Our secrets in binary

Last month, Joe Gebbia, one of our co-founders at Airbnb, gave a talk at TED2016. The lecture, “How Airbnb designs for trust”, focuses on the earliest days of the company and the question of why and how the hosts and guests of the platform would trust each other. As Joe makes a point of, the premise was initially hard to get behind:

Here’s what we pitched investors: “We want to build a website where people publicly post pictures of their most intimate spaces, their bedrooms, the bathrooms — the kinds of rooms you usually keep closed when people come over. And then, over the Internet, they’re going to invite complete strangers to come sleep in their homes. It’s going to be huge!”

As we know, things ended up going pretty well for Joe, Nate and Brian. It’s but seven years later and we recently surpassed 123 million hosted nights on the platform. Joe’s talk, which I’ve embedded below, is a fantastic exploration of how design can positively influence community, and the trust that blossoms within it.

What I want to call out specifically, though, is an exercise that Joe has the audience do.

I want to give you a sense of the flavor of trust that we were aiming to achieve. I’ve got a 30-second experiment that will push you past your comfort zone. […] I need you to take out your phones. Now that you have your phone out, I’d like you to unlock your phone. Now hand your unlocked phone to the person on your left.

If you watch the video (start at about 5:14 for the line quoted above), you’ll hear a veritable typhoon of chatter erupt throughout the audience. With this simple exercise, Joe struck a nerve. As the audience quiets down, each holding a stranger’s unlocked phone in one hand, Joe says “That tiny sense of panic you’re feeling right now is exactly how hosts feel the first time they open their home.”

Since watching Joe’s talk I’ve been especially mindful of a particular perspective of this experiment, one that I don’t want to answer myself, but rather put to anybody reading, whether to respond to or just think about. Namely,* is it more upsetting that we put such immense faith in our phones to protect our privacy, or that we have so much we feel is necessary to protect in the first place*?