By Julia Carrie Wong

JULY 16, 2014 — Corporate branding is always bullshit, but tech industry branding is a special breed of bullshit, if for no other reason than its pretentions to being something more than straight-up bullshit. Silicon Valley branding reads like the product of a mind caught between the revolutionary fervor of an alternative summer break spent digging a well in Guatemala and the WASPy reticence instilled while spending every other summer learning the value of a dollar by caddying for dad’s business partners. Everyone wants to turn a profit, but no one wants to admit it. The result is cutthroat capitalists who think they are changing the world.

48hillsjuliawongToday, Airbnb, one of San Francisco’s biggest “sharing economy” successes, launched a major rebranding effort, that includes a new website, redesigned rental listings, and a new logo. The theme of Airbnb’s new image is “belonging”; the tagline is “belong anywhere.” In a largely nonsensical blog post, CEO Brian Chesky explains that he and his co-founders Nathan Blecharczyk and Joe Gebbia “did some soul-searching over the last year” to arrive at the idea of the “Bélo: the universal symbol of belonging.”

Unfortunately for Airbnb, the “Bélo” looks markedly vaginal, and the entire tech community rushed to twitter to make jokes to that effect.

I’m less interested in Airbnb’s graphic design failures, and more interested in the ideology behind “belonging anywhere.” The founders reveal that their philosophy of “belonging” stems from a dismayingly selective reading of world history:

Cities used to be villages. Everyone knew each other, and everyone knew they had a place to call home. But after the mechanization and Industrial Revolution of the last century, those feelings of trust and belonging were displaced by mass-produced and impersonal travel experiences. We also stopped trusting each other. And in doing so, we lost something essential about what it means to be a community… That’s why Airbnb is returning us to a place where everyone can feel they belong.


I hate to be the one to break it to Joe, Nate, and Brian, but prior to the Industrial Revolution, one way people “belonged” to other people was through chattel slavery. Another was through marriages that made women the property of their husbands. It’s less funny than a doodle of a vagina, but perhaps more evocative of the limited viewpoint of the company’s three white, male founders.

I also wonder how likely it is that those three white, male founders have built a company where women and people of color feel like they “belong?” While Airbnb has not followed Google, Yahoo, and Facebook in releasing statistics on the diversity of its staff, a startup called Entelo claims to be able to analyze workforce demographics through social media listings. They report that Airbnb’s workforce is 63.4% male and 36.6% female.

But even more disturbing to me is the distinctly imperial flavor of a company that believes it can “belong anywhere.” The company’s branding video shows it planting a flag on the moon. Space exploration may be ambitious, but Airbnb has certainly invaded urban neighborhoods and wreaked havoc on rents and housing supply. And the idea that Airbnb users can instantly “belong anywhere” is a fallacy of a white privileged mindset. I would bet that many black and brown travelers hesitate to rent rooms in white neighborhoods, for fear of being reported to the police.

Airbnb doesn’t belong in buildings zoned for residential use. The incentive of turning long-term rentals into de-facto hotel rooms (minus the hotel tax and union contracts that go along with running a hotel in the city) has prompted some landlords to evict San Franciscans from their homes. These short term rentals are part of the market pressure that is pushing rents ever higher in San Francisco and displacing the working class and people of color.

You can call it a Bélo and draw it like a vagina, but at the end of the day, Airbnb is just another profit-seeking, law-flouting corporation contributing to the remaking of cities into citadels where the only people who belong are the wealthy. Anything else they tell you is bullshit.


  • Luke

    “draw me like one of your French logos” is perhaps the best joke I’ve seen about this. the rest is very much not a joke, unless we’re unwittingly the butt of it.

  • Julia does have an acerbic and entertaining way with words, and within the binary this/that, bad guys/the rest of us way of thinking which we inhabit she offers a next-and smarter-generation-of -Chris Daly sounding fresh wave of disdain and contempt for the smug bad guys on the other side of privilege; however, her analysis is hampered (as is her blushing employer’s) by her failure to read the classics. The secular parts of The Bible. The tax chapters of The Wealth of Nations, and the entirety of Progress & Poverty.

    When she does read these unread but often perversely referenced stalwart studies of political economy she will reflect that she and Joe, Nate, and Brian have utterly discounted the role of the non-human universe in their thinking. There is a free lunch, you see, and it’s provided by the provision of earth itself by . . . uh . . . Nature, God, atomic Big Bang, whatever . . . and the growth of community.

    Here’s what I mean. In fact I do own a home and the land it sits on in SF. I built the home. Nature provide the land. The home could be jacked up and trailered to Fresno where it would rent for about a $1,000 on a typical lot. But here in San Francisco it rents for $2,400 on its setting in Bernal Heights. Do you get the point? The $1,400 differential comes from the difference in community, not from the difference in house.

    What the ancient nomads of Canaan knew to be the gift of nature’s God to all of their several tribes –land–, Adam Smith asserted was the proper (and historic/physiocrat) subject of taxation. It was only left for our homeboy Henry George to layout the mechanism. George proposed a property tax on land value equivalent to the potential rent of any given parcel absent any improvements to that parcel but in the context of all surrounding public and private improvements in place.

    The point is that the great housing crisis in the Bay Area is no housing crisis in fact. It’s a land values retained by private parties crisis. The property tax on land values is so paltry that land owners such as myself have no compelling reason to have to put our land to its highest and best market use. Instead we speculate in land values. Developers wait until the land values gains thjey stand to make are so high that the effort and expense of building housing is made worthwhile byu the windfall gains in land value.

    But what if? What if community collected land values as George proposed? What if the annual rent potential of land were socialized? Land speculation would be over and dead. Owners of land would build to suit the market for housing since they would derive little to no income from the location of housing (since the georgist land value tax would turn that revenue over to the community).

    AirBnB operates on the assumption that little land owners such as myself want to turn high community-genreated land values into our own income. A land value tax would remove that private interest in eating the community-generated free lunch, and simultaneously encourage me to not profligately occupy more space than is market-indicated. What does that mean? Consider my situation. I own a two bedroom home and a $2,400 a month mortgage. My income is $60K (fully 55% below the neighborhood median income). What’s the result? To make my market rate payment I rent out the front room.

    Mind you, under a georgist land value tax most of that mortgage would be paid to the community rather than to the banking industry as interest on a loan that is chiefly land debt, not home debt.

    • Sam

      David, you and Julia should get a room and bore each other to death with your trite platitudes, identity politics platitudes, and your tired old cliches.

      Countering prolixity and preciousness with the same doesn’t cut it.

      • Sam,

        ad hominems and no response to the economic analysis does obviate a conversation.

        • Sam

          Pointing out how your syntactic style undermines the point you are trying unsuccessfully to make is not ad hominem. It is stylistic advice to help you become more effective.

          Julia set a linguistic trap and you fell into it. Plain language, dude.

          • Sam,

            You may be write about my writing style, so get the straight scoop on all I’ve said when you read Adam Smith, Joseph Stiglitz, Mason Gaffney, and Milton Friedman (the latter admitedly reluctantly, for as he said, “The least bad tax is Henry George’s land value tax.”). All four clearly agree that land rent is where it’s at, dude.

            Socialize land values, untax goods/capital and services/labor: Efficient, just, and unlikely given lib/lab fixation on micromanagement and libertarian fetishization of privatizing land, water, air through contract, as though earth were a commodity and not a gift of Nature/God/Circumstance (take your pick).

            Come along on my free walking tour of SF real estate, and I’ll split lunch and listening with you. Just click on my name and it’ll lead you to my web page.

            Yeah, this is ditto what I wrote SFRentier, and for similar cause. BTW, I mean that complimentarily as both of you articulate above the average in critical thought. I’m not hepping myself, just acknowledging that I do read (and listen) to smart thinkers like George, Smith, Stiglitz and (when he was not a sour puss) Friedman.

      • eddyjay

        I laffed.

    • SFrentier

      Nnnnkkkayyyy….I get it now.

      “What if the annual rent potential of land were socialized?”

      Bro, you’re kinda nutters.

      • SF Rentier,

        Nutters as Adam Smith, Joseph Stiglitz, Mason Gaffney, and Milton Friedman (the latter admitedly reluctantly, for as he said, “The least bad tax is Henry George’s land value tax.”).

        Socialize land values, untax goods/capital and services/labor: Efficient, just, and unlikely given lib/lab fixation on micromanagement and libertarian fetishization of privatizing land, water, air through contract, as though earth were a commodity and not a gift of Nature/God/Circumstance (take your pick).

        Come along on my free walking tour of SF real estate, and I’ll split lunch and listening with you. Just click on my name and it’ll lead you to my web page.

  • Greg Mountain

    Air BandB is a Co. of ass holes. They even pay allot of there low end employees on a fucking 1099 so to not pay employment tax on them. They are a shit Co.

    • Squib

      You cannot spell simple words. Your opinion is worthless.

  • Deborah

    No one hosts on Airbnb – because they love meeting new people etc. They do it because they need the money. That’s why listening to this nonsense it so ridiculous!!

    • Sam

      Not true. Part of why I like to host via Airbnb is because I get to meet people from all over the word. And in fact I have had a few offers of places to stay in Europe as a result.

      So it really does create a global community of sharers. The fact that I make some pocket money out of it at the same time doesn’t change that.

      • Son of

        It only changes the definition of the word “share”.

        • Sam

          “Sharing” in this context means that I share a personal asset of mine (home, car etc.) and you share an asset of yours, which might be money but it might also be an equivalent stay in your home.

          Time-sharing and vacation-swaps have been around for decades. There is nothing new here. And in fact I was doing short-term lets 20 years ago via CraigsList

      • I host in the residential south-central part of SF. The hotels in SF are primarily situated at the Wharf, Union Square, or the airport. My guests are (a) people who want to visit family or attend events that are not close to the hotels, or (b) people who can’t afford hotel rooms in SF, and thus probably wouldn’t visit at all, or would visit for much shorter stays.

        I rent out a section of my home. This has no impact on anyone’s rent. I clean the place myself — I am not killing any union jobs. My family, the people who actually live in my home, generally do not benefit from white-male privilege. My guests are all genders and colors. They are not staying in my home because they are wealthy, but because they are not wealthy enough to afford a hotel in SF.

        I welcome them to SF, I serve them wine, and I make their visit better. I give them free wifi and parking. I also earn income from a bedroom that’s unoccupied 95% of the time, which is helping me raise a family in this expensive city.

        None of this would exist without Airbnb.

        • Sam

          I know. So many wonderful things happen because of the sharing economy. But there are always a few envy-riddled killjoys whose lives are so small that they want to stop anyone sharing anything with anyone, out of some misguided wide-eyed naivety.

          So sad; so lamentable. If only they had lives.

  • Michel Ocla

    “Belong anywhere” = belong nowhere.

  • as much as i hate airbnb, your points regarding the gender disparity of their employees is somewhat irrelevant as is the racialization of the conversation, which is frankly a made up argument. too bad you reach for low lying fruit

  • cod

    what nobody mentions is that we are spending precious time talking about this co. and it’s logo. Sounds like a successful ad campaign to me. I didn’t know what it was 30 minutes ago.

    • Alexis-Noel

      When I first saw the new Logo, I thought it was a drawing of an upside-down paper clip..yes, I do have a paperclip shaped just like that..it was attached to promotional material from a hotel. Anyway, I think it is a stretch to call the Logo a drawing of a vagina…this analysis requires a vivid imagination…maybe the vagina of an Avatar?
      I have traveled extensively around the world as a solo traveler, which is my preference, and as a single woman, I would NEVER stay in a rented room in someone’s home…are you kidding me? I’m not paranoid, but my personal safety is a priority, and a quality hotel that takes security seriously is the only kind of place I would choose to stay while traveling.

  • Staying at the home of the locals when you go abroad is an entirely different experience regardless of your preferences and paranoia levels. Last time I traveled to the US I stayed with families that needed the money (yes, there is low-income fellows offering a place), and others that needed the company (their children left or the house was in a remote place). This has nothing to do with evil corporations and it can’t be denied. Besides, to say it is bullshit is not an argument, and mocking the logo because it resembles a vagina is childish and misses the point. In a rather white-male joking style, I would say. The real problems are lack of regulation, evil landlords and the slow response to a new model. This is people offering stuff online, this is the Internet. You can like it or not, but even when this corporation is not filling the gap any longer, others will.

    • Sam

      Yes, Sandra, and in fact people were doing short-term lets before the internet even existed. And most of my short-term lets are not done through Airbnb at all, but rather via CraigsList, or through word-of-mouth.

      But there really isn’t a lack of regulation. In fact, few places try and over-regulate peoples’ homes and properties more than SF. However, it is largely ineffective because the will of the people isn’t behind such levels of invasiveness.

      Oh, and many of those “evil” landlords who are sharing are actually not landlords at all, but tenants. And that actually is illegal, whereas an owner doing short-term lets is not breaking any law.

      • Sam, yes you are right. I mixed the words, I wanted to say ‘tenants’ rather than ‘landlords’, there is where I consider it has to be some regulation. Banning does nothing; as you say, this is only one popular platform, but as soon as you put people in contact, that will happen.

  • Lovely first sentence, but it’s spelled “pretensions.”

  • Danny

    I agree on the point that airbnb’s marketing attempt is obvious bullshit. They aren’t the first ones though to invent romantic bullshit about their product. Capitalism wasn’t invented by airbnb. But what is more of a disappointing development is that once there used to be those sites of “true sharers” called “couch-surfers”. it seems as if people needed a payment for accomodation to be able to trust the host. I have couchsurfed before and have received visitors. I had some really nice people over. Some of them were freaks, some of them were awesome, most of them were just plain normal people who needed to crush somewhere. Now this was/is the original idea of sharing.
    The ceo’s of airbnb are bluntly stealing a noble idea and turning it into business. I guess, yes, people are just trying to earn money. But what is more neo-liberal here? Trying to sell the myth of social and racial equality? Or over-ambitiously trying to become that person that doesn’t need the money? and loves sharing living space. Maybe this isn’t about the ideals of sharing living space. My family who lives at the shore of the Baltic Sea used to rent out their appartments to tourists to make some extra money. They had low incomes and kids to feed. This developpment is an answer to the high living costs in urban areas. I think it’s partly really about survival. But yeah, this being said, airbnb’s marketing looks like an even bigger heap of bullshit.

  • SFrentier

    It’s funny that these old ass hippies (and their younger followers like “bitter bitch” Julia) are basically getting their asses handed to them. The bay guardian as a paper is basically dead. This blog has low readership, except a few of us who see it as entertainment. And their effectiveness, at bitching about airbnb, google busses, or SF market rate housing, is hovering at about 0%. These are purly sideshows, bozos and entertainers. And as that, they’re pretty good 🙂

    • Sam

      Yes, Julia does come across as sneering, screechy and resentful, and her over-use of pejorative adjectives that add nothing other than her own personal prejudices is grating and ineffective.

      But I think those problems are broader and apply to some extent to anyone who went through college after the colleges became riddled with political correctness. We not have a generation of political “writers” who think they can win a debate by claiming that an entity is “too white” and that somehow the timely playing of a race card settles a matter.

      I happened to just glance at her twitter and found this gem: “Sometimes I feel like white people are appropriating our dislike of white people.” Yuk. She thinks she can get away with racism as long as it it perpetrated only on one particular race. That level of disconnect with empathy and emotional detachment shows a troubled mind.

      The old school of lefties, like Redmond and Welch, certainly appropriated PC’ness when it suited them but it was not in their true nature. It was just opportunism. And other old-school lefties were not remotely PC, and you could imagine them shifting a few in a bar without boring you to death.

      But there is such a strong streak of identity politics running through the Julia’s of this world that they all have to be taken with a pinch of salt. And, by the way, for someone who has so many opinions about SF it may surprise you to know that she doesn’t even live here.

      • SFrentier

        Yeah, I agree with you. At least the welch’s and redmond’s of the world had a shrewd of authenticity. These younger peeps, like Erin McElroy, grew up in wealthy suburbs. Then went to elite private colleges where they had been coddled up the wazoo, and hand wrapped in a blanket of PCness. Julie sounds like she’s cut of similar ilk.

        It’s too bad they are emotionally and intellectually stunted, not to mention detached from any semblance of the real world. I’m sure most of the poor and working class they purport to “help” are swallowing the patronizing attitude in the name of getting help from this new, self hating-white elite. It’s all so fake and cheaply emotional self servings. Truly pathetic deevolution of a liberal education.

  • Bobby Leopoldo

    Can you please explain how Airbnb is neoliberal bullshit? It is literally a service that has been around for decades in SF it just now has a website. Also Aaron peskin is the biggest pussy ever.

  • Whitman Balzac

    I think you’re missing a verb phrase in that first sentence, babe. Tim, help her out.

  • pitipua

    I wholeheartedly disagree!! it looks more like the tip of a penis to me!!! LOL

  • She says cutthroat capitalist like it’s a bad thing…

  • obamabites

    I evicted one of my renters because she would not stop her AirBnB business.. It took a while, and money was lost. AirBnB has no financial interest in my properties and therefore no legal right to benefit financially from it. Also, there is liability for the landlord as you don’t know what type of people end up at the property. Since there is no screening at all by AirBnB they could potentially be criminals and put the landlord at huge financial risk.

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