Monday, August 1, 2011

Yes, Airbnb serves its customers - but EJ wasn't a customer

This weekend's tempest in a teapot started over a month ago, when a blogger known as EJ wrote a post entitled Violated: A traveler’s lost faith, a difficult lesson learned. The lesson?

Three difficult days ago, I returned home from an exhausting week of business travel to an apartment that I no longer recognized. To an apartment that had been ransacked.

With heart pounding and stomach churning, I slowly swung the door open as both a pungent odor and the full realization of what had occurred washed over me: this wasn't just a random break-in. My home had been burglarized, vandalized and thoroughly trashed by a "traveler" I connected with via the online rental agency,

When the story eventually went viral, Airbnb's Brian Chesky responded on TechCrunch. Here's part of that response.

On June 22nd, we learned that the home of one of our San Francisco hosts was vandalized by an Airbnb guest. We were devastated when we received this news. With a single booking, one person’s malicious actions victimized our host and undermined what had been – for 2 million nights – a case study demonstrating that people are fundamentally good.

As soon as we learned what had taken place, our first concern was to make sure our host was safe. We have been in close contact with her ever since, and have worked with the authorities to help find a resolution. Because Airbnb facilitates the reservation details and payment information, we were in a unique position to assist with the investigation. While we are not at liberty to discuss the details during the investigation, we understand that with our help, a suspect is now in custody, and our information will now become important evidence.

A quick response to be sure. Only one problem - the woman in question subsequently disputed some of the claims in the TechCrunch post.

As of today, July 28, I have received no confirmation from either the San Francisco Police Department or the District Attorney that any culprit is in custody for my case. One month ago an individual was apprehended, however as far as I know, this person was transferred to a neighboring jurisdiction for prosecution of previous crimes, and no charges or arrest warrant has been issued for my case within San Francisco County. If this has changed and Chesky’s statement is in fact true, I have not been made aware by city officials....

During the first week of my nightmare, the customer service team at Airbnb was - as I stated in my June 29 blog post – helpful, caring and supportive. In particular, one customer service manager - and the company’s freelance photographer - were wonderfully kind to me, and both should know how grateful I am.

On June 29 I posted my story, and June 30 thus marks the last day I heard from the customer service team regarding my situation. In fact, my appointed “liaison” from Airbnb stopped contacting me altogether just three days after I reported the crime, on June 25, for reasons that are unknown to me. I have heard nothing from her since.

I blogged my story, and all these kind and supportive people just ... disappeared.

And since June 30? On this same day, I received a personal call from one of the co-founders of Airbnb. We had a lengthy conversation, in which he indicated having knowledge of the (previously mentioned) person who had been apprehended by the police, but that he could not discuss the details or these previous cases with me, as the investigation was ongoing.

The next statement from the victim is significant:

He then addressed his concerns about my blog post, and the potentially negative impact it could have on his company’s growth and current round of funding. During this call and in messages thereafter, he requested that I shut down the blog altogether or limit its access, and a few weeks later, suggested that I update the blog with a “twist" of good news so as to “complete[s] the story”.

We'll get back to this statement at the end of this post.

As this story has spread across the web, there have been some widely different reactions. Here are some quotes from Robert Scoble in a Saturday thread on Google+:

Most people will believe a batshit crazy customer over a nice businessman. I'm sure at AirBnb they think this lady is batshit. But if you are working at a company, remember this, that batshit crazy customer is far more believeable than anything I've seen come out of AirBnb all week....

Gil: I have no idea whether what she's saying is true or not, but I do have to say she is being quite the drama queen. Personally I would never have left valuables in a home I was renting out. She, at minimum, bears some responsibility in this. At maximum she is squeezing this company for a big payout and trying to gain as much attention as absolutely possible.

Saying someone is batshit crazy is NOT libel. But, nice try. If that were, then I could sue at least 10,000 people who've said the same about me over the years....

Curtis: personally she sounds crazy to me. I would never have let strangers into my house and left my jewelry and stuff there, even if in a safe. That just sounds crazy to me and her statements on her blog don't sound like something anyone I'm friends with would say or do, either....

Fred: I had a car stereo stolen in a hotel parking lot once. I never blamed it on the business. Friends of mine have had laptops and other things stolen from hotel rooms. That can be blamed on the hotel, but sometimes it's not preventable....

Jeremy: anyone who would rent out their HOME and invite total strangers in without expecting that some of them could be criminals is DEFACTO insane!...

Ken: if you invited strangers into your home I would call you batshit crazy.

Scoble's tone did not win him any brownie points from Loren Feldman, who chose to address the issue, and Scoble's response to it, in video form:

This is part of what Feldman said:

I thought social media was supposed to have a voice. It was supposed to be about having a voice. This poor person was violated beyond belief. The company lied and did nothing. And now one of the ... top tech pundits is vilifying her? We're really gonna blame the victim here, guys?

On the surface, it seems like Airbnb is doing terrible things to its customers. But in all actuality, Airbnb is defending its customers, just like Facebook and Google defend their customers.

Now perhaps you might doubt that Airbnb, Facebook, and Google defend their customers. Airbnb is alleged to have told a burglarized blogger to shut up. Facebook allegedly tries to make its privacy settings so confusing that everything becomes public. Google is kicking people off of Google+, and other services, without warning and without recourse, merely for doing things that they did on other Google services.

But I still assert that Airbnb, Facebook, and Google defend their customers. Let's take another look at the conversation between the blogger EJ and the executive from Airbnb:

He then addressed his concerns about my blog post, and the potentially negative impact it could have on his company’s growth and current round of funding.

This illustrates a critical truth about any startup. Let's say that I receive an announcement next week about a new service called HoogiePoogieDipsyDoodle, and the announcement urges me to join the super secret beta test and become an early adopter (more on that later) of HoogiePoogieDipsyDoodle.

I sign up for the super secret beta test, and HoogiePoogieDipsyDoodle praises me for my early adopter status, and then goes away and meets with its customers.

And it doesn't meet with me.

Because I am not HoogiePoogieDipsyDoodle's customer.

The venture capitalists are HoogiePoogieDipsyDoodle's customers. Why? Because they'll provide more money to the company than I ever will.

The established companies Facebook and Google are in a similar situation. I don't pay either company a dime. Facebook's and Google's true customers are the advertisers who pay money to display their ads to me. And if you doubt me, read this quote from Google's Investor Relations page:

Who are our customers?

Our customers are over one million of advertisers, from small businesses targeting local customers to many of the world's largest global enterprises, who use Google AdWords to reach millions of users around the world.

So for all of us who recently joined Google+, remember - most of us are not Google customers. And a similar situation exists at Facebook, as Doug Wolfgram notes.

And yes, Airbnb is in this same boat. Yes, they get some money from people who advertise, but the REAL money is going to come from the people who fund the company to the tune of millions, or tens of millions, of dollars. And when EJ's blog post interfered with Airbnb's ability to market to its true customers, they allegedly tried to shut EJ down.

This is a big disadvantage of the web 2.0 business model. When I buy a house, or a car, or a sandwich, or a copy of Microsoft Word, I pay for something and get something in return. Supposedly the web 2.0 business model is better than this, because we all get something for free. But you always have to remember that you get what you pay for, and your interests are not necessarily the most important thing. Whoever is paying the bills gets to call the shots.
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