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The Birth Pains of A New Social Contract and Airbnb

Airbnb_800px-260x139 The web leaders are all abuzz (TechCrunch, Business Insider, Beta Beat, Gawker, Hacker News, Quora) over tech darling Airbnb's recent perceived product failure.  I would like to suggest that this is nothing new, but is rather part of a natural adjustment to how we interact with all emerging social platforms.  This is the formation of a new social contract. This process is never totally smooth.  That said, I would like to suggest that Airbnb is dealing with this exceptionally well.  Start ups and social marketers take note, this is how it's done.

The Marketer-Facebook Community Contract

Consider the early days of Facebook.  Just a couple of years ago, many major brands were concerned with entering Facebook, as fans could say inappropriate or off-message things on their walls, which they perceived as their marketing environments.  Many brand managers freaked out the first few times that this happened.  After a while however, people grew to realize that there is an implied social contract and learned to thrive in this environment.

The Merchant-GroupOn Social Contract

Fast forward a couple of years and GroupOn was in the same mess.  GroupOn stormed the market with the promise of attracting massive audiences to extreme deals.  After a couple of months of extreme hype, the first stories started to spread about merchants who bit off more than they could chew, in some cases destroying the partner businesses.  Over time, GroupOn (and others in the space) learned to better educate their partners and more clearly set expectations.

In both of these scenarios anyone with broader perspective could have seen these unintended consequences coming from a mile away.

The Quora-Scoble Social Contract

In the early days of any new social network, Robert Scoble reigns supreme.  He is the godfather of social.  Yet this brilliant leader who is arguably responsible for much of the success of Quora as a platform, took a serious lashing from this same community over his tweeting about his Quora activity.  There's nothing to say that this was an inappropriate behavior other than the community's response.  In this scenario the social contract had evolved.  And like the social master that he is, Scoble accepted the community response and changed his user behavior.

Airbnb's Emerging Social Contract Dispute

With this lens in mind, lets consider the latest news regarding Airbnb.  Airbnb is a beautifully designed platform that allows users to simply rent out their apartments or even spare a bedroom.  Someone rented out their house, and returned to find it trashed.  Utterly destroyed, walls broken and significant valuables stolen.  Who is responsible?

It shouldn't come as a surprise that there would be at least one or two disaster stories among Airbnb's incredible number of customer-to-customer interactions.  Not everyone is an angel and some people float towards the opposite extreme.  

While many commenters clearly believe that Airbnb should take responsibility for their guest's destructive actions, Airbnb and many others (including the host in question) believe that Airbnb's responsibility ends when the host checks the references for the guest applicant.  This is an incredible moral/philosophical/legal/practical debate with profound and significant outcomes.   This is the rough period that will naturally result in the formation of a new social contract.  

What's most interesting here is the debate regarding whether or not Airbnb's level of engagement in the discussion is sufficient.  While Michael Arrington over at TechCrunch believes that Airbnb is not communicating enough, Airbnb's customer service and CEO have been engaging in this incident and the resulting conversation.  CEO Brian Hughes is engaging the dialog over at Hacker News.  I would like to suggest that this is the best way to approach this highly contested space - with humility, honesty, active participation, and ears wide open.

This Case Is Different

Unlike the typical PR disaster, this isn't about a one-time product failure.  This is a question of liability and responsibility.  This isn't just about legality, it's about morality and the implied or even the accepted social contact.  

CraigsList faced a similar challenge.  Ebay faced a similar challenge.  Each took a radically different approach towards authentication and security.  But in today's highly social and connected world, Airbnb's challenges are more highly visible and therefor highly conversational.

I don't know that Airbnb needs to engage in every blog post or address every question out there on the web.  But it is imperative that they continue to their their side of the story, listen to real customer feedback and adapt appropriately.  

As much as this story may be led by the big name bloggers, the consensus won't come from the talking heads, but from those participating this in social contract - the hosts, guests and Airbnb.  I for one, would like to applaud everyone engaged in this dialog.  Here's to hoping everyone else it watching and learning.