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Banking on Hospitality

CouchSurfing as a (Neo)Human Economy of Convivial Connectivity

A Dissertation
MSc Social Anthropology
2011-2012
Examination Number: B018970
Word count: 14,954

Kareem Farooq, 2012

Abstract

The popularity of social networks correlates to their potential profitability.

As the leading hospitality exchange network in terms of membership,


CouchSurfing.org epitomizes technologys ability to facilitate inspiring experiences between strangers through digital reputation systems. By enabling accountability and preventing remuneration, these systems encourage convivial interactions and considerate behavior. Each positive experience generates an appreciation for the community, propelling CouchSurfings success, and creating
what I refer to as a neo-human economy. By emphasizing sociality and deemphasizing competitive capitalization, the neo-human economy values social capital over fiscal capital. While CouchSurfings success developed from its users
enthusiastic reception and their proliferation of digitized social capital, the communitys technological infrastructure requires financial capital to build and maintain. As CouchSurfing.org transitions from operating as a nonprofit to a socially
responsible B corporation, its communitys neo-human economy may succumb
to the interests of its profit-driven investors. However, if this new type of corporation succeeds in subordinating profits and promoting sociality, then the neohuman economys potential to de-emphasize the competitive tenet of market
logic, and thereby, to coexist with it as a mutually beneficial system of social and
economic prosperity will have been realized.

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Acknowledgements
Many thanks to:
My Advisor, Jacob Copeman, for his encouragement and, of course, his advice.
The CouchSurfers whom I have visited, met at activities, and accommodated.
My fiance, Julia, for being willing to go on a hosting binge with me.
Daniel Miller and Jennie Germann Molz for sharing their work with mewithout
their generosity, this dissertation would not have transpired as comprehensively
as it has.

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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Abstract..........2
Acknowledgments................3
Table of Contents...4
Glossary......5
Preface: The Worlds Largest Social Network Goes Public....6
Introduction: Anthropology takes on The Digital......8
Chapter 1: About CouchSurfing....10
1.1 A Growing Body of Research...11
1.2 Couchsurfings Reputation System.13
1.3 Spirit of Adventure......15
Chapter 2: A Reformulation of the Human Economy....17
2.1 Beyond a Moral Economy.23
Chapter 3: Exchanging Hospitality for What Exactly?......26
3.1 Hospitality as a Code, Not a Gift.....29
3.2 Re-Imagining Hospitality...32
Chapter 4: Digitizing Social Capital......36
4.1 When Social Capital and Fiscal Capital Collide....39
Conclusion: Corporatizing CouchSurfing....41
References....48

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Glossary
Cosmopolitanism - an openminded philosophy of welcoming strangers from
other cultures, appreciating their cultural differences, learning from those differences, and valuing those differences (Appiah 2006: xv; Germann Molz 2007: 70).
Couch Request - a digital request sent through CouchSurfing.org to inquire about
a potential accommodation with another member.
CouchSurf - the act of visiting a member of the CouchSurfing hospitality exchange network while traveling.
Hospitality Exchange Network - a formalized social network of travelers and
hosts who offer accommodation to one another (Kaefer 2007: 8).
Market logic - rationalizing all forms of exchange into a quantifiable calculus, for
which reciprocity is required to equalize transactions, thereby absolving debt.

Kareem Farooq, 2012

Preface:
The Worlds Largest Social Network Goes Public

The usefulness of social networking websites has been debated for nearly

a decade now. Critics deride these websites as time wastersan online realm
where self-indulgent individuals can announce what they are eating for lunch or
their frustrations with traffic. Advocates of social media, however, revere this interactive platform as a revolutionary paradigm shift that enables consumers to
creatively engage with their interests (Shirky 2008). With Facebook becoming a
publicly traded company in recent months with an IPO (Initial Public Offering) of
$38 per share (Sengupta 2012), critiquing social media as a technological fade
seems condescending. However, the social networking companys subsequent
massive stock devaluation (Sengupta 2012) reiterates the position of Facebooks
critics, who question the value of not only the site but the medium as well.

By digitizing the relationships that bond friends and family members,

Facebook successfully enables individuals to engage in an interactive form of


sociality. As sociologists and anthropologists formulate theories and subdisciplines to address the proliferation of digital sociality, economists and capitalists speculate on whether the social value of these new media platforms can be
quantified and capitalized into financial value, so that it may be packaged and
sold as an appreciating asset. Profiting from sociality adds a strange metaphysical component to investing because deriving monetary value from online sociality
objectifies Facebook users into assets for commercial exploitation, negating the
fact that users are people expressing and sharing their interests, opinions, and
creations. Now that Facebook has gone public, failure to comprehend the nuances of user expectations will have real world consequences.

Facebooks dramatic devaluation following their IPO launch, which jeop-

ardized investors and investment organizations unlucky enough to have purchased shares early on, demonstrates certain financial consequences that capitalizing this social network caused (Sengupta 2012). If interest in the social network plummeted, Facebooks stock price would plummet as well. This correlation
between a business product or service and its profitability is conventional. However, with Facebook the service is primarily digitizing sociality. The unambiguous

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popularity of digitized sociality elucidates a new economic strategy, in which


businesses that serve as a digital bridge connecting users must support sociality
in order to remain successful. Commercializing the user experience with innovative advertising may have the unintended effect of disconcerting users, risking a
detrimental network exodus.

Nevertheless, with the exception of a technological catastrophe, imagining

Facebook as no longer relevant is difficult, if not impossible, because the interactive diversion it provides its users has become normal 1.

This refers to Miller and Horsts normative tenet for Digital Anthropology, which asserts that attempts to understand humanitys remarkable drive to render digital technologies mundane just as
these technologies create the conditions for change, are unviable without anthropology (2012: 3).
Ultimately, Anthropology is one of the few disciplines equipped to immerse itself in that process by
which digital culture becomes normative culture and to understand what this tells us about being
human (Miller and Horst 2012; 34).
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Introduction:
Anthropology takes on The Digital

The work of anthropologists Daniel Miller and Heather Horst in developing

the sub-discipline, Digital Anthropology, cements the notion that the online has
become an integral part of what it is to be (and to appreciate being) human. Rejecting the myopic assertions made by critics of the proliferation of digital distractions, Miller and Horst point out the hypocrisy of insisting that certain forms
of sociality are more authentic than others (2012: 13). Using the term pre-digital
to describe sociality before the rise of email and smartphones, the duo explain
why even in this age of hyper-communication, we are no more mediated than we
have always been:
We are not more mediated simply because we are not more cultural than we
were before. One of the reasons digital studies have often taken quite the opposite course, has been the continued use of the term virtual, with its implied contrast with the 'real. ...Every time we use the word real analytically, as opposed
to colloquially, we undermine the project of digital anthropology, fetishizing predigital culture as a site of retained authenticity (Miller and Horst 2012: 15).

Nathan Jurgenson reiterates and takes further this argument in his article, The
IRL [In Real Life] Fetish, pointing out that the offline is a recent invention:
There was and is no offline; it is a lusted-after fetish object that some claim special ability to attain, and it has always been a phantom [W]e live in an augmented reality that exists at the intersection of materiality and information, physicality and digitality, bodies and technology, atoms and bits, the off and the online What is most crucial to our time spent logged on is what happened when
logged off; it is the fuel that runs the engine of social media (Jurgenson 2012).

Jurgenson, Miller and Horst cite Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, as their
prime example of a social media critic. Her argument that devices distract us
from appreciating our surroundings or those around us fails to acknowledge how
these devices are used to share moments as well for instance, by uploading
photos to social networking sites (Miller and Horst 2012: 12-13). Also, as Jurgenson mentions, forgetting ones cellphone may trigger the recognition of a moments unique serenity due to the absence of technology a realization that
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would not occur were it not for the prevalence of digital devices (2012). By questioning this baseless nostalgia for the pre-digital, Jurgenson, Miller and Horst articulate a novel paradigm in human interaction and affiliation. The online communities we belong to blur the online/offline dichotomy, communicating preferences,
personality, associations, and desires not only to our digitally connected friends,
but to ourselves as well.

Interlocking identity with sociality enables social networking sites to pro-

duce novel communities, in which like-minded individuals connect, sharing not


simply information, but their personal aspirations, interests, quirks, humor, and
even their homes. This dissertation explores one such community:
CouchSurfing.org.

Kareem Farooq, 2012

Chapter One:
About CouchSurfing

CouchSurfing International (CS) serves as a facilitator, fostering coopera-

tion between like-minded strangers. More specifically, the website


CouchSurfing.org, enables members who are traveling to meet and potentially
coordinate accommodations with other members who are local to the travelers
destination. By facilitating hospitality exchange, the website encourages its
members to use the experience of hosting or surfing to share meals, converse,
and learn more about one another. While the unspoken, short-term reward of belonging to this community is securing payment-free accommodation while traveling, the website and its members insist the philosophy behind CouchSurfing involves creating rich, intercultural experiences that may have the effect of making
the world a better place (CS/Mission 2012).

The concept of a hospitality exchange network has existed for decades,

the earliest global incarnation being Servas Open Doors, which was founded in
1949. As a United Nations recognized non-governmental association, Servas
works to build understanding, tolerance and world peace by operating a network of hosts around the world who are interested in opening their doors to
travelerswho want to get to know the heart of the countries they visit (Servas/
Philosophy 2012). Unfortunately, the technical logistics (formal interviews are required for membership) and antiquated coordination (postal letters) of Servas
hampered the growth of the network (Marx 2012). The impact of the network remains limited to a niche body of individuals who actively pursued membership
(Marx 2012). Although the hospitality networks communication methods proved
to maintain its exclusivity, it also marginalized the spirit of its mission to build tolerance and peace. However, the idealism of Servaswhich means to serve in
Esperanto (Luitweiler 1999; 28)survives within more technology-reliant online
hospitality networks, including Global Freeloaders, Be Welcome, Tripping, Hospitality Club and CouchSurfingthe latter being by far the largest with 4.6 million
members worldwide2 .
2

The hospitality network with the next highest membership is HospitalityClub.org with just over
700,000 members (HospitalityClub/Statistics 2012). Additionally, the United States leads the world
in CouchSurfing members, and the next six highest membership nations are Germany, France,
Canada, England, Spain, and Italy (CS/Statistics 2012).
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The title of this dissertation, Banking on Hospitality, is meant as a double

entendre. On the one hand, it refers to the colloquial definition of banking on,
which means to depend on something, as in counting on or relying on the hospitality of the CouchSurfing community. On the other, it refers to the formal definition of banking, which involves investing with a financial institution. I plan to
demonstrate that the extraordinary success of CouchSurfing has derived from its
ability to influence its members behavior when interacting with one another. By
encouraging convivial behavior among strangers and prohibiting the impersonal
routines that derive from commercial transactions, CouchSurfing has created an
informal exchange system that I refer to as a neo-human economy, which I will
expand on later drawing upon David Graebers debt theory and other anthropological sources. The enthusiastic reception and implementation of this exchange
system by the CouchSurfing community reflects the normative tenet3 of Digital
Anthropology that Miller and Horst have developed. Paying particular attention to
the role of technology in facilitating trust between users and confidence in the
communitys mission, I suggest that by normalizing the communitys technological components, CouchSurfers overcome the skepticism of their non-member
friends and family, who cannot overlook the possible danger in accommodating
or visiting a stranger from the internet.

1.1 A Growing Body of Research


Over the past five years the unparalleled success of CouchSurfing has at-

tracted the attention of researchers who have investigated different aspects and
themes generated by the community such as trust (Rosen et. al 2011), reciprocity
(Adamic et. al 2011), spatial practice (Zuev 2011; Pultar and Raubal 2009),
authenticity (Bialski 2007, 2011; Steylaerts 2011; Chen 2011), and mobility (Germann Molz 2007, 2012a, 2012b). Recently the journal Hospitality and Society
published a special issue devoted to CouchSurfing, edited by Jennie Germann
Molz, a leader in the exploration of CouchSurfing. Writing as a social researcher
as well as an active member of CouchSurfing, her work demonstrates how the
network mobilizes conviviality by facilitating the transition from online communi3

Refer to footnote one on page 7.


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cation to face-to-face interaction. Her work further illuminates how CouchSurfing replaces monetary exchange with more informal economies of trust and generosity (2012a: 89), thereby producing a neo-human economy, which I will
elaborate on in the next chapter. First, I will establish how the current body of research exemplifies how CouchSurfing.org influences its members behavior, encouraging them to embody the communitys cosmopolitan idealism of engaging
with strangers, by employing technical mechanisms designed to prevent abusive
users.

Although the intricacies of any given CouchSurfing connection are unique

to each interaction, the implications and consequences of technologizing hospitality have become quite apparent. Perhaps the most unique aspect of a hospitality network compared with commercial hospitality is the obligation to engage
in face-to-face conversation. Paula Bialski articulates this custom as a form of
exchange to establish intimacy between the host and guest (2011: 254). Before
this conversation, the two parties may have briefly introduced themselves, the
host may give the guest a tour of the home and discuss their sleeping arrangements, and the guest may take a moment to decompress from the rigors of
travel. At some point, however, a discussion will arise over a cup of tea, dinner, or
during a stroll through town. It is at this point that the sociality unique to
CouchSurfing begins to unfold. Of course, before this conversation most of what
each member knows about the other is based on their CouchSurfing profile. Bialski notes that the profile helps (1) a guest or host to express who they are and
(2) allows the host or guest to discern if the given person will be someone they
want to interact with (2011: 257). Since first impressions have been established
online, certain expectations will be fulfilled or disturbed upon meeting in person.
Conversation then becomes a mechanism of rekindling those expectations so
that the awkwardness of unfamiliarity fades as trust develops. As Germann Molz
puts it, Through conversation, people who do not know each other can establish
a level of emotional intimacy that aligns better with the physical intimacy of
shared living space (2012a: 106). In addition to conversing and inhabiting a living
space together, the act of sharing a meal, drinking together, or going for a walk
with one another gives both the host and the guest personal experiences that
exemplify what CouchSurfing encounters are supposed to be about (Germann

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Molz 2012a: 104). Because CouchSurfing is a non-commercial form of exchange,


Bialski suggests that conversation becomes a form of payment:
Many of my respondents expressed the fact that as hosts they felt their visitors
were using them as a hotel if they did not stick around and chat with them.
Technologies of hospitality can result in moments of closeness and intimacy, but
awkwardness is another common product of these meetings, often reflecting the
power relationship between host and guest (2011: 252).

This insight reflects the uncomfortable balance between exploitation and cultural
exchange, and the importance of compromising and establishing boundaries to
reduce the feeling (on either side) of imposition. Although safety remains a concern among members and non-members who are hesitant to trust in the kindness of strangers, the fear of social awkwardness is a more prevalent issue. Columnist Patricia Marx articulated this issue in a recent interview with National Public Radio regarding an article she wrote on CouchSurfing: Everybody I talked to,
and particularly my mother, didn't think I was safe, but I felt incredibly safe. I was
more worried about being incessantly sociable and extremely polite all the time
(Capriglione and Gunja 2012). Anyone uncomfortable with the thought of accommodating strangers or irritated with the thought of having to be sociable with
hosts while on vacation, will steer clear of CouchSurfinghopefully. Otherwise,
the referencing system may expose them as freeloaders or inhospitable hosts.

1.2 Couchsurfings Reputation System


CouchSurfings referencing system serves as an elaborate mechanism for rewarding and warning members. After staying with a member, you may then write
a reference for that member that will appear on their profile, and they may write
one for you. This represents CouchSurfings most direct form of reciprocity because members rely on this rating system to confirm the one anothers credibility.
When adding a reference for another member, you have three options available to
evaluate your experience: positive, neutral, and negative. Then you must clarify in
a brief statement why you chose that option. Tim Murphy, a reporter for Mother
Jones magazine, artfully describes this system:

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References are the currency by which CouchSurfing transactions are conducted.


It's a system that encourages aspiring travelers to host as many people as they
can and treat them like kings. In Iowa one host took us up in a WWII-era plane
over the Mississippi River, then bought us dinner. All he asked, he said, was that
we write him nice references; he was planning on going to Europe A negative
reference is more or less a death knell. It's also an exercise in mutually assured
destruction... If your host prattled on about the weather or there was no hotwater shower, keep it to yourself. Female surfers I met who'd had run-ins with
creepy guys tended to keep it under wraps, explaining that, absent a serious
threat, it simply wasn't worth launching the warheads (Murphy 2012).

Murphy accurately describes how the reciprocity of this system encourages favorable ratings, as well as the nuanced significance of the supporting statement.
Marx substantiates Murphys description in a piece in the New Yorker:
The most helpful security information, however, is the references that hosts and
guests are encouraged to write about each other after every rendezvous. According to a 2010 study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan
[(Adamic et al., 2011: 4)], the ratio of positive to negative evaluations is twentyfive hundred to one. Still, an astute reader can read between the lines in an assessment like Jack has an awesome collection of steak knives or He can put
out a fire really fast. Given these safeguards, it is unlikely that anyone on
CouchSurfing could get away with murder more than once. How comforting
(Marx 2012).

As Marx mentions, the vast majority of references on CouchSurfing.org are positive, yet the significance of the ratings lies in the descriptions accompanying
each reference and the ability to read between the lines. Therefore, despite the
overwhelming positivity of the references, the system effectively serves as a surveillance mechanism, policing the community by keeping out the troublemakers:
Reputation systems establish histories for members and make these accounts of
past actions visible to all other members. Future interactions can then be established based on these reports of past behaviour. This form of interpersonal surveillance within the online community disciplines members behaviour both online and offline, ensuring that individuals act properly as hosts or guests and
punishing them when they do not (Germann Molz 2007: 71).

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Complicating Murphys deduction that, absent serious threat, female


CouchSurfers would still leave a positive review even if their male host was
creepy, Germann Molz relates an experience of one of her informants who left a
positive reference for a host even though he made an unwanted sexual advance
toward her (2012: 92). She later decided that it would be in the best interest of
the community to be honest about the encounter and revised her reference to
neutral, exemplifying the honesty she hoped would be reflected in this reference
system (Germann Molz 2012: 92). If an encounter between CouchSurfers devolves into an awkward conversation, the risk of a damaged reputation is the
fundamental safeguard preventing that interaction from becoming hostile.

The reference system is just one of three mechanisms in place on the

CouchSurfing network to mitigate risk; verification and vouching are two other
security systems. In order to be vouched for, CouchSurfers can either stay with
someone who has already been vouched for or host someone who has been
vouched for (Germann Molz 2007: 72). This vouching system relies on a core
network of vouched for members, and once youve been vouched for by three of
these core members, you become a core member and can vouch for others (CS/
Vouching 2012). Verification is an option for members with a stable living situation, where for $25USD their identity is verified (Germann Molz 2007: 72). Each of
these security systems reflect the paradox of CouchSurfings idealistic mission of
spreading tolerance and creating a global communityby policing the community, these systems create a boundary, filtering out undesirables, thereby creating a closed community of open-minded and like-minded people (Germann
Molz 2007: 75). By networking like-minded strangers (Germann Molz 2012a:
94), CouchSurfing International generates a non-monetary system of exchange
that nurtures conviviality between these strangers.

1.3 Spirit of Adventure


Dissecting the like-mindedness between CouchSurfers, certain attitudes

and characteristics come to the fore. The cosmopolitan appreciation of travel is


the most obvious shared value between CouchSurfers. Germann Molzs informants overlay their use of the technical systems with a sense that the commu-

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nity is, in general, trustworthy because it attracts a like-minded community of


strangers who are similarly outgoing, flexible, and open-minded (2012a: 94).
Corroborating this opinion, during a visit in my home in Edinburgh, a CouchSurfer
suggested to me that it takes a certain spirit of adventure to CouchSurf.

These descriptions indicate the perceived danger in trusting strangers; as

previously mentioned, without the technology involved in assuring accountability


within the community, the generalized trust CouchSurfers have in common would
be undermined. In fact, these security measures play an important part in the
success of this online hospitality exchange network. For instance, Hospitality
Club applies a less centralized and less stringent reference and profile system,
and there is an impression among Hospitality Club members that CouchSurfings approach to security is about fear rather than faith in strangers (Germann
Molz 2012a: 95). By mitigating the risk involved in having faith in others,
CouchSurfers spirit of adventure is partially negated because they know what
they are getting themselves into. After all, a system is an organized method of
doing things. Still, CouchSurfing membership dwarfs that of Hospitality Club, and
if CouchSurfings reputation system provides the initial confidence many require
before actively engaging with strangers face-to-face, then that technological
bridge helps CouchSurfing with its mission to create inspiring experiences (CS/
Mission 2012). Trusting in the hospitality of strangers without remuneration does
not seem to develop organically in a society regulated by market logic it needs
to be facilitated and nurtured. In the next chapter, I will explain how digital technology acts as a catalyst for reconnecting with the logic of the human economy.

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Chapter Two:
A Reformulation of the Human Economy

I suggest that David Graebers (2011) seminal work on debt can help us to

understand the kind of human economy facilitated by CouchSurfing. Graeber


examines the tragically fierce and palpably familiar history of humanitys inception
of money and the repercussions of this conception of calculable debt, arguing
that credit originated before money and that the transition to pecuniary exchange
systems required and justified dehumanizing violence (2011: 208). Describing this
transition as one from a human economy to a commercial economy, Graeber
emphasizes a juxtaposition familiar to economic anthropology: contrasting certain pre- and non-western exchange systems based on the intrinsic value of sociality versus the extrinsic value system based on profit that has come to dominate economics. This notion of a human economy echoes the work of Strathern
(1988) and Mauss (2002 [1923]) in acknowledging that the exchange systems that
predate commercial economies were primarily concerned not with the accumulation of wealth, but with the creation, destruction, and rearranging of human beings (Graeber 2011: 130). Referring to the money traded in human economies as
social currencies, Graeber explains how this currency is not used for buying
and selling, but instead to arrange marriages, establish paternity of children,
head off feuds, console mourners at funerals, seek forgiveness in the case of
crimes, negotiate treaties, acquire followersalmost anything but trade in yams,
shovels, pigs, or jewelry (2011: 130). The role of social currencies in human
economies also expresses the invaluable and inequitable nature of each human
being because no amount of money equates to the value of ones relative (2011:
134). Graeber elaborates, In a human economy, each person is unique, and of
incomparable value, because each is a unique nexus of relations with others
(2011: 158). However, when the profit motive associated with commercial
economies infects a human economy, this pricelessness that human beings embody through their complicated webs of relationships with others may be displaced through violence: it is only by the threat of sticks, ropes, spears, and
guns that one can tear people out of those endlessly complicated webs of relationship with others (sisters, friends, rivals) that render them unique, and thus
reduce them to something that can be traded (Graeber 2011: 208).

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However, overemphasizing the distinction between the sociality of human

economies and the impersonal quantification of commercial economies would be


to neglect the nuanced complexity of both economies. Just as competitive values altered human economies, social values persevere in commercial economies.
Arguing that communism is the foundation of all human sociability (2011: 96;
his emphasis), Graeber insists that baseline communism manifests itself
through sociality (2011: 99). Profit-driven corporations comply with certain social
obligations and sensibilities in order to demonstrate a kind of human touch to
their otherwise cold, calculating bottom line. One example of this would be airlines that offer bereavement discounts for passengers who must purchase a
ticket last minute in order to fly to attend the funeral of a close relative. Of course,
in order to prevent abuse, airlines require formal documentation, such as a death
certificate, to verify the legitimacy of the bereavement fare. Nevertheless, even
though communism may be the foundation of all human relations, theres always some sort of system of exchange, and usually, a system of hierarchy built
on top of it (Graeber 2011: 393). In many ways CouchSurfing epitomizes this
balance between competition and cooperation.

As a company, CouchSurfing.org dominates the online hospitality ex-

change industry not only in terms of members, but also in name recognition. Like
Kleenex tissues or Hoover vacuums, as a brand CouchSurfing refers to more
than just the companyit refers to the practice of staying with locals while traveling, regardless of whether or not the connection was established through the
website. Brand recognition is a major component for most companies, and
CouchSurfings success reflects this. Because CouchSurfing maintains a competitive edge in the online hospitality exchange business, it has been able to attract financial investors, allowing it to expand its business operations, improve
the website, and create mobile applicationspractices that any successful technology company would emulate (Lacy 2011; Perlroth 2011; Wauters 2012; Lapowsky 2012). Despite CouchSurfing Internationals success in this capitalist
realm, the community that CouchSurfing.org has created thrives on communistic
ideals:
Hosts should never charge their CouchSurfers; anyone who does will be removed from the site. Most CouchSurfers do like to thank their host with a small
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gift or an act of kindness (such as cleaning the house or cooking a meal), but this
is not required and should not be requested by a host -- the only thing that's expected is an inspiring experience! (CS/Help 2012)

The site actively discourages hosts who attempt to charge for their accommodations by canceling their membership, thereby ensuring their members interact
without the tension or convenience that financial transactions entail. Awkward
tension still persists throughout the introductory moments when hosts and
strangers first meet; however, there are no financial obligations to worry about.
The only requirement is sociability. Guests are expected to be cordial and receptive. Hosts are, of course, expected to be hospitable. These sociable expectations elucidate how the website influences members behavior, requesting convivial and considerate interaction. Because the quantifiable repercussions of
capitalism are not present, the communistic demands of Graebers human economy take effect.

Graebers analysis of the role of money in the human economies that pre-

date market economies reveals how the acceptance of money eventually quantified and commodified the social values of the human economy:
In most human economies, money is used first and foremost to arrange marriages [Bridewealth] is really an acknowledgement that one is asking for something so uniquely valuable that payment of any sort would be impossible. The
only appropriate payment for the gift of a woman is the gift of another woman; in
the meantime, all one can do is acknowledge the outstanding debt (Graeber
2011: 131-132).

Money in a human economy, then, represents the acknowledgement of a debt


that cannot be paid because each human is unique and significant to his or her
own social network (Graeber 2011: 136). However, with the advent of commercial
exchange in human economies, the financial reward of slave labor managed to
supersede the invaluable nature of a socialized human by forcibly extracting humans from their social context: It was only when violence was brought into the
equation that there was any question of buying and selling people (Graeber
2011: 144; his emphasis). Graeber argues convincingly that slavery, with its ability to rip human beings from their contexts, to turn them into abstractions, played
a key role in the rise of markets everywhere (Graeber 2011: 165). This is signifiKareem Farooq, 2012

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cant because dehumanization then becomes a crucial requirement for the market
economy, emphasizing profits and trivializing social solidarity. By now we are so
deeply familiar and engaged with this system that, I would argue, some of our
human instincts have been reprogrammed to identify and react to financial bargains and rip-offs rather than acknowledge the dehumanizing operations that this
system requires. Furthermore, the criminalization of slavery has marginalized its
practice to the point where mainstream notions of freedom now imply not having
to pay.

Such a calculating logic pervades the consumer habitus, which reveals

why the initial attraction toward a community like CouchSurfing derives from the
logic of saving money on accommodations. Even if one objects to capitalism, as
Graeber puts it, ...the logic of the marketplace has insinuated itself even into the
thinking of those who are most explicitly opposed to it (2011: 90). It is also for
this reason that Graeber criticizes Marcel Mauss essay on gift economies. Because economics has come to be treated as a master discipline, even the work
of Mauss, as brilliant as it is, insists that all gifts incur a debt:
Gifts circulate with the certainty that they will be reciprocated. Their surety
lies in the quality of the thing given, which is itself that surety. But in every possible form of society it is in the nature of the gift to impose an obligatory time limit
(Mauss 2002 [1923]: 45).

Graeber deflates this notion that all forms of exchange are governed by reciprocity by pointing out that children cannot repay all that their parents have given to
them (2011: 91-92). He also draws on Levi-Bruhls compilation of the experiences
of early missionaries in Africa, who reported peculiar encounters with natives
from different regions of the continent. Each encounter demonstrated the same,
bizarre logic: after saving the life of an indigenous man, rather than thanking his
rescuer, the man would ask for a gift from the missionary (Graeber 2011: 93).
Also, during his fieldwork with the Daribi in Papua New Guinea, Roy Wagner observed that symmetrical exchanges were forbidden because such equalizing
reciprocity would disrupt the very motion and vitality of the flow that makes life
worthwhile (2012: S171). For the Daribi, even exchanges obstruct the rhythmic
dynamic that keeps their reciprocal system in motion (Wagner 2012: S171).
These examples reveal moral components that are unique to their own situation
Kareem Farooq, 2012

20

and to the logic of individuals involved. Graeber suggests that economic relations
should, therefore, be framed from intrinsic moral principles, which he identifies as
communism, hierarchy, and exchange (2011: 94). Both human economies and
commercial economies possess these three moral principles because they always coexist everywhere. We are all communists with our closest friends, and
feudal lords when dealing with children (2011: 113-114). And so, only some
forms of human interaction may be described as exchange, not all. Exchange,
unlike hierarchy and communism, implies equality, but it also implies separation
because once an exchange is completed, the debt is cancelled equality is restored and both parties can walk away and have nothing further to do with each
other (Graeber 2011: 122; his emphasis). This reinforces why the Daribi forbid
symmetrical reciprocity: canceling debt terminates the sociality that transpires
through exchange, thus leaving them with nothing to talk about (Wagner 2012:
S171). Although elements of communism, hierarchy, and exchange may coexist
in any situation, the reciprocal logic of exchange has dominated the other two
moral principles by rationalizing mutual aid and social class. By managing the
principles of communism and hierarchy, the logic of reciprocity has become synonymous with our perception of justice. Therefore, this tit-for-tat exchange suppositionalso know as market logicremains a consequential, yet essential,
component in the reformulation of the human economy, which CouchSurfing, as
a commercial cooperative, represents.

Despite the prevalence of market logic, human economies do not sub-

scribe to the impersonal precision of quantification because sociality remains the


fundamental rationale for exchange rather than profit. However, our pervasive
engagement with the market economy and our unconscious acceptance of the
logic of reciprocity would render the presumption that participation in CouchSurfing demonstrates a return to a human economy an inaccurate simplification. As
mentioned earlier, the exchange of generosity between strangers most often
manifests itself indirectly, with the exception of guests who may feel obliged to
cook a meal for their hosts or offer a gift for their hospitality. Most often, reciprocation takes the form of a guest becoming a host after having a meaningful experience, and thus wanting to return the hospitality in kind. This generalized reciprocity demonstrates the nonchalant reciprocation of the CouchSurfing community. Each positive experience generates an appreciation for the CouchSurfing

Kareem Farooq, 2012

21

community; this gratitude manifests as an obligation to the community, encouraging hosts and CouchSurfers to reciprocate the generosity and felicity they have
experienced by opening their homes to travelers or searching out genuinely appealing locals to host them.

As an online social network, CouchSurfing is not limited to or by the online

realm; rather it is amplified by it. As offline experiences accumulate and diversify,


new online connections form and vice versa. Germann Molz has described
CouchSurfing.org as a hybrid community due to this online to offline interaction as well as its requirement for both individual-to-individual trust and trust in
technology (2012a: 84, 100). This interlacing of the digital and the analogue may
be illuminated with reference to Eamonn Healys theorization of the neo-human in
the film Waking Life. In the form of a monologue, Healy identifies the progression
of humanity as telescoping to the point where a new evolution will manifest itself within a generation. This new evolution stems from two types of information,
digital and analogue, coexisting under a new paradigm as a mutually supportive, noncompetitive grouping, whereas, under the old evolutionary paradigm,
one would die and the other would grow and dominate (Linklater 2001; Healy
2001). Rather than being a passive process where the individual is just at the
whim of the collective, this new evolution is an individually centered process,
meaning each individual directs the evolution internally through his or her own
preferences, thereby producing a neo-human with a new individuality and a
new consciousness (Linklater 2001; Healy 2001). Healy goes on to theorize that
when the intelligence and the ability of this neo-human telescopes further, the
rate will accelerate until we reach a crescendo an enormous, instantaneous
fulfillment of human and neo-human potential (Linklater 2001; Healy 2001). Although this technological singularity theory may seem more like science fiction
than science, its importance here, regarding CouchSurfing and Graebers human
economy, stems from the conception that the neo-human is bred out of the synergy between analogue and digital. This synergy accurately reflects the reformulation of the human economy that CouchSurfing has produced.

To clarify further: it is the disregard for sterile, calculating logic that en-

abled CouchSurfing to produce a human economy, but it is the technological


component that initiates trust between strangers by adding a level of assurance

Kareem Farooq, 2012

22

through reputation. It is the digital that enables people to de-emphasize the potential danger of hosting or being hosted by strangers, thereby reconnecting with
the virtues of generosity and the pleasures of conviviality. The neo represents
the digital, the human represents the analogue, and while humans are not digital
constructions, the digital is inherently a human construction and may be harnessed to remind us what it is to be human. In other words, by connecting us
with one another, digital technology reconnects us with socialitys intrinsic value.
As Miller and Horst argue, Being human is a cultural and normative concept... [I]t
is our definition of being human that mediates what the technology is, not the
other way around. Technology may in turn be employed to help shift our conceptualisation of being human (2012: 34). Because CouchSurfing represents a new
form of socializing, it may be considered part of a new type (or a return to an old
type) of sociality that reflects the values of a human economyprizing mutual aid
and the inestimable value of each human beingwhile simultaneously existing
within the binary logic of the market.

2.1 Beyond a Moral Economy


Part of the reason the calculating logic of the market economy is so per-

vasive to the point of being instinctual throughout the world is couched in the
moral vindication of debt. This is perhaps Graebers most significant argument:
In the secular world, morality consists largely of fulfilling our obligations to others, and we have a stubborn tendency to imagine those obligations as debts
(2011: 13). By associating debt with morality, the obligation to pay off ones debt
becomes a matter of honor. However, investigating the ancient history of codes
of honor reveals that financial obligations were of little significance in comparison
to obligations between people:
We speak both of debts of honor, and honoring one's debts; in fact, the transition
from one to the other provides the best clue to how debts emerge from obligations;
even as the notion of honor seemed to echo a defiant insistence that financial
debts are not really the most important ones; an echo, here, of arguments that, like
those in the Vedas and the Bible, go back to the very dawn of the market itself
(Graeber 2011: 166).

Kareem Farooq, 2012

23

The paradox of honor becomes apparent here. Honor may reflect either the insignificance of monetary debt (characteristic of the human economy) or ones obligation to pay that debt (characteristic of the market economy). However, once
the failure to pay ones debt became equated with losing ones honor, stripping
them of their dignity became a logical consequence. Because honor in that case
demands the power to strip others of their dignity, honor is that excess dignity
that must be defended with the knife or sword (Graeber 2011: 170). The degradation resulting from codes of honor reveals the lack of empathytypical of impersonal market logicrequired to make dehumanizing calculations. With the incarnation of currency, the value of money became the value of the power to turn
others into money (Graeber 2011: 171). Graeber borrows from Nietzsche in order to examine the repercussions of this association between debt and honor (or
lack thereof) in respect of morality:
Any system of commercial accounting, [Nietzsche] assumed, will produce creditors
and debtors. In fact, he believed that it was from this very fact that human morality
emerged. Note, he says, how the German word schuld means both debt and
guilt. At first, to be in debt was simply to be guilty, and creditors delighted in punishing debtors unable to repay their loans by inflicting all sorts of humiliation and
torture on the body of the debtor, for instance, cutting as much flesh off as seemed
appropriate for the debt (2011: 77; his emphasis).

This link between debt and guilt ascribed a binary morality to exchange. However, this right versus wrong assessment of economic activity fails to consider
the deeper interpersonal and situational particularities of any given exchange, reinforcing Graebers suggestion that a human economy reflects the relativity of
morality given the uniqueness of the situation and of the people involved.

This correlation between morality and debt enables the further elucidation

of my earlier assertion that the systems of exchange produced by CouchSurfing


instantiate a neo-human economy. Reflecting on CouchSurfings prohibition of
remuneration for accommodation, Germann Molz makes the case that this exchange of generosity and goodwill demonstrates what Zygmunt Bauman referred to as the moral economy, which produces an entirely different kind of
sociality from the market economy, one based on solidarity, compassion and mutual sympathy rather than distant, impersonal connections (Germann Molz

Kareem Farooq, 2012

24

2012a: 96). The congruence between this description of Baumans moral economy and my delineation of the neo-human economy is evident. However, Bauman frames his moral economy in direct opposition to the triumph of rampant
individualizing consumerism and neoliberalism (Bauman 2007: 145), making it a
defeatist depiction of the loss of solidarity in contrast to the more complicated
explanations of solidaritys incorporation of consumer logic and its proliferation
within certain communitiesonline, offline, and hybrids of the twothat I have
been documenting here. Miller tackles this condemnation of consumerism with
his claim that love is not only normative but easily dominant as the context and
motivation for the bulk of actual shopping practice (1998: 23). The complexity
and unpredictability of moral logic render Baumans moral economy analytically
insufficient. Although the moral economys production of a sociality based on
solidarity, compassion and mutual sympathy typifies the sociality produced
through CouchSurfing (Germann Molz 2012b: 122), it cannot account for the
mobile solidarity generated through geographically dispersed, asynchronous,
and networked online and offline interactions between strangers (Germann Molz
2012b: 131). Going beyond the neoliberal framework of the moral economy, the
neo-human economy accounts for the production of both traditional forms of
solidarity as well as mobile solidarity.4

Germann Molz coins this term to conceptualize social movements and solidarity that engage with
digital technologies in addition to the movement of people (2012b: 131).
Kareem Farooq, 2012

25

Chapter Three:
Exchanging Hospitality for What Exactly?

Now that the neo-human economy has been articulated as an intimate

system of exchange based on establishing sociality through generosity and solidarity with the aid of digital technology, in this chapter I examine what happens
when CouchSurfers interact.

As was mentioned above, the dominance of the market economy instilled

a propensity for reciprocity among individuals, and this penchant persists in the
neo-human economy. The notion that generosity must be reciprocated seems
honorable and considerate and follows Mauss rationale that with a gift comes
the obligation to receive that gift, followed by the obligation to reciprocate it
(2002 [1923]: 50). This logic continues to influence CouchSurfings neo-human
economy, and is partially responsible for inspiring courteous behavior. However,
rather than following a precise equipoise, reciprocation involves a more personal
and cooperative tactic.

Debts within the CouchSurfing community technically do not exist be-

cause hospitality cannot be repaidneither literally nor metaphorically. As mentioned earlier, CouchSurfing prohibits payments, and the connections the organization facilitates happen mostly by chance; the right people connect at the right
time under the right circumstances. The choice to have a profile has already been
made, so the only volition involved are the decisions to request a couch and the
decision to accept this couch request. Serendipity is mitigated by CouchSurfings reputation systems. However, because each CouchSurfing experience is
unique, any gift given to a host is given with the understanding that the meaning
of the gift is symbolic; it is not given as compensation but as appreciation. Most
CouchSurfers show their appreciation to their host with food and/or beverages
(CS/197 2012). Some will cook, others will provide a bottle of wine, and a few will
take their host out for a meal. Other ways to express gratitude include a handmade craft or a souvenir from ones home country (CS/197 2197). While attending a CouchSurfing activity 5 in Edinburgh, I met a local wearing an interesting
5

A major element of the CouchSurfing community are local activities held in cities all around the
world that give visiting members a chance to meet up with locals and participate in whatever recreation has been planned.
Kareem Farooq, 2012

26

bracelet made of intricately woven rope through soda can tabs. He told me a
CouchSurfer he had hosted three years ago made it for him. Bialski classifies
these small gifts and actscooking, cleaning, or taking a host out for a mealas
explicit forms of reciprocity that are ephemeral gestures of goodwill (2011:
251). Conversation and compromise qualify as implicit forms of reciprocity because not conversing with ones host or refusing to compromise with a hosts
schedule would be rude (Bialski 2011: 252). These implicit forms of reciprocity
can, however, become an awkward price to pay. Bialski refers to a Polish
CouchSurfer informant in order to illustrate how such implicit reciprocity can become uncomfortable. The CouchSurfer was playing the part of the listener when
her host divulged intimate sexual issues she was going through. Uneasy with the
direction of the conversation but not wanting to be rude, the CouchSurfer continued to listen but refrained from speaking. As Bialski explains, this CouchSurfer
gave up her freedom to manoeuvre between listener and speaker she was
trapped into that role because of her obligations to her host (2012: 252). Although this CouchSurfer was trapped as an unwilling listener, most encounters
between surfers and hosts are generally short and sweet with little expectation of
ongoing mutual obligation beyond the arranged stay (Germann Molz 2012b:
123). So as awkward as any situation may become, unless it devolves into chaos,
the ephemeral nature of travel renders these experiences as part of the adventure of CouchSurfing.

De-Jung Chen takes a different approach than Bialski in analyzing reci-

procity between CouchSurfers, adopting Aafke Komters direct and indirect reciprocity terminology: In direct reciprocity there are repeated encounters between
two individuals while indirect reciprocity means that there are repeated encounters within a group (Chen 2011: 283). Chen observes that CouchSurfing consistently follows indirect reciprocity because the exchange of hospitality is not limited to two certain individuals but ranges across a group of members (2011:
283). Drawing on the work of Germann Molz, this form of indirect reciprocity
works because members of the CouchSurfing community possess the shared
value of cosmopolitanism which balances the reciprocal system between givers
and receivers, hosts and surfers (Chen 2011: 283). Like-mindedness, then, renders indirect reciprocity inherent to CouchSurfing encounters since each successful encounter fosters a desire to give back to the community rather than to a

Kareem Farooq, 2012

27

specific host. Nevertheless, direct reciprocity, or as Bialski refers to it, explicit


reciprocity, persists as an immediate reflection of gratitude, and Chens ethnographic work explains how the ancient concept of ren-qing6 deeply influences
what Taiwanese CouchSurfers give and expect in reciprocal relationships (2011:
283). Despite the insistence by CouchSurfing.org that direct exchange is not
what CouchSurfing is meant for and that no one should feel obligated to offer
their couch as accommodation (CS/Help 2012), Chen observes that in addition to
the deeper cultural experiences most CouchSurfers expect, Taiwanese
CouchSurfers hope for a beneficial connection to emerge and will represent their
own culture as a unique gift to fulfill the expectations of foreigners (2011: 289).
Following the ethos of ren-qing, Taiwanese members use the communitys
global reach to help themselves potentially find work in other countries or to improve their English (Chen 2011: 290). Such an instrumental perception of
Couchsurfing as a status-building opportunity differs from the intense but
ephemeral friendships Bialski and Germann Molz observed:
Through CouchSurfing the Taiwanese CouchSurfers are trying to build a global
network at an international level, bypassing regional connections. Moreover,
many Taiwanese CouchSurfers tend to maintain a longer relationship with their
hosts or surfers (Chen 2011: 290).

Such an expectation of reciprocity, however, has led to Taiwanese CouchSurfers


presenting themselves in quite strict accordance to their own understandings of
CouchSurfing guests and hosts expectations, and because, as noted earlier,
CouchSurfers are predominantly westerners, Taiwanese strategies reinforce certain stereotypes in the reciprocal system of CouchSurfing (Chen 2011: 295). For
instance, one of Chens informants, following the precedent set by the tourism
industry in Asia, presents his Western hosts with a Chinese style folding fanan
item commonly held by Chinese women (2011: 291). Chen suggests that because this gift exemplifies a feminized cultural image, it perpetuates the submissive and exotic otherness that is deeply ingrained within the discourses and
subjectivities of western societies (2011: 291). Food as a gift is another example
of the acting out of cultural stereotypes by Taiwanese CouchSurfers. The tourism
6

Ren-qing refers to any favour or kindness received from others that should be paid back, emphasizing a direct reciprocity between particular individuals to maintain a long-term relationship.
Furthermore, ren-qing exhibits an empathetic component that encourages its practitioners to give
not according to what one receives, but according to the receivers expectations (Chen 2011: 283).
Kareem Farooq, 2012

28

industry throughout East Asia presents cuisine as a historical and cultural experience, and many Taiwanese CouchSurfers have incorporated this marketing strategy into their own strategies for attracting hosts (Chen 2011: 292). Chens female
informants used the offer to cook a traditional Taiwanese meal as an effective
lure when making couch requests. This offer complied with the reciprocity of renqing by fulfilling the expectations of their hostin one case Chens informant
admitted that because Taiwanese dishes are too difficult to prepare while abroad,
she traveled with Japanese curry spices and would make Japanese curry to represent the local culture of Asia (2011: 292). Such concern for presenting themselves in accordance with expectations causes Taiwanese CouchSurfers who
adopt these strategies of reciprocity to have the inadvertent effect of entrenching
certain well-worn national stereotypes.

3.1 Hospitality as a Code, Not a Gift


Although these implicit and explicit, direct and indirect forms of reciprocity

suggest a gift economy underlying CouchSurfing, reciprocity is discretionary, and


the aim of each encounter is simply to enjoy each others company. Both Mauss
gift economy and the neo-human economy enhance solidarity (Douglas 2002
[1990]: x; Graeber 2011: 238), but as previously mentioned, the gift economy reduces morality to tit-for-tat exchange that may potentially slip into oneupmanship (Graeber 2011: 94, 106). Expounding on this critique of The Gift, Wagner
dismisses Mauss arbitrary subdivision of the exchange process into the obligations respectively to give, receive, and reciprocate (2012: S172), and contends
that calculating hospitality as a reciprocal obligation undermines the socialityinducing vital flow that motivates exchange:
For when we realize that what is offered in hospitality is the gift of reception, and
that what is received is the possibility of reciprocation, the ostensibly separate offices of host and guest turn out to be opposite sides of the same coin. And it transpires that all Mauss was doing was flipping that coin over and over again and
calling it a different thing each time (2012: S172).

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29

The historical impetus of hospitality reflects the complex social values of a human economy because both the generosity of the host and the reciprocity of the
guest are motivated by sociality. Discussing the etymological relation between
hospitality and hostility (Graeber 2011: 101; Germann Molz 2012a: 90), both
Graeber and Germann Molz foreground connections between hosts, hospitality, hostility, and hostages in order to highlight the risks hospitality involved
in the ancient world. These scholars also emphasize the potential transformation
of the stranger to a friend (danger to camaraderie) through the invitation to share
a meal and a home. Tom Selwyn sums this up succinctly: Hospitality converts:
strangers into familiars, enemies into friends, friends into better friends, outsiders
into insiders, non-kin into kin (2000: 19). Such transitions are essential for avoiding potential hostility:
The danger lies, precisely, in the possibility that the opportunity and promise of a
relationship will simply not be taken up, that the stranger will remain a stranger,
and that the transformative processes which acts of hospitality put in motion will
simply wither away before they have been given a chance to take root (Selwyn
2000: 34).

In Selwyns analysis of hospitality, reciprocation plays a key factor in establishing


a relationship because once a guest reciprocates for hospitality with a gift, chore,
or simple thanks, then the potential threat has been avoided. For Selwyn then,
hospitality fosters sociality rather than self-interest, reflecting the same communist principle as the neo-human economy.

If, as Graeber argues, baseline communism is the ground of all human

social life, then to offer fellowship to a stranger not only helps to avoid danger
but, so to speak, reproduces sociality, which illuminates why sharing a meal is a
common and important host-guest experience (Graeber 2011: 101). The act of
breaking bread is a fundamental ritual signifying inclusion into a group, as well as
signifying the exclusion of those who should not partake in this ritual. Selwyn
borrows from Mary Douglas to make this point:
The moral framework established by proper obedience to the food laws serves to
bind the members of a family to each other and the family to the wider community whose members share the code. It also separates both from others who do
not share the code (Selwyn 2000: 28).
Kareem Farooq, 2012

30

By sharing meals together, members of the CouchSurfing community affirm their


ties to the mission and ethos (or code) of CouchSurfing: Each meeting between
CouchSurfing members contributes to the critical mass that the organization
deems necessary to create a better world (Germann Molz 2012b: 133), and the
intimacy accompanying a shared meal reflects how this website influences behavior, encouraging consideration and conviviality. Graeber notes that the ancient
law of hospitality insisted that any traveler must be fed, given shelter, and
treated as an honored guestbut only for a certain length of time (2011: 118).
When guests overstay their welcome, they may become (or be perceived as)
parasitic, exploiting the law of hospitality, losing honor, and accruing debt. Once
again, the CouchSurfing reputation system ensures that parasitic individuals are
accounted for, so that when hospitality is exchanged between members, both
parties will most likely adhere to the code of CouchSurfing by simply enjoying
each others company.

The code of CouchSurfing may be seen as an analytically interesting vari-

ant of the ancient law of hospitality. Rather than losing ones freedom and becoming a slave to a host after exploiting the hosts hospitality, hosts instead leave
a negative reference, thereby shaming that user so that the rest of the community
will take note. As one CouchSurfer surmised, Everyone is afraid to get a negative message back on their profile. You reap what you sow (Steylaerts and
Dubhghaill 2011: 273). The rarity of negative references attests to the success of
the reputation systems transparency. Also, the intimacy that transpires between
CouchSurfers reflects the courteous discourse that dignifies traditional forms of
hospitality. According to Douglas, Each meal carries something of the meaning
of the other meals; each meal is something of a structured social event which
structures others in its own image (1972: 69). Because meals are representative
of the formal feasts that have preceded them, a shared meal between strangers
draws on these past moments of intimate socializing (Selwyn 2000: 33). In my
own home when hosting CouchSurfers, my fiance and I sit around the table with
our guests for each meal, partaking in conversation as we eat. On our own the
two of us usually eat seated on the couch, sometimes watching or listening to a
program. Meals at the table are reserved for romantic dinners or for dinner parties. Having hosted over a dozen CouchSurfers throughout the past year I am in

Kareem Farooq, 2012

31

a position to confirm that dinner is indeed the most transformative process because humor, anecdotes, and philosophies come alive, binding new relationships
that, while ephemeral, are emotionally intense. This may be because of the
aforementioned like-mindedness that CouchSurfers share, but the experience is
nonetheless tangible and stimulating.

3.2 Re-Imagining Hospitality


CouchSurfings reproduction of mealtime customs reflects the commu-

nitys hybrid nature and neo-human economy. As was discussed earlier, the danger of hosting a stranger is mitigated by digital technologies, which thus allow for
new opportunities of hospitality to emerge. These technological systems have the
counterintuitive effect of enabling a community of openminded travelers to thrive
by excluding those who would not (or cannot) conform to this particular code of
hospitality. This contradiction has been analyzed by Germann Molz and expanded upon by the ethnographic work of Chen and Sonja Buchberger. By uniting different people throughout the world by appealing to their shared interests,
such as traveling, learning about other cultures, and eating foreign cuisine,
CouchSurfing fulfills the expectations of members who seek differences that are
consumable and communal (Germann Molz 2007: 77; her emphasis). However,
these differences are particular, and those who do not fit this strangers like us
(Germann Molz 2012a: 94) code are excluded:
Clearly, people who do not already have the financial means to travel, a place to
host other travellers or the political right to mobility are not welcome to participate in the club. Guests who might become parasites or enemies represent the
wrong kind of difference; a difference that is not easily consumed over a glass
of wine or a late night conversation in someones living room (Germann Molz
2007: 78).

To engage with CouchSurfing, then, requires a passport, financial independence,


and a sociable demeanor. Without access to the internet, those who may very
well have the right attitude required to participate in CouchSurfing cannot offer
their unique cultural presence to the community. These requirements have the
important consequence of reforming traditional hospitality customs.

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32

A revealing example of this consequence are depictions of CouchSurfing

as a form of deviant behavior among non-members in Morocco. As in many Arab


countries, non-commercial hospitality in Morocco is directly linked to the family
(Buchberger 2011: 306). From the cordial reception to the tearful departure, a
guests visit is a carefully formalized ordeal, adhering to moral conventions and
religious convictions (Buchberger 2011: 304, 307). Traditionally, the duties of the
host are divided between family members, depending on the age and gender of
each member (Buchberger 2011: 306). As Sonja Buchberger observes, In
CouchSurfing, hospitality becomes individualized, with single men in their 20s or
early 30s taking the role of the host alone (2011: 306). This shift produces a
schism within Moroccan communities because the hospitality a Moroccan family
provides is a source of pride (2011: 306). However, young Moroccans (mostly
men 7) who wish to participate in CouchSurfings hospitality exchange often do
not have the consent of their parents. As Buchberger explains:
Several parents do not allow their sons to host foreigners because of fear that
the neighbours could talk Among the most widespread conjectures are the
assumption that the family is running an unauthorized maison dhtes/guest
house, that the young man works as faux guide (tourist guide without concession or training) or tries to befriend foreign females to marry and get the chance
to leave Morocco (2011: 304).

Moreover, the structure of formal Moroccan hospitality protocols negates the likemindedness component that fosters conviviality. Buchberger elaborates:
You dont feel free, is a usual formulation among Moroccan members to describe this situation. In hosting in single households, in contrast, there is more
freedom and fun. Obligatory small talk with all relatives and the stress of worrying about what family members might think and say about the foreign guests
dress and behavior falls away. (2011: 307).

Buchbergers ethnographic observations reflect the transformation hospitality


undergoes when re-engineered through a social network. This work also demon-

Young women in Morocco experience a much more strict form of supervision from their families
than young men, who have more freedom to use the internet and spend time with friends outside
of the home without serious interrogation (Buchberger 2011: 301).
Kareem Farooq, 2012

33

strates an antinomy between CouchSurfings claim to produce a more authentic


cultural experience and its discordance vis--vis traditional Moroccan hospitality.
The most significant revelation in Buchbergers work, however, is how the neohuman economy struggles to coexist within this non-western society, in which
both market logic and religious moral conventions dominate.

Aspersions spread through gossip in Moroccan neighborhoods may dam-

age the reputation of whomever that gossip denounces. Central to the risk young
Moroccans face in hosting strangers from CouchSurfing are misunderstandings
concerning how CouchSurfing functions. Such misunderstandings are not necessarily unique to this part of the world; however, the fact that the main risk hosts
face derives from overly inquisitive neighbors rather than the strangers themselves sheds light on a fascinating aspect of the neo-human economy. Graeber
notes that the development of the market in the Middle East during the Middle
Ages thrived once the mercantile classes abandoned usury (2011: 282). This enabled merchants to becomealongside religious teachersthe effective leaders of their communities: communities are still seen as organized, to a large extent, around the twin poles of mosque and bazaar (Graeber 2011: 282). Such a
connection between Islam and the market underscores the unique morality reflected in quotidian economic activity in Morocco. CouchSurfings neo-human
economy disrupts the symbiosis between religion and commerce. An experience
described by Buchberger aptly depicts this disruption. While riding with a Moroccan CouchSurfer on his moped, two men on a more powerful scooter ridiculed
them as they rode past saying, Look! He has a gawriyya (western woman) and a
snetr (i.e. a Peugeot 103 scooter)! (2011: 311). In Morocco being friends with a
foreigner reflects upper class status, and according to these assumptions, the
host needs to have certain financial means to live up to expectations of generous
serving of food, drink and environment (2011: 311). Furthermore, the notion of
foreigners being received and entertained without direct monetary interaction
taking place might seem surprising and peculiar to many Moroccans (2011:
312). The decision made by many Moroccan members to neglect explaining how
CouchSurfing works further complicates the matter. Buchberger explains the reasoning of these Moroccan members:
They assume right from the start that computer-mediated hospitality exchange is
incomprehensible to their families and neighbours, because it clashes too veheKareem Farooq, 2012

34

mently with local understandings of morality regarding gender relations and cultural
conventions that one could not possibly offer these services without expecting financial profit or at least some form of remuneration from the allegedly wealthier
guwwar[8 ] tourists. (2011: 312).

Local understandings of morality regarding gender relations are significant here


because they imply sexual intentions: Hosting foreign women always indicates a
sexual liaison to outside observers (Buchberger 2011: 312). This conflation between CouchSurfing and sexual impropriety echoes Graebers suggestion that
the market economy erroneously trivializes morality and human relations into
quantifiable transactions rather than cooperative engagements (2011: 177). The
inaccuracy of these market-tainted moral codes are further reflected in the cathartic gossip between Moroccan members and their guests:
The practice of gossiping about the malign neighbour in front of foreign CouchSurfers provides a space for Moroccan members to portray themselves as openminded and modern, by distinguishing themselves from the narrow-minded
neighbour as the backward gossip, who has no idea about their lives and aspirations
and tends to sexualize the whole thing (2011: 310).

This distinction between the backwards neighbor and the modern host elucidates how the neo-human economy transcends the objectification of women as
sexual commodities. Of course, sexual tension still (and will always) exists.
Buchbergers observation that male CouchSurfers have more difficulty finding
hosts in Moroccan than females evinces this sexual tension (2011: 300). However, the reputation system upholds the values of the CouchSurfing community
just as well in Morocco, ensuring each meeting is met with the cosmopolitan expectations of friendship and cultural exchange, and relegating sex and romance
to fortuity.

Guwwar is the most widespread term for western tourists today... (Buchberger 2011: 300).
Kareem Farooq, 2012

35

Chapter Four:
Digitizing Social Capital

While discussing CouchSurfing with a close friend of mine who has

CouchSurfed extensively throughout Europe, I brought up Tim Murphys analogy


that references are the currency by which CouchSurfing transactions are conducted (2012). Expanding on this analogy, my friend mentioned that the references serve as a bank account of sorts, and each time you message a member
about surfing at their place, they check your account to make sure you have not
just enough credit, but positive credit. The really interesting part of this expanded
analogy is this: the credit that positive references represent can be spent, but
cannot be depleted. References remain on your profile for the duration of your
membership in the CouchSurfing community. This reputation system, then, demonstrates the digitization of social capital.

This digital manifestation of social capital follows the argument made ear-

lier regarding how technologizing reputation systems initiates the process of


trusting strangers and welcoming them into ones life. By broadening this reputation system to represent digitized social capital, it may be perceived as a form of
currencyas Murphy articulatedwhich may be accumulated and leveraged like
money. However, unlike money, digitized social capital develops directly from
personal relationships forged through communication, cooperation, and conviviality. This difference further substantiates the unique hybridity of the neo-human
economy. As examined before, Graeber describes the transition from human
economies to commercial economies as fraught with moral dilemmas (2011:
177). The work of Georg Simmel reinforces Graebers assessment of this transition. As Simmel insightfully insists:
Money offers us the only opportunity to date for a unity which eliminates everything
personal and specific, a form of unification that we take completely for granted today, but which represents one of the most enormous changes and advances of culture. Through the necessity of exchanging it and receiving definitive concrete values for it, money creates an extremely strong bond among the members of an economic circle. Precisely because it cannot be consumed directly, it refers people to
others, from whom one can obtain what is actually to be consumed. And by making the division of production possible, money inevitably ties people together, for
now everyone is working for the other, and only the work of all creates the compreKareem Farooq, 2012

36

hensive economic unity which supplements the one-sided production of the individual (1997: 246).

The transition from a direct person-to-person connection to the indirect and exponential connections of each individual to all others through the acceptance of
money, initiated a separation between the value people accrued through their social network and the value they accumulated through labor. Germann Molz cites
Simmel as well when she suggests that systems of credit act as a defensive
strategy, preventing the exhaustive and risky task of engaging in meaningful conversation when interacting with strangers: Placing trust in currency rather than in
one another allows strangers to interact while remaining detached from each
other (Germann Molz 2012a: 87). Unfortunately for Simmel, once money becomes the ultimate motivation for individuals, they have entered a circuit of dissatisfaction because moneys ability to equate anything renders life full of endless
equations, calculations, conversions, and depreciations (1997: 249). The feelings
of security and freedom that money provides must be constantly restored with
more money (Simmel 1997: 252). Graeber admits that the the ability to pull out a
wallet full of banknotes that are unconditionally one's own can be a compelling
form of freedom, but he contends that it is rooted in a deeply flawed, even perverse, conception of human freedom (2011: 355). As dreary as these sentiments
may seem, they hinge on moneys inability to sustain individual satisfaction and
its inability to inspire human sociality. The profit motive triggered by the acquisition of money is unsustainable; it creates a culture that seeks constant improvement, straining in vain to maintain its satisfaction (Simmel 1997: 235). Such is the
price of financial capital. Social capital, alternatively, accrues profits through
membership rather than production, making solidarity the basis of its value
(Bourdieu 2004 [1983]: 22).

By subscribing to a group, the members of that group generate credit

through their combined collective capital, and according to Pierre Bourdieu, this
aggregation of resources for the mutual benefit of the collective represents social
capital (2004 [1983]: 21). Pooling resources also reflects CouchSurfings utopian
ideal of forging a global community by sharing ones home with strangers
(Germann Molz 2007: 77). Rather than titles of nobility and authority demonstrating concentrated social capital as Bourdieu posited, social capital among
CouchSurfers depends on different factors. Those with the most positive referKareem Farooq, 2012

37

ences are clearly actively engaged with the community. Some members may voluntarily become official CouchSurfing ambassadors. These members are recognized by the organization as community leaders, who organize events, welcome
new members, answer questions, and actively participate in CouchSurfing (CS/
Ambassador 2012). Not everyone can become an ambassador, but anyone can
create and attend events or share their knowledge and experience on the websites group forums, in addition to hosting and surfing.

Attending CouchSurfing events is a great opportunity to connect with sev-

eral members in one setting in order to build social capital, particularly if you are
new to CouchSurfing and lack references. While in Istanbul, my fiance and I attended a weekly CouchSurfing event with her family. We learned of the event
through her brother who received a message from a local in Istanbul (I will refer to
him as Samir). When you log into your account, CouchSurfing will show that you
are online and the current city you are in so that other members can invite you to
attend local activities. This is done at the discretion of the local, and in our case,
Samir was an incredibly friendly gentleman, who regularly invites travelers to
these weekly events. We all met that evening at a park next to a boardwalk on
the water in Kadiky, Istanbul. Dozens of CouchSurfers showed up, and after
talking with a few, I realized just how normal this scene was. Many spoke about
an amazing boat party that had been held the weekend prior and was organized
through CouchSurfing. Samir jokingly confessed that he invites as many travelers
as possible because if he didnt, these get-togethers would be hardly as interesting. This cosmopolitan desire corresponds to one of Bialskis Polish informants
who admitted to her that he declined a CouchSurfer from Poland because
theyre not different enough (2011: 251). Sure enough, after connecting online
the next day, we discovered Samir was somewhat of a CouchSurfing icon with
more friends (840) and references (532) than any of us had ever seen. (In comparison, my profile has half a dozen friends and thirteen references.) Of course,
attaining extensive digitized social capital does not guarantee that your couch
request will always be accepted when you travel. The preferences and interests
you list on your profile, your personal description, and, as mentioned before, serendipity all factor into a successful CouchSurf. Still, a lack of CouchSurfing references equates to a lack of digitized social capital, and therefore no record of

Kareem Farooq, 2012

38

trust, which in most cases will result in having to pursue another means of accommodation.
4.1 When Social Capital and Fiscal Capital Collide

The calculability of financial capital and the predominance of market logic

attempt to ascribe purchasing power to digitized social capital. Simmel identifies


the prevalence of market logic as the money economys induction of calculated
precision into everyday life, to the point where anything of value is allocated a
monetary valuation (Simmel 1997: 252). Bourdieu acknowledges that both cultural and social capital are convertible into economic capital in certain conditions
(2004 [1983]: 16). However, he also recognizes that sociality produces social
capital, which then reproduces sociality (Bourdieu 2004 [1983]: 22). With this recognition, Bourdieus assessment that under certain conditions social capital
may be converted into economic capital actually validates Graebers postulation
that, along with exchange, communism and hierarchy are moral principles that
develop economic relations (2011: 94). Bourdieu suggested that when concentrated social capital constructs economic capital, it becomes institutionalized into
nobility (2004 [1983]: 16, 24), thereby verifying hierarchy as an economic moral
principle. Also, Bourdieus acknowledgment of social capitals dependence on
the collective cooperation of a grouppooling resources, forming a social network, and achieving goalsreflects the communist component of Graebers
economic model.

The fusion of Graebers three moral principles of economic relations and

Bourdieus understanding of social capital reveals interesting implications when


applying it to CouchSurfings economic model. According to Bourdieu,
Exchange [of gifts, words, women, etc.] transforms the things exchanged into signs
of recognition and, through the mutual recognition and the recognition of group
membership which it implies, re-produces the group (2004 [1983]: 22).

As mentioned before, explicit forms of reciprocity in CouchSurfing take the form


as small gifts, food, and favors as well as hospitality. This exchange is not offsetting, it is symbolic. These gestures are recognized as emblematic of the communitys like-mindedness, and along with the implicit forms of exchange, such as
Kareem Farooq, 2012

39

conversation, courtesy and conviviality, they propel and expand the communitys
cosmopolitan ideals. This communistic composition of exchange reproduces sociality through inspiring experiences; however this would not be possible without
the social networks technical infrastructure. Bourdieu goes on:
The reproduction of social capital presupposes an unceasing effort of sociability, a
continuous series of exchanges in which recognition is endlessly affirmed and reaffirmed. This work, which implies expenditure of time and energy and so, directly or
indirectly, of economic capital, is not profitable or even conceivable unless one invests in it a specific competence (knowledge of genealogical relationships and of
real connections and skill at using them, etc.) and an acquired disposition to acquire
and maintain this competence... (2004 [1983]: 22-23).

Here we may begin to examine the necessary role the organization plays in facilitating the sociality that CouchSurfing produces (and reproduces). This history of
the website reflects the initial catalyst that accelerated the formation and exponential expansion the community. CouchSurfings conception developed after cofounder, Casey Fenton, acquired an inexpensive flight to Reykjavik, but had no
place to stay. He decided to send a mass email to University of Reykjavik students in hopes of finding someone to host him (Germann Molz 2011: 217). According to the website, He received so many offers of hospitality that he realized
there was a community out there hungry for a human-centered approach to
travel (CS/Media_FAQ 2012). This experience would spawn the most successful
hospitality exchange network to date. However, the work of the founders of this
hybrid network relies on technology to facilitate personal encounters and inspiring experiences, and of course, this technology requires time and energy as well
as economic capital to implement. This illuminates the hierarchical structure that
oversees CouchSurfings communist hospitality exchange.

Over the course of the conclusion, I will examine how this overall system

has been working and the conflicts of interest that arise when an economic
model based simply on sociality becomes an investment opportunity.

Kareem Farooq, 2012

40

CONCLUSION:
Corporatizing CouchSurfing
I opened this dissertation discussing Facebook, which may now seem peripheral
since CouchSurfing was the focus of this work. However, Facebooks dominance
as the most successful social media platform to date along with its recent introduction into the stock market renders it a macroscopic example of what the
money economyas Simmel referred to itdoes to a social network.

At the time Germann Molz wrote her piece, Solidarity on the Move

(2012b), CouchSurfing was operating as a nonprofit organization. In August 2011,


CouchSurfing published an article in their online newsletter informing their users
they were becoming a certified B Corporation. The B stands for benefit, and
this status legally binds companies to provide goods and services with a commitment to social and environmental responsibility and fair working conditions by
subordinating the profit motive (CS/144 2011; Alperovitz 2011). In theory this
status prevents investors and stockholders from suing the CEO for not adhering
to profit-making strategies (Alperovitz 2011). However, the backlash from members of the CouchSurfing community was swift. A discussion group titled We
Are Against CS Becoming a For-Profit Organization sprung up in CouchSurfings
forum section (Marx 2012; CS/Group 2011). Denouncing the move to a for-profit
model, the group declared: CS was born as a community, built and strengthened
by many volunteers spirited members and now turned into a corporation (CS/
Group 2011; their emphasis). This reaction is understandable considering many
members felt that by participating in an alternative form of exchange, they were
resisting the domination of consumer-driven commercialism. Germann Molz expresses this sentiment in her work: For a few respondents, Couchsurfings
status as a non-profit organization and its ability to facilitate a non-commercial
form of exchange between strangers represented a resistance to what they saw
as a general corporatization of social life (2012b: 124). In her article, Marx points
out that this anti-corporate sentiment fails to account for the expense of hiring
computer engineers as well as the fact that this B corporation status is contractually required to be socially and environmentally responsible (2012). Attempting
to assuage this disgruntled group of CouchSurfers, co-founder Casey Fenton
published an open letter in the online newsletter, explaining that the organization

Kareem Farooq, 2012

41

had tried hard for many years to be certified as a 501c(3) non-profit, but ultimately the US government didnt accept that hosting and surfing are charitable
activities (Fenton 2011). Fenton goes on in the letter to reassure that CouchSurfing will remain as committed to their mission to make the world a better place
and that they are not actually for profit because money is still not the goal of
the organization (Fenton 2011). Despite these reassurances, this new for-(some)profit model poses new questions, such as how exactly does one monetize a
system based on the exchange of generosity?

The news that CouchSurfing would no longer be operating as a nonprofit

organization was accompanied with the announcement that the organization had
secured a $7.6 million round of financing from Benchmark Capital and Omidyar
Network (Perlroth 2011; Lapowsky 2012; Lacy 2012). Discussing CouchSurfings
transition, Nicole Perlroth alluded to the dot-com bubble to the late 1990s,
speculating that Silicon Valley may be in the midst of a new technology bubble
(2011). Perlroths article ends with a quote from Matt Cohler of Benchmark Capital comparing CouchSurfing to a young Facebook, which, just as CouchSurfing is
now, was popular among college students before it burgeoned (Perlroth 2011).
However, unlike Facebook, CouchSurfing is not (or has not been) a tool for corporate marketing. In fact, the neo-human economy CouchSurfing produced undermines corporatism: Every time CouchSurfing members exchange generosity
rather than money, they are participating in broader claims against corporate cultural governance (Germann Molz 2012a: 100). This indicates an inherent conflict
of interest between the CouchSurfing community and its investors.

Since it transitioned to a certified B Corporation, CouchSurfing has con-

tinued to grow, and little about the functionality of the website has changed
(aside from appearing much sleeker). However, as the executives managing
CouchSurfing pursue new potential streams of revenue, changes will most likely
result. As Miller and Horst point out, the most astonishing feature of digital culture is not actually this speed of technical innovation, but rather the speed by
which society takes all of these for granted and creates normative conditions for
their use (2012: 32). By normalizing these changes, users fail to notice the gradual imposition of corporate interests. This gradual integration of corporatism
evokes the evolution of the internet from a potential utopia to a commercial inno-

Kareem Farooq, 2012

42

vation, making Perloths allusion to the dot-com bubble all the more disconcerting.

By invoking this early history of the internet in several of her publications

on CouchSurfing, Germann Molz indicates that the CouchSurfing community


represents a return to the unifying potential the internet once represented. However, with the end of CouchSurfings nonprofit era, this return to the original utopian promise of the Internet is now contingent on the websites ability to compete with other hospitality exchange networks (Germann Molz 2012a: 100). This
new reality renders Germann Molzs suggestion quite poignant:
By rejecting profit models and commercial exchange, CouchSurfing reasserts the
true intentions of the Internet: to create a global village of strangers. This noncommercial ethos echoes some of the rhetoric surrounding the Internet and the virtual communities that were forming on the bulletin boards and multi-user domains in
the early 1990s. Utopian thinkers at the time suggested that virtual communities
could be more democratic and inclusive (2012b: 125).

Examining a similar sentiment from the earlier work of Germann Molz reflects the
potential disaster that may develop in the form of a second technology bubble
bursting, and the strange irony that such a burst would reveal:
Casey [Fenton], the founder of CouchSurfing.com, was inspired to create his noncommercial site after becoming disillusioned by his lucrative career in software development during the dot-com boom (2007: 73).

In addition to CouchSurfings unmatched success, the pervasiveness of

market logic is responsible for the corporatizing of CouchSurfing. In their analysis


of CouchSurfing, Vicky Steylaerts and Sean ODubhghaill concisely explain that
CouchSurfing represents a booming market, adding that, The phenomenon
blends in with recent developments in the tourist industry, among and between
individual travellers and in the search for meaningful, less commercially mediated experiences (Steylaerts and ODubhghaill 2011: 262). This market grows
with each successful CouchSurfing experience inspiring others to join the community. But with success comes competition. Perlroth notes in her article on
CouchSurfings injection of funding, that another online hospitality exchange
network, Tripping.com, had secured over a million dollars in funding a month
Kareem Farooq, 2012

43

prior, and she speculates that perhaps CouchSurfing developed a sudden inferiority complex upon hearing the news that its smaller, new, for-profit rival was
suddenly flush with cash (2011). Of course, such speculation also propagates
the market logic that permeates western culture, further undermining certain neohuman economies that are still in their infancy.

The normalization of the gradual corporatization of CouchSurfing may well

have been the inevitable (if not predictable) outcome to such a community. The
growth of global-ethical awareness over the past few decades has inspired
travelers to seek a less commodified form of hospitality, desiring instead the personalized experience that CouchSurfing provides (Steylaerts and ODubhghaill
2011: 264). However, the incorporation of technology by individuals who share
this aspiration of authentic travel experiences has formalized the process of
producing these authentic experiences (Steylaerts and ODubhghaill 2011: 276).
Discussing CouchSurfing, Steylaerts and ODurhghaill point out, As seminal as
[the social networking aspect is], it is also in jeopardy (or viewed as in jeopardy)
by coming under the rubric of marketers, or others concerned with formalizing
the experience (2011: 269). Formalization enables monetization, and just as the
utopian vision that accompanied the internet at its inception succumbed to the
innovation of commercial practices, the potential of the sociality-spawning neohuman economy becomes another market for brand managers to cater to. Insights from Miller and Horst render this outcome nearly predictable: The internet
constantly promises new forms of openness, which are almost immediately followed by calls for new constraints and controls, expressing our more general
ambivalence towards the experience of freedom (2012: 24). Thus as CouchSurfings model expands to connect more members and facilitate more inspiring experiences, the system begins to attract the attention of those who fear that this
new model of hospitality poses a threat to either their bottom line or to their repressed society.

Borrowing from Graeber, this struggle may be referred to as a crisis of in-

clusion (2011: 375). Graeber used this term to signify the repercussions of allowing anyone, including minorities and women, to participate in a capitalist system
that protected the rights of workers, guaranteed social benefits, and ensured access to affordable public educational institutions (2011: 373). Essentially, Graeber

Kareem Farooq, 2012

44

argues that this form of regulated capitalism could no longer sustain itself once
marginalized citizens began demanding the same benefits as white, workingclass citizens. As a result, the neo-liberal agenda replaced this regulated form of
capitalism. The ongoing struggle between free-market capitalism and a social
democratic form of capitalism aptly reflects the reoccurring battles taking place
in the digital realm. Graebers assessment summarizes this nicely:
Just as markets, when allowed to drift entirely free from their violent origins, invariably begin to grow into something different, into networks of honor, trust, and mutual
connectedness, so does the maintenance of systems of coercion constantly do the
opposite: turn the products of human cooperation, creativity, devotion, love, and
trust back into numbers once again. (2011: 381)

The neo-human economy that the CouchSurfing community produced, persists


because members enjoy the social benefits of this exchangefiscal benefits are
absent. The credibility of this social network propagates through the efficacy of
its reputation system, which influences its members behavior by encouraging
the cosmopolitan ideals of consideration and conviviality toward strangers. By
exchanging generosity and cooperation, CouchSurfers exhibit a genuine trust
and camaraderie that attracts new members, who share this openminded attitude. Although the community is closed to those lacking internet access, political
mobility, financial competence, and a sociable disposition, these requirements
are general enough to enable the community to thrive. As the community grows,
its neo-human economy formalizes: each auspicious experience inspires new
and potential members to embrace a more authentic cultural experience while
traveling, to embody a cosmopolitan lifestyle by hosting travelers, or to discover
a citys unique charm by attending local CouchSurfing events. These aspects
propel CouchSurfings popularity, and hence, its marketability. Marketability has
attracted investors, who then speculate about the potential profitability of the
formalized sociality that has transpired through CouchSurfing. In short,
CouchSurfings ability to inspire genuine human connections is responsible for its
corporatization.

CouchSurfing is not the only hospitality network to begin partnering with

profit-driven companies. Hospitality Club recently announced it would begin working with Airbnb, a commercial company that enables host users to rent spare
Kareem Farooq, 2012

45

rooms, apartments, or houses to travelers and allows travel users to rent accommodations from hosts. With this new partnership, Airbnb users will now have the
additional option to stay with local Hospitality Club members. However, when
staying with Hospitality Club members, the fee Airbnb users pay will be donated to
Hospitality Club, rather than directly compensating the host (HospitalityClub/
Airbnb 2012). The success of this new venture is yet to be determined, as the
partnership has only recently been forged. But the implications are clear: these
websites, as noble as their missions may be, require cash to function. Because
hospitality exchange is now a thriving market rather than a marginal movement,
each hospitality exchange network must invest in improving user experience9 in
order to remain relevant and valuable. Nevertheless, as Steylaerts and
ODubhghaill indicated, the growth of this authentic cultural experience market
developed as a reaction against the homogeneity of commercial hospitality; thus
users of hospitality exchange networks maintain a global-ethical awareness that
is unique to this new market (2011: 264).

A cynic may observe CouchSurfings corporatization as evidence of Grae-

bers conclusion that capitalism appropriates the products of human cooperation into a calculable commodity. Once commodified, CouchSurfing experiences
will lose the the spirit of adventure that once enthused its members. Conversely,
an optimist will note that the neo-human economy has taken root. The seeds
may have been planted with the conception of Servas in 1949, but CouchSurfings success reflects a common desire to partake in an alternative form of exchange. After all, CouchSurfing has always coexisted with market forces. Building and maintaining the technical infrastructure that connects CouchSurfers required funding. Without revenue, the neo-human economy that this social network produced would lack the digital means to initiate trust between strangers.
Therefore, rather than existing outside of the money economy, the neo-human
economy coexists with the money economy. If Graeber is correct and communism is the foundation of all human relations (2011: 96), then we may be witnessing something similar to Healys neo-human theory gradually develop. If
Facebooks success illustrates peoples unending desire to share information
with others, then CouchSurfings success demonstrates our desire to share an

User experience in the case of hospitality exchange networks entails catalyzing convivial sociality.
Kareem Farooq, 2012

46

authentic slice of our lives with one another. As these meaningful encounters
continue to aggregate, something will eventually begin to shift. In order to coexist
with the neo-human economy, the money economy may have to yield its competitive tenet. If that is the case, Healys theory of a new paradigm in which analogue and digital coexist as a mutually supportive, noncompetitive grouping
may be reinterpreted and applied to the coexistence of the neo-human economy
and the money economy. As neo-human economies gradually infiltrate money
economies, the moral principle Graeber defined as exchange will be deemphasized. Rather than managing Graebers two other moral principleshierarchy and communismexchange and its logic of reciprocity will work in collaboration with hierarchy and communism to enhance sociality.

The B corporation may be an early incarnation of this potential economic

paradigm shift. By legalizing the subordination of profit to enhance social and environmental goals (Alperovitz 2011: 20), this new corporate model represents a
tangible reaction to the social, environmental, and economic turmoil resulting
from the money economy (Alperovitz 2011:24). By appropriating market logic and
discarding the competitive gumption of this logic, neo-human economics pursues the interests of many at the expense of concentrated wealth. Although the
calculable profitability of B corporations may be quantitatively low, by emphasizing sociality over profitability, the risks of economic turmoil are mitigated. The
success of CouchSurfing, and even Facebook, demonstrates the persistent human desire for convivial connectivity. This desire echoes Millers ethnographic
work on shopping, which redirect[s] attention from shopping as an expression of
individual subjectivity and identity to an expression of kinship and other relationships (1998: 35). By facilitating sharing, social networks reflect our desire to socialize. If investors fail to understand that the value of these social networks derives not from commercialization but from the expansion of sociality, then capitalizing on popular social networks for short-term profits will lead to a speculative
bubbleas Perlroth insinuated. However, investing with the intention of supporting of the convivial mission of a social network by focusing on improving the
service for userswithout the expectation of immediate capitalizationwould, in
effect, finance social prosperity, which may then lead to economic prosperity.

Kareem Farooq, 2012

47

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