“One More Way To Sell New Orleans”: Airbnb and the Commodification of Authenticity Through Local Emotional Labor

Authors: Ian Spangler*, UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY
Topics: Cultural Geography
Keywords: Airbnb, short-term rentals, New Orleans, emotional labor, feminist political economy, authenticity
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/5/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Washington 3, Marriott, Exhibition Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Since 2014, New Orleans has experienced a debate over how to best regulate short-term home rentals (STR’s). Supporters maintain that STR’s promote economic opportunities; conversely, critics argue that STR’s contribute to gentrification and harmful neighborhood change. Airbnb, the most vocal and prominent STR platform operating in New Orleans, quickly found itself center-stage of this debate. To date, Airbnb has been the subject of excellent critical research projects examining how the platform changes conceptions of domestic property, for example, or how it generates a new kind of rent gap (Stabrowski 2017, Wachsmuth and Weisler 2018). However, it is also important to contend with how the impacts of digital platforms like Airbnb extend beyond the realm of what is traditionally conceptualized as the economic (i.e., pressure on housing markets). As such, this study takes an ethnographic approach, drawing on 18 interviews and field notes to explore how Airbnb recalibrates the spatial and temporal rhythms of neighborhood life, particularly for those external to the formal trappings of an STR contract. Pairing theories of authenticity with feminist political economy, I argue that locals’ situated practices and emotional labor of playing host are necessarily enrolled into the commodification of “authentic” New Orleans experience – and thereby into the creation of value – for Airbnb and Airbnb hosts (Gibson-Graham 2008, Hochschild 2012). This enrollment is spatially contingent, primarily affecting those in high-density STR neighborhoods – but, importantly, I argue that this emotional labor is crucial to the reproduction of Airbnb’s business model and marketing rhetoric.

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