Belong nowhere? Airbnb and the commodification of home

We’re halfway through cooking dinner on a rainy Sunday when the message comes through. ‘Can we book for tonight?’ My husband, Ryan, and I look to one another with a sigh. ‘Sure’, I type back, telling myself the extra income will be worth it.

We race downstairs and remake beds. We wipe surfaces and search for a pillowcase that doesn’t bear the stain of makeup from previous guests. We wash mugs and scrub the toilet. Vacuum stray dog hairs off the carpet. Sweep the stairs, wipe out the sink and lay out fresh towels. We do several sweeps of the space, trying to affect a stranger’s gaze, critically evaluate our own home. My standards for this space are so much higher than for my own living space, knowing it is soon to be subject to the critical gaze of other platform users.

We eat dinner and settle in on the couch, awaiting our guests. We watch Punch Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson’s anxiety-inducing film about, well, anxiety, and I feel my own anxiety rising. We wait to receive these newcomers who will take over our house for the coming days.

When they arrive, there is concern on our guest’s face. ‘You live here?’ asks the woman, sounding annoyed. We explain that, yes, like it says on the listing, we live here. ‘Oh. Are we in the right place?’ she asks. Like it says on the listing, we repeat, we live upstairs, you’ll be staying downstairs, and yes, you’re in the right place. She nods, but looks sceptical, walks back to her car without another word. Ryan and I are left at the open front door, wondering if her response means they’re staying or leaving.

Panic begins to set in. Clearly, our place is already not meeting her expectations, and she’s not yet inside the door.

We go to bed, giving them space to settle in. Lying awake, I hear them as they carry their luggage in, pull the front door loud enough that I might consider it to have been slammed. Once downstairs, in the self-contained space we are renting out through Airbnb, they get to work exploring the space. I hear them wander through each room, hear each of the kitchenette cupboards open and close with a slam. I try to see the space from their perspective: is it worth the asking price?

Renting out our home on Airbnb, we have opened our house to the judging gaze of others. As they leave a star rating for our space – our home – we’re inviting them to rate our honesty, our behaviour, our neighbourhood, their comfort in our presence. We invite them to rate out of five whether we were honest in our listing, whether our bathroom meets with their expectations of cleanliness, whether the extras we’ve provided are enough to warrant a favourable review.

We are supposed to view the radical transparency that comes with platform economies – Uber, Airbnb, Airtasker, etc – as a boon for us as consumers. As we all rate and review one another, we’re supposed to embrace the opportunity to know what we’re getting into, to celebrate the ways that the review system encourages better behaviour through its ever-present gaze. But what effect is all this having on our relationship to others, to our selves – and, indeed, to our homes?

In answering this question, I think it’s worth bringing up French philosopher Michel Foucault. Not for the easy and perhaps obvious reference to the Panopticon – the infamous prison designed to ensure prisoners behaved as though they were being watched, even when they weren’t – but for his notion of the ‘entrepreneur of the self’. Foucault argued that neoliberalism requires us to behave as entrepreneurs, treating ourselves as businesses to be invested in (through education, experience, healthy habits etc), to be marketed (through management of our reputation and now, through social media and ‘personal branding’) and to be grown, through the expansion of our productive capacity over time. This business of rating one another is part of this practice of crafting oneself into an enterprise. We discipline ourselves, as in the panopticon, but now we do so in order that we might be more competitive, sell more product, and grow our market share. We ourselves, as guests and passengers and drivers and hosts, become little capitalist concerns whose image must be honed and then shared.

I haven’t run my own business, though I can imagine that it hurts if someone negatively reviews a coffee or pens a 15-paragraph saga about a hair found in a meal. But there’s something more intensely personal about these new platform reviews. It’s not just our business being reviewed here, it’s our homes. It’s not our professional skills being critiqued, but our capacity as homemakers to host and clean and decorate our space.

For those who are working in the precarious gig economy, especially through marketplaces like TaskRabbit and AirTasker, ratings become so critical that they are working for reviews as well as money. Ratings become critical to ongoing employment, and many take low-paid jobs just to boost their ratings and provide a buffer from a few poor ratings. When individual users become employers, workers become slaves to the star rating.

And it’s not only our ’side hustle’ income that’s going to suffer. These ratings are surely impinging upon our relationship with ourselves and our sense of self-worth, especially as they become more ubiquitous. As platforms like Uber and Airbnb become our gateway to transport and accommodation, getting around the city or finding somewhere to stay will be increasingly dependent on our ratings. And as these rating platforms expand into ever more areas of our lives, we’re likely to find that our ability to land a job, find a partner or secure a rental is increasingly dependent on our star rating, too.

In order to thrive in this context we must constantly turn our critical gaze on ourselves. We must try to see the flaws that others will be quick to note in a review. Just what is the right amount of friendly for a host? How much noise is acceptable and what time can it start? If I was a guest, how would I view this carpet, those towels, this bedspread? Would I think this shower was clean enough? It’s exhausting, this work of trying not only to meet the standards and expectations of others, but to anticipate – blindly – what these expectations might be.

Of course, some kind of self-critical lens is important. We need to be able to evaluate ourselves – to come to know ourselves – if we are to grow. But self-knowledge is a different thing altogether to this. This is constant work to ensure we are adhering to a set of standards external to our own. These standards are likely to change from one reviewer to another. For one, the simple breakfast was a generous extra they were grateful to receive. For another, muesli and milk might seem a paltry offering. For one family, our granny flat with its low ceilings might seem cosy, for another, it might seem damp or claustrophobic. For those who haven’t properly read the listing, disappointments may abound on many levels that we cannot begin to anticipate.

What does this to do our relationships with one another? When every interaction becomes a rateable exchange, we can no longer just be two humans holding a conversation: we are conducting a business transaction in which your ‘communication’ will be given a score out of five. Knowing what is real becomes a tricky task: was that Uber driver genuinely nice, or just very good at performing for customers? Complicating it all, of course, is that we all have varying expectations: one person’s understanding of ‘minimal’ ‘guest interaction’ might be different to another’s. How are we to know whether we’re coming off as standoffish or overbearing? And how will this affect our score?

If we’re all entrepreneurs of the self, we’re now being thrust into an environment in which we’re potentially competing against one another. There are, now, 7.5 billion other enterprises out there that we must outdo. Social interactions then become either opportunities to assess one another or opportunities to compete with one another – we’re expecting to be constantly evaluating or being evaluated.

And of course, all of this is tied up in the increasing commodification of our homes and our personal lives. Just as we are expected to turn our hobbies into Etsy businesses, our travel habits into sponsored Instagram accounts, our cars-bought-on-finance into Uber vehicles, we are expected to commodify our homes. Despite Airbnb’s promise that we might soon ‘Belong Anywhere’, we’re going to find that even our own homes become places where belonging is a distant dream.

Such moves are posited as ‘choices’ – my husband and I do not, it is true, have any obligation to rent out our home on Airbnb. But with precarious employment, underemployment and the cost of living simultaneously rising, we’re all expected to seek out the side hustle – these ways of making a little extra cash on the side. In the absence of that ‘better job’ that politicians implore us to find, we’re required to find these little dribbles of cash here and there that might help ends meet.

Through its listing on Airbnb, the safe and comforting space that my husband and I have created together has been inverted, turned inside out and opened to the judging gaze of others. It has become something radically different to what it was yesterday, when it was a private space, as known and as reassuring as a warm hug. Now, it is a space I view with critical eyes, in which I tiptoe around and curse at creaky floorboards, and from which I make my escape from until check-out time, hiding out in a local cafe until I can reclaim it as my own.



Image: Jasper / flickr

Laura Wynne

Laura Wynne is a writer and researcher living in Wollongong, NSW. She is currently undertaking a PhD in sociology, works as a sustainability researcher, and spends her spare time reading anything she can get her hands on. Her writing has been published in The Conversation, The Lifted Brow Review of Books, Commotion and elsewhere.

More by Laura Wynne ›

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  1. Belonging as a distant future dream?

    So that’s what K, of Castle fame, was doing, wandering around awaiting for AirB&B guests to vamoose.

    No wonder I never finished the damn thing – there being no end to commodification then, as now.

  2. Suggested comeback to a critical review or commenter: “You should have seen it back in the old days, when we ran it as a brothel.”
    Something along those lines. Surely worth a try.
    Just a thought. 😉

  3. Loved your article. I think Airbnb is another element of extreme capitalism -where not only is extreme competition is rampant and humanity becomes hyper critical, it also undermines the very genuine art of hospitality. No diubt mortgage stress and investors with multiple properties are also drivers of crass anything goes Airbnb – atctge expense of cultural tourism and all its benefits to community, the environment and local economies

    1. “Just as we are expected to turn our hobbies into Etsy businesses, our travel habits into sponsored Instagram accounts, our cars-bought-on-finance into Uber vehicles, we are expected to commodify our homes.

      I’m sorry, but surely this expectation is perceived. It has never occurred to me to do any of these things. My own solution, which I know sounds appallingly smug, is to avoid expenses that I can’t afford, cutting back until I can meet my needs and ignore my greeds, which, incidentally, would include going to the cafe. I’ve been told that “no-one” wants to live like this, but in truth, the freedom of not having debts, and being in the black, if only just, at the end of every month, makes up for it.

      1. You took the words right out of my mouth Annie.
        Rampant greed makes us commodify our living space. A bit of frugality and appreciating what we actually have would go a long way in this world.
        You don’t have to keep up with the Jones’. The Jones’ live on credit and the never-never.
        Ugh I sound like I’m my own grandparents. But complaining about renting your home out does rather smack of a kind of entitlement that only the middle class can manage.

        1. As young Australians, however, I think that we *are* expected to do all we can to afford these extraordinarily high house prices—remember when our Treasurer told Australians who couldn’t afford housing to ‘get a better job’?

          There’s this assumption that unaffordability is something we should just work harder to deal with—that we should take on more and more work in order to meet unreasonable costs. The government doesn’t want to take any action to ameliorate housing costs (which have risen relative to income) and so just pushes the pressure back on to individuals, requiring them to find ways to make money out of every aspect of their life.

          (And of course, I agree that there is a middle-class aspect to this—if only because it is almost impossible for the unemployed or working to afford extra space to rent out).


          1. “The government doesn’t want to take any action to ameliorate housing costs”

            This is why the answer is not to engage in neo-liberal Ponzi schemes, but to push the Government and engage with the political process to vote them out of power.

            There are more Gen Xers, Millenials and Gen Z’s than there are Boomers now. If we stop voting against our own interests and for LNP governments that continue to feather the nests of the Boomers and corporations at the expense of everyone else. Then we don’t have to rent out our homes or cars, or even our bodies to make ends meet.

            Engaging in a corrupted system just gives it legitimacy and makes it harder to demolish. to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln – Only a slave desires to be a master and only a master fears becoming a slave.

          2. And BTW …

            Do NOT … do NOT … DO NOT … believe all the hype about property prices self correcting. The real estate industry will put out anything to prevent an incoming Labor government ending the Negative Gearing gravy train and Ponzi Scheme engine

      2. Thanks, well put. You don’t sound smug, just practical. I can’t imagine anything more ghastly than having strangers walk around in my house while I’m upstairs and then moaning about me on the Internet. So I would never do it. Far better to live within a budget, not buy luxuries, spend little — as most of us are forced to do anyway. Also, it goes without saying that anyone who cares about the livelihood of others would never use those crap gig services.

  4. I think you made some really good points on the subject. And yet, I can also see how some readers may be put off by the amount of “navel gazing” in the piece. As I was reading, I was thinking about the increase in rental houses in my neighborhood and others in the past few years. Namely, the affects on street parking, stagnant pop up pools attracting mosquitoes, curbside basketball hoops, etc.
    My local community is trying to find a way to deal with these issues, but they’re up against large rental companies and locals who depend on the income.

  5. Really well-written article, Laura, and I agree with your concerns. We are living in a society where everything is being increasingly commodified, including ourselves.

    And while some have said you don’t have to do this, that it’s a choice, for many of the country’s working poor, it is almost a necessity to try and find ways to make some extra cash.

    I’ve had jobs where there was very little money left over once I paid for my rent, shopping and bills. And I live very modestly in a one room flat. My overheads were minimal compared to many others, and still I often felt disheartened by how little I was able to save.

    So yes, I can see both sides of the argument and I also agree that the government isn’t going to do anything about this issue, so we all need to look out for ourselves- and make money in whatever way we can.

    1. I think too we all need to begin to understand that the money system we live under is creating a lot of our problems

      A system based on debt forces everything to grow like a cancer. At the same time there is not enough money flowing in the system to grease all our joints and our interactions with each other and enable us to live our lives.

      We need a new way of doing money.

  6. Hi,
    While I agree with many points you raise about the commodification of our lives, with regard to AirBnB it is still our (your) choice whether you involve yourself in it. And while mortgage stress is widespread, so is the availability of houses for people on low incomes and also relatively cheap accommodation for travellers (which I don’t believe AirBnB actually addresses very well). I wrote a blog piece ages ago from the other side of the experience, albeit in relation to Stayz not AirBnB, but the points I make are still relevant, I hope.

  7. This is my favourite thing I have read in a long time! I love reading theoretical perspectives applied to modern day conventions and this was super fascinating and made me think…..

  8. Great article. Yes it has become more and more of a struggle to survive in Australia.House prices are obscenely expensive. Running an Airbnb room is hard work and while most guests are considerate I had some shockingly critical ones. It was an awful experience so reading this has cheered me.

  9. Some guests are nice and a joy to meet, I hope! These guests sound like jerks. We love renting aribandb and we are respectful, joyful, and love most places and hosts. We have met so many wonderful people via airbandb! Not everyone is an ass!

  10. I too am an airbnb host, and I get some of this eg the commodification of ourselves (I’m seeking work right now so.Employers expect a personal website now! ). But my airbnb experience is so different. The guests in my home have been consistently polite, interesting and many grateful to find and be able to afford a place to stay in this expressive city. I do it to help pay the mortgage, and like the fact I am not bound to share it with a long term tenant until I’m ready, or I’m ready to sell it, which I will have to do in the absense of decent super (older female, sole parent…). My guests reminded me of the joy of travel-that most people are good and kind, & inspired me. I’ve just returned from a trip to the UK, my first, that was only affordable because of airbnb, and again I met fabulous, kind people/hosts, mostly single women along the way. All of us enjoy the sharing economy because it provides housing security and companions – who then leave! If you’re not enjoying it, why not stop and provide a long term tenant with a self contained home? Of course airbnb is much more lucrative.

  11. Totally understand that you have that point of view. I have stayed in Airbnb four times, one of them a place that sounded similar to yours. I think the real problem here is that some people are just arseholes and since you are providing a service you become exposed to them. The only solution is to get a thicker skin, which for some, including me, is difficult.

  12. Brilliant piece. In the early 1960s Georges Perec wrote his novel Les Choses (Things) about a young couple incessantly buying ugly and unnecessary consumer goods, this being their reason for living. The novel consists mostly of long lists of objects. The novel does not quite cover the profounder foucaldian aspect of the commodification of the self as well as of the entire capitalist system. Have sent this to our son, who is at present in an air b and b place. I do not take Uber, having heard of the suicides of too many drivers.

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