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5.3.2 Listing and host profile photos The presence of photos (both listing photos and host profile photos) emerged as a perceived baseline indicator of a trustworthy host. Most participants characterized listing and host profile photos as the most basic prerequisite of initiating the reservation process. As discussed below in Section 5.4.1, some participants even considered Airbnb “Verified Photos” – listing photos taken by Airbnb photographers – to be furthermore indicative of a trustworthy accommodation option, but almost all participants agreed that the mere presence of photos was essential. With regard to listing photos, P9 noted “I would never stay where there are no photos,” and P3 further described the experience of perusing a listing without many high-quality photos as “off-putting.” Participants expressed similar sentiments about host profile photos, suggesting that such photos were the most basic measure of assessing the trustworthiness of hosts. P11 remarked “I won’t look at [a host profile] that doesn’t have a photo because I feel like that this could be any creep or sketch person.” While some participants consistently required many more features of listings and profiles as prerequisites for initiating the reservation process, the great majority of participants perceived a listing photo and host profile photo to be the most basic requirement.
5.3.3 Social graph influence Airbnb offers the option for users to connect their Facebook and LinkedIn accounts to “verify” their identities. With Airbnb’s new “Social Connections” feature, users can search for accommodations based on second-degree Facebook connections with the host, a university in common with the host, or hosts that their Facebook friends have reviewed in the past. Ten of eleven participants had connected their Facebook accounts to their Airbnb profiles. Some participants had already relied on social connections to book Airbnb accommodations in the past and some had not, but the great majority of participants agreed that social connections would largely influence the level of trust in the host and the accommodation decision-making process.
P8, for instance, commented “When I was looking for places, I saw that one of my Facebook friends had reviewed that house, so you trust it even more if one of your friends has been there and has given it a good review.” P3 shared a similar experience, remarking “Not too many friends have stayed in the places I have…but there was one place in Cairo where a [Facebook] friend had stayed before, so it was an easy choice for me to stay there.” The participants that hadn’t yet utilized the “Social Connections” feature shared a similar perspective, as almost all of them agreed that such information would strongly influence their decisions. P10 summarized this perception in commenting, “If I had a friend who positively reviewed a property it would absolutely influence me.” The participants’ perceived influence of the social graph, however, was not limited to the guest perspective. Interestingly, many participants brought up the credibility-enhancing role of connecting their social media profiles; that is, if they integrated their Facebook and LinkedIn accounts, hosts might be more inclined to trust them and accept their reservation requests. P11 articulates this dual purpose in commenting “[I use social connections] mostly to get [Facebook] friends’ recommendations and that sort of information…but also as a support system for the people that are letting me stay with them, so they can see that I’m a totally normal person.” P2
further encapsulated the overall effect of integrating the social graph in remarking:
I think that I have a pretty large network through social media, and there are features on Airbnb that allow people to take a look at whether we have any mutual friends or anything like that, and I keep all my profiles pretty open, I give access to my blogs, media sites…so I think that if people were to feel that I was screwing them over it would be relatively easy to figure out who I am and where I live, people I have friends with, and the likelihood that I’ve built all that up just to screw somebody over on Airbnb is very unlikely.
Here, P2 is articulating a relationship between social capital and trust, which will be further discussed in Section 6. Ultimately, participants perceived that connecting their social media accounts to their Airbnb profiles both largely influenced their accommodation decisions (and by extension, trust in the hosts) and the hosts’ proclivity to trust in them, as guests.
5.4 Why Airbnb is a trusted marketplace intermediary As discussed in the Section 2.3.3, a trusted marketplace intermediary can have a large impact on buyers’ trust in the community of sellers. Participants mentioned many mechanisms by which Airbnb increases their trust in the process of P2P accommodation and in the community of hosts. Almost all participants mentioned Airbnb’s robust reputation system as a means of building general trust throughout the platform, as discussed above in Section 5.3.1, further highlighting the centrality of reputation as an enabler of Airbnb transactions. The two other emergent mechanisms through which Airbnb engenders trust among its users were its website design and customer service.
5.4.1 Website design Most participants referenced some aspect of Airbnb’s website design in discussing why they trusted the website; the following section will discuss the three dimensions of design that participants perceived to be most influential, namely, aesthetic design (how the interface looks), user experience design (UX – how the interface behaves), and general branding.
With respect to aesthetic design, participants cited the professional, attractive appearance of Airbnb as a major factor in rendering the site trustworthy, especially with respect to competing P2P websites that might not have a comparably appealing interface.
One of the more prominent aspects of the Airbnb design are the high-resolution, wide-angle photos available of many properties, or “Verified Photos,” for which Airbnb sends an official photographer to take photos of a listing. Participants often felt more comfortable booking reservations in the presence of these “Verified Photos;” P8 commented, “The fact that they send photographers to peoples’ houses to take pictures, it kind of reassures you…at least you know somebody went there, and it’s not a fake house.” Many participants further commented on Airbnb’s UX design, citing the intuitive, easy-to-use interface as a factor rendering Airbnb a more trustworthy marketplace intermediary. P4 described the website as “user-friendly,” and P3 attributed the website’s trustworthiness to the “user experience of their website – the transaction process from search to payment.” Another component predominantly mentioned by participants was the high level of trust in the Airbnb brand, a perception that Airbnb managed to communicate mainly through its website design and messaging. Participants perceived the Airbnb brand to have two dimensions of trustworthiness: first, that Airbnb is a safe and valuable means of accommodation, and second, that Airbnb is a ubiquitous service. In reference to the former, P5 observed “They [Airbnb] just managed to have people understand that doing that sort of thing [P2P accommodation] would be safe and of more value than using a hotel.” This perception of safety and value is inextricably bound up with the heuristic perception that “everyone else is doing it.” With regard to such
perceptions of ubiquity, Participant 11 remarked:
I think Airbnb for me just seems like the one with the most traction…this one has just gained so much popularity, and built this whole community of trust, and I just feel like the more people you have reviewing, the more likely you are to use it.
Participants thus perceived that Airbnb has effectively branded itself as the leader in P2P accommodation websites (and thus trustworthy). P5 commented “I don’t know what it was, but everyone just seemed to be like, ‘oh yeah, use Airbnb.’” 5.4.2 Customer service Airbnb has a worldwide customer support team available 24/7, and participants perceived such a high level of accessible customer service to increase the trustworthiness of the website.
P10 noted the responsiveness of the customer support team, commenting “I really like how responsive the team is – how they have the Instant Chat option…it was really great to talk to a real person, instantaneously.” Comments on the level of customer service were often further associated with Airbnb’s extensive refund and cancellation policy. P8, for instance, described an experience in which the accommodations were less than satisfactory upon arrival, but Airbnb responded quickly and efficiently with a refund and helped the participant book immediate alternate accommodation.
Throughout the course of most interviews, Airbnb’s comprehensive customer support system emerged as a mechanism by which Airbnb engenders trust among its users.
6 Conclusion This thesis has presented exploratory research regarding the establishment and maintenance of trust in the sharing economy through an interpretive case study of P2P accommodation sharing website Airbnb. The thesis began by presenting core aspects and drivers of the sharing economy in more depth, and subsequently illustrated the critical role of trust in enabling P2P transactions and in the continued growth of the sharing sector. The case study was presented within a literary framework of both trust and online trust theory, with the latter further analyzed in terms of reputation systems, social graph integration, and mechanisms designed to increase trust in the marketplace intermediary. The case study, comprised of a core of qualitative interviews and supplemented by extensive document review, generated numerous insights regarding the nature of trust in Airbnb transactions.
The case study illuminated a number of conclusions with regard to the original research sub-questions. First, it is interesting to note that the participants prioritized practical incentives (cost, flexibility) as the main reasons to use Airbnb over traditional accommodation. While participants appreciated the added cultural value inherent in P2P accommodation, their collective pragmatic orientation suggests that Airbnb has truly become a mainstream accommodation option as opposed to a niche market or transitory trend. This conclusion is further bolstered by the nature of the emergent risks in using Airbnb – largely practical concerns involving hospitality standards and accurate online representation of offline quality. Second, it is important to highlight an emergent articulated philosophy regarding the development of trust within the Airbnb platform: “the more information, the better.” While the reputation system and social graph integration were clearly central as to the establishment of trust (in accordance with the preceding literature review), participants mentioned many different factors in choosing where to stay, from lengthy descriptions (in order to analyze the writers’ voices), to hosts’ response rates, to verified emails and telephone numbers. It is apparent that each of these factors contributes to an overall sense of trust in the host, and each component of added information is helpful in building this trust. Remarks such as “The more I know about a person and their place, the more confident I feel staying there” (P10), and “The more verification, the more you feel comfortable renting – they are all little factors that add up,” (P5) embody this idea that all of the added verification features are perceived to have a positive effect on the trusting relationship between the participants (guests) and hosts.
While the findings of the case study are intended to serve as a basic foundation for future research, it is nonetheless important to note the centrality – empirically evidenced through the qualitative interviews – of this emergent “the more information, the better” philosophy, as well as the influence of reputation systems and social graph integration, in engendering trust between Airbnb users and by extension in enabling Airbnb transactions. These conclusions are further reflective of a concomitant trend in the contemporary sharing economy space: a movement toward leveraging an individual’s aggregate digital footprint in building a portable, trustworthy reputation. A number of startups, in fact, have recently attempted to resolve the trust and safety issues inherent in P2P transactions by developing “universal trust systems” for the Internet that combine social, transactional, and personal data from various marketplaces, social networks, and other sources (Pick 2013). Predicated on the fact that some parameters of trust transcend different sharing economy verticals, this aggregate trust data would be presented as a portable reputation “score” – not unlike a credit score – that would theoretically follow a person around the Internet. TrustCloud, a leader among this wave of reputation-oriented startups, uses a 1000point system (see FIGURE 18) to score individual buyers and sellers online, emphasizing the fact that someone who has delivered exactly what was promised in P2P car transactions is also likely to take good care of an apartment he or she rents through a P2P accommodation service (Kolodny 2012).
Reputation as such becomes a form of capital to be accumulated from good behavior and subsequently leveraged in future P2P transactions. Botsman (2012) has recently asserted that reputation will soon become a person’s most valuable asset, claiming “In the 21st century, new trust networks, and the reputation capital they generate, will reinvent the way we think about wealth, markets, power and personal identity in ways we can’t yet even imagine.” Whether a dominant form of portable reputation will become the arbiter of Internet marketplaces remains to be seen. The sharing economy, however, is here to stay, as demonstrated by the continually increasing numbers of people around the world allowing strangers to stay in their homes, borrow their cars, and pet-sit their canine companions. Insight into the establishment and maintenance of trust within online P2P platforms is thus more salient than ever before, and the continued academic investigation of these issues will fortify our resurging proclivity to share.