The Sharing Dead

Airbnb has a dead people problem: The morbid side of the sharing economy

Andy Dubbin

A few months back, I rented a car via Getaround, a company that’s like Airbnb for vehicles. I booked a stranger’s 2006 BMW for the weekend. After locating it in a nearby parking lot via GPS, I unlocked it with the Getaround app and found the key behind the sun visor. No human interaction necessary. But then I had some problems: the Bluetooth link to pair my phone required a code and the car was popping up a warning about the tires. I tried contacting the owner via the email in her posting and it bounced. I sent her a text message and she didn’t respond. Having a somewhat morbid mind, I started to wonder if the owner of the car had gone to the great big parking lot in the sky. Was I in a zombie car still fulfilling its role in the sharing economy, when its owner had passed on?

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We’ve thought a lot about what death means for our digital accounts, leading big tech companies to address the afterlife of data. Facebook lets you memorialize a deceased person’s profile so it will stop prompting you to poke someone in a casket, and as of this week, lets you appoint a person to take over your account when your status is ‘no longer living.’ Google has a death manager you can use to let loved ones into your email after you’ve gone searching for the heavenly gates. Apple…. well, Apple, hasn’t really addressed what happens to iBooks and iTunes music after iDie, so make sure to tell loved ones how to get into your iPad before you kick it.

But thanks to sharing economy start-ups, it’s no longer just data that sticks around online after death; it includes people’s homes, cars, and belongings. Science fiction creators have contemplated our things staying alive and connected after death — see this fictional short about a ‘chorebot‘ that keeps going through its daily routine after its owner bites it — but have start-ups like Getaround and Airbnb?

“Thankfully, we haven’t encountered this yet,” says Getaround CEO Sam Zaid, who co-founded the company in 2011. The owner of the BMW I drove is still alive and well; she sent me an email two weeks later after she saw my review about the car’s problems and apologized that her contact information wasn’t up to date.

Zaid said Getaround hadn’t fully grappled with how it would deal with a ghost car in the system. With Instant-enabled cars — like the one I rented — it’s possible they’d continue to be rented post-owner-mortem as those rentals require no action by the car’s owner beyond checking to make sure it’s cleaned out between rentals. Zaid said Getaround would “find out naturally” because all owners are assigned a community manager who would likely notice if communications dropped off. If a car owner is unresponsive to a manager’s emails, his or her car is taken offline. “If someone was unresponsive because they had passed away, we would deactivate their car,” says Zaid, adding, “I guess we could be more proactive and scan online records.”

Getaround also has analytics around how often users are interacting with the website or opening the app, so it could theoretically monitor whether a car owner stopped checking in, flagging it as a possible ‘expiration’ alert. “We have data about your activity. We don’t use it for this purpose but we could,” said Zaid.

Getaround hasn’t dealt with the issue yet but home-rental company Airbnb has — though it didn’t realize it at the time. Last summer, Wesleyan college student Jordan Ruttenberg moved to New York for an internship, and rented a Bushwick, Brooklyn one bedroom apartment on Airbnb with a college friend. The twenty-something woman who rented her apartment to them had to go to San Francisco for the summer to take care of her mother. One month into the two-month rental, Ruttenberg noticed that the Airbnb host’s friends were writing sad messages on her Facebook wall saying they would miss her and “see her in heaven.” He had a number for a friend of hers who lived in the neighborhood, who told him in a brief text message that she had overdosed and died.

“It was a crazy experience, really unnerving,” says Ruttenberg. “It was her apartment with her clothes, her books and photos of her with family and friends, so that was really strange after she died.”

His friend moved out, but Ruttenberg remained there for another two weeks, until the end of his rental. He says it was “eerie and sad” but he needed someplace to live. “We didn’t reach out to Airbnb because we weren’t sure how they could help us,” he said. “I got a prompt from Airbnb afterwards to review the place but I didn’t know what to say.”

Airbnb did not find out about the incident until Newsweek wrote about it four months later. Airbnb would not offer comment on whether it does anything to ensure all of its hosts are still living. “We respect the privacy of our hosts and guests and we don’t comment on questions like these,” said a spokesperson. Maybe it thought my inquiry was just too creepy.

“Everybody dies. It’s a pervasive problem,” says Ali Lange, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy & Technology who recently wrote about passing on your data after death (“Pro-tip: Don’t put your passwords in your will because that document will become part of the public record.”) “Tech companies are trying to get it right with data legacy. But death in the context of connected devices and the share economy hasn’t come up as much. It may be because people participating are young and are not dying yet.”

It’s not just the people that are young, it’s the companies and the “share economy” itself. They have not fully developed and their systems are still analog in many ways. Lots of Getaround car owners actually meet up with their renters to hand them their keys. Same thing with Airbnb hosts. But as these companies and their technology matures, their processes will became more automated. You’ll unlock a stranger’s door with a code or smartphone app. When the stranger’s car is a driverless one that comes to pick you up when you rent it and knows that it needs to take itself to the mechanic when it has a problem, the possibility that owners’ deaths will go unnoticed will increase.

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“The Internet’s impact on mortality is still new. We’re still figuring it out,” says Chris Moreman, a philosophy professor at California State University, East Bay, and editor of the essay collection Digital Death: Mortality in the Online Age. Moreman compared the grappling of death’s affect on a person’s Internet-connected objects to zombie fiction. “In every zombie apocalypse, there’s always the question of how long the electrical grid will keep running when people aren’t around anymore. When one person dies and there are other people relying on their things, it’s a small-scale apocalypse. We see how long their things keep running without the person being there to push them forward.”

CDT’s Lange suggested that tech companies in this space should think about a service that keeps them informed about recent deaths; if they get a death notice for a user, they could take their things offline. Moreman suggested the answer might be in how companies design their systems: “How long should we program these things to run until someone needs to prompt them to keep running?”