Can Airbnb create an open community — and protect their users?

I was in the middle of sipping my Bloody Mary when he approached me.

“That’s so funny,” The ginger-haired young man suddenly interjected, while I was mid-sentence to my friend Katie.

She and I were grabbing brunch. It was a lazy Sunday morning, and we opted for something downtown. We were sitting leisurely, laughing and talking, along with her boyfriend Tom. Seated besides the sun-soaked window of the picturesque restaurant, when the stranger overheard us talking.

“Melissa?” he then said, looking directly at me.

“Yeah…” I replied, hesitantly.

I tried to place him, but couldn’t. Did I know him from community theater, where I had started to become involved? Had we gone on a date?

“Who are you?” I asked, as he just stood there awkwardly.

“Oh,” he replied. “I slept in your house a few weeks ago.”

It was like a scene from a Meg Ryan-esque rom-com. Boy stays at girl’s Airbnb. Boy meets girl out in public. Boy and girl talk.

Except it was far less quirky and charming. Katie and I joked about it later, that it was funny he recognized me, although we had never met face to face during his stay. I had asked him how he knew it was me, and his response was:

“Oh, from your thumbnail on your host profile,” he said, as it would be obvious.

He talked about his recent breakup with his girlfriend, who had booked their stay. He complimented my hair. His eyes didn’t leave me.

The experience would been endearing, a funny little memory… if it hadn’t happened again.

A few weeks later, Katie (yes, Katie again), and myself were sitting outside a bar downtown. Sipping drinks under the canopy, we watched buckets of rain flood Front Street. Tom clicked away on his phone.

We saw the young man run from across the street. He approached us carefully, as if he were walking up to a baby deer.

“Melissa?” He asked, in the same hushed, uncertain tone.

“Yes?”

“I’m Bryce.*” He replied.

“I stayed at your house a few weeks ago.”

After a quick conversation, Bryce asked to drink with us. I told him we were headed out, (which was true). Shortly after I left, I got a message from him on the Airbnb app.

“I’d love to take you out,” he said. “Here’s my phone number.”

I didn’t reply.

I don’t keep a lot of photos in the house. Though my walls are covered with art, eclectic murals hand-painted by friends, my bookshelves stacked with old National Geographics, secondhand travel books, and musical instruments I don’t play, there is no physical image of me in my home.

The only personal photograph on display, in fact, is one of my dog, Morrie. It’s a small, framed photo tucked away in one of the guest bedrooms. It’s on the first day I brought him home — he’s smiling, in the ways dogs do.

It’s one of the many treasured, slightly tattered trinkets and artifacts of Melissa in the house.

But again, there are no photos of me.

I wouldn’t consider myself a private person. I have a blog, Driftyland, that I write travel stories on and a podcast, also called Driftyland, where I discuss the various challenges and struggles with being 30, and incredibly single. I’m open. I’m exposed.

Until recently, I never really saw that as a negative thing.

I love Airbnb. I love being a host. I’ve met people from all walks of life, from all over the world. Just last week, I had an in-depth conversation with a guest about our love lives. We drank cheap red wine and nibbled on a Whole Foods candy bar.

My roommate, and my friend Micah, joined us. It was great, so great in fact — McKenna, my guest, probably won’t book through Airbnb if she comes to visit again. She’s a friend now.

After guests depart, I keep handwritten notes from them in a small wooden box. Little doodles and scribbles, asking me where I purchased various furniture items or complimented my upcycled spice rack. Many times, just a simple thank you for a nice place to sleep.

I love Airbnb. I love being a host.

But when it comes to romantic endeavors, I’m private. I don’t typically use Tinder or OKCupid, though I have profiles up. I dislike blind dates, and my adventurous nature does not extend to that part of my life.

I’ve always opted for intimate relationships with men I’ve known first. Friends, co-workers turned something else. This is comfortable to me. This feels natural to me.

Thrusting myself into a situation with a stranger does not. I make very few exceptions.

I still didn’t attribute Airbnb to these two face-to-face encounters. They were just approaching a girl, I rationalized. It was fine. We could have met anywhere, and the behavior would have been the same.

Not too long after that, I got a last-minute booking request from a guy named Rory*. Rory was driving from Greensboro for a last minute work trip, and asked if he could stay in my studio.

I agreed, and as soon as I confirmed his reservation, he said:

“Maybe we could grab a drink when I get there.”

I didn’t think much of it. I had rehearsal, was getting ready to go to Europe in a few days, and didn’t have a lot of spare time to go out. I let him know that, and he seemed fine with it.

When I got home, he was still up.

We did end up getting that drink — Rory was surprisingly attractive — but instead of a bar, we sipped beers on my porch. Under different circumstances, I would have considered it. But he was a guest, so I saw it as a professional kind of thing and only engaged him in friendly chatter.

He started to tell me about himself first. He talked about his experience traveling around the state for work, and how much he enjoyed being on the road. Then, he started to talk about his plans to buy a house. I was impressed.

It wasn’t until he brought up Iceland (my favorite place) and minimalism (my favorite thing) that I came to a revelation: Rory knew me.

He already knew who I was.

I never had concrete proof that Rory came to see me specifically, but there was smoke. He wanted to visit Reykjavik, more than anything. His plans were to Airbnb out his own home, then travel the world.

When he asked to have breakfast with me, I declined. I was in fact, seeing someone else who came over after Rory went to sleep, and when I told him my suspicions, got wide-eyed and said:

“And he’s here? Sleeping in your house?”

Indeed. He was.

Airbnb encourages hosts to be personal. Renters (myself included) want to know who they’re staying with. When you first create a profile, prompts ask you to share more and more information about yourself.

A photo, a summary. What you do for a living. Your favorite spots. Basically, everything that someone could see from being friends with you on Facebook, or by following you on Twitter.

Airbnb is about community. It’s about feeling as if you belong — but what happens when you don’t feel safe in your own home?

In the platform’s new Discrimination & Belonging Policy, hosts must agree to: “to treat everyone — regardless of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age — with respect, and without judgement or bias.”

This policy, while one of my favorite things about Airbnb, is also where things get a little grey. Though I’ve hosted multiple men in my home, of all ages and backgrounds without any kind of issue, I’ve also had to decline potential guests who seem uncomfortably… aggressive… about wanting to stay in my home.

Imagine you’re at your favorite bar. You’re sitting alone, sipping a drink — maybe reading a book or scanning your phone. A man (or woman, anyone really) asks if they can sit besides you.

But they don’t ask. They demand. Any resistance results in the bar telling you the seat is open and available. That you can’t discriminate who sits next to you.

“I’m not discriminating…” you say, feeling increasingly vulnerable. “I don’t feel comfortable.”

“Well,” the bar responds. “Let us know if things get worse. In the meantime, let anyone sit there.”

I’m being a little hyperbolic. Of course Airbnb would never force me to host someone. But going back to that host profile and setting up a listing — Airbnb constantly sends props to obtain more bookings for your property.

Which is great — you get updates on when dates are available. You get offers to give a slight discount based on the demand in the area. But what also happens is that Airbnb encourages you to put your listings on Auto-Book… which means someone can book your home, instantly.

And get your address.

Instantly.

Again… the pieces didn’t fall together for me until recently. I had a guest request to stay in my home three or four times. He never communicated much about why he wanted to stay at my house in particular.

His requests and responses were one to two words, max. He was from Wilmington. He lived here, or at least his profile said that. He never wanted to stay more than one night. He had a profile picture of himself behind the steering wheel of a really nice car.

During his multiple requests, I had conflicts, and could not host. But the persistence, and the attempts to book again and again made my stomach turn. Why me? Why my house?

After the same kind of thing happened again, I contacted Airbnb. I explained to the rep what seemed to happening, and requested that all of my bookings be taken off auto-book. I expressed that I loved being a host and still wanted people to stay here, but that I was worried.

“Has this thing ever happened before?” I asked. “The guy who tried to book with me also came up on Tinder for me a few days ago.”

“What if he booked and got my address? Got into my house?” I asked again.

Granted, I was being a little paranoid. The response from the rep didn’t help.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said. “I cannot reveal any personal information about our hosts or their experiences.”

What about my personal information, I’ve asked myself since. What about my safety?

After an unsatisfying dialogue, the rep informed me that my home was no longer able to accept automatically booked reservations. That was the extent of his reach. If I wanted to block someone on messenger, I could.

So they couldn’t communicate with me.

I haven’t completely sorted out my feelings about this. Will I continue to host? Probably.

Will I be more cautious about how frequently I host, and what information I choose to share about myself? Probably?

I know that Airbnb isn’t the problem. It’s technology. It’s our world. It’s the need to share more, reveal more — to make yourself accessible and out there, on the internet.

A friend of mine had a baby this week. I haven’t spoken to her for ages, but Tommy*, as she put it — would have his own decision to make about whether or not to use social media. So unless they were specifically requested via text or email, she would not be posting photos of him.

She asked other people not post images, either.

I thought about this kind of over-exposed, social media fueled existence we’re all in and couldn’t help but wonder —

Is that possible? To have a choice?

But as I read through a message that came in right after her Instagram post, a second request to stay at my house from the Tinder guy, I wondered again —

Is is realistic?

Melissa Randall is a nonfiction writer and essayist. Her stories on Medium often discuss travel, film, and personal life experiences.

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