The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Airbnb, Uber and DraftKings are turning corporations into people, my friend

A billboard funded by Airbnb shows opposition to Proposition F in downtown San Francisco on Nov. 3. (JOSH EDELSON/AFP)

The morning of Nov. 4, a few hours after Airbnb successfully defeated a proposition on the ballot in San Francisco that would have slightly cut the number of days each year people could lease out their homes, company executive Chris Lehane made a presentation.

Lehane hasn't always been a big-money business dude; 20 years ago, he was an attorney in the Clinton White House. So it's probably not surprising that Lehane's analysis of the Airbnb electoral victory, which some might attribute to a mismatch of financial investments, is that it was instead the first battle of a long-term war pitting the Average Joe against the entrenched institutions. Blending weighted poll responses with comparisons of the Airbnb customer base to the membership of advocacy organizations, Lehane's presentation promised that the defeat of Proposition F was not business overcoming regulation, but instead the first manifestation of Airbnb's "people-to-people movement."

It doesn't take someone terribly used to politics to see the flaws in these two slides. If users is the metric, no political group in the world is as powerful as Facebook. And as for those polls, the headline doesn't match the results -- and only in part because the question is laughably weighted. Lehane's audience, though, was the tech press, not the political press.

So Lehane pressed his political luck. The Airbnb people-to-people movement will leverage "home-sharing clubs," which are innocuous-sounding gatherings of people who like to have other people sleep in their beds, but which Airbnb explicitly compares to labor unions and political parties. (There was a "Home Sharers Democratic Club" in San Francisco that was apparently effective at being the grass-roots face of the Prop F fight.)

This is a more sophisticated and direct articulation of the goals of a lot of new industry groups. Uber, for example, has been fending off government questions and constraints in multiple cities as it does battle with the taxi industry (and, increasingly, delivery companies and who-knows-what other companies). As our Callum Borchers wrote on Thursday, DraftKings and FanDuel are in a new political fight in the state of New York that's prompted political organizing on those companies's social media accounts.

And as I was writing this, an e-mail: "First Voter Registration Campaign Aimed at Video Gamers Launched Today." Yes, the Entertainment Software Association wants to get video game voters registered to vote -- presumably so that it can push out notifications to Xbox users on the day they need to vote against Proposition To-Be-Named-Later.

The Awl's John Herrman pointed out last week that it is not unusual for economic upstarts to do battle with entrenched interests -- ultimately with the goal of entrenching themselves. Herrman also makes another vitally important point: The interests of the people Airbnb and Uber and the ESA are organizing are not, over the long term, oriented with the interests of those organizations.

There are 4 million Airbnb users in the United States, the graphic above reminds us. That's way bigger than members of the Sierra Club! But people join the Sierra Club specifically for political advocacy. The Sierra Club says "contact Rep. Smith" and Sierra Club members understand that's part of the deal. The desired outcome of joining the Sierra Club is protecting the environment, and if you decide to give to the Natural Resources Defense Council instead of the Sierra Club in order to meet that goal, the Sierra Club is still fighting alongside you.

Airbnb (and DraftKings, and Uber) are businesses that have expanded seams in the economy that the Internet revealed. People use Airbnb because they want money for renting their homes. The end result they seek is income (or fun, or a ride). If someone else offers more of those things or offers them more directly, even members of an Airbnb club would presumably not be too worried about switching allegiances. If some other rent-your-house company comes along and everyone bails, Airbnb won't be happy that its former customers are still fighting the good fight against Prop F Part Two. Especially if Prop F Part Two aims at restricting the Airbnb system in favor of an Airbnb competitor.

Airbnb is hosting a conference in Paris this week very much akin to a conference held by, for example, Mary Kay cosmetics. In addition to facilitating tips and tricks for home-renters, Airbnb reinforced its "we are a movement" message. Mashable quotes Lehane, preaching to the choir.

"Home-sharing is a big idea," he said. "So big that no army could ever really stop it. You are on the side of history."

Isn't that odd? If we ever come to the point where armies are facing off against bespoke hoteliers, 1) the apocalypse is nigh and 2) my money is on the army. But also, it's a tricky analogy for the company. Airbnb wants to provide political weapons to its army to go out and fight its fights. But can it engender loyalty over the long term? An as-likely outcome is that the armed groups turn their weapons against Airbnb, or head off to fight for someone else. There is almost certainly no loyalty among home-sharers.

Businesses organizing their customers is not new. What's new is that it plays out on social media, leveraging technology (once again) to communicate directly with massive audiences. That business has been granted a more explicit role in electoral politics, thanks to the Supreme Court case Citizens United. That it seems, in this moment, appropriate to portray customers of a company as being political rebels who want to subvert the established hierarchy. That a weird transaction has become common: A business that wants to win in politics hires a political hand (who wants a bigger paycheck). David Plouffe to Uber. Jay Carney to Amazon. Chris Lehane to Airbnb. Democrats, in all of those cases, headed to Silicon Valley to ostensibly revamp democracy.

By far the worst possible outcome for Airbnb is that it believes its hype and actually thinks it has found a new way of doing politics in the same way it found a new way of getting people to rent hotel rooms. If Lehane actually thinks that the mighty forces of Airbnb can and will wash away any political opposition because it won one lopsided fight? Well, maybe it's time to dip back into the real political world for awhile.