Yes, It's Weird That Airbnb-ers Are Willing to Trust Total Strangers

A new shadow economy depends on customers who are willing to share their homes and cars with people they've never met.
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Reuters

“This is crazy,” said Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson. “People are letting strangers stay in their bedroom, giving them rides, accepting money for it—and they don’t know each other.”

“I understand there are still skeptics,” admitted Nathan Blecharczyk, the co-founder of Airbnb, at the Washington Ideas Forum on Thursday. Thompson’s description pretty much sums up Air BnB’s business model: taking a share of money that regular people make by renting out their houses and apartments to strangers. Although 9 million people now use the service, many would-be financial backers had the same initial reaction: It would be insane for people to trust perfect strangers this much.

“No investor would give us money, saying, surely this is not a big idea—it’s actually quite a strange idea,” Blecharczyk said. “Five years ago, everyone thought this was crazy, and now 150,000 people are doing this every single night.”

Which is kind of astonishing. It’s one thing to make “friends” with random people on social media platforms like Facebook; it’s another to give them the keys to your house. Although there haven’t been high-profile cases of creepy people using these services to do harm, there's always the risk, ever increasing, that the equivalent of a Craigslist killer will eventually exploit Airbnb. That violation of trust would be a heavy blow to companies in the sharing economy.

On the other hand, businesses like Airbnb have gained a lot of traction in certain communities. The company is part of a larger network that believes random people are just as trustworthy as big companies. Thompson called this the “shadow economy”: an informal network of people who are selling things they already have—houses, cars, time, etc.—to people who don’t want to go to a hotel or catch a taxi. Many sharing-economy enthusiasts have pointed out that this network has a “democratizing” effect, giving regular people as much power as big companies in industries like hospitality and transportation.

For those who haven’t been able to get jobs at these kinds of traditional companies, the “shadow economy” has also offered much-needed relief.

“For the unemployed or underemployed, and now there’s a group of services that offer people additional options,” Blecharczyk said. “It gives people a sense of purpose. Part of being an entrepreneur is, like, it’s just so great to run your own business, that feeling you get. We’re allowing everyday people to have that feeling in a small way.”

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the National Channel, manages TheAtlantic.com’s homepage, and writes about religion and culture.

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