Airbnb: a real-life Westworld?

Article by: Joe Hewitt

Welcome Home. The words that, over the last year, greeted guests to Airbnb. Innocuous and charming. Small town language for a big world vision: to let people feel a part of a culture by placing them at the sacred heart — the home.


And yet their homes have evolved into homogeneity. No longer a reflection of an exotic society outside, interiors have become what Kyle Chayka coined as ‘AirSpace’. A word that captures the familiar-unfamiliar aesthetic, a coffee-shop simulacrum of exposed brick, reclaimed wood, Edison bulbs, Nespresso machines and Eames chairs — ‘the neutered Scandinavianism of HGTV’ as he calls it. Rather than fostering a community of diversity and celebrated localness, their brand idea — Belong Anywhere — has been shorted by blanch interiors and Silicon Valley sameness. So how do you continue to profit off local flavours when your primary product becomes culturally neutralised?


Welcome to the world of trips. This is Airbnb’s new product, that will take the company beyond the four walls. It allows users to buy certain experiences curated by local hosts. For £115 per person, one can ‘experience life as an LA artist’ with Nona and Robert, or a 2-day food and drink immersion in Seoul with Nayoung. Another is named ‘Adventure Man’. It’s a 3-day ‘lifestyle immersion’ with Quinn, a surfer, where guests can ‘camp under the stars’ and ‘enjoy a fireside meal’ with their host.


One could be forgiven for thinking Airbnb now resembles the Netflix homepage. Experiences are packaged as portraits of unknown protagonists, framed by stylised titles such as ‘Escape to Lamu Island’, ‘The Ballet’ or ‘A Courteous Chef’. Each title is capped with a name, smaller and more discreet, hinting at the cover-art trope of listing the leading actor. They act as teasers for the world beyond, purposely sharing the semiotics of book covers and film posters; the hosts are characters, allies, perhaps an Oracle to guide us, The Hero, through an unknown land. And amassed as one, these covers show a library of possibility, potential adventure, selected from the shelf by guests wishing to be lost inside.

Welcome to Westworld, goes the in-show tagline that greets all guests in HBO’s latest hit. For those who missed the show, Westworld itself is a theme-park for the super-rich. For forty grand a day, guests enter a hyper realistic fantasy world, playing dress-up, choosing ‘missions’ and ‘playable’ storylines, or to simply just wander, exercising a freedom not dissimilar to playing GTA’s San Andreas for the very first time. Within the park, they interact with artificially intelligent ‘Hosts’ which, aside from their looped stories and exotic practises, are physically indistinguishable from the guests they serve.


It may seem farcical to compare Airbnb with Westworld or, more accurately, Delos, the park’s parent company. The shared language. The shared titles of ‘Host’ and ‘Guest’. The shared — spoiler alert — samurai experience. The shared scenarios where waves of wide-eyed guests marvel at routine, semi-scripted experiences (because surely the Host will repeat their act?). Perhaps it’s surface.


But we can’t deny that pretending to be someone we’re not is an attractive concept. One of the hosts in Westworld innocently asks, ‘if it’s such a wonderful place out there, why are you all clamouring to get in here?’. More than the sexual and violent freedoms, it is purpose, adventure, and story, regardless if manufactured, which draws guests to enter Westworld, a place that ‘reveals your deepest self’ while the outside world soon ‘feels unreal’.


And this, fundamentally, is what Airbnb is about. Belong Anywhere — it is aiming to not be an escape from the real world, but one of the few times you actually experience it. It has never really been a travel company. It sells roleplay — a form of entertainment that has more in common immersive theatre, gaming, books, and movies. By shunning branded reception desks and obsequious staff that remind you of your otherness, you are not an audience to a foreign spectacle. With Airbnb, you are the character, at home on stage, now joined by supporting acts to lead you deeper inside.


Welcome to AirWorld, a future prospect. One that sees Airbnb capitalise on reality itself as a commodity. Here, the poor escape through headsets, and the rich escape in the real world. Like Westworld, guests have become subsumed, bored of the homogeneity. And are now desperate for more experiences, more narratives, more depth. Looking to Airbnb writers to take them further away from reality, towards their true selves.