Gift or Data Platform? Capitalist Hospitality and Couchsurfing’s New Paywall

Photo by the author.

Like most major corporations, Couchsurfing.com is a C Corporation, for-profit and subject to corporate taxes, though it was a non-profit from 2003 to 2011. Hosts on the platform offer free accommodation to travelers. However, lately it seems to have taken a turn toward becoming yet another scheme to extract money from online users.

In mid-May 2020, many users received a message that they needed to pay a monthly or yearly fee if they wanted to continue using the platform. Some people who did not want to pay cannot access their profile, including information that they themselves left on the website. It is still possible to request that the headquarters change or delete data. While the core management team said they had to institute the paywall because of a lack of money, they do not want to disclose anything about their budget and finances.

On the surface, their story makes sense. However, digging deeper into the details and the history of the platform makes one skeptical about their explanation. The management comes from financial circles and the company has been entangled with global business actors and investors – as far as we know – since at least 2010.

Over the month following the introduction of fees, the company put a lot of effort into blocking oppositional voices. Many members have been deleted from the website for making references to platforms offering a similar service, like BeWelcome and Trustroots. We can observe a clear interest in pruning a certain type of person from the platform.

What may be behind the recent shift?

In another article, I outlined the possible scenario of a merger with a company offering tourist and accommodation services. There you can read about the privacy settings, which suggest that users’ data are a crucial part of their business model and that they share them with third parties.

If the company finds the data collected on Couchsurfing useful, it can use them in very profitably. It has access to approximately 15.4 million profiles and the contact information of members worldwide. As of June 11, 2020, 1,714,418 people had logged into the Couchsurfing website in the preceding six months, indicating a much larger number of users.

Most of the members do not engage in accommodation-related interactions, judging by the statistics on references. Only 342,953 users had at least one reference on June 11, 2020. For a company active in tourism, it may be advantageous to have access to the data of travel-curious people with an interest in alternative ways of organizing their experience, who may, however, not be ready to engage in searching for hosts and guests.

Making people use their credit card is another way of gathering data. The company has access to people ready to pay and used to paying because the threshold to use other paid services may be lower for them. After all, how much money could one earn from a bunch of hippies who originally joined the gift economy? The platform no longer needs people who care about real hospitality exchange, free hosting and generalized reciprocity if its goal is to attract docile consumers ready to pay for their vacation.

A relatively low number of people actually engaging in hospitality exchange suggests that the website has a low chance of sustaining itself from these fees. One can rather predict that newcomers will pay a monthly fee of 2-3 dollars to check out the website on the occasion of daydreaming about a trip. In this way, they signal their travel plans, which can be collected as data. However, it may not be enough to sustain a management team and CEO accustomed to salaries in the financial sector.

The platform may continue as a data collecting-machine, which is quite dangerous if some people still use it in order to find lodgings. The recent move has seriously damaged the community. Discussions about the company’s decision resound with the voices of disappointed hosts who have given a lot to the community in the past. Instead, the platform may be still attractive to potential predators and people who do not know much about possible dangers.

Basing the business model of a for-profit company on volunteer labor is in any case problematic. The Ambassadors, whom you can call volunteers because they are not paid for their involvement, are part of the model. The job description of Community Manager, Michael Joy, mentions that one of his tasks is to “[m]anage the Couchsurfing Ambassador program, including continuous training, recruitment, and education for community development.”[1] The list of Ambassadors available on their website indicates over 750 names. Not only have they lost the trust of many Ambassadors or suspended them because of the critical voices, relying on volunteers in their operation may be problematic from a legal point of view because a for-profit company is not allowed to have volunteers work for it. Since Couchsurfing.com and the business model in investor-owned platforms is relatively new, we cannot make inferences from precedents to assess the legal compliance of this organization.

In an interview for the German publication Jetzt.de – the youth magazine of the Süddeutsche Zeitung – one of Couchsurfing.com’s employees, Florian, said that they do not reveal the number of employees working for the company. This public relations strategy may be a way to hide that they are understaffed and not able to take care of safety. The article mentions a case of an Italian policeman who gave rape drugs to his female visitors. He had several profiles. The investigation has detected 16 victims.

Couchsurfing was going through a transformation in 2010-2011. It has turned out later that users have been lied to. Is Couchsurfing.com turning into a marketing and data collection platform to feed another business? We need to be wary of the consequences if this scenario is true. Time will tell what the ruse behind the current strategy is.

[1] Retrieved on LinkedIn on June 15, 2020.

Katarzyna Gajewska, PhD, is an author and educator. You can contribute to her crowdfunding campaign to help publishing the feminine utopia “Imagine a Sane Society” or other forthcoming Creative Commons books, which will be available online for free. With this publishing strategy, she does not want her work to benefit Amazon because she opposes its practices. She is the author of the book Transnational Labour Solidarity: Mechanisms of Commitment to Cooperation within the European Trade Union Movement (Routledge, 2009 and 2013), and has published several academic articles.

 

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