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Economy & Business

When Personalization Leads To Discrimination On AirBnB


The sharing economy has made many things that used to be strictly business far more personal. Platforms for hailing a taxi or renting a vacation home often display the names and photos of the strangers involved in the transaction. The idea is to personalize the exchange, but it can have unintended consequences. Hidden Brain producers Maggie Penman and Max Nesterak take a look at how this plays out on Airbnb.

MAGGIE PENMAN, BYLINE: Airbnb works like this. You find a place where you want to stay, submit a request to the host, maybe write a nice note introducing yourself. If the room is available, the host accepts your request and tells you where to pick up the keys.

MAX NESTERAK, BYLINE: But when Quirtina Crittenden sent out requests, she says she got declined all the time.

QUIRTINA CRITTENDEN: The hosts would always come up with excuses like, oh, someone actually just booked it, or, oh, some of my regulars are coming in town, and they're going stay there; I just haven't updated my calendar. But I got suspicious when I would check back, like, days later and see that those dates were still available.

NESTERAK: Crittenden is African American, and on Airbnb, both hosts and guests are encouraged to have their names and photos on their profiles.

PENMAN: And this is actually one of the platform's selling points. It's supposed to make these transactions between strangers feel less anonymous and less scary.

NESTERAK: But it also made Crittenden start to wonder of these rejections had something to do with her race.

CRITTENDEN: My name is Quirtina. I have a very black-sounding name, and I also had my photo. So I'm very clearly a black woman.

NESTERAK: And when she looked at the reviews that previous guests had left for these hosts, she said she never saw anyone who looked like her. So Crittenden took to Twitter to vent, using the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack.

CRITTENDEN: The most common response that I got was, oh, yeah, that's why I don't use my photo - like, duh (laughter). Like, I was the late one (laughter).

PENMAN: Now, to put this story in perspective, Airbnb isn't some little startup anymore. It's one of the largest players in the hotel industry worldwide. In 2015, more than 2 million listings were offered on the platform from hosts around the world. That's nearly four times as many rooms as the Marriott hotel chain.

NESTERAK: Crittenden wanted to keep using the platform, so she tried tweaking her profile.

CRITTENDEN: I shortened my name to just Tina, which is a name that I go by in work and in other settings, and I changed my photo to a landscape. Ever since I changed my name and my photo, I've never had any issues on Airbnb.

PENMAN: Now, it's impossible to say exactly why Quirtina Crittenden was rejected by those specific hosts, but a recent study shows racial discrimination on Airbnb is widespread.

MICHAEL LUCA: I'm Michael Luca. I'm a faculty member at Harvard Business School. I'm an assistant professor of business administration.

PENMAN: Luca and a few of his colleagues were interested in the sharing economy and whether the lack of anonymity on platforms like Airbnb might be resulting in discrimination. To find out, they ran an experiment.

LUCA: We sent out 6,400 requests to stay with people, and we kept every request the same.

NESTERAK: The only thing that was different about the requests - the profiles attached to them either had African-American-sounding names or white-sounding names.

PENMAN: This is a method that's been used before in research about labor markets - like, does Jamal get the same number of job interviews as Jay when he sends out his resume?

NESTERAK: He doesn't, by the way.

PENMAN: And on Airbnb...

LUCA: We could see that there was a very different response rate and acceptance rate for African-American guests relative to white guests. Having an African-American name leads to roughly a 15 percent lower chance of being accepted as a guest on Airbnb relative to having a distinctively white name, holding all else constant.

PENMAN: And Luca and his colleagues think people could be discriminating without even knowing it.

LUCA: Bias for a lot of people is something that is accidental.

NESTERAK: What Luca is talking about is unconscious bias, these hidden associations we have that affect our behavior without us realizing it. Hosts might not be saying to themselves, I'm going to reject this person because I don't want to rent to a black person, although some may.

PENMAN: It may be more that because names and photos are the first things people see, they're also the first things people are considering consciously or unconsciously when deciding whether to accept a request. Luca and his colleagues looked at five major cities in the U.S., and discrimination was happening across the board.

LUCA: We saw there was discrimination among cheap listings, expensive listings, in diverse neighborhoods, in homogenous neighborhoods, among white hosts and among African-American hosts.

DAVID KING: There is a racial bias in platforms, and we are working with Mike Luca and any other external interested parties in, how do we address and fix this problem?

PENMAN: That's David King, the brand new director of diversity and belonging at Airbnb. He wants his platform to live up to its slogan, belong anywhere.

NESTERAK: One solution could be to get rid of names and photos on users' profiles, but Airbnb doesn't think that that would improve things.

KING: The photos are on the platform for a reason. Number one, it really does does help to aid in the trust between the guest and the host. And then secondary to that is safety. You want to make sure that that guest that shows up at your door is the person that you've been communicating with.

PENMAN: David King says there's a lot of opportunity for Airbnb to do good. The platform is bringing together people from all kinds of different backgrounds who wouldn't normally meet.

KING: We've done some some recent reports and studied in Chicago and New York pointing out that underserved communities, especially African-American communities, have benefitted quite a bit from our platform, usually in neighborhoods where there are few hotels.

NESTERAK: One neighborhood with few hotels is Washington, D.C.'s, Anacostia. The neighborhood is on the edge of city limits. It has a lot of big-box stores and empty lots but also row houses and families that go back generations. We went there to visit Airbnb host Synta Keeling.



KEELING: How are you?

NESTERAK: How are you?

PENMAN: It's nice to meet you.

KEELING: Nice to meet you.

PENMAN: Keeling owns a three-story townhouse in a new development, and she rents out two rooms on Airbnb. There's a fitness room, cable and high-speed Internet, solar panels and slippers for all of her guests.

I love the slippers, first of all.

KEELING: (Laughter) Ikea.

NESTERAK: Keeling is a super host, and we're not just saying that because of the slippers. It's an official designation she's earned from Airbnb based on positive reviews from her guests, her responsiveness to booking requests and the fact that she's never cancelled a booking. It shows Airbnb travelers she's been verified as a good person to stay with. Keeling says in her neighborhood, that's important.

KEELING: This neighborhood's called Capitol View, and it's 98 percent African-American, double-digit unemployment.

PENMAN: Keeling earns thousands of dollars a month on Airbnb, and she says her guests bring business to the stores and restaurants nearby.

NESTERAK: Sometimes Keeling thinks she doesn't get certain bookings because of her race and the racial composition of her neighborhood, and she says that's OK.

KEELING: The strange thing about Airbnb - makes it tough, is, I really don't want a racist guest in my house (laughter) because I don't - I live here in this space, so I don't need to feel uncomfortable.

PENMAN: The fact is Airbnb is not the same thing as a major hotel chain. Hosts and guests have discretion on the platform, but they don't have the same legal recourse as hotel customers if they feel they've been discriminated against.

NESTERAK: We spoke to a couple lawyers for this story, and the legal picture is a little murky. It isn't clear who, if anyone, is liable for discrimination on a web-based platform.

PENMAN: So Airbnb does offer this opportunity to experience different cultures, to meet people you wouldn't normally meet, but hidden bias can get in the way.

NESTERAK: And people like Quirtina Crittenden and Synta Keeling could be paying the price.

CORNISH: Maggie Penman and Max Nesterak are producers for NPR's Hidden Brain podcast which explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.