The jaded among us might think people are generally untrustworthy, but is that how most of us really feel? You wouldn’t know it based on our behavior en masse: We make our whereabouts known via social networking or geo-locating apps. We bid on strangers’ items in eBay auctions. We sell our well-loved goods on Craigslist, often to long distance buyers. And occasionally, we plan much-needed trips using services like Airbnb, to find accommodations in far-flung locations we couldn’t otherwise afford. All these operations are honor systems on some level, with minimal to no oversight of goods or services rendered. In other words, they work on trust, and have been doing so for years.
It’s kind of amazing when you think about it … except that the inevitable caught up to at least one of them, turning it into a nightmare scenario.
The story starts with Airbnb. If you’re not familiar with the site or mobile app, it’s an online service that hooks up people with homes to rent with travelers looking for a place to crash — like an amateur bed and breakfast (hence the name). Users may rent a single room in a shared dwelling, or entire homes with amenities, usually for far below what hotels would charge. It was like a match made in heaven and business boomed. In the three years since Airbnb was founded, it has exploded in growth reaching a valuation of upwards of a billion dollars.
Everything was going so well. And then it happened: Word spread about a scumbag who came in and ruined the almost too-idyllic premise.
A lady who rented her place via Airbnb soon found that her occupant not only stole her belongings during his week-long stay there, but also trashed the home. He even cut through a wall and got her grandmother’s jewelry, which was locked inside. Sure, there’s a common-sense argument about whether she should’ve had any valuables at all in the unmanned premises, locked or no, but she wasn’t asking for this, and she’s certainly not alone. A quick scan of the listings turns up homes with furniture, TVs, computers and even cars for rent.
For its part, Airbnb publishes a safety FAQ, and in this case, is also providing housing and financial assistance to the victim. (Update: The victim actually contests that the company has assisted her. See the update below.) But all that might pale in comparison to the fact that it doesn’t inform hosts of their guests identities until the last minute. (How are hosts supposed to screen guests that way?)
I feel strangely disappointed in this whole mess. I’ll admit to some naiveté here: In a weird way, I was proud that mankind could produce honor systems like Airbnb, eBay and the rest, and actually sustain them. It meant we weren’t all beholden to corporate greed, and that we could turn to each other for goods and services. We finally had the devices and tech savvy to empower these alternative resources, with the ability to call them up on demand. And even though it was never a perfect system — there are sharks and con artists out there, after all — at least we could rate, review, and warn each other about suspicious people. Like a real community of people looking out for one another.
It was kind of staggering how many consumers put their faith in complete strangers to do the right thing. There has been so much commerce, based on so much trust — it was actually kind of moving. Maybe even a beacon of hope for modern humanity. But more and more, it’s like the light is getting snuffed out. So what are we left with? Broken honor systems tainted by users who have no idea what honor is.
I know, maybe opening up your home and all of your earthly possessions to a stranger just isn’t a good idea to begin with. But still, I was pulling for this concept to work. Mainly because amid all the muck of today’s society, I still wanted to believe in the overall decency of man. Yeah, I know. Naive.
As a grace note, it looks like the police have a suspect in custody. And if he’s found guilty, I hope they throw the book at him. Frankly, what he stole here was more than just the tangible objects he made off with.
UPDATE: Looks like Airbnb got an insurance option in the works for potential hosts. Meanwhile, some fast-thinking entrepreneur out in Arizona already claimed AirbnbInsurance.com. For more, click here.
UPDATE 2: Well, it seems Airbnb may not be quite as caringly attentive to this matter as it purports to be. According to a follow-up post from “EJ” (the host/victim), the company has done little to assist this victim in the wake of this crime, except try to coerce her into taking down her online account of what happened. For more, check out her post here.