Journalist Zak Stone recently published a gripping, thought-provoking account of his father’s death while staying at an Airbnb rental in Texas.
As told by Stone, his family was staying together for Thanksgiving when his father decided to try the rope swing in the yard. The tree trunk that the swing was tied to snapped in half, “immediately ending most of his brain activity.” Stone’s father was taken to the hospital, where he was eventually taken off life support and died.
It’s a heartbreaking story, and frankly, it’d be completely understandable if Stone’s post was nothing but an all-out denunciation of the homeowners and of Airbnb. Instead, he approaches it as a journalist, asking tough questions about whether the company could be doing more to assure its guests’ safety, and acknowledging the complexity of the issue.
Stone said he learned of at least one other guest who died while staying in an Airbnb rental — a Canadian traveler who was staying in an apartment in Taiwan that filled with carbon monoxide.
The common defense of Airbnb and other “sharing economy” companies is that they’re not responsible for individual service providers — they’re just the marketplace that provides the connection, in this case between guest and host. However, Stone argues:
Of course, platforms are not neutral pieces of technology: they are embedded with the values of the marketplace, strategically designed for maximum profit and minimal liability. Companies that take advantage of such ambiguity pose risks to consumers, particularly when they’re trafficking in human experience, not just data or speech like Napster, Tumblr, and others before them who have appealed to their platform status to weather challenges to the legally murky activities they host.
Stone contrasts this approach with hotels, which he said are subject to much stricter safety regulations than apartment buildings. He also noted that Airbnb isn’t completely passive in its relationship with hosts — it sends professional photographers to ensure that home listings come with attractive photos.
“The irony is that amateur innkeepers who couldn’t be trusted with the banal task of photographing and marketing their properties are expected to excel at hospitality’s most important rule: keeping guests safe and alive,” he writes.
Anyway, there’s a lot more to the issue, so go read the story. I reached out to Airbnb for comment and the company sent me this statement:
We were shocked and heartbroken when we learned about these incidents and we continue to keep these guests and their families in our thoughts. Nothing is more important to us than safety. Over 60 million guests have stayed in an Airbnb and we are proud that accidents are incredibly rare. We know that every industry, every community, and every city grapples with safety issues and no one has an absolutely perfect record, but that’s what we strive for and we’ll keep working as hard as we know how to make our community safer for everyone.