The shape of Airbnb’s business (II)

Collecting data for several cities both in November 2013 and in May 2014 gives a look at some ways in which Airbnb’s business is changing in these cities. The cities surveyed are:

  • Paris and New York (Airbnb’s two biggest markets)
  • San Francisco (the home of Airbnb)
  • London, Rome, Berlin (three European capitals and major tourist cities)
  • Toronto and Chicago (two smaller markets).

As in Part I, the surveys were carried out by a two-stage method:

  • Stage 1 used the Airbnb search pages for a city to collect Room ID values (a number that uniquely identifies an individual listing).
  • Stage 2 visited the listing page for each Room ID and collected information about it.

The data were stored in a database and the charts here are based on queries of that database. The survey code (and database) are available on github.

The main observations are:

  • It is possible that the number of listings has reached a maximum in some of Airbnb’s largest cities, particularly in the USA, while other cities do continue to show significant growth.
  • There is a surprising amount of churn in Airbnb’s business. Over a third of the listings on the site in November were no longer there in May, to be replaced by a similar (or, in some cases, greater) number of new listings.
  • Around 90% of all ratings on the site are 4.5 stars or 5 stars (out of five).

These observations suggest some conclusions:

  • Airbnb’s move to professionalize its host base may be a reaction to the churn in the host population, a necessary step to generate continued growth.
  • In April Airbnb expelled 2,000 listings from its New York offerings, claiming that they did not offer a positive experience. Many of those listings must have had either no ratings at all or were rated highly (4.5 or 5) by their guests.
  • The rating system does not provide a reliable assessment of host quality.


Figure 1 shows the net change in the number of listings in each of the eight cities for which data was collected in both November and May, as a percentage of its November value.

Some cities seem to have maxed out in terms of listings. Six of the cities saw either decreases or increases of less than 10% in the total number of listings. Each of the three US cities in the study lost listings between November and May, while Berlin and Rome were big gainers.


Figure 1: Change in number of listings in cities.

The net gains or losses mask a bigger change. Figure 2 shows that in the six month period, well over a third of existing listings vanished from the site, and were replaced by a similar (or, in the case of Berlin and Rome, substantially greater) number of new listings. For both Paris and New York, well over 40% of listings vanished, only to be replaced by new ones. Figure 3 shows the total number of vanished and new listings.

The high churn rate must introduce uncertainty for Airbnb’s future, as it is relying on a steady stream of new listings to replace those that are vanishing from the site. Perhaps this is one of the motivators of Airbnb’s efforts to professionalize its host base: hosts who make a commitment to the business being more likely to stick around.


Figure 2: New and vanished listings between November 2013 and May 2014, as a percentage of the November number.


Figure 3: absolute number of new and vanished listings

[Note: I did wonder whether this high churn rate could be an artefact: whether the displayed room ID values could have changed between the November and May data collections. A query showed that, of the 10597 listings that occur in both the November and May collections from New York, 10529 have the same host. I concluded that room ID values are stable.]

We can look a little closer at those vanished listings. Figure 4 shows that the vanishing listings have fewer reviews than the overall population in the city.


Figure 4: Mean number of reviews for vanished listings and for all listings

Figure 5 shows the ratings that the vanished listings had received from guests. The overall distribution of ratings is investigated later in this report, but Figure 5 shows that, while many of the listings had no reviews at all (Airbnb recently claimed that reviews are left for 70% of visits, so it is likely that these listings had no visits either), of those that did have visits the average rating was overwhelmingly high (4.5–5).


Figure 5: The number of vanished listings by average overall rating

Figure 6 emphasizes the point, showing that the average rating of listings leaving the site is within 0.1 of those that stay on the site.


Figure 6: Average rating of listings that leave the site (red) and which have been on the site for the whole period (green). Note that the y axis starts at 4.5.

It seems likely that many hosts try Airbnb, have a few guests (or none at all) and then simply decide that, for whatever reason, the service is not for them. To repeat the conclusion from the overall churn rate, the high turnover rate does raise questions about what long-term population of hosts the site can support, and how it can ensure that those who try and leave the site are replaced by new hosts.


Trust has long been a key part of the Airbnb business, and technology has been seen as the magic ingredient. Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky expresses the company’s confidence when he says of city-level rules that “they’re primarily set up for screening. To protect consumers. Well it turns out that cities can’t screen as well as technologies can screen. Companies have these magical things called reputation systems… We think government should exist as the place of last recourse.”

There are two sides to Airbnb’s trust system. There is peer-to-peer trust, often described as a reputation system, which consists of ratings, personal profiles, and comments written by hosts or guests and seen by other hosts or guests. The other side is centralized trust, which consists of central payment, verified ID, and a complaint system.

Much of the talk around the sharing economy focuses on reputation and peer-to-peer trust (as in Chesky’s comment above). That’s because it’s the peer-to-peer aspect that is new: after all, in one sense we have forever trusted strangers to deliver services from food to haircuts to regular taxis, and the centralized component of the system is not that different to many hospitality companies. Jason Tanz writes in Wired that

We are entrusting complete strangers with our most valuable possessions, our personal experiences—and our very lives. In the process, we are entering a new era of Internet-enabled intimacy.

So what do the numbers have to say about peer-to-peer trust?

Figure 7 shows the distribution of ratings for each listing. Airbnb provides ratings under a number of categories (cleanliness, accuracy of description etc) and collects them together as “overall satisfaction”. The site does not give the ratings for individuals (although individual comments are visible) but provides an aggregate, from 0 to 5 stars with a half-star granularity.


Figure 7: Overall satisfaction ratings for listings in each city. The ratings for 0-3 are so few that they are collected together. Listings with no ratings are excluded.

The vast majority of ratings are either 4.5 or 5 stars. The finding is consistent with ratings on other sites (e.g. an earlier look at BlaBlaCar, or more serious studies of eBay listed there). When we rate each other, ratings become more a courtesy than a judgment. Just as restaurant tips only weakly correspond to the quality of service, so a rating of 4.5 or 5 is more a way of politely concluding an exchange than it is of assessing the behaviour of a host or guest.

The ratings obviously fail to distinguish among the people on the site, and so are not providing the service for which they were intended. This is part of the reason why Airbnb and others have moved to emphasize the centralized trust aspect of their systems. But centralized trust is the same reason we trust the fast-food restaurant cook or the hotel cleaning staff. The major sharing economy sites rely on discipline and the potential for removal from the site to provide security for the users, just as traditional industries do.

Churn and Trust in New York

The Airbnb court case in New York raised the profile of the service there, and resulted in Airbnb ejecting 2,000 listings from its service.

Airbnb claims that “we found that some property managers weren’t providing a quality, local experience to guests. These hosts weren’t making their neighborhood stronger and they weren’t delivering the kind of hospitality our guests expect and deserve. In some cases, they were making communities worse, not better.”

With 10,000 listings vanishing from Airbnb in the New York area, it is difficult to know which 2,000 were removed by Airbnb and which left for other reasons. Some individual hosts with large numbers of listings have been removed, but that still leaves many unaccounted for. Figure ny-vanished shows that, despite Airbnb’s suggestion that the hosts are not “delivering the kind of hospitality our guests expect”, most of the removed listings must have had either no ratings at all, or must have had good ratings from their guests.


Figure 8: The “overall satisfaction” ratings for listings in New York that vanished from the site between November 2013 and May 2014.

The biggest single category of the 10,000 New York listings that have vanished from the Airbnb site are listings with no ratings at all (shown as NULL). After that come the 5.0 and 4.5 ratings, leaving fewer than 800 with bad ratings (4 or lower). For at least 1200 of the listings that Airbnb removed, bad ratings is not the reason.

Combined with the very high number of positive ratings shown in Figure 7, this result shows that the significance of peer-to-peer ratings is exaggerated for Airbnb. While the company proclaims that peer-to-peer rating systems set it apart from old-style methods, it is clear that their trust system is essentially a traditional complaint-based, centralized system. The peer-to-peer ratings may give warm feelings on the site, but Airbnb itself clearly does not trust it when it goes to remove listings from its site.


The data set suggests that there is a surprising amount of churn in Airbnb’s hosts. Over a third of the host population in November left the site, to be replaced by new listings.

It is likely that a large number of people experiment with being Airbnb hosts, and then decide that it is not for them.

It will be interesting to see whether this becomes an issue for Airbnb as the number of ratings it has in the North American cities surveyed in November and May seems to have peaked. How will it continue the growth that is demanded of it by its backers in the face of the large number of hosts who drop off the platform?

While much is made of the novel peer-to-peer nature of Airbnb’s reputation system, it appears that the company runs a complaint-based trust system that is not so different from other hospitality companies. In April Airbnb expelled 2,000 listings from its New York offerings, claiming that they did not offer a positive experience, but many of those listings had either no ratings at all or were rated highly (4.5 or 5) by their guests: it appears that Airbnb did not use its own ratings when judging who to remove from its platform.

The shape of Airbnb’s business

When Airbnb talks about its legal troubles in New York, Berlin, Amsterdam, and elsewhere, it claims that existing laws were never designed for its new brand of disruptive peer-to-peer business.

There were laws created for businesses, and there were laws for people. What the sharing economy did was create a third category: people as businesses… They don’t know whether to bucket our activity as person or a business.

In 2010, the State of New York passed a law designed to crack down on bad actors that operate illegal hotels—a goal we all share. Unfortunately, the 2010 law also had the unintended consequence of impacting regular New Yorkers.

There are more. You get the point.

In a series of studies designed to address regulators’ concerns, Airbnb talks about its hosts as “regular people” and focuses on the ways its business is different to the existing tourist business. It highlights the hotel industry as a point of comparison and emphasizes just how different Airbnb is. Here are a few typical quotations:

  • “87 percent of hosts rent the homes they live in” (Amsterdam)
  • “87 percent of Airbnb hosts rent out the home they live in, and the typical host earns $7,530 per year” (in New York)
  • “Airbnb is complementary to the existing tourism industry in Paris. 70 percent of Airbnb properties in Paris are located outside the central hotel corridor.”
  • “73 percent of Airbnb properties in Amsterdam are located outside the eight central tourist districts.”
  • “Airbnb’s 5,600 local hosts are regular people who occasionally rent out their homes and use the income they earn to pay the bills.” (in Berlin)
  • “About 80% of Airbnb hosts rent out the home they live in” (in London and Edinburgh)

There are more. You get the point.

The claim of novelty and of hosts as “regular people” has been widely accepted. For example, the thoughtful Kevin Roose wrote this in New York magazine the other day:

There are no laws governing Airbnb because until very recently, there was nothing like Airbnb in the world—not of the same scale, not with the same guiding philosophy. And when Airbnb came onto the scene, regulators were forced to slot it into existing categories where it, arguably, didn’t belong—treating a bachelor renting out his spare room to make rent, for example, with the same rules as a scuzzy landlord operating an illegal hotel. They’ve been playing catch-up ever since.

Or as Wired Magazine writes:

We are hopping into strangers’ cars (Lyft, Sidecar, Uber), welcoming them into our spare rooms (Airbnb), dropping our dogs off at their houses (DogVacay, Rover), and eating food in their dining rooms (Feastly).

There are more. You get the point.

So when it comes to thinking about and dealing with this and other sharing-economy companies, the kind of business that Airbnb operates matters. Does it match the company’s self-portrait? Is the company as novel as it claims to be? Are its hosts “regular people”?

It turns out there is an element of wishful thinking in the portraits of Airbnb. Last November, I took a look at Airbnb data from New York (here and here). In February, travel web site Skift carried out a similar study (here and here), which was part of the New York Attorney General’s case against Airbnb. The two studies took similar approaches, collecting listings from Airbnb’s public web site and gleaning what we could from that imperfect data set. Both studies concluded that, while it is true that a large number of hosts rent the homes they live in, hosts with multiple listings make up almost half of Airbnb’s business. Also that, while Airbnb makes great play of its origins in renting out an airbed, such rentals are now a negligible portion of its business. Even “spare rooms” are a minority of the business: the majority of Airbnb’s business in New York comes from the rental of entire homes.

The data showed a company that was closer to orthodox models such as HomeAway and its subsidiary VRBO than the narrative would have it. There are differences—HomeAway is focused on vacation rentals, and many of its properties are run by property managers—but the similarities cast doubt on Airbnb’s claims that existing regulations are inapplicable.

Now here we are: it’s six months on, and interest in Airbnb continues. Airbnb has kicked 2,000 New York listings off its site (10% of the total for the city). It handed over host data to the Attorney General (anonymized, the company says). Meanwhile, the company is valued at $10 billion, having raised $450 million in a new round of venture capital. The New York dispute is now over, but the sharing economy poster child is still here, bigger than ever, and still a leading light in the wave of digital disruptors looking to shake things up and make a lot of money.

So during May I collected data on over 90,000 hosts and 125,000 listings—about 20% of Airbnb’s 600,000 total, according to this TechCrunch estimate—from 18 cities around the world, to sketch a portrait of Airbnb’s business. The main questions I had in mind are the straightforward ones, starting with the same ones Skift and I asked about New York:

  • Is Airbnb’s business based on “regular people” in a way that other part of the hospitality industry are not?
  • Is Airbnb’s business based on spare rooms and airbeds?
  • I looked again at several cities I had collected (but not posted about) in November, so that I could look at how the business has changed in some of Airbnb’s key markets.
  • I hoped that looking a second time at New York might have something to say about the 2,000 listings that Airbnb removed from the site in April, during its run-in with the Attorney General.

For those who don’t want to read the whole thing, here are the quick answers.

  • While a good part of Airbnb’s business is based on “regular people”, over 40% comes from hosts with multiple listings. This is different from Airbnb’s self-portrait. Airbnb’s claim that existing regulations don’t apply to it is at least exaggerated.
  • The majority of Airbnb’s revenue comes from whole-home rentals. This makes the company much more like HomeAway and other vacation rental businesses. It casts further doubt on the company’s claim to be a new class of business.
  • In some of its biggest markets, Airbnb may have maxed out the number of listings it can achieve. What’s more, there is a high rate of churn as individual hosts put a property on the market, have a few guests, and then take the property off again.
  • Airbnb does not appear to believe its own claim that customer ratings provide an assurance of good experience. Airbnb says it removed 2,000 New York listings from the site because of bad experience, but at least half of those listings had good (4.5 or 5 star) average ratings from customers.

I’m going to post this in two parts.

  • Part 1 looks at the split between hosts with a single listing and those with multiple listings, and it also looks at how far Airbnb has moved from its “origin myth”, after which the company is named—the hosting of people on couches and in shared rooms.
  • Part II looks at the change in Airbnb’s business over the last six months, including the changes in New York where the legal strife has been the loudest.
  • If I have time and if there are requests, I’ll collect these three together and post a single PDF.

Background and Method

Just to set out some basic information, Figure 1 shows the number of listings and of hosts in each city. The data was collected using a fairly straightforward two-stage search. The first stage goes through all the search pages for a specified city and collects the room_id values. The second stage visits the room page for each value and gets details about the listing. The code is available on github.

A few notes:

  • Airbnb has regularly said that is has about 20,000 listings in New York city. I find 19094 (and have over 20,000 from November) so the collection seems pretty complete.
  • In 2013, Airbnb claimed 5600 hosts in Berlin. I find 6141.
  • In the run-up to the World Cup, Airbnb claims to have 9,000 listings in Rio. I find just over 10,000. Perhaps the borders of the search are different, or the number is growing. Still, 90% accuracy is not bad.

In short, the surveys for each city seem pretty accurate.


Figure 1: Number of hosts and listings in the surveyed cities

The host perspective

Figure 2 shows the percentage of hosts in each city that have a single listing on the site. The values for New York and Amsterdam match Airbnb’s claim for New York and Amsterdam to within a percentage point, which suggests that the sample is realistic and that the use of a single listing is a pretty good proxy for “regular people who occasionally rent out the home in which they live”. The graph also shows that the claim applies to most of the big cities. Barcelona, Rome, and Tokyo are the only Airbnb locations surveyed that have fewer than 80% of hosts with a single listing. So far, so good for Airbnb’s self-portrait. From here on I will call hosts who have a single listing “regular people”.


Figure 2: Percent of hosts with a single listing

The marketplace perspective

Imagine that a city has 100 hosts, 99 are “regular people” with a single listing and one host has 99 listings, then the percent of hosts who are regular people would be 99%, but the percent of listings on the market that come from regular hosts would be only 50%. Both percentages are important in gauging the kind of business that Airbnb is. Figure 3 shows the percent of listings offered by regular people. The overall figure is 62%: still a significant majority, but a number that is 20% lower than the percentage of hosts.

We can see that for a few cities, notably Barcelona (11,000 listings) and Rome (growing quickly, at 8,000 listings), the majority of listings come from hosts with more than one offering.


Figure 3: Percent of listings from hosts with a single listing

The traveller perspective

The percentage of listings that come from different types of hosts corresponds to the experience of the potential guest browsing or searching the Airbnb site. The traffic generated by Airbnb is different, because not all listings are equally popular. There may be areas with many Airbnb listings but relatively few actual visits, while other areas may have listings that are visited very frequently. Airbnb does not give the number of actual bookings for each listing (or, nearly equivalently, the number of visits to the listing), but it does give the number of reviews that each listing has received, and this should be a reasonable proxy for the number of visits.

Over a third of all listings have no reviews at all, and some have many (the most-reviewed listing in my sample is this San Francisco treehouse, a novel place to stay with 460 reviews.)

Figure 4 shows the percentage of visits that are to rooms listed by regular people. The numbers are getting significantly smaller now. No city has more than three quarters of its visits at properties of regular people, and several have a slim majority of visits to hosts with multiple listings. Overall, 45% of visits happen at places offered by hosts with multiple listings.


Figure 4: Percentage of visits (bookings) to listings offered by hosts with a single listing, using reviews as a proxy for visits

The Airbnb perspective

There is one more step to take, which is to look at Airbnb’s actual revenue. What fraction of its business comes from regular people and what fraction comes from multiple listers?

To get here, I multiply the bookings (proxied by reviews) with the listed nightly price. Again, it’s not a perfect measure but so long as regular hosts don’t overall have longer- or shorter-stay guests compared to other hosts, it should give a reasonable picture.

Figure 5 shows the percentage of Airbnb’s revenue that comes from regular cities. Only three cities have over 60% of their revenue coming from hosts with a single listing. Overall, 44% of Airbnb’s business comes from hosts with more than one listing, which is slightly up from 42% in November (the increase may not be significant).


Figure 5: Estimated percentage of Airbnb revenue from hosts with single-listings

Airbnb listing types

The story of Airbnb emphasizes the casual “airbed” rental, but this is a very small part of Airbnb’s business. Again, there are a couple of ways of looking at the data.

Listings by room type

Every listing on the Airbnb site is listed as one of three categories: a private room, a shared room, or an entire home/apartment. Figure 6 shows the breakdown in each city. It is clear that shared rooms are a negligible portion of the total: about 1 in 50 listings are shared rooms.


Figure 6: Number of listings that are private rooms, entire homes or shared rooms

Visits by room type

Figure 7 shows the visits by room type, using reviews as a proxy for visits again. Shared rooms are an even smaller percentage of the whole: only 1.4% of Airbnb visits are made to shared rooms.


Figure 7: Number of visits to private rooms, entire homes or shared rooms

Revenue by room type

Using reviews * price as a proxy, Figure 8 shows the percentage of revenue from each room type. The revenue that comes from spare couches and shared rooms is a mere 0.56%.


Figure 8: Revenue from different types.

So what?

  • The data show that Airbnb is consistently economical with the truth when it describes its own business. It’s a long way from being just “regular people” and there is a lot more business coming from multiple-listing owners than they let on.
  • The data say that it’s time commentators and the media stopped using the”Couchsurfing” narrative for Airbnb. At less than 1% of its business, the couchsurfing model is irrelevant for what Airbnb is today. It’s far more like HomeAway than it is like Couchsurfing.
  • If there is a novelty to Airbnb’s business, it’s that it collects property managers, individual renters, and occasional renters under one roof, just as Amazon can offer best sellers, midlist authors and self-published obscura in the same place. And while much of the talk will be about the long tail of rooms, the reality is that Airbnb is pushing for the professionalization of its hosts, and we’ll see more of that over time.
  • Other conclusions to come after we see the rest of the data.

No True Airbnb Host…

After months of waiting, Airbnb and the Attorney General of New York finally face each other in court this week to argue over the Attorney General’s subpoena for information on the 15,000 or so Airbnb hosts in New York City (summary at the Guardian, more opinion in the overview by Nitasha Tiku at Valleywag). There’s been a flurry of revealing activity and statements, and lots of commentary. So here’s more.

The court case is about many things. But what makes it interesting for those of us who don’t live in New York is the broader implications of the case, which include:

  • The breadth of the Attorney General’s subpoena and the proportionality of his actions. Does the subpoena blend into the general fear of government access to individual data in the light of the NSA scandals?
  • The illegality of some Airbnb rentals. If the subpoena succeeds and shows that a significant portion of Airbnb’s business is based on illegal rentals, then that’s a problem for a lot of people.
  • If Airbnb rentals are illegal, who is responsible (legally and morally)? Is it the host or Airbnb itself?
  • The validity of the law. Airbnb maintain the law is a bad law, inappropriately applied, and that the Airbnb hosts are a new class of business (“micro-entrepreneurs”) that need new rules. Does new technology render the old laws obsolete?
  • How will this affect the $10B valuation of Airbnb and its prospects for an IPO?
  • How will this affect the future of the sharing economy?

The main players are, obviously, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Airbnb. But other players appear on the stage, including:

  • Airbnb hosts and guests. Hosts have the most to lose if their information is handed over.
  • Democrat Senator Elizabeth Krueger. Her position on the issue (see here and today’s interview by Nancy Scola) is a bit different from that of the Attorney General, but she is broadly on the same side.
  • The technology industries and advocates. The Internet Association and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have both spoken up about the subpoena, placing themselves broadly on the Airbnb side.
  • Neighbours, landlords, tenants, and housing co-ops. These are all affected by individuals renting out apartments through Airbnb.
  • The hotel industry. While Airbnb has painted hotels as one of the villains in the fight, their role seems to me peripheral.

To start with the narrowest issue: it seems pretty clear that about 2/3 of Airbnb rentals in the city are outside the law in New York, which forbids apartment rentals of under 30 days if the owner is not present. The New York Post report is here, and is based on an affidavit by the Attorney General’s office (PDF). That affidavit is, in turn, based on an analysis of Airbnb’s business carried out by consultants Connotate for travel site Skift. Their report is more extensive than, but similar to, the analysis I carried out a while ago here. Airbnb and Peers recognize this by arguing that the law needs to be changed.

For what it’s worth, I find Elizabeth Krueger’s position on illegal rentals more reasonable than either the Attorney General’s or that of advocacy group Peers. The Attorney General gives the impression of (at least potentially, and despite avowals otherwise) going after all the hosts who have made illegal rentals. Given that law enforcement is usually complaint-based and that Airbnb has done little to warn its hosts of their responsibilities, this seems harsh. Krueger (see links above) puts Airbnb as the root of the problem—making a lot of money off hosts and letting the hosts take all the risk—and I agree with her. Airbnb may not be legally responsible, but it seems to me morally culpable.

But what if the law is just a bad, obsolete law that shouldn’t apply to Airbnb hosts anyway, which is what Airbnb has been arguing? Here the onus switches to Airbnb: has it made the case that it can do better than New York’s “bad law”? It needs to do more than say “because Technology” if it’s going to justify a change.

Most of the Airbnb case is made in its public policy blog posts (here and here), in its report on New York (here), and in its new sharing cities initiative (here). What these posts show is a remarkable lack of content, and a reliance on heartwarming words and spin that is, in the end, cheap talk.

Airbnb’s description of its own hosts is at least consistent. They repeatedly describe their “community” as “regular New Yorkers who occasionally rent out their homes”, or “regular New Yorkers just trying to make ends meet”. They emphasize that “87 percent of Airbnb hosts rent out the home they live in”. These are all phrases that invoke the “sharing economy” vision. When anything goes wrong, Airbnb refers to occasional, incredibly rare “bad apples”.

But Airbnb’s homespun language is carefully chosen. The 87% figure is the most obviously economical with the truth. It may be true as a percentage of hosts, but only about 63% of listings are single-listing hosts, and as much as anyone can tell, almost half of actual bookings are from hosts who have multiple listings. It’s not easy to get definitive answers from scraping the public web site, but Airbnb has consistently refused to challenge these numbers, and so it’s a good guess that they are not too far off the truth. They could release their own statistics if they chose, but they don’t.

Instead, they put out “reports” that have no methodology, no definitions of key terms, and about 300 words of actual text. Airbnb makes a lot of the fact that it “supports more than 4,500 jobs” but it never says what “support” means. It claims to have “generated $104 million in economic activity outside of Manhattan”, but it doesn’t say what “generated” means. This may seem like nit-picking, but it isn’t: it’s just asking for facts instead of spin.

But where things get really bad — for Airbnb hosts who drive the company’s revenue as well as for Airbnb’s claim to be a responsible provider of safe and well-managed accommodation — is in Airbnb’s slippery definition of its own “community”.

Airbnb continually claims to speak for its hosts, as in “our hosts want to pay taxes”, and repeatedly characterizes its community of “amazing” hosts as “regular” people. It also describes them as “micro-entrepreneurs”, suggesting that they are independent. But Airbnb hosts, who are asked increasingly to invest in their own property in order to put it on Airbnb’s marketplace, are precariously dependent on Airbnb’s whims in order to make money from their investment, which is not an entrepreneurial role at all. If anything goes wrong, the host gets turfed off the market without appeal. If you’re a host, how do you know if you are a “bad apple” or a “regular New Yorker”?

Most dramatically, this has happened today. After insisting for months that concerns about multiple listings were exaggerated, Airbnb today permanently removed no fewer than 2,000 New York listings from its platform – roughly 10% of the total. They claim the process has been going on for months, and that it demonstrates their responsibility. But the fact that it happened today of all days, the fact that identifying multiple listings is a trivial exercise, and the fact that the criteria for expulsion are still woefully unclear, makes it difficult to take them seriously (Jason Clampet at Skift is excellent on the removals). Here is an excerpt of Airbnb’s explanation:

But when we examined our community in New York, we found that some property managers weren’t providing a quality, local experience to guests. These hosts weren’t making their neighborhood stronger and they weren’t delivering the kind of hospitality our guests expect and deserve. In some cases, they were making communities worse, not better. We took a hard look at our community in New York to identify these hosts and we took action.

Earlier this year, we began notifying these hosts that they and their more than 2,000 listings would be permanently removed from the Airbnb community. While we are allowing these hosts to support their existing  bookings, all are now prohibited from accepting new reservations and if you search for a place to stay in New York, you won’t find these listings.

Imagine you are an Airbnb host in New York reading these words. How would you know if you are living up to Airbnb’s requirements? Are you making your neighbourhood stronger? Are you delivering the kind of hospitality your guests expect? This is a “No True Scotsman” argument: the Airbnb community is trustworthy because if you do anything Airbnb decides is wrong then you are not part of the community. The lack of clarity is remarkable and shows that they are not ready to provide the kind of security and accountability that any replacement for rentals regulation would need.

My skepticism over Airbnb’s sincerity is heightened because, apparently, one blocking point in the negotiations with New York is that (according to Clampet), “Airbnb would not agree to limits on how many listings a person could have in New York City.” It’s clear that a large number of bookings is essential to the venture capital model, and goes against the spirit of the “sharing economy” that Airbnb so consistently invokes. But it looks like they’re going where the money is. That makes them untrustworthy.

Airbnb’s evocative but meaningless cheap talk (for more, see their Shared Cities initiative) is cynical. I fear that, instead of promoting any realistic idea of sharing, Airbnb will pollute the whole idea as a consequence of the high-return venture capital model it has pursued.

Airbnb Stories

Telling stories is a powerful, personal way to communicate. That’s why Airbnb collects stories from its hosts and puts them on its web site and uses them liberally in its publicity.

When the economic crash hit, Tama’s livelihood as a painter and real estate broker was threatened. A serious health condition was only increasing her expenses, with prescription costs at times topping $1000 per month. Receiving guests not only introduced her to new friends—it allowed her to eat, pay her bills, and stay in her home.

But Chris’s story is not on the Airbnb web site.

In San Francisco, Chris lost his home so that his landlord could make more money by renting out apartments on Airbnb. Chris says: “They forced me out of a home I loved. It was incredibly difficult to find a place, especially because I have a really old dog. I ended up paying over double what I was paying there.” Chris is now suing his landlord and his attorney says: “Airbnb is contributing to the displacement of long-term tenants in San Francisco… It has made it so easy to go into the short-term rental business; it is ubiquitous.”

Most stories on the Airbnb web site are about people renting out the homes in which they live.

Lisa and Byron are both artists, and have been their whole lives. They first met at an art residence in 1986, were married in 1993, and their family home in a Park Slope brownstone is where they raised their three kids.

This past fall, when their son headed off to university, their downstairs sat empty, so when tuition bills started rolling in, Lisa realized Airbnb was a great solution to help pay for them.

But not all Airbnb hosts rent the house in which they live.

In New York, Chris lives in Brooklyn but rents out two bedrooms in a separate apartment he leases in Manhattan, at $100 per night.

Sounds like a nice little earner. Some Airbnb hosts are generous, and are on the Airbnb web site.

When New York City was hit by one of the worst hurricanes in history, Shell, a long time host on Airbnb, realized that the loss for some people was devastating. As the waters rose and people had to evacuate their homes, many of them couldn’t return for days, if at all. Shell decided to go online and list her space for free for those who were in need.

Airbnb is quick to claim Shell as part of its “community”. It has’t been so quick to claim everyone. Not Ken’s tenant, for example.

Also in New York, Ken owns a few buildings in Nolita. He runs a nonprofit that teaches people how to ride bicycles. Now he’s hiring private investigators to see what his tenants are doing. Ken doesn’t like it: “It’s so not me. It’s like how did I become that guy?” But Apartment 3 had become a kind of hotel, charging $250 a night and he suspects the tenant made half a million dollars before he evicted her. He says of Airbnb that  “They see how lucrative her business was… And they refuse to take it down. So they’re not good guys.”

A lot of the Airbnb stories are about friendliness and about connections between people.

Jonathan is a single dad raising three kids in Echo Park, Los Angeles. For years he worked 60-80 hour weeks at a job that was unfulfilling, scrambled to care for his three children, and had let his own ceramics studio fall by the wayside. When his schedule was cut back at work, Jonathan decided to list an extra room in his home on Airbnb. His first guest gave him such a positive review that more lined up, and he was soon renting out a second room as well.

Hosting has become not only an extra source of income, it’s also allowed him to be more available to his own family.

But Jerry’s story isn’t on the Airbnb web site.

Jerry lives in New Orleans. He says that “In the French Quarter it is increasingly difficult to know your neighbors because they change every weekend.”

I have resisted telling stories when writing about the sharing economy, even though almost every media report leads with one and even though I’ve been asked to use them. I’ll continue to avoid them, in general, even though it probably limits the audience I’ll reach. Why? Because selective storytelling is manipulative and I don’t want to be a manipulator and I don’t want my readers to be manipulated. (Trust me.)

If you read a heart-warming story promoted by someone with a vested interest, you’re being sold a bill of goods. It really is as simple as that. The people in the story may be genuine; the story may be true, and they may be lovely people doing wonderful things. But there are millions of stories in every city, and the magic is in the selection (and the photography). By themselves, stories tell us nothing about the bigger picture, and it’s occasionally worth remembering that.