Breaking: Chesky plays it safe!
“Hi Tim, Dan Raile from PandoDaily. Nice to meet you. So you’re about to go interview Brian Chesky? and I was wondering if you’re planning to ask him about…”
These were the words I was able to share with Tim O’Reilly in the lobby of the downtown Oakland Marriott Thursday morning, at the 4th annual Code for America Summit, before the esteemed publisher looked at the screen of his iPhone, hypothetically asked aloud “shoot, what time is it?” and jogged the remaining 60 feet to the door of hotel’s main ballroom, where I lost view of him. Twenty-six minutes later he took an onstage chair next to the Airbnb CEO.
In any event, the answer to nearly any question I might have finished asking would have been no. Airbnb's bread-and-butter operations open up a number of wormcans with which local governments must contend, each on its own and in the face of the company's slick lobbying efforts. Despite the concentration of local government rank and file in the auditorium yesterday, none of these issues were allowed into the discussion.
There’s a trend among tech conferences to feature keynote speakers that have absolutely nothing to do with your company or organization, and this was the case with Brian Chesky’s Code for America appearance, if less obviously than was true of Puff Daddy’s address at ad:tech 2014 or Hillary Clinton’s at Dreamforce that same year.
Code for America is a nonprofit organization dedicated to using open source technology to “mak(e) government services simple, effective, and easy to use.” The onstage chat between Chesky and O’Reilly was dedicated entirely to laying a heavy sheen of civic-flavored corporate PR shellac over a nearly-full room of city government employees, and the technologists who would free them from their PDFs.
O’Reilly himself seemed strained to map the connection.
“Let’s talk about your vision for Airbnb...we talk a lot about taking government from a culture of eligibility to a culture of coverage… Airbnb seems to be a wonderful new actor in this discussion… so what can Airbnb do to make this culture of coverage possible?”
If you’ve ever heard Brian Chesky speak before, you’ve heard what came next. Airbnb wants to work with governments, go after bad actors and pay local hotel taxes. (It’s worth noting that just a day earlier Airbnb announced it would become San Francisco's first “Qualified Website Company” vis-a-vis the San Francisco Office of the Treasurer and Tax Collector, which created that category in its code last September with Airbnb in mind. Before Wednesday, the company had, in several public venues, likened the Tax Collector’s requests for information to the surveillance practices of the NSA.)
Chesky stuck to the script. Some people think Airbnb and the sharing economy are bad. But that is wrong, it needs to be reframed. It's actually good, and its own internal "impact studies" of its jealously-guarded data prove this to a one.
He briefly alluded to Proposition F, called it “crazy” and “anti-affordable housing." Providing any more information to this crowd might veer dangerously into the realm of the room's assembled expertise. He pressed on vaguely.
O’Reilly tossed a last meatball meatball, then bent to tie his shoe:
“There is some potential for negative impacts, as we’ve seen a lot in the press. What do you say to that?”
Again, you can probably imagine the response, if you’ve heard any of Airbnb’s radio spots or seen their billboards. Less predictably, Chesky later told the crowd, “we created a company not because I wanted to be a successful entrepreneur or make a bunch of money.” That's a new one just for civic-tech non-profit circuit.
Afterwards, the crowd quietly recouped and recalibrated. The bureaucrats returned to rinsing their cynicism in the fountain of techno-optimism. Corporate refugee coders to cleansing their palettes of the lost years spent chewing on such CEO cloyments with the purifying government wafer. All settled in for the remainder of the morning's programming, which concerned repairing trust and the functioning of law enforcement with the sharing and public use of police data.
There was no time for questions.