Media and communication

CouchSurfing -travel around the world and stay with friends you haven’t met yet


CouchSurfing (CS) is a global network with users in two hundred and thirty countries, with over three million members. UN recognizes one hundred ninety five pieces of independent states in the world which means that CS goes beyond the UN’s normative definition, likely to promote how widespread they are in the world. The network’s activities started in the U.S. in 2004 and funded by donations, often by members, but since the year 2011, the organization has also received investment capital from an investment company (CouchSurfing 2012; Perlroth 2011). CS describes itself as a nonprofit network but have a legal status as for-profit businesses. This has led to a debate within the network which will be studied below.
”CouchSurfing” broken down entails surfing on a couch. This may allude to the network being digital when to use the Internet often is called ”surf”, and that the organization was started with the intention that most had a couch that stood empty during the night and could be loaned out to anyone who had a need of a sleeping spot. In the vernacular it can mean to borrow friends’ couches to sleep. To become a member of the CS requires the user to create an account. In the process, he is able to donate a sum to the network, the recommended amount is twenty five U.S. dollars, and the argument is, among other things, that it verifies you as the person you claim to be by providing credit card information. The member then post a profile of themselves with data such as name, residence, age, occupation, interests, previous travel history and there is room for a photograph. He or she will have to click one of three choices: if you are open to let others sleep on their couch, in other words, to host, if you might be open to letting others sleep on their couch or if you are not open to let others sleep on your couch. Other members can then be linked to a profile as a friend and travelers who have used a sofa can later write a review on the host ​​and how the experience in general has been. The host can also write a review on the guest. As a member of the network, one can both take advantage of any other member’s couch when you are on the move, as well as acting host. It is free to do both, one can however choose to only surf on others’ couches or only act host if desired (CouchSurfing 2012). Should a member who donates twenty five U.S. dollars act only as a host, this would entail the membership in the network means that he or she pays to give, which may seem paradoxical.

Top of the network side are four headings ”Surf”, ”Host”, ”Activities” and ”Groups”. Under the title ”Surf”, members in the form of photos, known surfers, searching for the members in the form of hosts and the ”Host” vice versa. CS was created with the idea to lend out one’s couch for living arrangements, but the forum has evolved to include groups which can be found under ”Groups” which organizes events, and under ”Activities” we find activities for members to enjoy. The groups you can join are divided into categories such as ”Budget and shoe-string” where members can advise on affordable restaurants or places to visit in a particular city. By selecting a specific location, you can see what other members arrange for activities, which are open to all CouchSurfers to participate in. It could be ”Pancake-thursday at Emporia” where all get together and eat pancakes, or a football game that someone has extra tickets for. Users can also apply to be ambassadors so that they may participate in organizing events and building communities within the network (CouchSurfing 2012).

Making the world friendlier and smaller, one couch at a time

On the CouchSurfing website there is a clear discourse on how the network operates as a gift culture. The text below is taken under ”FAQ”, a fact sheet about the network and how it works:

What is CouchSurfing?

We are a global network of travelers, adventure seekers and lifelong learners. We value trust among strangers and are dedicated to sharing our cultures, hospitality and authentic experiences -whether we’re on the road or in our hometowns. There are millions of us in more than 97,000 cities, and we’re making the world smaller and friendlier, one life-changing CouchSurfing experience at a time.

(Couchsurfing 2012)

The text is written by the organization behind the CS and they start by using ”we” to include the reader in the community. CS members are portrayed as traveling, adventure seekers and lifelong learners who are dedicated to sharing their culture and their hospitality. The concept of culture and hospitality are ever-present in the CS website to point out that the business culture is creative and generous. The above text explains that the network makes the world more friendly and a CS experience is life-changing. The network connects to give to do good, and there is generally a clear focus on giving. The text also shows a focus on the authentic experience which’s discourse will be address more below.

We can see another example of how CS has served as a gift culture and reproduces these values ​​into the story of how one of the network drives crashed in 2006, and a large amount of the database was lost (Fenton 2006). In an e-mail to CS members explained founder Fenton what happened and assumed that the network was now over. Below is an excerpt from Fenton’s e-mail:

I saw the CS, in you, the power to change not only the way we travel, but change the world itself. Thank you, Couch Surfers. You have shown me more than I could have even known. Your generosity and spirit is a gift to humanity.

I have devoted the last three years of my life to CouchSurfing. I have literally poured every cent I have into the site. I’ve sacrificed my health, my time, and my own availability to travel and meet people. In many ways I’ve put my life and wanderlust on hold to build this network. I’m not complaining; it’s been a fantastic ride. As devastating as it is to Consider, it looks like the ride is over.

(Fenton 2006)

”Your generosity and spirit is a gift to humanity,” writes Fenton (2006). To be generous and give to the network can then be compared with giving to all mankind. We can imagine that in today’s society, it is considered a great accomplishment to be able to give to humanity and Fenton connects this with being a CS member. He goes on to explain everything he has sacrificed for and given to the network, three years of his life, every cent has been ”poured” into the network and he has sacrificed health, time and ability to travel and meet people . Fenton argues for everything he has given to the network, which we understand is necessary for culture to exist with the help of Kollock’s (1999, s.223) perspective that says

If everyone tries to free ride, the goodwill not be produced and everyone suffers.

That is, if you just take and take and never give back the culture will eventually cease. It requires long-term thinking for CouchSurfing to function as a service or feature, the individual must understand that if there is something to take away, he must also give back. Kollock (1999) argues that it is one of the challenges for a gift culture that is open since there is nothing preventing members to free ride, taking but not giving back. We can compare with the hacker culture’s development to the pirate movement that we will look at more below and their opponents ‘discourse on how users free use of producers’ work which they theen feel they get can’t enough charge for, which in the long run is said to threaten their ability to continue producing such culture (Levine 2011).

If we see that the CouchSurfing network has values ​​and standards that can be compared with the hacker culture, we can also understand their emphasis on the network to be free, that is to stay in another member’s couch should be free. The people behind the CS are more interested in the technology to function smoothly so that their network can operate smoothly and payment can be considered an obstacle to this. We can see a connection with that it is in their interest to have a type of gift culture online with free content as it goes hand in hand with their purpose, to CS network can grow to be large and globally. There are companies that produce and finance culture, such as media conglomerates like Virgin or EMI Group, who may wish to sell it at a high price while there are companies that distribute culture online that might want it as cheap as possible. The network then depict their interests as general, just like Fenton when he says that the CS ‘generosity is a gift to humanity, and can likely be seen as a confusion of agendas. CS’s leaders benefit from the network being large and that members provide free housing only to other members, since it gives the business a power in its size and makes it attractive to advertisers and sponsors. Consider for example the widespread information that the members themselves have put up in their profiles in what they are interested in, information that could be lucrative for an advertiser to know as a way to distinguish specific audiences for a product. It is perhaps not at all in the member’s interest, though it may be in the network’s management’s interest as it can provide them with capital and power. Gift culture in other words, is a fitting way to organize the network around from a business perspective, not only as a model for the members to have access to free housing. Maintaining values ​​of the gift culture’s goodness can thus be a fitting way for a capitalist enterprise to manage their business. To portray itself as a network of public housing services who favor the free network unlike media companies that need payment for their products in order to survive as a company, can also be a capable business model. We can thus see differences within Castells (2001) Internet cultures in the form of entrepreneurial culture where we can see a type of business that benefits from a gift culture online and a type of company that has an interest in payment in the traditional capitalist manner in money for a service or content. You can imagine that CouchSurfing challenges traditional travel intermediary firms and hotelier who make a living in communicating and providing what CS and its members do for free.

So, what happened with CouchSurfing in 2006 when their hard drive crashed and a large portion of the database was lost? CS’s workforce consisting of twelve volunteers received after Fenton’s e-mail help by a variety of CS members who gathered for a reunion in Montreal whom came together to rebuild the page and the database in only one week, supported by positive calls from members worldwide. The event was widely covered in the media and the network could now not only survive but also get a wider distribution thanks to the attention (Carney 2006: Couch-Surfing-The Crash-Montreal 2006). The history of this event helped and is still helping to convey a gift culture discourse and is a likely reason that Fenton’s six year old email is still on the CS website although the site was revised and recently got a new graphic profile.

There are other examples on the web page where CS convey perspectives on gift culture such as under ”Mission”. The organization writes:

We believe that it’s our job to make exploration as easy and accessible as possible. A number of obstacles can inhibit people from feeling free to explore. These barriers include safety concerns, financial means, or simply a lack of information. CouchSurfing addresses and removes such barriers to exploration by providing tools and guidance for the explorer. Our online and mobile platforms connect people to one another, affordably, safely and easily.

We believe that it’s our job to make exploration as easy and accessible as possible. A number of obstacles can inhibit people from feeling free to explore. These barriers include safety concerns, financial means, or simply a lack of information. CouchSurfing addresses and removes such barriers to exploration by providing tools and guidance for the explorer. Our online and mobile platforms connect people to one another, affordably, safely and easily.


(CouchSurfing 2012)

We believe that it’s our job to make exploration as easy and accessible as possible. A number of obstacles can inhibit people from feeling free to explore. These barriers include safety concerns, financial means, or simply a lack of information. CouchSurfing addresses and removes such barriers to exploration by providing tools and guidance for the explorer. Our online and mobile platforms connect people to one another, affordably, safely and easily.

It is not only the network’s goal is to make exploration as easy and accessible as possible, but it describes it even as their job to do just that. The concept of job we find generally in an entrepreneurial discourse. The title’s mission allude to something more noble as a religious or spiritual calling, which suggests that there is something good and noble behind. It may seem to be a contradiction in both calling it a mission and also call it a job. We could interpret that in our capitalist culture where the majority of people are expected to have a job as their main occupation in life it can be difficult to go beyond such a discourse, even though the individual may perceive it as a calling. Nurses, teachers, journalists can in everyday speech call their job a calling which can be interpreted as a need to elevate their job beyond the economic remuneration. Possibly this is a way for capitalism to survive then it makes it easier for the individual to feel that he or she personally chose their career instead of being forced to choose a profession. Here one can see traces of Bauman’s (2007) perspective that argues that individual freedom really is extremely limited in a capitalist culture, but that it is hidden by humans believing they have choices in their own pursuit of happiness.

From the text’s concepts ”mission” one can make a connection to Christianity, missionaries who traveled around to convert people to the religion but also to carry out humanitarian work to help the less privileged. We can see allusions to this humanitarian work in the text where the network writes that funding can be a barrier for people to feel free to explore, implied lack of funds may prevent people from traveling. CS writes that they address and remove such barriers by providing tools and guidance to the explorers. Thus, there is an almost religious discourse in the text where it alludes to the missionary work of benevolent individuals who give out tools and accompanying individual so that he can be free to explore the world. The economy should not be an obstacle and should implicitly not play a role in traveling. This can be seen as a contrast to Bauman’s (2007) theory of consumer culture demands for performance where there is a social hierarchy dependent on how well it performs. From that perspective, the CS is considered to go against a consumer culture which advocates that financial barriers should not exist, which means that you can no longer be assessed by how you perform when it comes to consuming if all are able to do so regardless of the economy. Thus, there is no longer the yardstick that shows how well one performs. On the other hand, one could interpret the use of the network as another form of consumption, one without a traditional payment but still a consumption of a service or trip. It may even be that the net-work leads to an even greater urgency to consume as obstacles to doing so, as payment, are removed. The hierarchy might instead appear in where one travels or how far they travel or how exotic the destination is. The transport is not included in CS so some form of funding will still be needed, which means that lack of funds may still be a barrier to travel for some people and Bauman’s (2007) social hierarchy in performance can thus survive.

There is also in CS a form of evaluation system of hosts and guests, where these members are reviewed after a stay. Just as a commodity can be reviewed on the Internet, a member can be reviewed after how nice, well-behaved, clean and so on, he or she was during their stay or their hosting. On each member’s profile the reviews are clearly printed for other members to read and can thus become a mean to assess members’ performance in the network. Like hackers were judged by their performance to the Internet’s technical development, CS-members can be judged by how well they performed a surfing or hosting (Castells 2001; Levy 1994). And like hackers remuneration in the form of high reputation among peers instead of money, the economic capital of CS might have been replaced by another form of capital, a social one. Here one can see Bauman’s (2007) ideas about the performance of the members even though they do not have money to consume,they could have the social capital to consume. Members are not equal when reviews give them a different status. One can imagine that the more reviews a person has, the more popular the guest or the host can become. Thus we can imagine Bauman’s performance hierarchy also here.

One could interpret a political dimension in the CS’s rhetoric and function. The text above says they want to remove the barriers for individuals to travel and open up for more cultures to meet. At the same time policies in Europe, a nationalist trend in which anti-Muslim sentiments and right-wing extremism is considered to be on the rise, such as the far-right party Jobbnik in Hungary, the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn in Greece or anti-immigration party Swedish Democrats in Sweden (see among others Bondesson 2009; UR Samtiden 2011; Ohlsson 2012). CS adopts thus in-directly a position against this trend by propagating that members encounter new cultures and conveys a free accommodation when traveling which is to reduce barriers to individuals’ mobility.


A more genuine form of traveling
Andersson Cederholm (1999) writes about tourism’s paradox: the authentic travel experience and hospitality should be un-calculated and come from the heart without costing money, while the touristic activity is always an economic activity. The host ​​generally make a living through their hosting and the relationship between host and guest is thus of commercial nature. But within CS this is not the case. On the network’s website under membership guidelines one can read:

Don’t Charge for Your Couch Our community offers free exchange of hospitality. Asking for money or labor in exchange for your couch is not allowed.

(CouchSurfing 2012)

Clearly the organization behind CS explains the rules for the member. When the text says that it is ”our community”, from a reader’s perspective it can be interpreted both as if they are involved in the community, but one could also interpret it as them being outside of the community and someone explains briefly what the rules are. Thus there is a ”we” and then implicitly a ”them”. It can be interpreted as ”you are just involved in our community if you do as we say.” We understand that there is a hierarchy in the community where the organization behind which sets the rules for membership. We can see the community as made up of an identity based on the free exchange of hospitality and if the member violates this rule the community is threatened. Why is this free exchange of hospitality so important? Andersson Cederholm (1999) argues that the commercial during a trip to a certain extent is accepted in that we can transport ourselves or buy a map of the area we visit, but it is not acceptable if we feel that we for example buy a friendly reception from locals. What travelers often want is to encounter the authentic life of the people living at the site, the ”real” side of the resort, which is often linked with something either free or cheap. For example, it is considered as a more authentic experience to ride collectively with other people than jump into a taxi by yourself. A strong tradition within tourism association the real and the true character of a place with a type of person who is considered to be outside the monetary, say working class or peasant (Desforges 2001). See for example the backpacker tourism which often focus on a low budget and a desire for an authentic experience that is seen to be linked to the local culture being visited (Andersson Cederholm 1999). In a globalized, capitalist world where money can buy most it is conceivable that the traveler would value most something outside of a money transaction. First, one can see a connection to what gift can be considered in today’s society, this extra beyond the expectations of an economic transaction, and you can see a link to Simmel’s theory that the hard to get is valued highest (Appadurai 1986). CS has managed to create a network where the traveler might get the kind of experience since the business prohibits payment. But Simmel also said that the money freed the payer and purchaser from the social context since the transaction was effected with the money acting as an agent for standardization (Appadurai 1986). Confidence in the financial system could give individuals a personal independence and anonymity in society. From that perspective, CS is seen as an antithesis, the high value in travel is not to be independent when you sleep on someone else’s couch and at their expense, and you can hardly remain anonymous when you have to tell who you are to give your host the courage and willingness to receive you as a guest. One can imagine that the CS member does not want to be liberated from the social context, but it is perhaps even this which the person is seeking.

With the above as a starting point CS can be considered successful in packaging the ultimate tourist experience in a capitalist culture. By going against the norm in a capitalist culture meaning paying a price for a commodity or service, CS instead offers something for free that usually costs to users, and thus has proved to create a successful service specially for a capitalist culture. Both for the user in that the network offers the most coveted in traveling to get close to the ”genuine”, but also for the management and organization behind in running a popular network whose business can attract a lot of capital from outside, for example from investment companies or advertisers. More and larger investments gives the network more resources to develop, spread and gain more power in society. With Couchsurfing as an example, one can see that a gift culture need not go against a capitalist’s culture and can even fit in well with it, unlike what the political economic theory claimed (Cheal 1988). In the digital world, today we can see a trend where a network begins as a form of voluntary movement without payment as a bonus, a gift culture, but with increasing popularity, capacity and distribution to develop into a powerful capitalist business with investors, advertisers, stock introduction. For example networks like Facebook started as a small network for university students, which spread across the world and in 2012 was listed (Strasburg, Bunge & Chon 2012). Content is still free for users but the ”price” of the service is that you voluntarily provide information to the network by profile and status updates indicate areas of interest. These in turn become useful to attract advertisers who want to pin point target groups for their commodities and make the extension network strong and interesting for investors and share traders. From that perspective, the new networks are just another form of business idea in a capitalist culture, and therefore follows the standards, rather than that they as happily portrayed by the networks themselves, are exceptions to capitalism and borne of generosity instead of capital.


A free network or commodities for sale?
We have already seen how CouchSurfing has a discourse of gift culture and how they explicitly forbids its members to charge for their couch during the hosting. Much of the material on the network’s website is about being generous, to give of themselves and to get back, and that economic transactions does not belong in CS. One can also interpret a culture of consumption not in terms of the service itself but of members. Bauman (2007) explains that the members of consumer society itself is consumer goods, and it is this characteristic that makes them real members of society. Making yourself into a marketable product is an obligation of the individual. This compares to how CS-members must create custom profiles to communicate who they are to the other members. With Bauman’s glasses, we see them presented, packaged and sold as hosts or surfers. A surfer must make a request to a host to get to sleep on their couch with the knowledge that the potential host ​​is likely to watch the surfers profile and recommendations from other members to assess whether he or she will receive them as a guest. One can see it as the potential host estimates if the surfer is an attractive commodity to be purchased. As previously mentioned, CS be seen as part of a trend of digital networks that start as voluntary movements with a gift culture but later developed into lucrative businesses. Using Bauman one can in CS interpret a consumer culture not only among the members but also between companies. Consumption consists not in the form of user exchange of money for a service, but in the network’s using the members themselves as commodities. The labor force in the network is thus the member using the service. Using the database of members’ information and network wide distribution globally, they can attract investors.


A belief in generosity or a smart business idea?
CouchSurfing has since the start described itself as a non-profit network and did apply to the American tax authorities to obtain the status of charitable organization. 2011 however, they were denied and converted the network status from nonprofit to ”benefit corporation,” which means a company can make a profit but under their own created organizational guidelines that say they will work with social responsibility. According to the authorizing organization’s website certified companies must be beneficial to society and the status is comparable to the coffee industry’s Fairtrade labeling (Benefit Corporation 2012). With the conversion, the network was free to take on investment money, and not only as previous donations, and CS then opened up to over seven million U.S. dollars from investment companies Benchmark Capital and Omidyar Network (Perlroth 2011). At Benchmark Capital is Matt Cohler among others, whom before becoming a partner at the investment company was one of the first to be hired in social and digital networking company Facebook, and a founding member of the professional digital network LinkedIn (Ha 2008). The investment caused a debate within the CS, where resistance came from employees, volunteers and members:

We are here to show our disagreement with CS turning into a B-corp: and support any initiative to get CouchSurfing strategic team establishing actions to move back to non-profit organization.

We had wonderful experiences with Couch Surfing, we absolutely LOVE CS and there will never be enough

thanks to everyone: volunteers, CS employees, every member who worked on the idea during years and years.

CS was born as a community, built and strengthened by many volunteers spirited members and now turned into a corporation.

Joining that group means that you are supporting this initiative!

We want the source code written until now by volunteers and the database to be released!

(Junnilainen 2011)

More than four thousand members have joined the group and over six thousand have posted comments on the above text (CS 2012). Junnilainen who is the creator of the group writes ”we” in the text, by implication he represents the group and members of the network. Unlike previously analyzed quotes, we can now see a shift from the ”we” meaning the CS network and its members who followed the rules, to ”we” now meaning opponents of CS conversion to B Corporation. This new ”we” means that ”they” implicit the CS-organization, in other words, the management and staff that supports the conversion, compared to how ”they” before was everyone in the network. Junnilainen (2011) writes that ”we really LOVE CS” and credits everyone who has ever worked with the network for all the great experiences that they had with the CS. He sets up a dichotomy between the community which CS was born out of which was built and strengthened by its members and how it has now become a business. By implication, that a company can not be community – and member driven, the norms and values ​​that CS constructed and reconstructed in its gift culture, for example, in their texts about how payment is prohibited, or the importance of giving of oneself and how one always gets something back. The new profit opportunity in the company is perceived by the group as a threat to the network’s ratings. Today, you can not follow the link in the posts that appear to have been removed from the network’s website. We can compare this with how Fenton’s (2006) e-mail is still the top of the page. Fenton’s letter conveys the gift culture within the network while Junnilainens up-cry do not, and probably therefore taken away, which is a form of content censorship by the company’s interest but perhaps not the members.

”We want the source code written until now by volunteers and the database to be released”. Junnilainen (2011) argues that the source code and database is created by users, and therefore should not be used in commercial purposes. An idea that we have seen been represented strongly by hackers and their culture. With Castells (2001) theory of the different net cultures, we could see the CS members have values ​​more similar hacker culture, free from institutions and companies with interest in keeping the network open and free but with the goal of the service is as good as possible. We can then see CS’s management as part of the business culture with the conversion opening up for profit as a driving force for the business. With Castells perspective, the CS members and CS management are assumed to have different values, instead of the two living after the gift culture’s standards above mentioned. The former live after the hacker culture values ​​of free content and high reputation among equals, while the latter live after the values ​​to spread its technology with the opportunity for profit. That the CS-members are upset by the organization’s profit opportunity may be in the contradiction in that the members are forbidden to charge for the service, now is accepted for management. They do not live in the same culture nor share the same standards. CS management may be considered to convey the gift culture to network members but need not comply with its standards and values ​​themselves.

That Cohler in the shape of Benchmark invests in CouchSurfing can certainly affect the network (Ha 2008). Cohler was a part of shaping Facebook, which is a known example of a capital strong digital network thanks to, among other things, advertising. One can compare Facebook’s culture with a gift culture where users give of themselves in the form of status updates and photos from their life to other users as friends in the network. Members provide selected information about their own life and get information about other people’s lives back while the company behind becomes capital strong because the network will be interesting to advertisers that can be visualized within it but also to get information about the users, such as their interests. We can recognize this in CS, a free and open network whose membership is based in values ​​and norms from the gift culture, but the organization behind can become a lucrative business, which itself can be contradictory to the values ​​on which the network convey to their members. That the same individual behind Facebook enters the CS can seem telling in how the network might look like in the future. We have thus seen above how what looks to be a network for its members may actually be a business for a few and what is made out to being in the public service may actually be one or a few corporate interests.



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