The so-called “sharing economy” has boomed in recent years, but critics continue to point to a lack of equity for workers who are categorized as contractors. (Many applauded this week when Seattle City Council passed legislation giving drivers for companies such as Uber and Lyft the power to unionize.) When it comes to the user end of on-demand businesses, three Harvard researchers recently found, the numbers can also stack up against equal access.
According to “Racism in the Sharing Economy,” a working paper that looked at the Airbnb booking process, “requests from guests with distinctively African-American names are roughly 16 percent less likely to be accepted than identical guests with distinctively white names.” It didn’t matter whether the host was black or white, or male or female.
This discrimination, the researchers note, can be costly for the hosts, who reject guests and then are only able to find a replacement guest 35 percent of the time. “On the whole, our analysis suggests a need for caution,” they write. “While information can facilitate transactions, it also facilitates discrimination.”
For the field study, researchers Benjamin Edelman, Michael Luca and Dan Svirsky sent out nearly 6,400 messages to hosts in five cities — D.C., Baltimore, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Dallas — from invented profiles with different names. They didn’t include a profile picture.
The table reports the proportion of “yes” responses by name. The number of messages sent by each guest name is shown in parentheses.
Last month, Airbnb touted its new Community Compact, saying its business strengthens a struggling American middle class, by letting homeowners earn extra income. And the company says it’s committed to making Airbnb a diverse and trusted community.
“We recognize that bias and discrimination are significant challenges, and we welcome the opportunity to work with anyone that can help us reduce potential discrimination in the Airbnb community,” Airbnb said in a statement.
The main solution the researchers offer is relatively simple: Don’t make users post their real names. Ebay, for example, allows self-generated usernames. Airbnb could also expand its “instant book,” the authors suggested, which allows renters to book a stay without the hosts’ approval.
But anonymous usernames and no renter-host interaction go against the ethos of the community Airbnb tries to sell its users. They have repeatedly said that trust between real people is essential to their business.
“Access is built on trust, and trust is built on transparency. When you remove anonymity, it brings out the best in people,” Brian Chesky, chief executive of Airbnb, said in 2013. “We believe anonymity has no place in the future of Airbnb or the sharing economy.”
Marielle Mondon is an editor and freelance journalist in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in Philadelphia City Paper, Wild Magazine, and PolicyMic. She previously reported on communities in Northern Manhattan while earning an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University.