Above: Copies of my first non-self-published book in the window of the New York Transit Museum Annex, Grand Central Terminal. Probably not possible without AirBnB. Photo © 2014, Reka Komoli.
Squeezed writing time
As everyone knows, it’s tricky to earn a living from any creative activity. The market-place is full of cheap thrills against which genuine art must compete. And creatives are often poor at marketing and business planning, or even just asking for money for what they create. It is therefore a very common practice for arts people to have a day-job that keeps body and soul together, but has little or nothing to do with their calling to express their soul in artistic form. Unfortunately most jobs are full-time or more than full-time, so they restrict creative time to a few tired hours between supper and bed.
In my own case, I was lucky to be able to work in software development. Although I was grateful for it, the job generally meant working late and commuting even later, It left the weekends for an unceasing battle between domestic commitments and trying to squeeze in an hour or two for writing. Eventually, in 1999, I put together my philosophical writings into two self-published books. Over the subsequent years, my sense of being stultified, sitting at my desk in an open-plan office churning out pages of Fortran computer code to pay the mortgage weighed against my yearning to spend all day inquiring into the nature of consciousnes, or following my new passion in the history of maps. To be sure, I was fortunate to be sitting at a desk and not sweating in a fast-food outlet, but the hamster-wheel cycle of working as much as possible to pay the mortgage and domestic bills and looking distantly to retirement when I could begin my real work of writing, became more rebarbative with each year. Anyway, stuff happened, and I found myself in a one-bedroom flat in East London with no work and no prospect of work (in a young industry were fifty-year-olds are dinosaurs), and no real desire to go back to the work-place anyway.
I discovered AirBnB. I cleared out all the junk from my bedroom, and rented it on AirBnB, while I slept on the couch in the living room. Amazingly, it worked. Almost all my income for a few years came from guests, with a few extra quid from teaching English. Where I lived in the desolate margins of the docklands, tourism was unheard-of, so I configured my AirBnB service to be as flexible as possible: minimum stay of one night, free extra air-beds for extra guests, no cleaning or cancellation fee, and I often met people at the station, or sometimes even the airport.
As I said, it worked. I survived, and I published my first book on the history of the New York City subway map at the end of 2012, with an academic press in the States, and this year I will be self-publishing further volumes in the series. Last year, I sold my flat in order to travel, so I am temporarily not hosting. But eventually I shall settle down and host again.
For me, and I think for many people who are in economically marginal situations either permanently or temporarily, AirBnB can be a financial lifeline. Especially for those whose passion is for creative work that is not financially recognised in the marketplace.
I can understand the arguments of critics of AirBnB, who complain about landlords who effectively turn residential properties into hotels and reduce the available stock of rentable homes. But I do not believe that that criticism applies to the writers, artists, and performers in financial straits for whom the extra income from renting out on AirBnB a spare bedroom in the home can make a huge difference to their economic life.
But, beyond the success of keeping creatives alive, it seems to me that there is an untapped potential in connecting guests and hosts with shared interests in the arts. I know that some hosts in this group actively introduce activities – such as art classes – into the hosting service. It may be that that is something that could grow enormously. And just making the connection on the basis of shared passion is an unknown potential in the ‘sharing economy’. All of my guests have been wonderful people, but the few who shared my passion for philosophy have left memories of long and fascinating conversations.
So far, the AirBnB Group system has been a disappointment for technical reasons. But my own experience as a host (and, since then, as a guest) suggests to me that forming intentional communities on the back of AirBnB has real potential.