Last summer was chaotic. A deadline, then another; Mom had emergency surgery (she’s fine); the dog started barking at everyone. So whenever I found a sliver of time, I searched Airbnb to book a vacation. I needed a big enough place for me, Mom, and the BF. Not too expensive. Dogs allowed.
One night, after trying yet again, the pop-up popped up: “This home is on people’s minds. It’s been viewed 216 times in the past week.” My shoulders tightened, my breath shortened. Et tu, Airbnb? I had learned to ignore the pokes from other sites: Travelocity (“Booked 2 times in the last hour”), Hotels.com (“95% booked! This is a popular location on your dates”). I was used to being tracked around the net (Dictionary.com: “Tahoe Vista Lodge: $143”). But this time I cracked.
How is it a good idea to add stress to my stress of booking a trip to get rid of stress? In their book Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler wrote about the use of “choice architecture” and libertarian paternalism. The thinking is you can design features into products that help consumers make decisions that are good for them, like healthy food.
Once again the tech industry—the one supposedly streaked with libertarianism (regulations be damned!)—fails the social sciences. Airbnb told me that the pop-ups are about helping me. The company elevates “insights that a guest or host would never be able to know (but something that Airbnb is uniquely positioned to provide insights on).” Elevated helpful insight? Instead of a nudge, Airbnb had put a hand square on my back—and shoved.
This article appears in the January issue. Subscribe now.
More Great WIRED Stories