How Airbnb Went Mainstream

Using social media to understand the rising of sharing economy

At first, Haruko Miki was hesitant about becoming an Airbnb host. The 75-year old widow shared her small Tokyo apartment with her daughter’s family, and she had serious doubts about opening it up to a steady stream of strangers.
She knew, too, that her husband, were he still alive, would certainly disapprove of the whole idea.

Haruko Miki prepares her Tokyo apartment for her next Airbnb guest | Photo credit: Yoichi Nagano, The New York Times

And yet a couple of years ago, Miki decided to give home sharing a try. Hoping to supplement her income and meet new people, she added a listing for her apartment to Airbnb’s website, convinced that it would help her bring in a bit of money and be a relatively minor change to her life.
“When I signed up, I thought it would be one or two a month,” she recently told The New York Times. “But it’s all the time. Last month, I only had two days off.”
Now, Miki can’t imagine her life without Airbnb. She plans her schedule around her guests and even explores her native city with them. She has, in short, become an unexpected Airbnb power user.
But how did we get here? How did 75-year old widows start sharing their homes with strangers?

The New Generation of Airbnb Users

In so many ways, Miki is the last person you’d expect to take part in the sharing economy. At 75, she’s far from the tech-savvy millennial demographic home sharing is thought to cater to. Her small apartment isn’t exactly dripping with spare rooms. And, to top it off, she’s Japanese.
“You know, Japanese are really…they just don’t want to bring foreigners to Japan,” she told the Times.
So how did Miki end up renting her spare room to unknown tourists? Her unlikely story is emblematic of Airbnb’s journey to the mainstream. In less than a decade, the home sharing juggernaut has moved from the margins of the travel landscape to its very center. And, in doing so, has disrupted an entire industry and changed the way people think about traveling. All over the world, people like Miki are renting rooms to and from complete strangers.
But the real question is how? How did a tech startup convince the world that sharing your home (or your vacation) with a complete stranger is a logical, safe move?
Social media can help us answer this question. By analyzing the conversation surrounding the sharing economy on social networks over time, we can chart home sharing’s path from niche option for tech-friendly early adopters to global phenomenon that manages to convince 75-year old Japanese widows to let hundreds of strangers share their homes.

Started From the Bottom

First, let’s get something out of the way: Airbnb is huge. It has 60 million users responsible for 500,000 nightly stays in 57,000 cities and 190 countries. The company is more valuable than any hotel chain and is on pace to book more rooms as well.


To put it bluntly: Airbnb is just about as universal and mainstream as a company can get.
But it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when almost no one knew what Airbnb was, and those who had heard of home sharing were largely skeptical of it.
That time was about five years ago.
Above is a graph showing the monthly social conversation about home sharing from 2010 to today.
That white space toward the left of the graph? That’s when literally almost no one in the world was talking about home sharing. It’s safe to say that, in 2010, home sharing was an extremely niche topic. In fact, that’s being pretty generous.
Taken in total, this chart tells a compelling story: Six years ago no one was talking about home sharing on social media, and now it is one of the most discussed travel topics.
But breaking down that time frame into sections actually helps us better understand exactly what’s going on and gives us a clearer picture of how home sharing in general — and Airbnb in particular — has crossed the chasm from a topic discussed mainly by early adopters, to one that stretches across demographics and is considered about as extreme as renting a car.
To do this, we will break the last half decade into three distinct stages:

  • Discovery
  • Adoption
  • Mainstream acceptance

Stage 1: Discovery (2010-2012)

In the beginning, home sharing was confined to the margins of the conversation on social. Tech-obsessed millennials in large cities and cash-strapped travelers were the main contributors to the conversation, and they were mostly looking for tips and recommendations.

For several years, the social conversation gathered steam slowly. Sites like CouchSurfing popped up and were bandied about by thrill-seekers as possible ways to spice up (and cut the costs of) their travels.
At this point, much of the social conversation was still infused with a dash of skepticism. The idea of renting a room to or from a stranger was being discussed, but it wasn’t without hesitations caused by the (understandably) novel nature of the concept.

For the first few years of home sharing, this ambivalence characterized much of the social conversation surrounding home sharing — on the one hand, it seemed like a good idea with tons of potential. On the other, it appeared to fly in the face of long-held safety and common sense principles.
But by 2012, those anxieties were starting to get drowned out by the excitement and positive experiences brought out by the home sharing trend.

Stage 2: Adoption (2012-2014)

Around 2012, the social conversation about home sharing entered a new era. The concept hadn’t yet exploded into the mainstream, but the discussions surrounding it were less focused on general information-gathering and fear-based worries. Instead, they reflected a broader spectrum of home-sharing-related topics. What are the differences between platforms? How does staying in someone’s home compare to a traditional hotel visit? Is the process seamless or complicated? What should you look for in a home sharing listing?
But this stage is also marked by the rapid ascent of an important player.
After growing steadily in popularity since its founding in 2008, Airbnb started to see explosive growth in 2012. Airbnb initially shared the social conversation with other home sharing platforms (most notably VRBO), but starting around 2012 it began to eclipse the other challengers.
Below is a breakdown of the last 5 years in terms of social post volume for the main home sharing players.
Clearly, Airbnb secured its position as the most discussed home sharing platform in the world. But it did more than that: it also helped propel home sharing in general into its next stage.

Stage 3: Mainstream Acceptance (2014-)

Since 2014, home sharing has enjoyed almost unparalleled popularity. Welcoming a much more diverse group of participants, home sharing has become a central part of all travel conversation. Far from a way for young, thrifty travelers to see the world, home sharing has become an industry all its own. And people are now truly taking notice.
The data we’ve already discussed — the astronomical valuation, the expanding global footprint, the growing number of people choosing home sharing over hotels — is undeniable, but it’s only part of the story. The economic impact of Airbnb and home sharing is staggering, but it pales in comparison to the socialimpact of the movement. Not content to simply rake in tons of money or crop up in every country in the world, home sharing is in the midst of changing the way people think about travel.
Take a look at this chart showing the total volume of Airbnb social conversation plotted against social volume for the two biggest hotel chains, Marriott and Hilton.
This isn’t Airbnb competing against other tech startups like Uber and Snapchat. This isn’t home sharing simply becoming a mainstream travel option when before it wasn’t. This is Airbnb inserting itself into the conversation with some of the biggest, oldest and most popular hospitality brands in the world.
But how should we (and hospitality professionals) think about this trend? One does the mainstreaming of home sharing really mean?
One way to tackled this tricky question is to think about how the average home sharer has changed over the past half decade.

What does the average home sharer look like?

The best way to tackle this is to compare the interests of people involved in the home-sharing conversation on social from two time periods: 2010, when the trend was just taking off, and 2015, when it had officially experienced mainstream acceptance. Using Crimson Hexagon’s Affinities Analysis to compare the audience interests of people involved in the home sharing conversation in 2010 and 2015 helps us see how (or if) the general profile of a home sharer has changed since the trend has become more mainstream.
Here’s how it looks:
What does this chart show us? It reveals that early participants in the home sharing conversation had much more niche, tech-heavy interests (like silicon valley and digital media) than those involved in the current conversation (who have interests like baseball and hip hop). Between 2010 and 2015, the profile of someone discussing home sharing on social went from a west-coast-based techie to something much more straightforward: a person, essentially, just like anyone else.
It’s 2016, and home sharing is now officially in the mainstream.

Airbnb in the media

Knowing all this, it’s reasonable to assume that the mainstreaming of home sharing isn’t only noticeable in how consumers discuss it on social, but also how it is represented elsewhere. And you’d be right.
A quick analysis of the media coverage of Airbnb reveals a similar story: in 2010, the company was mentioned sparingly, and when it was it was treated as an emerging fad that no one was sure would last.
In fact, a list of every time The New York Times mentioned Airbnb between 2010 and 2016 tells an interesting story. At the beginning, the news source is careful (and somewhat inconsistent) in the ways it refers to Airbnb, A “startup company,” a “Web site” an “online lodging service” — these all reflect that the news source isn’t entirely sure what to make of the growing movement.
But by 2015, all that has changed: “The largest apartment-sharing company” and “pioneering home rental service.”
Or simply: “Have you heard of Airbnb? Of course you have.” 2015
Here’s every mention of Airbnb by The New York Times during that time frame:

Every Mention of Airbnb in The New York Times, 2010-2015

In concert with the social discussion surrounding home sharing, this evolution shows that in just a few years Airbnb successfully went from niche curiosity to name-brand commodity.

Where does home sharing go from here?

Now that Airbnb and home sharing are an engrained part of the travel industry, where does it go from here? The simple answer is: up. All of our analysis showed that, far from cresting, Airbnb appears to just be hitting its stride. As the company secures more capital and branches out into new locales, it is continuing to gain momentum and inject itself into new conversations. Is it threatening the hotel industry? On course to decimate hostels?
Over the next several weeks, we will continue to dive into these questions. Stay tuned for our next article on how the hotel industry is defending itself against the growing threat of Airbnb and home sharing.


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