Barbara Sofer

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The Human Spirit: Airbnb and the peril of reviews

By Barbara Sofer

November 11, 2016

Ever notice just how often we're asked to review products and experiences? The moment you land, you get a text message asking to evaluate your dinner tray. You order from Amazon and get to rate the packaging, not just the product. Once we asked travel agents or friends for recommendations.

Today, few would book an unknown hotel without reading reviews. But the experience of being reviewed as a guest is new, at least to me.

Last summer, instead of seeking a single vacation venue for our blessedly large family, my husband and I decided to tailor individual vacations for each of our five children, their spouses and their children. We tried Airbnb.

Airbnb is a wildly successfully Internet- based commercial network that lets potential hosts rent short-term lodging in their homes or rental apartments.

It started up in San Francisco in 2008, when hard-up roommates offered air mattresses in their living room when local hotels were booked up. Because of the economic crisis, hosts overcame reluctance to invite strangers into their homes. Renamed Airbnb, it today has more than two million listings in 34,000 cities. The 191 countries include Israel as well as the territories in the West Bank, which has earned Airbnb the castigation of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions activists and admiration of Zionists like me.

I entered family size, dates and locations into the website. Voilà! A list of options appeared.

We're old hands at renting self-catering vacation apartments, because of dietary restrictions and family size. Even before the Internet, we found such lodging on fjords in Norway, mountaintops in Wyoming, in Venice and Harlem and Seoul. Websites made this process easier, offering a few cheerful reviews and tips about each property.

Unless something is beyond awful, I don't write a negative review. Why destroy someone's business because the very night you were in a rustic village was the once-a-year rock concert (Switzerland) or the gorgeous beach was temporarily polluted (Sicily)? We've liked almost all the apartments we've rented, including the ones we found through Airbnb this summer.

With Airbnb you get persistent reminders to write reviews for both public and private feedback. Having read an account in The New York Times, "How to Survive Being an Airbnb Host," in which travel writer turned host Jeannie Ralston detailed the pain of getting a bad review, my reluctance to kibosh a host's business was reinforced. Ralston's first guests gave her picturesque Texas rental only three out of five stars, as she says "a rating given out in fewer than six percent of stays, according to a subsequent tsk-tsk note from Airbnb.... For months to come, my cumulative star rating remained less than nearby hosts.

I was devastated, especially since I had sung the guests' praises in my review of them.... I felt the same pangs of rejection and inadequacy that go with unrequited high-school friendships."

I should have paid more attention to that phrase "my review of them." After decades as a guest, I didn't worry about a negative review. We'd always been urged by our hosts to come again.

And then: "I have to honestly say I would not recommend renting to this guest," wrote one of our Israeli hosts. A hassidic tale pictures a bad word spreading like an airborne feather in a sliced pillow. This review would be forwarded further: to two million Airbnb hosts in 191 countries. I also identified with Ralston's "pangs of rejection."

I thought back frantically: Had we broken anything? Had we left the apartment crunchy with Bisli? No and no.

True, we hadn't emptied the garbage or washed the floors, but the hefty cleaning fee we'd paid should have taken care of that. No money arguments, no parties, no extra guests.

The host also sent me a venomous personal note about "nothing being good enough for us."

Now I became paranoid. Charges of discrimination have tarred Airbnb hosts. Was it my question about supplying a Shabbat hot plate (they wouldn't) that ticked off the hosts? I did phone several times, first because I was locked out and needed an extra set of keys (which never came) and later to request the extra mattress they'd offered (which was no longer available), because the living-room walls were partly glass and the light disturbed the children.

As with Ralston, this ranking continued to rankle. Around the High Holy Days, when we are evaluating our past year anyway, I wrote to the host, asking what had caused such denunciation.

She insisted I'd hung up the phone on her. That's not my style, and I remember the conversation in which I'd expressed disappointment when she reneged on the offer of the mattress, and then said goodbye. I was speaking on a cellphone from a crowded beach, with my right arm in a sling, attending children who hadn't slept, so there might have been a communication gap. She must have lived a charmed life as a host, or maybe when I expressed my disappointment, she wrongly anticipated a negative review and decided to neutralize it by censuring me. Who knows? There's no appealing an Airbnb judgment.

I'll just have to live with it.

Which is a humbling life lesson about the scrutiny to which we subject others and how these day each of us – even a paying guest – is vulnerable to a bad review.



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