The AirBnb San Francisco Episode – How A Story Becomes Viral

Categories Social Media

The Airbnb episode is all over the internet already. So, most of you know all about it. Now, for those who are just back from vacationing on Pluto here is a very short summary. airbnb

Airbnb is a platform that puts travelers looking for a place to stay with and local people who have a place to offer. A woman in San Francisco, known only as “EJ” offered her apartment to a traveler known only as “DJ” (Pattrson ) for a week. When she came back, the house was burgled and trashed. She put the whole experience on her blog.

No confusions till here. This incident has divided the world into two warring halves, but I am not going to get into that here. Some claim that the lack of a name, photos and the holes in the story discredits EJ. Others sympathize without a doubt. I was one of the doubters, but now that neither Airbnb nor San Francisco Police Department has called it a fake story, how can I?

The part in the story that interested me most has generally been taken for granted. EJ’s blog, if you have noticed, has 55 members through Google Friend Connect. This figure is after the episode hit the news, so I have no idea how many she had originally. She has made 85 posts in all since April, 09. That’s not too many in more than two years. Most of her blogs doesn’t have more than 3-4 comments, if at all.

So how does a blog post written on an average blog like this kick up such a storm?

The story went viral.

That’s how CNET, Gawker and hundreds of other news sites were explaining it.  I am not disputing that. Of course, the story went viral. But how?

Most of the news sources report that the story was picked up by Hacker News earlier this week and by the San Francisco Chronicle.

But how did they pick it up? Did EJ mail the story to them? Did one of her readers mail it to them? Did she optimize her post for any keyword so that it was found easily? Did she post it to StumbleUpon etc? Or, did some staff reporter hit upon the news completely accidentally?

I don’t know for sure. Any and all of this are possible. Ej’s blog ( does not seem to be a particularly famous one. She has made around 85 posts in more than 2 years of blogging. Not too frequent. She has around 81 friends in Google Friend Connect. Not too high. Then how did that one blog post get her such global attention?

It’s the story that counts

Of course, her story had the potential to be of interest to people from around the world.

The Good:
Here was a startup company that was going to change the world, at least the way it travelled. It believed in the inherent goodness of humans and worked on the assumption that people were noble and trustworthy.

The evil
All was well until some miscreants showed that even this heaven had its own serpents. Like all evil, these miscreants were faceless and nameless. They were never identified or captured, making it difficult to ascribe the whole crime to a few bad individuals. The crime soon came to be seen as generalized evil that is present in all of us, all pervasive and inherent. So, it was no longer an isolated incident, it was a threat that was ever present.

The damsel in distress
The victim was not a man or a family. It was a single working woman. She was independent, adventurous and understood technology. She was the face of modern woman, the damsel that any author worth his salt would have created. Most importantly, she was mysterious. No one knows her name, no one knows how she looks.

A face and a name give a background to the person, making different people react in different ways. Is he black or white? Is she a conservative or is she a leftist liberal? What about her character, is she a ‘good woman’?

We don’t know. For all we know, every single woman is in immediate danger.

Surely, stories like these don’t pass you by quietly.

The fuel to the fireBrian Chesky

It is generally said that when a story becomes viral, it spreads like a wildfire. Even a wildfire dies out if it doesn’t find a constant supply of wood. In this case, the many and varying responses from Brian Chesky,  the CEO of Airbnb, (here, here  and  here ) and the second post from Ej kept the controversy and the story alive.

Chances are without these substantial increments, the story would have reached the peak and flattened out much earlier.

The loud speakers

A whisper travels only that far. This story was not whispered from ear to ear. It was broken by Hacker News, no less. It was picked up by TechCrunch, no less again. Such platforms of global reach can make a story as well as keep it alive.

Now, these factors are not exhaustive. I am sure you have a few theories of your own. Share it if you want. I am going to make a few follow up posts on how a story becomes viral. Keep checking in.