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