By Julia Carrie Wong
JULY 16, 2014 — Corporate branding is always bullshit, but tech industry branding is a special breed of bullshit, if for no other reason than its pretentions to being something more than straight-up bullshit. Silicon Valley branding reads like the product of a mind caught between the revolutionary fervor of an alternative summer break spent digging a well in Guatemala and the WASPy reticence instilled while spending every other summer learning the value of a dollar by caddying for dad’s business partners. Everyone wants to turn a profit, but no one wants to admit it. The result is cutthroat capitalists who think they are changing the world.
Today, Airbnb, one of San Francisco’s biggest “sharing economy” successes, launched a major rebranding effort, that includes a new website, redesigned rental listings, and a new logo. The theme of Airbnb’s new image is “belonging”; the tagline is “belong anywhere.” In a largely nonsensical blog post, CEO Brian Chesky explains that he and his co-founders Nathan Blecharczyk and Joe Gebbia “did some soul-searching over the last year” to arrive at the idea of the “Bélo: the universal symbol of belonging.”
I’m less interested in Airbnb’s graphic design failures, and more interested in the ideology behind “belonging anywhere.” The founders reveal that their philosophy of “belonging” stems from a dismayingly selective reading of world history:
Cities used to be villages. Everyone knew each other, and everyone knew they had a place to call home. But after the mechanization and Industrial Revolution of the last century, those feelings of trust and belonging were displaced by mass-produced and impersonal travel experiences. We also stopped trusting each other. And in doing so, we lost something essential about what it means to be a community… That’s why Airbnb is returning us to a place where everyone can feel they belong.
I hate to be the one to break it to Joe, Nate, and Brian, but prior to the Industrial Revolution, one way people “belonged” to other people was through chattel slavery. Another was through marriages that made women the property of their husbands. It’s less funny than a doodle of a vagina, but perhaps more evocative of the limited viewpoint of the company’s three white, male founders.
I also wonder how likely it is that those three white, male founders have built a company where women and people of color feel like they “belong?” While Airbnb has not followed Google, Yahoo, and Facebook in releasing statistics on the diversity of its staff, a startup called Entelo claims to be able to analyze workforce demographics through social media listings. They report that Airbnb’s workforce is 63.4% male and 36.6% female.
But even more disturbing to me is the distinctly imperial flavor of a company that believes it can “belong anywhere.” The company’s branding video shows it planting a flag on the moon. Space exploration may be ambitious, but Airbnb has certainly invaded urban neighborhoods and wreaked havoc on rents and housing supply. And the idea that Airbnb users can instantly “belong anywhere” is a fallacy of a white privileged mindset. I would bet that many black and brown travelers hesitate to rent rooms in white neighborhoods, for fear of being reported to the police.
Airbnb doesn’t belong in buildings zoned for residential use. The incentive of turning long-term rentals into de-facto hotel rooms (minus the hotel tax and union contracts that go along with running a hotel in the city) has prompted some landlords to evict San Franciscans from their homes. These short term rentals are part of the market pressure that is pushing rents ever higher in San Francisco and displacing the working class and people of color.
You can call it a Bélo and draw it like a vagina, but at the end of the day, Airbnb is just another profit-seeking, law-flouting corporation contributing to the remaking of cities into citadels where the only people who belong are the wealthy. Anything else they tell you is bullshit.