What happened to Tommy Sotomayor?

My multimedia final project will delve deeper into digital discrimination on Airbnb. My research and corresponding narrative will take the form of a recorded podcast, as a quick Internet search has not yielded any existing podcasts dedicated to this topic. I will compile and distill existing articles about/responses to the Harvard Business School study that first brought attention to this issue on Airbnb. I would also like to incorporate similar studies that have been conducted related to the issue of discrimination in online sharing economies in general. In assessing what has happened as a result of this initial study, I will research further stories like the one of YouTube personality Tommy Sotomayor whose video detailing how he was denied a rental on Airbnb because of the color of his skin is no longer searchable on YouTube. Given the limitations of the scope of this project, I would like to also propose a study that builds and improves upon the HBS research by including considerations of gender, other races, age, and attractiveness. Rather than concentrating on criticisms of the current Airbnb treatment of profile pictures, I will aim to provide carefully reasoned and thought-out propositions to reduce the effect of implicit biases in their marketplace. Finally, to create a more colorful podcast, I will try to find and record people speaking about their firsthand experiences with Airbnb to see if their stories shed light on the HBS study.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

A recent report by Harvard Business School looked at data on Airbnb rentals from July 2012 in New York City and found that being able to know what your host looks like negatively and disproportionately affects blacks hosts.

The HBS researchers, together with workers from Amazon Mechanical Turk, rated property photos in each listing on a 7-point scale. A 1 meant “This is a terrible apartment; I would not stay here at any price” versus a 7, “This is an extremely nice apartment; I would stay here even if it were a lot more expensive than a nice hotel room.” They also looked at all of the publicly available NYC host profile pictures to categorize them as “white, black, Hispanic, Asian, unclear but nonwhite, multiple races, unclear/uncertain, or not applicable (because the host had posted a nonhuman picture of, say, a dog or the Eiffel Tower).” The study concluded that for two rental spaces of the same quality and in the same area, black-owned rentals will cost 12% less on average.

You can watch this WGBH news interview on YouTube entitled “Harvard Study Suggests Racial Bias in Airbnb Rentals” that aptly summarizes the researchers’ findings.

In a response to this investigation, Airbnb countered, “We are committed to making Airbnb the most open, trusted, diverse, transparent community in the world and our Terms of Service prohibit content that discriminates.” They pointed out flaws in the study – namely that the data was over 2 years old and that it was not representative of the 35,000+ cities where Airbnb operate. The researchers also were subjective in using price of the rental as an indicator of racism, since data on the number of inquiries per listing was not available to them.

If we take a look at the Airbnb anti-discrimination policy, it reads as follows: “Airbnb is an open marketplace. Through their experiences on Airbnb, we hope that our guests and hosts build meaningful connections with people from all over the globe. To that end, we prohibit content that promotes discrimination, bigotry, racism, hatred, harassment or harm against any individual or group, and we require all users to comply with local laws and regulations.” This policy is a first step, but Airbnb is still not bound by the anti-discriminatory laws that govern regular hotels and motels. Doesn’t Airbnb have an obligation to take measures against this discrimination?

While the HBS researchers, Benjamin Edelman and Michael Luca, presume that black Airbnb hosts are forced to lower their rental prices to compete with non-black hosts, it has been hard to pin down how to counteract this discrimination and thus this will be one aspect I address in my podcast.

BACKLASH AGAINST AIRBNB/PROGRESSION SINCE JANUARY

The HBS report came out in January of this year, so I am curious as to what has happened over the last ten months – in the form of public backlash to the company and resulting changes to the Airbnb site.

”New Yorkers agree: Airbnb is great SHIT for New York City”

 Prior to this study being released, Los Angeles-based YouTube personality Tommy Sotomayor recorded a video in October of 2013 where he claimed that he was rejected from a rental unit because of the color of his skin. According to his claim, “I got declined twice by the same persons and if you look at their history they only rent to white people.” He was initially declined even after paying for his rental, and declined a second time after the host lied about availability of certain dates.

In this follow-up video, Tommy tells his viewers that Airbnb asked him to take his original complaint video down until they could make a deal. In a compromise, Tommy made his video “unlisted” so that no one new could see it. After trying to find this original complaint video, I believe it is still unlisted. Moreover, details regarding how Airbnb dealt with this complaint are unclear and highlight how Airbnb managed to save their own reputation by burying this story.

Tommy started a call to action YouTube channel for the black community to voice their concerns and grievances. In the video, he threatened to gives Airbnb 8 hours to see what they were willing to do, but what occurred as a result remains a mystery for me to look into.

SIMILAR STUDIES FOR CONTEXT

One such related study published in the Economic Journal of the Royal Economic Society – online consumerism, “found that many shoppers are less likely to purchase items that are modeled by individuals with dark or tattooed skin.” The study used data on online classified ads for apple iPods, and found that minority or tattooed hands resulted in 18% fewer offers. The study further revealed that those who bought from black sellers were less inclined to use their names in emails and areas with larger black populations correlated with a higher # of responses to black ads. It would be naïve to think that racism disappears online, but studies like this will help frame the question of how we can reduce personal biases in our interactions with others in the digital era.

LINGERING QUESTIONS

Digital marketplaces like Airbnb.com rely on personal profiles and pictures to encourage trust among participants. You can see here the prominence of profile picture, second only to the photos of the rental itself.

Has Airbnb ever considered following Edelman and Luca’s suggestion of removing or downsizing host profile pictures to reduce discrimination? If so, to what degree would this have an economically negative impact? Are there perhaps beneficial reasons for having these photos remain the way they are in the current website design?

What is the norm in similar online marketplaces like eBay, Amazon, etc.? Was there a reason for this original site design?

Are there any ongoing movements seeking modification of existing rental laws for websites like Airbnb?

In addition to an anti-black bias, are there further biases based on age, gender and attractiveness?

PROPOSED RESEARCH FOR THE FUTURE

In my podcast, I would end with an outline for my own proposed study to address my last lingering questions and discover possible renter biases with regards to gender, other races, age, and attractiveness.   There are plenty of personal anecdotes out there on the Internet like this one regarding one Asian American’s comparative experience with his black friend on Airbnb. I would also look at the direction of racial bias (does discrimination hold true both ways?) since the HBS study focused on implicit bias in renters choosing hosts, but did not consider hosts choosing renters.

WORKS CITED

 

 

 

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