humans!! Unemployment? Let them Taskrabbit!! Who needs a career…an education…a life…when you can be a butler?!

Don’t worry, bro!! Dude!! Don’t you get it? Digitally connected superwatches will rescue us!! They’ll make us transcendent superbeings!! The Human Condition?! We’ll app our way out!! Glory be!! Hallelujah!! Sing it with me!! We’re not just here to make money, we’re…changing the world!!

I do see what he saying and his examples picking out the mentality of Uber, Taskrabbit, AirBnB and Tinder is spot on. Maybe the creative disruption these guys hide behind isn’t really creative disruption at all?

Think about it for a moment. Do you think Travis from Uber or the creepily misogynistic guys from Tinder “changed the world” more than Jonas Salk…Galileo…Einstein…Gandhi…Martin Luther King? Do you need a brain transplant…and asoul? Are you a dummy? There have always been billionaires, tycoons, hucksters. But there haven’t always been polio vaccines…cosmologies…theories of relativity…civil rights.

Those are the guys who really changed the world, and to be fair they didn’t shout creative disruption as they went about it.

Changing the world isn’t helping your bro find a date by coding an app. Changing the world isn’t feeding your frat house by building a tacocopter. Changing the world isn’t turning life into a perma frat party by making a shot that can fulfill all your daily nutritional needs.

Things that make people…butlers, chauffeurs, maids, courtesans…debtors, sharecroppers, zombies…don’t change anything. They are merely more of the same. They redeem no human suffering; enhance no human potential; spark no human accomplishment; transform no human being. They do not create anything truly worthy that might not have been otherwise. There is no greatness, nobility, goodness, justice, or truth in them. There is merely the same old ugliness, cruelty, despair, and self-deception that has always been.

I think what I took away from everything Umair wrote is the empowerment for all. Even I have been thinking a lot more about the gotchas when using Uber and even AirBnB. Everything is tied into an algorithm, how fast you reply, how slow, collecting and build reputation for you which you have no control over. Even when you decide to opt out, its a problem. This is all without even looking at the overall societal, social and humanity effect of dancing with algorithms (as I am now calling it).

Its all very good critique and quite a bit to think about next time I shout “lets change the world!