The Commodification of the Couch: A Dialectical Analysis of Hospitality Exchange Platforms
Keywords: couchsurfing, bewelcome, commons, commodification, critical theory of social media
AbstractOnline hospitality exchange (HospEx) platforms—essentially facilitating the connection between a traveller and a local resident—embody many of the cyber-utopian promises intrinsic to the Web as it started out 25 years ago. This paper investigates upon the antagonistic struggle between the commons and processes of commodification in the light of critical theory of social media for this niche social networking space and introduces two relevant examples. The biggest of those platforms, Couchsurfing.org, changed its organizational orientation from a non-profit, commons-based project towards a for-profit company in 2011—an instance of commodification. An analysis of both quantitative and qualitative community data shows that the transformation consequently concerns members on multiple levels. The structural change of ownership results in a loss of transparency and privacy, an alteration of the platform’s integrity, a sacrifice of the “uniqueness” of the community, and a differing relationship between the user and the platform. To discuss an alternative, community-based governance approach, the paper further explores the specifics of a platform guided by the logic of the commons, the non-commercial and non-profit HospEx platform BeWelcome.org.
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