There are some technologies and services that seem fairly obvious when they first appear, in the sense that their appeal is more or less predictable, even though their ultimate size and reach may not be. But there are others that seem to almost defy logic in some way, and become far more disruptive than they seemed at first, and for me at least, AirBnB is one of those companies. Along with a few other services — including Twitter — it is one of the most fundamentally disruptive social businesses I’ve come across in a long time, and for many of the same kinds of reasons.
I’m not ashamed to say that I was an AirBnB skeptic when I first heard about the service. Like many people, I thought the idea of someone sharing their bedroom or apartment with complete strangers for money was a pie-in-the-sky idea dreamed up by some San Francisco hippie. It seemed like a variation on the idea of “couch surfing, which I figured would appeal to cheap students and other bohemian types, but not many regular people — and certainly not to business travelers or anyone important from a commercial point of view (in my defence, even uber-VC Fred Wilson missed out on the potential of the company).
Both of those assumptions have been proven wrong, and it didn’t really hit home for me until I tried an AirBnB rental myself. On a trip to San Francisco for GigaOM’s Mobilize conference, I rented a one-bedroom apartment using the service, and it was an eye-opener.
The social web lowers the barriers to interaction
In a sense, services like AirBnB — as well as ride-sharing services like Lyft and crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter — take advantage of the same internet-powered social phenomenon that media entities like Twitter do: namely, a dramatic lowering of the barriers to interaction, to the point where it actually changes the way people behave in some fairly important and disruptive ways. And I think the real repercussions of that disruption are only beginning to make themselves obvious.
The main reason I tried AirBnB was that another conference had booked every reasonably priced hotel room within driving distance of downtown San Francisco — but I was also curious to see what the AirBnB experience was like. So I looked for something in the same price range as an average hotel room, and found dozens of potential rentals, each with photos of the home and the owner and reviews from users. At that point, it didn’t look all that different from something like Craigslist (although much more appealing from a design point of view).
But then the influence of social networks was added to the equation: since I had connected with my Facebook account, I noticed that the owner of one of the rentals and I had a mutual friend in common. Any hesitation I had about renting the home of a complete stranger in an unfamiliar city vanished, thanks to the power of the FOAF (friend of a friend) effect. If the couple who owned the apartment knew my friend, then I figured there was a better-than-even chance that I would like them.
Sure enough, they arranged to get me the keys in a friendly and efficient way, they left me a personal note and sent an email with tips about their home and the location, and they offered me whatever was in their fridge. On top of that, the apartment was lovely and well-kept, with homey furniture and personal touches that no hotel could offer: not only was it nicer looking than a hotel, but the whole experience was friendlier and more welcoming.
The scale that the social web provides changes the game
Granted, not every AirBnB experience is going to be so top-notch — there have been some incidents in the company’s history where renters took advantage of the owner and his or her property, and the service has had to adapt to that. But despite those events, the growth of the network suggests that it is disrupting the casual accommodation market in a way the hotel industry probably never expected. Even though bed-and-breakfast operations and corporate or vacation rentals have existed for some time, the sheer scale of AirBnB changes the game.
As Clay Shirky noted in his book “Here Comes Everybody,” even behavior that has existed before — such as sharing information with our friends and family, or connecting with people who have similar interests — becomes qualitatively different when hundreds of thousands or even tens of millions of people are involved. That’s what I think we are seeing with things like AirBnB and Kickstarter and ride-sharing services like Lyft, or job-outsourcing services like TaskRabbit: they aren’t just an incremental change in human behavior, they are a fundamentally disruptive one.
In a sense, each of these services just looks like a more refined and organized version of something you could have previously done through Craigslist: a ride somewhere, a place to sleep, supporters for your new CD or other project. But instead of being something that a small proportion of people do, the growth of AirBnB and other similar crowd-powered services has the potential to seriously impact some of the industries we take for granted — whether it’s the hotel business or the venture-capital or music or transportation industries.
What other industries could be disrupted in this way? Could we see people sharing health care someday, or their phone services, or swapping their corporate vacation time through some kind of online marketplace? It’s interesting to think about what else could benefit from this kind of phenomenon, and what the long-term effects on us as social beings will be when that happens.