Airbnb’s prominent and large profile photos may facilitate discrimination against home-rental hosts who are black, according to a study conducted by two Harvard Business School professors.
Reduced demand for listings featuring black hosts appears to have led them to charge a lower amount — on average, $16 per night less than non-black hosts.
In the study, which has been submitted for publishing in an economics journal, the researchers found that non-black hosts in New York charge approximately 12 percent more per night than black hosts for an equivalent rental.
“These findings highlight the prevalence of discrimination in online marketplaces, suggesting an important unintended consequence of a seemingly routine mechanism for building trust,” wrote authors Benjamin Edelman and Michael Luca.
The authors suggest that Airbnb should consider eliminating or downsizing its host photos as a proactive measure against discrimination, though they note the company is not breaking any laws by simply showing photos.
Airbnb is none too happy with the research, and said in an emailed statement, “We are committed to making Airbnb the most open, trusted, diverse, transparent community in the world and our Terms of Service prohibit content that discriminates. The data in this report is nearly two years old and is from only one of the more than 35,000 cities where Airbnb hosts welcome guests into their homes. Additionally, the authors made a number of subjective or inaccurate determinations when compiling their findings.”
In an interview, Edelman admitted that the study was imperfect, as Airbnb didn’t provide access to information about the number of bookings each property receives. So rather than actual demand, he and Luca had to rely on a set of other observable variables, including each listing’s named price and an estimate of how nice it was, according to Mechanical Turk workers who rated the listing photos on a seven-point scale.
Edelman’s rebuttal to Airbnb’s complaints: “The important thing is we have the same information available to us as potential guests.”
Many other online marketplaces don’t display profile pictures as prominently as Airbnb, Edelman pointed out. “So far as I know, you can never see a seller’s face on eBay,” he said.
But part of Airbnb’s appeal is the fact that users interact with each other as people, not as anonymous avatars. And it’s not alone in that — other modern marketplaces also use Facebook authentication and photos. For instance, drivers on Lyft can see profile pictures for prospective passengers before accepting their requests, so there’s the potential they could be screening.
Edelman said he saw a parallel to research on how blind auditions in orchestras led to women musicians advancing 50 percent more often than they would have in person. “I think that’s for the better,” he said, “and I think we can design online marketplaces to have similar benefits.”