Information is supposed to be the antidote to distrust on the Internet. You'll buy from an unknown retailer on Amazon because you can see the seller's rating. You'll get in a stranger's car with Uber because you know up front the driver's name and license plate. You'll rent someone's private home on Airbnb because the host has a public identity: Ann in Brooklyn who likes baking cakes and looks perfectly nice in her profile photo.
The decline in online anonymity, though, may introduce its own problems. Researchers at the Harvard Business School studying Airbnb now warn that all this information makes it easier for us to discriminate.
Researchers Benjamin Edelman, Michael Luca and Dan Svirsky sent out 6,400 messages earlier this year to hosts in five cities — D.C., Baltimore, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Dallas — from invented accounts looking to rent homes on the site under distinctly black and white names. Among the replies, the study uncovered "widespread discrimination" against black guests, and by nearly every kind of host.
The guest profiles were identical in all cases with the exception of the names, and the profiles did not include personal photos. Queries from guests with white-sounding names were accepted about 50 percent of the time. From black-sounding names, 42 percent were accepted. The study did not test Hispanic or Asian names.
That result doesn't imply that Airbnb hosts are any more prone to discrimination than other groups, or Americans in general. The findings are in line with the degree of racial discrimination found in other studies about who gets taxi tips or job call-backs or good rates on classified ads. Similar results have turned up on eBay. And this latest audit experiment was modeled off a well-known study by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, who found racial discrimination in the job market when they sent out resumés with black- and white-sounding names. The Airbnb study even used the same names: Tamika vs. Laurie, Darnell vs. Brad and more.
This new study, though, does suggest that the particular design of Airbnb's platform may enable people to act on the implicit bias that many of us have. That's because Airbnb — in its quest to create trust — asks users to post photos and provide their real names.
“Nobody at Airbnb was thinking to themselves, ‘let’s build a platform where we could discriminate,’” says Luca, one of the co-authors. “And I think most hosts are not going on there thinking ‘oh-no, there’s no way I’m letting somebody who’s African-American stay in my place.’ I think more of what’s happening is a subtle, unconscious bias.”
Its detectable presence is notable, though, in contrast with other hotel providers like Marriott, or online marketplaces like Expedia where the mechanism to discriminate doesn't exist.
"On Priceline the rate of discrimination has to be zero, because there’s no way for a hotel on Priceline to look at your name and then say 'I don’t want to accept you on the basis of your name,'" Luca says (Priceline, or any other source outside the university, did not provide funding for this study, he says).
That doesn't mean that the desk clerks at a Marriott are any less likely to have implicit bias than your average Airbnb host. "This is absolutely not a story about how people are bigots on Airbnb — that’s simply an implausible story," Luca says. "This is entirely about the choices that online platforms make that either facilitate or prevent discrimination."
To this point, the researchers have developed a browser plugin called Debias Yourself that Airbnb users can deploy in Chrome to scrape names and photos off of the home-rental site. If you're worried you may be influenced by subtle bias, their tool will edit Airbnb for you to remove that possibility. ("That isn’t quite what Airbnb intended," the researchers explain of their plugin, "but it’s your computer, and it’s your right to configure it as you see fit.")
For its part, Airbnb says it strongly believes that profile photos and real names are important to build trust between guests and hosts. But a spokesperson added that the company is in touch with the researchers.
"We are committed to making Airbnb one of the most open, trusted, diverse, transparent communities in the world," the company said in a statement. "We recognize that bias and discrimination are significant challenges, and we welcome the opportunity to work with anyone that can help us reduce potential discrimination in the Airbnb community."
In their study, Edelman, Luca and Svirsky also learned a lot more than we usually do in experiments like these about the people doing the discriminating (by contrast, when you send a resume to an employer and never hear back, you don't know much about the person who discarded it). Because Airbnb shows information about both guests and hosts, the authors gathered data on the second group, too.
They found remarkably consistent effects: The discrimination appeared to come from both black and white hosts, men and women, hosts renting entire properties and those sharing rooms in their homes. It came from hosts listing expensive properties as well as cheap ones. And the neighborhood didn't seem to matter either — hosts in diverse neighborhoods discriminated about as much as hosts in homogenous places.
There was one exception to this broad pattern: Black female hosts didn't appear to discriminate against black female guests.
For all of these other hosts, the researchers found, discrimination is costly (which is another lesson that extends beyond Airbnb). Hosts who rejected a black guest often never found a replacement customer for those same dates. As a result, the researchers calculated that individual instances of discrimination translated to forgoing about $65-$100 in revenue.