I read Airbnb Magazine so you don’t have to — not that you have to, not even if you are an Airbnb host that receives the publication for free in the mail, or if you’re a guest that, inexplicably, wants to read your host’s copy of Airbnb Magazine. I have gone out of my way to peruse it, so if you want to know what a lifestyle magazine for the gig economy says about precarious working life today, you can read this instead.
The short answer is that Airbnb Magazine reveals no more and no less about the gig economy than Life revealed about the mass-production economy, or Lucky did about 1990s globalization. In other words, nothing, other than a fantasy of production without exploitation, of an economy made of smooth glossy surfaces, benefiting all.
Here and elsewhere, Airbnb’s self-presentation is comically at odds with reality. According to its media kit, the magazine “celebrates humanity wherever it exists — across borders, time zones, languages and skin tones — to showcase travel that is accessible, immersive, local and people-focused.” Its focus is “connection,” the vapid word for our conscription in data-mining digital networks so beloved by Silicon Valley executives and public relations flacks. Airbnb, the company, describes itself as a horizontal platform “powered by local hosts” who open up their homes to make us all more “connected.” Just as Uber and Lyft have no drivers, Airbnb has no housekeepers or landlords; there are only “hospitality entrepreneurs,” welcoming us into their abodes.
Anyone who has used Airbnb knows what a farce all this is — I can’t remember the last time I stayed in an Airbnb that was actually inhabited by a permanent resident. Most have been spartan apartments with empty closets, barren of personal idiosyncrasy and seemingly decorated by the photos that come in the poster frames sold at IKEA.
Airbnb isn’t even part of the “gig economy” at all, if by that we mean idealized “peer-to-peer” networks that “connect” people. Like Lyft or TaskRabbit, Airbnb devolves the risks of ownership of capital assets — cars, rooms, buildings, equipment — onto its workers, subcontractors, and customers. But what Airbnb exploits is less the labor time and energy of gig workers — although, like ridesharing companies, it also denies its “hosts” the rights of employees — and more the real estate subleased on its platform.
Because a lot of Airbnb’s workers are actually property owners, whether professional landlords or owners of real-estate portfolios, Airbnb labors very hard to do what comes more easily to services like Uber: putting a human face on twenty-first-century labor exploitation. On other sharing platforms, your interaction with the worker who powers it all is unavoidable. You are in your Uber driver’s car, after all, and you can chat with them; you might even enjoy their company. But alone in an Airbnb apartment, in an unfamiliar city, with only LIVE, LAUGH, LOVE posters for company, the fantasy of a real-estate subleasing firm that brings us together becomes harder to sustain. Into the aesthetic void of Airbnb steps Airbnb Magazine.
The first thing you will notice about Airbnb Magazine is how little it reminds you of Airbnb. There are no characterless apartments in unlived-in buildings. There is no particle-board furniture or strange smells. There are no long-term residents in gentrifying buildings ignoring you as you stumble up the stairs, luggage in tow, to the newly renovated apartment their old neighbor was just evicted from.
Nor are there any rooms decorated in that familiar international Airbnb style: a mixture of anodyne decor, inspirational English-language quotations painted above the bed, and some generic nod to local color, like that photo of men eating lunch atop a New York skyscraper. Airbnb Magazine’s apartments are showpieces of modern design, or quirky tiny houses in the woods, or former chateaus in the French countryside.
Nor are there any scammers, pop-up brothels, or dead bodies. One of the ownership risks that Airbnb devolves to its workers and customers is the risk of fraud. As Allie Conti reported last fall in Vice, the company routinely shields itself from liability through a combination of opaque regulations and a mutual review system that discourages confrontation between customers and unethical hosts. An old classmate of mine who worked at a French-language Airbnb call center in Portugal informed me that she routinely spoke with guests requesting refunds for the corpse they had just found in their rentals. “I was the first person they called when they arrived,” she told me; it happened so often that she developed a script instructing guests to report the body to local police, and then see about a refund.
Instead of corpses, in Airbnb Magazine, we find illustrated articles by James Beard Award winners, Guggenheim fellows, famous novelists, and people with New York Times bylines. We get promotions for Airbnb’s “Experiences,” which are more “immersive” activities that customers can pay for, much like a hotel or resort might offer excursions or dance classes to its guests. The magazine’s Italy issue profiles an Airbnb-branded pasta-making class outside Rome hosted by an ex-actress and her grandmother. Here, we can glimpse elements of the relentless self-commodification that is demanded of many workers today in the gig economy. In this case, an ex-actress takes to marketing her picturesquely Italian grandmother — guests call her “Nonna Nerina” — to coax tourists to the Roman suburbs.
The aesthetic idiosyncrasy so glaringly absent from the Airbnb aesthetic, in other words, is the commodity for sale in its magazine. The publication is, at bottom, an upscale travel magazine, in the vein of Condé Nast Traveler or the Times travel section, and most of its articles traffic in all the clichés that plague travel writing. It is distinctly aspirational, profiling the most high-end Airbnb rentals in international locales. It celebrates traveling “off the beaten track,” in the style of every Lonely Planet, introducing you to “hidden gems” that, because you are reading about them, are clearly not hidden. (Nor do they seem like gems: a city guide to Buenos Aires shopping and nightlife tips readers off to a bar where you can drink “to the sounds of Jimi Hendrix,” and a nearby shop of “sustainable makers” that features “six amazing brands under one roof.”)
In the magazine’s many first-person narrative essays, its photos artfully crop natural landscapes to promise the first-world tourist the romance of third-world discovery, as in “South America’s Untapped Natural Wonder,” a piece about Iguazú Falls on the Brazil-Argentina border. Most open with the sort of breathless lede common to travel writing, which seems calculated to remind the reader that you, provincial idiot, who knows nothing of Turkish olives or Roman street musicians, are in the capable hands of a true man or woman of the world: “It was the olives — snappy green bitterish things no bigger than peanuts but with jumbo personality — that initially made me aware of a province called Hatay, in Turkey’s south.”
As befits a modern travel magazine with the social conscience that Airbnb wants to project, it’s not all untapped wonders and personable olives. One feature profiles six destinations plagued with overtourism. One of these is the Bolivian salt flats, a site of proposed lithium mines that will spoil the views. Another listicle offers travelers stressed about climate change a set of standard consumer-capitalist solutioneering: “be a mindful traveler,” we are told, and do things like pack reusable straws and fly coach, rather than business class (done!).
Each issue begins with an editor’s letter, signed not by the magazine’s actual editor, Michael Steele, but by the company’s CEO, Brian Chesky, credited here as “Chief Host,” whose visage graces each facing page. In this respect, Airbnb Magazine resembles publications like Oprah magazine, which featured its founder on every cover. But while Oprah extended the work of the founder’s talk show to a new medium, Airbnb is a real-estate subleasing platform, not a media company. So why does it need a glossy, well-produced magazine? Aren’t there cheaper, less complicated ways to advertise?
One answer is simply prestige and professional vanity: perhaps Chesky always wanted a magazine, and the company has the money to burn. Another comes from Forbes, which weighed in on the recent trend of non-media corporations developing creative ventures to project their “brand” without the taint of advertising, which consumers are primed to ignore or overlook. Trader Joe’s has a podcast, and so does McDonald’s (“The Sauce”). Marriott has produced short films like Two Bellmen, about two hotel employees who foil an art heist, and The Other End of the Earth, which its director preciously called “a cinematic tone poem” about a network of Marriott-owned nature reserves. It’s all part of an effort to use “creativity and storytelling to create memorable premium content that engages its audience,” writes Nathan Pettijohn, a self-described “Leadership Strategy” expert. Airbnb Magazine is an exercise in “brand storytelling,” a term for advertising that thinks it’s not advertising.
It’s hard to imagine why anyone would listen to a Trader Joe’s podcast, or watch Marriott’s cinematic tone poems; it’s also unclear whether the producers actually care. Airbnb Magazine posts some of its articles online, but tellingly, none of the editorial staff has a Twitter presence. Finding actual readers does not seem to be a high priority here. Brand storytellers seem to mostly be content to talk to themselves.
The primary feeling I got reading Airbnb Magazine, other than boredom, was a sense of pity for the “content producers” who make it, the talented photographers and writers and filmmakers who should be able to make actual cinematic tone poems without shilling for a hotel conglomerate, or who could write about Turkish cuisine without debasing it as “brand storytelling” for a magazine that nobody reads.
The point of Airbnb Magazine, one industry observer said, is not to sell magazines, or to win readers. It’s to get people to “interact with the brand,” a mission that would seem to require selling magazines and winning readers. But brand interaction is so vague an objective, and “brand storytelling” so intrinsically doomed an enterprise (why would anyone other than the brand storytellers want to hear a brand story?), that Airbnb Magazine seems to be, more than anything, mostly just a big waste of talent and effort.
At a moment when capitalism is facing increasing scrutiny and its apologists are under greater pressure to defend it, Airbnb Magazine reminds us of something that bears repeating about the ideologists of capital today: not only are they as stupid as ever, they seem to be getting a bit desperate.