Airbnb is the “Uber of lodging”: a Web site that lets cash-strapped vacationers rent out somebody else’s home. But one of the site’s executives apparently sees it as something a bit more grandiose: a force for world peace. Maybe even the force for world peace.
Asked at an executive retreat where he’d like to see Airbnb in 10 years, Chip Conley — the company’s “global head of hospitality” — said he thinks they could be up for a Nobel Peace Prize by then. (You know, the same prize that was recently awarded to Malala Yousafzai.)
“A lot of times, we tend to villainize each other,” Conley explained to Fortune. “But when people are traveling, getting to know others and turning strangers into friends, we create a world where there are a lot fewer people who seem alien to us.”
That sounds lovely, of course, and for good reason: It’s cribbed right from a leading social psychology theory on how different groups of people relate to each other. That theory, “intergroup contact,” basically holds that the prejudices between groups go down as interactions between them go up. You are less likely to hate, say, members of the One Direction fandom if your little cousin has a Harry Styles tattoo.
The question, for our purposes, is whether Airbnb actually facilitates intergroup contact, and whether it does it any better than hotels do. Alas, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer on this. For people who, say, stay in a family’s second room and spend hours talking with them, intergroup contact is a real, happening thing. For people who pick up a key in a mailbox — as I did the last time I used Airbnb — the contact is so brief, so superficial, that it’s unlikely to change much of anything.
“The great wish that intercultural understanding increases when we connect with others, however briefly, is more fantasy than fact,” said Janet Bennett, the executive director of the Intercultural Communications Institute.
But for those people who do use Airbnb the “right” way — that is to say, who rent an actual home directly from the homeowners, in accordance with the image Airbnb itself promotes — the benefits can be pretty tangible. Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz, the director of the scholarly group the Center for Intercultural Dialogue and an Airbnb user herself, told me that she’s had a string of compelling interactions while using the site.
In Paris, where she stayed in a tiny 300-square-f00t apartment, she had a “good conversation” with the owner about how two people shared the space and what design tricks had been made to accommodate it. In Helsinki, she was surprised to find that the apartment contained its own sauna, which — needless to say — isn’t standard in the States. Again, Leeds-Hurwitz said, she ended up having a lengthy chat with the owner about those cultural differences. They showed her a side of local life, she said, that a corporate hotel chain would not.
“Does Airbnb deserve a Nobel Peace Prize? No,” she said, pointing out that Airbnb is a private, for-profit company. “However, ask the smaller question of whether any of this could ever help us get to world peace. In that case, my answer would be that it’s one very small but useful contribution to understanding across cultural boundaries, which certainly can’t hurt.”
… Unfortunately for Airbnb, of course, nobody gets the peace prize for “not hurting.”