Meet the Apptivists: The volunteer lobbyists helping keep Airbnb, Uber, and other startups alive

There are few things that get under Eric Meyerson’s skin more than the accusation that he is “shilling” for Airbnb.

Lately, this is an indictment that Meyerson has heard an awful lot—he was one of the most visible faces of the movement to quash Proposition F, the controversial San Francisco ballot initiative that sought strict limits for short-term rentals, a proposition that would significantly hurt Airbnb in its hometown. Meyerson never expected to become a volunteer tech industry lobbyist, but for him and dozens of other San Francisco Airbnb hosts, the threat that Prop F posed to their own pockets was too great to sit out the fight.

Meyerson became an Airbnb host in 2014. He rents out the guest cottage of his family’s Sunnyside home to offset the costs of his mother-in-law’s expensive assisted living facility. By renting out the cottage for as many as 20 days a month, he pulled in about $15,000 annually. Prop F proposed limiting short term rentals to just 75 days a year—a move that would have put a huge dent in his earning power.

Meyerson is hardly an Airbnb loyalist. He’s a progressive, middle class San Franciscan who abhorred Airbnb’s snarky ad campaign touting its mandatory local tax contributions as evidence of corporate sainthood. But he was willing to go to war for a Silicon Valley darling valued at more than $25 billion because he perceived it as in his own best interest, too.

So Meyerson joined a coalition of other hosts that ran a grassroots No on F campaign independently from Airbnb. Then he studied up on BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti’s rules for making stuff online go viral and posted an essay to Medium titled “I Have Read Prop F, and It is Worse Than You Think.” The piece blew up; it was read by more than 100,000 people in all, half as many people as the 200,000 that even voted in the election. Airbnb included the post in the company’s post-election victory slide deck, trumpeting the power of “the people-to-people voting bloc.”

“There was never a sense that we were doing anything for Airbnb,” Meyerson, a consumer marketing director at Eventbrite, told me the week after the election. “We were doing it for ourselves. None of us terribly love Airbnb. Frankly, a lot of us are unhappy with them, not as a provider of a service, but as an actor.”

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This is not just a narrative unfolding on the tech industry’s home turf. Across the country, as lawmakers and regulators attempt to rein in Airbnb, Uber, Lyft and other “disruptive” startups, they are discovering just how much support Silicon Valley has from its swelling user bases. These people—you might call them “apptivists”—have proven willing to get out the vote and show up en masse at the polls to keep their favorite startups thriving. In this model, every new Airbnb host or Uber driver is another potential pro-tech protestor demonstrating at City Hall, at no cost to the company.

This sort of corporate-sponsored activism—which political sociologist Edward Walker has dubbed “grassroots for hire”—has become a hallmark of Silicon Valley companies with massive user bases enmeshed in intense regulatory battles. It’s how Uber defeated a push by New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio for ride-hailing caps in the city, building a coalition of tech-savvy millennials, drivers and minorities who sent thousands of e-mails to city hall and showed up to rally for Uber outside of public housing projects to decry the city’s yellow cab system as classist and racist. Right now, it’s how fantasy sports startup FanDuel is attempting to kill a cease-and-desist order from New York’s attorney general, urging its users via Facebook and e-mail to write to the attorney general, sign a petition and tweet with the hashtag #FantasyForAll. At at rally FanDuel organized in front of the attorney general’s office in Manhattan last Friday, nearly 200 supporters showed up.

Venture capitalist Nick Grossman distilled the strategy into a simple cycle: create something awesome that breaks tons of rules, win over customers so that they can’t imagine living without said rule-breaking innovation, rally those happy customers to “rain hellfire on the regulators.”

It’s the rise of the un-lobbyist, of companies with the ability to, as Walker put it, “galvanize their own users as unpaid campaigners, all with the tap of an app.” And this strategy is buying Silicon Valley companies an unprecedented level of corporate influence over the democratic process.

In its post-election victory lap, Airbnb spelled the size of this influence out: Airbnb has almost as many U.S. users as there are members of the National Rifle Association. Polling in six major cities found at least 60 percent of Airbnb users would take action against legislation restricting its use.

Chris Lehane, the company’s lead policy wonk, announced that Airbnb would organize its voting masses across the U.S., forming a network of home-sharing “guilds” that the company dubbed “100 Clubs.”

“Home sharing is a big idea,” Lehane proclaimed last week in Paris at Airbnb Open. “So big that no army could ever really stop it.”

The company’s San Francisco victory wasn’t all grassroots: Airbnb poured nearly $9 million into defeating Proposition F, flooding San Francisco airwaves with “no on F” ads, organizing campaigners to knock on nearly 300,000 doors and targeting on-site messaging at local hosts to get out the vote. Airbnb was also the benefactor of some particularly favorable election-day math: 17% of San Francisco’s population uses Airbnb.

But Lehane credited local hosts for a huge share of the success. There are 6,000 Airbnb hosts like Meyerson in San Francisco. A few dozen of them organized an aggressive lobby against Proposition F, writing op-eds in The San Francisco Chronicle and meeting with the paper’s editorial board, which ultimately recommended voting against it. One host dug up evidence that one of the authors of the proposition—which would force Airbnb hosts to register with the city—had never registered his own business with the city, fueling more negative news coverage for Proposition F.

And now other start-ups are trying to galvanize their users in a way that we haven’t seen since technology companies and popular websites flooded their front pages with “anti-SOPA” messages in 2012 to kill a controversial anti-piracy bill making its way through Congress.

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This strategy isn’t particularly unique to Silicon Valley. Walker has estimated that 40% of Fortune 500 companies have used grassroots-mobilization consultants at one point or another. Since business began becoming increasingly political in the 1970s, the Public Affairs Council, an association of corporate public affairs officers, has held an annual National Grassroots Conference. Chick-fil-A benefited from the grassroots support of the far right after its president came out against same-sex marriage. Grassroots campaigns have sprung up supporting tobacco, the soda industry and credit card companies.

Silicon Valley, though, has been uniquely effective at stoking the ire of its users against regulatory encroach.

For one, users of companies like Airbnb often have a significant financial stake in the outcome. As another anti-Prop F campaigner put it to me: “If you’re taking food off my plate as a host, then yeah, I’m going to fight that. If not, I don’t care.” By turning hosts and drivers into micro-entrepreneurs, Uber and Airbnb are able to significantly influence how its user base might vote.

But the resources available to tech companies also put them in an especially favorable position to reach users.

“There’s huge commercial value in the kind of real estate that exists on the apps,” said Matt Stempeck, a civic tech engineer who runs a Tumblr devoted to tracking how tech companies are mobilizing users. “If you’re an advertiser, you can’t even buy a feature on the Uber app because it’s real estate that’s so valuable. But Uber can just add a DeBlasio feature to the app and make every Uber user in New York City instantly aware.”

In Portland, Ore., Uber’s strategy to gain entry included distributing free ice cream around town in order to amass a database of could-be advocates to sway City Hall.

“In an era of low voter turnout, Uber has managed to get almost a million people to sign its petitions in the past year,” Karen Weise wrote in Businessweek earlier this year.

Amazon asked its readers to “unite” during its dispute with the publisher Hachette. Facebook has used the news feed to implore users to tell their elected officials that they support Internet.org. In a move that was purely ideological, OKCupid asked Firefox users to switch to another browser due to its CEO’s opposition to gay marriage.

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Walker has called this “weaponizing” the apps.

“These companies know their ability to grow market share is a political question through and through,” Walker told me. “A lot of these companies know how to use the data and technology effectively and they’ve learned to not hide their campaigns from their users.”

Bradley Tusk, the political advisor who led Uber’s knock-down, drag-out fight against New York City Hall this summer, has proposed taking this strategy one step further. Tusk wants companies like Uber and Lyft to offer users incentives to head to the polls, so that politicians more amenable to Silicon Valley goals get elected in the first place.

“The thinking behind most of the proposed anti-tech laws and regulations isn’t particularly complex: the people behind them are just looking at where the votes are,” he wrote recently on Medium. “If we become the votes, we’re no longer the target.”

Tech companies, he said, should be aggressive in making their users aware of legislation that affects them and politicians that support them.

“We engage our customers, turn them into voters and the entire equation changes,” he told me.

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In San Francisco, Prop F is likely to see the ballot again. The city has a history of sending things to the ballot at least two or three times. Meyerson is already gearing up for the next fight.

During the last election cycle, he actually quit hosting because of threats he received and both online and offline personal attacks. He wasn’t the only one: Prop F was widely viewed as a referendum on the tech industry’s impact on San Francisco, with its gorging wealth gap and real estate crisis. To some, backing Prop F was like being anti-San Francisco.

“There’s now a siege mentality among Airbnb hosts,” he told me. “It’s only going to pick up.”

Walker suggests that while the intentions of users like Meyerson may be genuinely self-serving, the protest-on-demand still blurs the lines between what we traditionally think of as grassroots organizing and what’s known as astroturfing, a kind of nefarious politicking masquerading as citizen organization.

Airbnb can empower its masses by urging them to take place in the democratic process. Many of the hosts I spoke to who organized against Proposition F told me that they had never been particularly political before, that campaigning alongside Airbnb alighted in them a passion for taking part in civic discourse.

But Airbnb can also exert untold influence over its masses by serving up highly visible in-app messages that speak to its favor. There is power in proximity, in the ability to easily reach us every time we open the apps on our homescreen.

The question, as always, is: who is serving whom?

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