Joining the home-renting organization Airbnb is a humiliating experience. In signing up, I discovered that Airbnb knows more about me than I do. And I mean that literally.
I became a member because a friend of mine, Charmaine, who is of a younger generation, always uses this service, and in April she is going to meet me in another city so that we can vacation together. I decided to try staying in someone else’s home, too.
At some point in my computer-assisted attempt to find an appropriate apartment that a resident of that city will rent for the time I will be there, I was informed that in order to use this service I would have to become a member.
Having been sent to a secure site, I began to fill out the requisite forms, which look much like any other forms you would fill out, perhaps for obtaining a new credit card, but I soon discovered some differences. For one thing, as soon as I typed my email address, I received an email requesting that I acknowledge it. And when I inserted my phone number I received an automated phone call showing that Airbnb wants to be sure the number connected to me.
But I think I would be just as careful as Airbnb if I were going to let a stranger stay in my home while I was away. Wouldn’t you?
So those checks didn’t bother me. But soon, matters became a bit surreal. For one thing, a photo of me suddenly appeared online, with the caption, “Hi! I’m Dorothy!” Well, good for you (I thought) — so am I.
Then I began to wonder: is the Airbnb researcher taunting me by revealing he or she has already found out exactly who I am?
Then the testing got even stickier. I got the Final Exam.
The researcher (or whoever was administering this challenge to me) warned me I was going to receive some personal questions. I prepared myself for revelations, thinking, I’m going to ace this test. After all, who would know Dorothy Mills better than Dorothy Mills? The answer, I found, was Airbnb.
I figured I’d be asked whether I smoked (and so might burn down the renter’s apartment) or used drugs (and therefore might use the apartment for partying) or belonged to a foreign terror organization (and so could be planning something illegal).
Nothing that simple. The first question was: In what city is Billings Avenue?
I was stumped. I knew Billings Avenue was one of my past addresses, but I’ve lived in about 30 different places (in some states collecting three or four different addresses) plus two foreign countries. I had no idea which city, state, or country Billings Avenue was in. All I could think of is the children’s cartoon, “Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?”
Where in the world is Billings Avenue? Am I going to flunk this Final Exam?
While staring dumfounded at the words, I noticed a box underneath them that signaled a place on which I should click. When I did, a box with possible answers dropped down. This was a multiple-choice test! I was saved, because among the names of the cities was one I lived in from 1987 to 1994: Keene, New Hampshire. That’s where Billings Avenue is.
Hurrah! I clicked on Keene and moved to the next question. That one, and the last one as well, proved to represent similar queries into details of my life that I had forgotten, ones that I required help from drop-down boxes in order to answer. In other words, Airbnb knew things about me that I had long since forgotten, and I would have failed this Final Exam without the prompts that a multiple-choice exam furnished.
I am still bemused by the question of how the Airbnb rep knew I lived on Billings Avenue in Keene, New Hampshire, for seven years in the late 80s-early 90s. Of course, I would be listed in the Keene phone book or the city directory or census. But in order to use those sources, the researcher would have to know in advance that I’d lived in Keene. And at that time, my name was different. I probably mentioned Keene in my autobiography, A Woman’s Work, but even a sophisticated robot can’t read an entire book in about ten minutes and form a question based on the autobiography plus a city directory.
I thought I was a pretty good researcher before I encountered Airbnb. Now I know better.
I’m going into the kitchen to bake some pie. Guess what kind.