Subprojects | Project Area C | Circulation and Order

Platform Economy: Spatial Conflicts over Airbnb between Global Marketization and Territorial Containment

The subproject investigates the refiguration of spaces using the example of Airbnb. The broad question it concerns itself with is how and when conflicts arise from tensions between the spatial figures of place, network space and territorial space. The observation that Airbnb’s digital marketplace is characterized by a specific interrelationship of place and network space forms the basis for these analyses. As a key example of the platform economy, Airbnb enables its users to book accommodations around the world, thereby linking places in a digital network space. As a cyber-physical space, Airbnb combines location-based attributes, such as location and environment, with attributes of a virtual digital marketplace, such as algorithms, descriptions and ratings. In doing so, Airbnb curates location-based listings and global demand in order to make a profit. While initially many had hoped for a sustainable way of doing business and for the formation of a digital community, as encapsulated by the catchphrase “sharing economy,” today there is growing criticism. Critics see Airbnb as a prime example of a market regime of radicalized economization that turns private accommodation into a global commodity. Indeed, more and more professional providers are using Airbnb to offer several private accommodations on a commercial basis. In many cities, the global success and professionalization of Airbnb has increasingly led to problems, such as declining housing quality, rising real estate prices and non-regulated tourism. In the process, spatial conflicts often arise around Airbnb locally, as local initiatives and municipal bodies predominantly act in cities or neighborhoods, which, in turn, become clearly defined territorial spaces. Thus, territorial administrative areas often become the starting point for attempts to establish and enforce rules to contain Airbnb. So far, however, little is known about how Airbnb incorporates concrete places into a digital network space and how the conflictual interrelationship of network and territorial space shapes activities in Airbnb’s digital marketplace.

The subproject investigates these spatial conflicts and the underlying interrelationships between the spatial figures of place, network space and territorial space by employing a mixed-methods design comparing three cities: These cities (Berlin, Cape Town, San Francisco) will be examined in order to investigate, on the one hand, whether Airbnb implements uniform marketing strategies worldwide and, on the other hand, whether and how local initiatives and municipal bodies implement effective containment efforts. The project’s quantitative analyses use Airbnb itself as a novel data source. Here, web scraping stores the data of individual listings (GPS coordinates, ratings, descriptions, etc.) as a local dataset. For Berlin, with monthly intervals starting in 2015, this, for instance, includes over one million specifications which map the offers and their attributes over time. With this highly detailed panel data structure combined with the GPS coordinates, the marketplace can be extensively analyzed and linked to other data sources. Further quantitative analyses use data on conflict events and panel data on Airbnb listings to explore the interplay between the marketplace and spatial conflicts over time. Additional qualitative analyses moreover deepen and substantiate the quantitative results. Based on qualitative case studies of individual offers, interviews with experts broaden the perspective to include an analysis of the spatial conflicts surrounding Airbnb. This step examines Airbnb, local initiatives and municipal bodies. Against the backdrop of current developments, the project concludes by examining whether the discovered relationships will continue in a path-dependent manner after the Covid-19 pandemic or whether the conditions in Airbnb’s digital marketplace are undergoing substantial changes.