Alan Stanley
Wed, 11/03/2021 - 07:24
Edited Text

Nathan Lynn Sany

A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for graduation with Honors in Anthropology.

Whitman College

Certificate of Approval
This is to certify that the accompanying thesis by Nathan Lynn Sany has been accepted
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for graduation with Honors in Anthropology.

Jason Pribilsky

Whitman College
May 14, 2014


Table of Contents


Beyond Enlightenment Modernity: Narratives of Modernity


1. Past is Present: Four Stories of Outdated Practices in Modern Times


Trevor Gets in Touch with the Earth
Toby Shares his Ride
Crowdfunding a Trip Across the Country
Pickle to Bring the Family Together: Urban Homesteaders
The Narrative of Modernity and Blasts From the Past
Fragmented Modernity
Selective Memory and Tourism


2. The Internet’s Role in Forming Online Communities for Like-Minded Users


The Internet’s Potential
Online Communities Bring Like-Minded People Together
Enter the Couchsurfer
Facebook: An Offline to Online Community
From Strangers to Hosts: Online Hospitality Exchange Networks


3. The Context, Underpinnings, and Membership of


The Values of
Online Couchsurfing Profile Pages: A Tour
Hospitality Offline and In-Person: Groups, Meetups, Events, and Host/Guest
The Corporatization of
Couchsurfing as an Online Manifestation of Alternative Tourism


4. From Doug’s Online Profile to Hospitality: Building Nostalgic Community


Doug’s Worldview and MacCannellian Modernity and Premodernity
Nostalgia for the Past
Mission: Build an Intentional Community


5. Reading Profiles, Reading People


Suresh: Extravagance Downplayed
Auguste: Couchsurfers Read Between the Lines
Ignacio: Simulate Dialogue to Determine Sincerity
Authenticity Negotiated by Host/Guests and the Role of Affective Authenticity


6. When Hospitality Breaks Down: In Way of Critique


Scenario #1
Scenario #2



Scenario #3


7. Obfuscate the Exchange of Money to Better the World


Frugality Transforms A Sharing Economy
“I certainly can’t pay you back”: A Final Word from Doug


Appendix A


Appendix B


Appendix C






This thesis provides an anthropological investigation of hospitality arranged by, the largest hospitality exchange network on the Web. Couchsurfers, as
members of the couchsurfing network are called, are tourists who travel around the
world and stay for free with strangers with the tacit expectation that—perhaps
someday—they too will provide a proverbial “couch” for their host in the future.
Couchsurfing is essentially an iteration of “alternative tourism,” a form of travel that
seeks out authentic experiences that better the world instead of consumption and leisure
which are reportedly inexorable elements of modern mass tourism. In this thesis, I
combine personal couchsurfing experience, primary ethnographic research with
couchsurfers in the Pacific Northwest, and careful examination of secondary research
from the fields of mobilities, tourism studies, and anthropology to analyze the
couchsurfing community. I explore couchsurfing at many levels beyond tourism and
explore how the network exists at the intersection of modernity, virtual communities,
authenticity, digital representation, nostalgia, and sharing economies.
As a member of the couchsurfing community since 2010, I have thought critically
about the couchsurfing project whenever I have had the opportunity to couchsurf. Some
of the questions which drive this thesis—and my continued interest in couchsurfing
project—are as follows: How does a simultaneously online and offline network such as
couchsurfing function to refashion modernity for those who have become disillusioned
with the allegedly disconnected and fragmented lives that are a product of living in
“modernity”? How do couchsurfers reconcile their anxieties affiliated with life in the


Digital Era? Are all seven million members of the couchsurfing community interested in
the prospect of building a “global community” of “meaningful connections” as the
mission statement declares on Finally, are couchsurfing hospitality
experiences truly as utopian as they might seem?
I understand the couchsurfing community as one of many growing networks,
movements, and services which seek to act against the pernicious effects of modernity
and the Digital Era. I postulate that the couchsurfing community is a sharing economy,
which reengineers consumption by utilizing a peer-to-peer network that shares resources
such as physical space for lodging, time, and local travel knowledge.
But I do not wish to be the boy who “cried hipster.” Although in a similar age
bracket, couchsurfers are far from hipsters. Couchsurfers—along with members of other
contemporary movements—prioritize collaboration, sharing, like-mindedness,
connection to the land, and life “back in the day,” to combat the reportedly impersonal,
consumptive, commercial, fragmenting, and digitally isolating aspects of modernity
today. The movements to which I allude mobilize over the Internet, thus complicating
matters further. The Internet—as well as other connective digital technologies—is
sometimes feared as yet another modern invention which further widens the fissures
formed by modernity. The central contradiction here is that the Internet also allows for
these movements against an atomizing modernity.

Beyond Enlightenment Modernity: Narratives of Modernity
Before I generalize further, I find it necessary to pin down the concepts of
modernity utilized in this thesis. In anthropology and other disciplines, modernity has


been theorized as a narrative, plight, global flow, improvement, imaginary, and historical
concept. Every theorist seems to have a slightly different definition of modernity
(Ardener 1985; Hubinger 1997; Hodgson 2001:2). Nonetheless, modernity has been
categorized into neat binaries such as past/present (Stewart 1993:x; Appadurai 1996:2-3;
Wagner 2012:22-23) utopian/dystopian (Alexander 2013:153), progress/backwardness
(Hubinger 1997), and modern/traditional (Frow 1991; Hubinger 1997:529).
Scholars such as anthropologist Arjun Appadurai have discussed the origins of
these binaries through an exploration of various forefathers of Western social science—
Comte, Marx, Tönnies, Weber, and Durkheim, all of whom theorized the arrival of
modernity as a single “modern moment” in which there was a sudden “break between
past and present” (Appadurai 1996:2-3). By contrast, Appadurai argues that
understanding “global cultural flows”1—which are affected by modernity—requires the
idea of the imaginary to assess imagined communities (Anderson 2006), multiple
modernities (see Thomassen 2012), and the “constructed landscape of collective
aspirations” (Appadurai 1996:31). Appadurai evokes a fluid understanding of time and
space which is relevant to how my informants formed narratives of alternative
modernities. My informants existed in “imagined worlds,” thereby allowing for a chance
to “contest and sometimes even subvert the imagined worlds of the official mind and of
the entrepreneurial mentality that surround them” (Appadurai 2001:589). Although an
“imagined world” seems to imply a nonexistent location, my informants existed in time
and space and participated in modernity in ways that ran contrary to the dominant
commercialized experience of late capitalism. Even though they could not entirely live
“Ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, financescapes, and ideoscapes” are Appadurai’s five
unique “global cultural flows” (Appadurai 1996:33).



outside of the dominant narrative of modernity, couchsurfers refashioned modernity—as
an alienated, commercialized, disconnected, and insincere era—by sharing resources and
interacting in what they perceived to be “meaningful” ways.
From a historical perspective, the “project of Modernity” emerged within the
European Enlightenment and focused on the use of rational, scientific thought to
“liberate people from ‘irrational’ beliefs and superstitions that impeded their
emancipation and progress as human beings” (Hodgson 2001:3). Hodgson asserts that
“progress” was also closely tied to various imperial missions of the West and ideas
emanating out of modernization theories of the post World War II era; indeed, much
economic and social development of “underdeveloped” nations has occurred over the
past three centuries (Hodgson 2001:4).
As I learned more about the couchsurfing community, I discovered that
couchsurfers’ narratives of modernity did not follow the “global hegemony of the
Enlightenment version of Modernity” (Hodgson 2001:7). Even though this version helps
to tether us historically, this thesis concentrates on alternative narratives of modernity as
understood by members of the couchsurfing community. That is to say, I understand
modernity as an on-going social process in which individuals shape the future—in the
present—by renegotiation of elements of the past (Hodgson 2001:8).2 Thus, I argue that
modernity is reproduced as a set of nostalgic modernities (see Eisenstadt 2000).
Collectives of individuals continuously contest, construct, imagine, and reorder
alternative modernities to Enlightenment modernity. These modernities redefine
hegemonic ideologies of progress and profit, sometimes prioritizing “communal sharing
I am grateful to Dorothy L. Hodgson for her work which names this phenomenon the “production
of modernities” (Hodgson 2001:7).



rather than individual profit” (Hodgson 2001:7). The couchsurfing network fits this
model since it strives to decommercialize hospitality through the use of an online and
offline peer-to-peer network.
In the case of the couchsurfing community, I discovered that nostalgia was
central to formulating alternative modernities contrary to the preexisting progress-centric
model. Like Stacy Burton, author of Travel Narrative and the Ends of Modernity, my
informants engaged in “a practice intrinsic to modern life: to ‘have’ nostalgia is to ‘be’
modern” (Burton 2014:87). From my interviews and interactions with informants, I
identified four main narratives of modernity that positioned couchsurfing as a remedy to
common issues of modern life:3
1) Online social networking technologies have rendered society’s ability to
communicate offline (i.e. face-to-face) moribund. We are transitioning into a
society defined by impersonal online connections. Couchsurfing revives the
spirit of community for society by slowly sharing the message that we can still
connect like we once did “back in the day.”
2) Self-representation online (e.g., public profile pages) fragments the identities
of users (Turkle 1999:643-644) by compressing them into virtual artifacts. In
sum, the Internet is yet another iteration of the anonymity and insincerity of
modernity. But, through the practice of couchsurfing, members revive their
hope in strangers by meeting amiable couchsurfers that they first encountered
as online profile pages on
3) Society is obsessed with consumption, and participation in the couchsurfing
community reminds members that money does not have to be at the
forefront of our interactions. By decentralizing money from our lives,
couchsurfers function within an economy based on respect and love.
4) Late capitalism—as a product of modernity—encourages society to upgrade,
spend, and consume with no end in sight. The couchsurfing community
breaks this pattern because couchsurfing is fundamentally about sharing
resources of physical space (i.e. one’s home) and time. By forbidding the use
of money to compensate couchsurfing hosts for their arrangements of
hospitality, the couchsurfing community produces a form of a
decommercialized modernity.
From this point forward “narrative of Modernity” refers to the story of modernity which grew from
the Enlightenment. On the other hand, “narratives of modernity” correspond to alternative
modernities as understood by my informants.



While these narratives of modernities feature dimensions of modern society such as
consumptive practices, connections with strangers, social intimacy, and the inauthenticity
of online representations, they share something bigger: a value system. The morals within
the couchsurfing value system are based on nostalgia, collaboration, and interpersonal
connection. These topics will reverberate throughout the forthcoming chapters of this

In Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method, anthropologist Tom
Boellstorff and his colleagues propose that ethnographers working in computer-mediated
communities consider conducting offline interviews to supplement their studies of
virtual worlds. The authors suggest that avatars, screen names, and online profiles alone
cannot represent or capture human subjects or their agency within online communities
(Boellstorff et al. 2012:136-142). During my research, I operated under this assumption
and considered the performativity and persona of online posts as only one dimension of
the couchsurfing community. Therefore, after I sent messages to couchsurfers and asked
if they were interested in being interviewed, I sifted through their public profile pages,
analyzed references left by other members of the network, and dug through archived
forum posts of interest-based groups that they had joined. Then I compared
couchsurfers’ online identities to how they act in the non-virtual world.


I conceive of couchsurfing profile pages as a virtual breadcrumb trail for other
couchsurfers to follow toward a sense of legitimacy or fakery toward the page, depending
on how the crumbs are scattered.
In total, I interviewed five couchsurfers, two “voluntourists” (see chapter three),
and two organic gardeners (chapter one). I prearranged a handful of questions for my
interviews but allowed for our conversations to be guided by the topics about which
informants were most passionate (see Appendix A for an example of one of my
interview guides). The names that I have chosen to represent individual informants have
been replaced by pseudonyms that correspond to their nationality.
Due to the multilocality of the couchsurfing community (as both an international
and online/offline phenomenon), my methodology reflects an interest to theorize the
nature of network-wide trends through close examination of individual, localized
couchsurfing exchanges (Germann Molz 2012:36). I conducted interviews in three
couchsurfing hubs of the Pacific Northwest: Seattle, Boise, and Portland.4

By narrowing my research to only three states, I admit that I inevitably expose regional variations of
the American couchsurfing community. However, an analysis of regional differences is beyond the
scope of my thesis.



1. Past is Present: Four Stories of Outdated Practices in Modern Times

Trevor Gets in Touch with the Earth
Trevor’s girlfriend emailed him a link to the organic farm’s Facebook page and he
was immediately smitten by picturesque images of animals in green pastures as well as
the “romantic idea of getting back to [his] my roots.” He submitted an application to
volunteer on the WWOOF farm. Known as Worldwide Opportunities on Organic
Farms or Willing Workers on Organic Farms, the WWOOFing movement organizes
placement of volunteers to tend organic farms around the world. Volunteers are drawn
to the WWOOFing movement out of their interest to travel abroad, learn about food
systems, and receive room and board in exchange for their labor.
After his application was accepted, Trevor joined a team of other young
volunteers-turned-farmers and began to work ten-hour days, six days a week to maintain
the farm’s biodynamic agricultural systems. What was provided for him in exchange for
so much labor? On top of room and board, Trevor told me that, “one of the biggest
rewards is what we learn from each other when we weed next to each other for three
hours at a time.” At Trevor’s farm, WWOOFers eat every meal of the day together and
frequently hang out together on their single day off per week.
He was certain that his stint on the farm would only last as long as it took for him
to apply to graduate school programs: 3 months. Yet over a year later, the novelty of
“getting his hands dirty” and being a part of a communal living arrangement has still not
worn off.


Trevor has worked his way up the WOOFFer volunteer ladder; he is now the
farm’s Volunteer Coordinator. He wagers that he has looked at about 400 applications
(six per week for 80 weeks) from chiefly “19 to 21-year-old females who are vegetarian.”
More impressive still is the fact that three-fourths of the applications reflect a similar
aspiration: an opportunity to “go back to the land.”

Toby Shares his Ride
In Pasadena, California, an Uber driver checks his iPhone to view a text
notification from Uber that tells him there will be a heavy demand for rides in the next
few days. The text makes sense—there’s supposed to be a big conference in downtown
so Toby decides that it’s a good weekend to drive.
Toby prides himself on being a reliable Uber driver; he hopes that reviews
posted to his online Uber profile by clients reflect his safe driving and dependability to
other users. Moreover, his favorable reviews in the Uber community have the potential
to earn him more rides which, in turn, will net a larger paycheck.
Toby chooses his own hours since he only drives for Uber part-time. On most
days, he can be found teaching physical education at a nearby middle school. But, when
he drives on long weekends during breaks in the school calendar, he sees his part-time
job with Uber as an opportunity to make an extra paycheck and meet interesting people
in the process. And, better yet, he’s employed by Uber to share a close to his heart
resource with passengers: his lime green Ford Fiesta, which he has affectionately
nicknamed Kermit. During the holiday season, Kermit is redubbed the Grinch.


Most Uber users are on the opposite side of the exchange from Toby—they are
passengers. Uber is part of a larger movement of Transportation Network Companies,
which connect passengers with drivers who use their personal vehicles as taxis. When
passengers request an Uber vehicle to pick them up, they must only open their
smartphone Uber app. Uber accounts link to passengers’ debit accounts so that no
physical money changes hands during an Uber rideshare. The service only functions in
certain urban areas because local governments and Uber butt heads about the
unregulated and untaxed side of the service, which is often thought to take away from
the established taxi industry.
For the most part, passengers are not concerned about Uber’s controversy, and
are attracted to its sleek, intuitive interface on their smartphones. As long as Toby’s
driver rating stays up—five out of five stars would be perfect—he has few complaints,
too. So, what is one of his concerns with the service so far? He admits that his console
mounted bowl of candy frequently runs low; apparently Uber passengers have a sweet

Crowdfunding a Trip Across the Country
Faced with an opportunity to compete in the most competitive Ultimate Frisbee
tournament in the nation—the Easterns Invite in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina—
the Whitman College Sweets team was left with a choice: scramble to fundraise enough
money to fly the team across the country or turn down the invitation. After talking
through some fundraising ideas, the team decided to start a GoFundMe webpage and see


what the players’ extended networks would be willing to donate. In other words, the
team digitized its informal fundraising efforts., but one example of an assortment of “crowdfunding” websites,
makes up a “crowd-driven investment model that decentralizes finance” (Botsman 2013).
The “crowd” refers to online backers who donate to a cause to reach a set fundraising
goal. Instead of pitching a project to investors or writing grant applications,
crowdfunding utilizes social media to spread the message of why a project needs backers’
help (Park 2012). Crowdfunding follows traditional processes of asking Web users who
might have a stake in the project for donations. It is sometimes surprising to see a
project receive hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet, time and time again, a “global
village” (McLuhan 1962) of supportive, charitable, and like-minded Web users emerges
from the dark recesses of the online virtual world to chip in.5
Over the course of eight weeks, family, friends, professors, past teammates, and
members of the international Ultimate community donated over $5,000 in increments as
small as $15, and as large as $1,000. As full-time students, the members of the team
would not have been able to adequately fundraise such a large sum of money by selling
tamales or washing cars. The Internet saved the day by allowing the team to tap into the
generosity of loved ones around the world when in-person appeals were not an option.
GoFundMe provided the online platform for which to organize donations.

Altruism and love inspired donors to give to the Whitman College Sweets but other crowdfunding
websites, such as Kickstarter, offer prizes of all shapes and sizes to donors who donate over certain
amounts of money.



Pickle to Bring the Family Together: Urban Homesteaders
It’s variously called New Domesticity (Matchmar 2013) or urban homesteading.
Perhaps you have seen this movement mocked in scenes from Independent Film
Channel’s Portlandia. In any event, a growing population of chiefly 20-something, collegeeducated urbanites has become disillusioned with modernity, which motivates them hark
back to life as it may have been on the prairie without completely giving up their
smartphones or lattes.
An excerpt from a step-by-step guide to urban/suburban homesteading illustrates
common methods to move towards a nostalgic, sustainable lifestyle: “Put in a garden;
Compost; Become a Bee Keeper; Landscape with Edibles; Consider Chickens; Learn
How to Can and Preserve; Keep Worms” (Winger 2011). Although eccentric, Homeward
Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity by Emily Matchmar provides not so
farfetched examples of women attempting to reconnect to their homes: “It’s the MBA
who quits her corporate gig to downsize to a solar-powered renovated barn. It’s the
twentysomething New Yorker who spends her evenings blogging about her latest baking
project rather than hitting the clubs” (Matchmar 2013:12).6
The motivations for individuals’ transition away from apparently fulfilling
lifestyles toward something simpler are varied. In general, urban homesteaders are drawn
to the prospect of self-sufficiency, an increased connection with their children, doing
their part to combat global climate change, separating themselves from mainstream and
commercialized food systems, sustainable living (Matchmar 2013).

Urban homesteading does not simply rehash counter cultures of the sixties. Alternatively, it
refashions modernity by utilizing technology (e.g., blogs and smartphone apps) to learn how to take
up homesteader practices without the frustration of learning from square one.



As an urban homesteader, the intimacy and connectedness of the homestead is
not out of reach. Indeed, these individuals “long for a more authentic, meaningful life in
an economically and environmentally uncertain world” (Matchmar 2013:5). Urban
homesteaders find solidarity online; indeed, they rely on virtual communities of their kin
(on websites such as Etsy, Pinterest, message boards, and Facebook groups) to share
tips, methods, and stories for making cheese or pickling fresh cucumbers from the
garden out back.

The Narrative of Modernity and Blasts From the Past
Organic farming, peer-to-peer taxi services, crowdfunding, and urban
homesteading. These vignettes highlight the intersection of technology, modernity, and
nostalgia in 21st century America. In a nutshell, small populations of young, socially and
environmentally minded Americans are turning to alternative, collaborative, and shared
modes of living. In the eyes of these populations, resources are better shared than
personally consumed (Botsman and Rogers:xix). By circumventing capitalistic systems of
living, proponents of “re-enchanting modernity” (Germann Molz 2012:130) connect on
a human-to-human level with like-minded people so that commercial services are no
longer the focal point of their exchanges.

Fragmented Modernity
Indeed, as in the words of John Taylor, these populations accept the
contemporary, Digital Era as “the tragic experience of modernity” (Taylor 2001:10).
Perhaps movements which offer alternatives to modernity “represent an earlier stage of


evolution,” which is more authentic than our current stage (Picard 2013:18). A “pure
primitive [human]” connection is the object of these populations’ desire, which offers “a
parallel story to the alienation from nature, fragmentation, and loss [found in the
narrative of Modernity]” (Taylor 2001:10). Does an “authentic experience” exist in a
reportedly fragmented, commoditized, isolated, and insincere modern world?
At the heart of this question is what has been lost in the dominant narrative of
modernity. As explained in the previous chapter, narratives of modernity involve
imagination as well as nostalgia. To better understand how nostalgia functions alongside
what is “lost” to nostalgia, let us replace “the modern consciousness” with “WWOOF
farmers” or “Uber drivers” in this quotation:
Enamoured by the distance of authenticity, the modern consciousness is instilled
with a simultaneous feeling of lack and desire erupting from a sense of loss felt
within ‘our’ world of mass culture and industrialization, and giving rise to
possibilities of redemption through contact with the naturally, spiritually, and
culturally ‘unspoilt.’ (Taylor 2001:10)
It is perhaps little wonder that populations of 20-somethings rejecting elements of
modernity gravitate toward the latter part of this reflection. That is to say, even though
alienating and commodifying effects of modernity may exist, participation in movements
that create “contact with … culturally ‘unspoilt’” (Taylor 2001:10) peoples help counter
the ill effects of modernity. In other words, action takes priority over apathetically
accepting that modernity has spoiled their chances at authentic connections to the Earth
and like-minded individuals.
It should be reiterated that the prototypical examples of individuals “reenchanting modernity” utilized the Internet’s connective potential to join networks,
communities, and organizations of like-minded people who were also fearful of the


decaying effects endemic to modernity. Indeed, a contradiction is central to how these
individuals access the “authentic” face of modernity. Anxieties concerning
misrepresentation, insincerity, commodification, and artificiality flood discussions of
Internet-mediated communication (see chapter two). Yet, simultaneously, connective
online technologies are seen as an opportunity to revive “real” connections because likeminded opponents of modernity can gather.
Clearly, the relationship between the Internet—and, by extension, online
communities—and those who seek a “re-enchanted modernity” is tumultuous. However,
for now, the straightforward element to the relationship is as follows: the Internet is not
held in contempt because it serves as a virtual location to selectively remember and
mobilize movements that work against “the tragic experience of modernity” (Taylor

Selective Memory and Tourism
Until now, I have only briefly mentioned the role of memory and imagination in
the narratives of modernity. Indeed, there is a nostalgic longing for the social intimacy
and non-commercialized nature of pre-modernity. The theme of nostalgia weaves itself
in and out of the chapter of this thesis. Due to the role of nostalgia in the chapters which
follow, I now introduce my theoretical angle regarding memory.
In his influential book Liquid Love, Polish social theorist Zygmunt Bauman
addresses the fluctuation of the past in how memory accesses it:
Memory selects, and interprets – and what is to be selected and how it needs to be
interpreted is a moot matter and an object of continuous contention. The


resurrection of the past, keeping it alive, can only be attained through the active, choosing,
reprocessing and recycling, work of memory. (Bauman 2003:87, emphasis added)
In the context of contemporary movements that skirt around the devastating hegemonic,
progress-centric narrative of modernity, “the resurrection of the past” takes form in how
the movements appreciate the simplicity, pooling of resources, connectedness of premodern times. Even though 20-somethings cannot be certain of the realities (or
existence) of “authentic” times before modernity, they elect to remember elements of the
past that are, to them, idyllic.
Whereas urban homesteading and WWOOFing constitute radical lifestyle
changes to access the nostalgic past, opportunities exist on the milder side of the
spectrum. Participation in peer-to-peer transportation networks (as a passenger) and
crowdfunding ventures (as one of hundreds of funders) could span only a matter of
minutes. In this sense, as Bauman states, “keeping the past alive” is a short-lived affair.
More committed to “re-enchanting modernity” than a donation to a crowdfunded
project yet requiring less of an overhaul than restocking one’s fridge with foods only
grown out back on the permaculture homestead, engaging in tourism emerges in the
middle of the spectrum and offers a more sustained encounter with nostalgia.
Tourism is extraordinary7 in that travel temporarily suspends—or perhaps only
muddles—the inauthenticity, consumerism, and disconnectedness which are often
associated with modernity. (Not all tourism falls under this category; see chapter three.)
Tourists may consider their travels as an opportune moment to connect with nostalgic

I credit John Urry with the distinction between ordinary/extraordinary in tourism. However, my
understanding deviates from his as I, unlike Urry, am not interested in “unique objects” (Urry
2002:13) nor how locations are reproduced under the tourist gaze. Still, the “basic binary division
between the ordinary/everyday and the extraordinary” are good to think with (Urry 2002:12).


locales, which represent something separate from everyday life. Tourists travel “as a
means of understanding modernity’s global reach through observing its irruptions and
metamorphoses abroad” (Wagner 2014:89).
And yet tourism is impermanent. One travels and then finally returns to home.
Therefore, tourism is liminal because tourism exists between everyday affairs and those
which are out of the ordinary (Turner 1973; Graburn 1989). Nina Wang judges tourism
as an escape from the everyday patterns of modern life:
Tourism is thus regarded as a simpler, freer, more spontaneous, more authentic,
or less serious, less utilitarian, and romantic, lifestyle which enables people to
keep a distance from, or transcend, daily lives. (Wang 1999:360)
Wang seems to encompass all the reported benefits of a “re-enchanted modernity”
which I have sought to draw out from both the introductory vignettes and subsequent
discussion: decentralization of the role of money, authenticity, communality, freedom,
interconnectedness, living off the land, community building, and genuineness. Yet
Wang’s explanation of tourism fails to express the role of the Digital Era and, more
specifically still, the Internet, in the equation.
In the following chapter, I will pick up where Wang left off by evaluating early
predictions about how the Internet would exacerbate—or contrastingly, dispel—the
impersonal and commercial pitfalls associated with the dominant narrative of modernity.


2. The Internet’s Role in Forming Online Communities for Like-Minded Users

The Internet’s Potential
In the late 1980s, just before the Internet boom of the early 1990s, scholars were
unsure of the future of the World Wide Web. Would new connective technologies bring
people together in unforeseeable ways or would the Internet split humankind into
factions, pitted against each other? Would online connections strip humans of their
ability to interact in-person? Would friendship with machines or cyborgs fill the role of
inherently authentic and genuine relations with friends in the non-virtual world? Perhaps
the questions asked by academics were not as polarizing nor Huxleyan as my own.
However, it is safe that the resounding sentiment was that of uncertainty. In this section,
I foreground a diversity of opinions which pertain to life in an interconnected world.
On one hand, cynics bashed the Internet and claimed that it would give rise to
future generations who were too concerned with their computer screens to pay attention
to the corporeal world. Progressive political columnist Jim Hightower cautioned against
believing in the shininess of the Internet: “While all this razzle-dazzle connects us
electronically, it disconnects us from each other, having us ‘interfacing’ more with
computers and TV screens than looking the face of our fellow human beings.”8
In the late 1990s, a widely cited study found that new Internet users were subject
to negative side effects on their psychological health (Kraut et al. 1998). The study drew
a connection between television and the Internet, later adding that the Internet is more

Jim Hightower, “Roadkill on the information superhighway,” April 22, 1994,


interpersonal than television: “Like watching television, using a home computer and
Internet generally imply physical inactivity and limited face-to-face social interaction”
(Kraut et al. 1998:1019). Sproull and Kiesler were split about whether the popularity of
email—and the increased flow of information involved in the process—would cause
beneficial or damaging “uninhibited [group brainstorming] behavior” in the workplace
(Sproull and Kiesler 1986:1510).
The optimistic scholars of the Internet claimed that the Web had the potential to
break down barriers and form global communities (Tyler 2002:200-202). Rheingold was
one of these scholars; he speculated that the World Wide Web had the potential to level
the playing field between peoples of the world (Rheingold 1994). In this model, the
virtual world would be defined by democracy, fairness, and camaraderie despite
differences between members.
The global (and virtual) village that Rheingold theorized would only be attainable
by the careful use of the Internet, which was heralded by other scholars to be the
ultimate equalizer of preexisting inequalities of all shapes and sizes. Social psychologist
Sara Kiesler reported in the Harvard Business Review that, "computer-mediated
communications can break down hierarchical and departmental barriers, standard
operating procedures, and organizational norms” (Kiesler 1986). Online instant
messaging—often critiqued as one of the many epicenters for cyberbullying (Kowalski et
al. 2012; Kowalski et al. 2014)—has even been hailed as a helpful method for socially
hesitant adolescents to acquire confidence, which will help them partake in face-to-face
interaction (Morgan and Cotten 2003; Valkenburg and Peter 2007). Online relationships


were speculated to become more “fleeting and transient,” but they would also retain the
intensity of in-person social intimacy (Wittel 2001:51).
As the previous paragraphs intend to show, initial critics of the Internet were
particularly harsh in comparison to discussions of the Internet which came in the
decades which followed. Loader and Dutton sum up the contemporary sentiment
concerning the Internet’s potential as it stands now. They posit that the Internet “is no
longer a futuristic innovation that might shape social and economic development, but a
clearly central aspect of contemporary network societies” (Loader and Dutton 2012:610).
One need not look any further than Facebook to confirm that online social
networking has become a central part of contemporary cultural expression and
communication. 97 million photos are posted per day along with 60 million status
updates (Miller 2011:ix). In December of 2013, 757 million users visited Facebook per
day (Facebook 2014). The statistics reveal that online solidarity—in the form of virtual
communities—is no longer a surprising modern marvel but rather a daily occurrence in
network societies. And, even though Facebook users might lack face-to-face interaction
once they have “added” one another, it has not limited Internet users from taking their
connections offline and into the corporeal world.
Online communities form so that like-minded peoples can “gather” and feel
solidarity even if they do not have the capital necessary to travel across the earth to visit
each other in their homes. Moreover, the feeling of unity has become commonplace
because connecting with others with like interests, passions, and raisons d’être is as easy as
a search on Google or a social networking website. In other words, the Internet has


become a meeting place in network societies.9 But for some Internet users, online
cohesion is not enough—they feel it necessary to take their virtual connections to the
real world.
Solidarity found in virtual communities can be built on mutual belief in
ideologies, rights, or even hobbies. Let us take the modern tourist to serve as an example.
If two tourists share the same set of values concerning hospitality and travel but live in
opposite hemispheres, will they ever manage to feel united? In this case, the Internet
solves the problem: an online community—such as an online hospitality exchange
network—gives them a place to fraternize. Before I discuss the nature of online
communities for tourists, I first outline the norms of traditional social networking in
order to demonstrate how online hospitality exchange networks differ from them. The
following section discusses how one might login and befriend others on a social
networking website such as Facebook. In short order, I am interested in how alternative
tourists log into online communities.

Online Communities Bring Like-Minded People Together
One of the easiest ways for Internet users to identify an online community that
they would like to join is by creating a personal profile page and navigating a social
networking website. The dominant method for social networking websites to confirm
offline friendships is to create virtual manifestations of the friendships online. Normally,
this pattern would occur on social networking services like Facebook.

Admittedly, my analysis is positive; this is not to say that divisions have ceased to exist online. Such
rifts will receive attention in the final chapters of this thesis.



At the same time, it is possible for Internet users to join online communities
based on their shared interests. “Social networking” often connotes specific websites
such as Facebook, but one might communicate on online message boards, forums,
guilds, or groups and feel a similar sense of solidarity which Facebook affords users.
These websites bring users together with a common set of interests, passion, ideologies,
hobbies, values, or beliefs.
The Baby Boomer can serve as an example of a newcomer to social networking.
She might wish to rekindle friendships with fellow classmates from her high school days.
Postcards or emails may have been sent back and forth throughout the years apart but
Facebook serves as a stable point of contact to not only share stories but also media with
her classmates. Her link to the past requires an Internet connection.
Alternatively, here is an example of a social networking experience based on a
common interest. Let’s say that a retired public school teacher wishes to begin collecting
edible roots as a hobby. He may only have to join a message board for edible root
foragers who specialize in tubers of the Pacific Northwest. Surely a novice root forager
would learn a thing or two from the seasoned veterans who are part of the online
community. The beginner might be lent a helping hand from the experts because they
are all members of the same online collective.
Examples of both the Baby Boomer and the root foraging neophyte speak to an
interest in reviving an element of the past—friendships from high school and traditions
that may have originated from first peoples of the region, respectively. With the help of
the Internet, they have access to an abundance of information (e.g. friends’ whereabouts
and updates from their lives) and support (e.g. encouragement to continue to forage)


which lead to solidarity. I do not mean to imply that the Baby Boomer and retired school
teacher would be lost without the Internet; there are still a host of reference and research
tools available but they would be considered obsolete in the Digital Era.

Enter the Couchsurfer
I now briefly introduce what could be considered yet another stereotypical
illustration of an individual who seeks out a connection to the past. But, in this case, the
couchsurfer is the main character of my research. Drawing from both the Baby Boomer
on Facebook and the root forager, the couchsurfer hails from a population which
combines social networking—in the Facebook sense of the word—with shared touristic
ideologies as well as similar narratives of modernity. Couchsurfers exist on online
hospitality exchange networks and, by and large, would categorize themselves as
alternative tourists (see the next chapter for a prolonged discussion of alternative
tourism). Although great variation abounds within the couchsurfing community, these
individuals are members of the network due to their shared disillusionment with status of
mass tourism and modern society along with their enthusiasm for hospitality mediated by
the Internet. Broadly speaking, the primary ideology at play here is that of rejecting
market-based, mass tourism in exchange for morally conscious forms of travel (Germann
Molz 2013a; Picard 2013:21). Couchsurfers would rather base their travel experiences on
sharing resources, space, hospitality, time, and localized knowledge. In their eyes, this
practices stands contrary to continuing to nurture the reportedly capitalistic and
oppressive beast, otherwise known as mass tourism.


On the Internet, such social networking services that unite travelers with like
values are known as online hospitality exchange networks. Sociologist Jennie Germann
Molz, who specializes in the intersection of mobilities, tourism, and technology, argues
that hospitality exchange networks could potentially resurrect some of the intended
democratizing expectations of the Internet proposed in the early 1990s (2012:129;
2013a:224; 2013b:54). She eloquently states that such websites intend to “hark back to
the early principles of non-commercial, grassroots, democratic peer-to-peer
communication and community, thus fulfilling the original utopian promise of the
Internet to unite strangers across geographic and cultural divides and to form a truly
global community” (Germann Molz 2013b:54).
Indeed, online hospitality exchange networks aim to breath new life into elements
of modern life which may have been left behind in the Digital Era. These websites seek
to highlight all things meaningful, genuine, authentic, intimate, and hospitable while
simultaneously turning a blind eye to—not to be mistaken with “eliminating”— the
commodifying, insincere, and artificial pitfalls associated with social networking practices
and modern network societies as a whole. In other words, online hospitality exchange
networks such as privilege “real” connections with other tourists. To
glean how online hospitality exchange networks compare to traditional social networking
services, I discuss normative “friending” practices on Facebook.

Facebook: An Offline to Online Community
There is no single set of rules, norms, and behaviors to which all Facebook users
abide, chiefly because of the great diversity and breadth of the Facebook online


community. Be that as it may, Facebook is organized in a matter that favors certain
friendship patterns over others. The following is an attempt to articulate the nature of
dominant “friending practices” on Facebook. By providing a sense of the logic behind
dominant Facebook “friending” paradigms, I find it easier to differentiate between
Facebook—which generally functions to create digital renditions of users’ social lives in
the form of friend lists—and online hospitality exchange networks. I go on to argue that
Facebook stands in opposition to online hospitality exchange networks, which Paula
Bialski defines as an example of “offline-to-online” technologies (Bialski 2013).
To “add a friend” on Facebook, one must possess previous knowledge about the
individuals whose profile pages they wish to find. Without the ability to spell the first and
last name of Facebook users who they wish to “friend,” users greatly lower their chances
of successfully finding the correct person. Even if Facebook users searching for the
friends who they know in real life believe that they have singled out the their friends’
profile pages, they must often pick between many users with the same first and last
name. For Facebook users to “add” the intended person (instead of a stranger) with the
same name, they crosscheck with other information listed on Facebook that will help
narrow down their search. Once Facebook users see a user’s profile picture, hometown,
or school/work/city network,10 they can use these identifiers to “add” the correct person
to their group of Facebook friends. The process of identifying, confirming, and adding a
Facebook friend is streamlined if both Facebook users know each other in the physical

I specify these three characteristics because they commonly left as “public” for any Internet user to
access. In other words, this information does not specify much about users as individuals, which
makes these identifiers safer and more anonymous.



The Facebook community is intended to virtualize relationships that were first
cultivated in the physical world.11 Many scholars and studies corroborate the in-person to
virtual direction of Facebook (Wellman et al. 2002; Donath and boyd 2004; Kavanaugh
et al. 2005; Lampe et al. 2006; Ellison et al. 2007; Ellison and boyd 2008; McClard and
Anderson 2008; Zhao et al. 2008; Dotan and Zaphiris 2010; Ellison et al. 2011). This is
not to say that users transfer carbon copies of their identities to Facebook when they
make a profile; indeed, self-representation on profiles is a central topic in studies of
online social networking.
The previous step-by-step experience of “adding” Facebook friends reveals that
some users must resort to cyber sleuthing to add a connection to their friend lists. If
“adding” a friend calls for detective work on the part of the instigator of Facebook
friendship, what does that say about the relationship that is being confirmed through
online friendship? One might conjecture that such a friendship is unhealthy, perhaps a
tarnish in a user’s social life. Here Facebook’s customizable privacy settings come into
play; users may modify their settings to manage which connections make it—and which
do not have access to—their friend lists. In turn, some friends from the non-virtual
world do not make the cut and are essentially weeded out. Facebook users maintain
control of how their social life is represented online. Kate Raynes-Goldie argues that
interpersonal privacy (in the form of what information other Facebook users may
access), which she calls “social privacy,” is on the minds of more Facebook users than
“institutional privacy,” relating to how Facebook, as a company, logs users’ personal

I concede that I privilege one formulation of Facebook friendship in this section. “Adding”
another Facebook user because of their common “Likes” or music preferences is possible but less
likely compared to “friending” a virtual representation of an in-person acquaintance or friend.



information (Raynes-Goldie 2010).
Manipulating Facebook’s privacy settings allows users to customize their social
lives by setting up virtual boundaries to connect with in-person friends and keep
unfavorable acquaintances on the outside of their online social circles. danah boyd claims
that the shifting nature of online boundaries—compared to physical boundaries in
offline settings—challenges Internet users’ assumptions about interacting online
(2008:14). boyd’s idea is relevant to Facebook due to the frequent software, website
design, and user interface updates which modify how users connect on Facebook while
still retaining a sense of privacy. For example, the News Feed feature was released in
2006, which sought to revolutionize how users viewed each other’s activity on Facebook
by aggregating the data on users’ home pages, subsequently sparking controversy about
the invasion of privacy (boyd 2008; Hoadley et al. 2010; Hull et al. 2011).
In essence, those who “friend” each other on Facebook are not strangers. Rather,
friend lists may be described as manicured representations of users’ real-life social lives.
Before validating an offline friendship by “adding” each other on Facebook, individuals
may have known each other for years. At the very least, each member of a Facebook
friendship is familiar with one another. Facebook users intentionally connect with a
prospective Facebook friend who thus intentionally accepts the instigator of contact’s
friendship request. Serendipity has little role in offline to online networks such as
It must not be forgotten that intentionality also plays a role in how Facebook
users are strategically ignored as part of the network. Privacy settings, like rejecting a
friend request, push some Facebook users to the peripheries of the offline to online


network. This act is best visualized in boyd’s terms. In spite of their virtual nature,
Facebook’s online boundaries (in the form of privacy settings and dominant “friending”
practices) still retain their integrity, consequently barring contact between some
Facebook users.
Like Facebook, online hospitality exchange networks also challenge boundaries.
However, instead of running up against institutionally imposed boundaries that concern
matters such as privacy, the boundaries of online hospitality exchange take on new
meaning and correspond to many more social phenomena. The boundary between
host/guest becomes blurred (“Are these people strangers, friends, peers, or guests?”),
participating in these online communities transcends virtual worlds, and trusting other
members of these communities requires members to draw from knowledge which they
have acquired in online and offline worlds. While I run the risk of oversimplifying the
practice of participating in online hospitality exchange networks, these networks
commonly transcend virtual boundaries so that members communicate, connect, and
perform hospitality in real-life settings after meeting online.

From Strangers to Hosts: Online Hospitality Exchange Networks
Whereas social networking websites like Facebook connect preexisting contacts
on the Internet, online hospitality exchange networks connect like-minded strangers and
with the intended goal of putting them into arrangements of in-person hospitality.
Virtual connections migrate from online communities to members’ living rooms in
which they receive hospitality from fellow members of the online hospitality exchange


In this section, I will focus on the role of strangers in hospitality exchange
networks by arguing that shared ideologies turn strangers into “possible connections.” A
central motivation for joining online hospitality exchange networks is meeting new
people. But are these people to be trusted? David Picard’s poignant question alludes to
the reservations—which some might see as shortcomings—of online hospitality
exchange networks: “Why would people let complete strangers stay in their houses, often
leaving them with the keys and not charging them a penny?” (2013:13).
First and foremost, the primary objective of online hospitality exchange networks
is to provide hospitality for other members who happen to be traveling. Members of
these networks do not pay to stay with hosts; instead they are implicitly expected to
return the favor of hospitality to other members in the future.
By joining online hospitality exchange networks, many members seek to cut their
ties from the mainstream tourism industry (Picard 2013). They may question the logic of
mass tourism with questions such as this: Why book a tour or contract a travel agent
when direct communication with enthusiastic international hosts and guides is possible
online (Picard 2013:12-13)? Instead of relying on figures of touristic authority like travel
agents, “computer-mediated hospitality generates new realms of hospitality and tourism
where hosts and guests interact directly,” so that members can pool their knowledge,
resources, and energy to create travel arrangements beyond the stranglehold of
commercialized mass tourism (Picard 2013:13).
But what is shared during a normal hospitality exchange for members of these
networks? Paula Bialski provides an overview of the diversity of hosting arrangements
offered up by members of online hospitality exchange networks:


These networks are internet-based social networks of thousands of individuals
who use an online space to search out accommodation in the home of another
network-member. Instead of staying at a hotel or hostel, the members of this
virtual community prefer to encounter individuals online who are willing to host
them in their home, apartment, or … a barn. (Bialski 2012:16)
What this passage hints at—but does not explicitly state—is the fact that members not
only desire alternative accommodation arrangements, but also desire meeting new people.
(My primary research confirmed that interpersonal connection—via meeting “real”
people—was the chief motivation for online hospitality exchange network members to
participate in the community.) Online hospitality exchange networks tend to attract
individuals who are open-minded; in other words, individuals who are not put off by
meeting strangers or allowing them to sleep in their homes (Bialski and Batorski
While it may seem like a semantic difference, it important to consider “strangers”
within online hospitality exchange networks instead as “possible connections, hosts, or
guests.” Jennie Germann Molz adds that “to bring the stranger into your own living
room” is the one of the underlying “cosmopolitan desires of consuming difference”
(2013b:49). The ideology of a willingness to place trust in strangers has been suggested as
inherent to all couchsurfers (Bialski and Batorski 2010:184-185; Bialski 2012:168-169).
However, neither “strangers” nor “possible connections” are considered
trustworthy without any sort of validation. Membership alone does not mark users as
reliable members of online hospitality exchange networks. Alternatively, they must
respect their network by contributing information to the forums, perform hospitality,
and treat fellow members amiably if they wish to build up trust rankings. In general,
online hospitality exchange networks have various trust-building mechanisms to ensure


safe interactions between members in the virtual and corporeal world. (Specific
reputation and trust building features on will be discussed in a later
Considering how “strangers” and “possible connections” are not as
straightforward as they may sound, the term “members” also deserves a closer look.
While “members” accurately denotes collective membership into an organization, group,
or entity, the term does not indicate the level of familiarity which individuals have with
each other. In the context of online hospitality exchange networks, “members” typically
have never communicated with one another until they meet online but join the networks
due to their shared ideologies concerning responsible ways to travel the world. For any
sort of shared hospitality to take place, “members” must take agree to take their
friendship offline by meeting in-person.
Jun-E Tan categorizes social networking websites that follow the pattern of
strangers to trusted members as “electronic-to-face Social Networking Sites,” which she
abbreviates as e2f-SNSs (Tan 2012). Paula Bialski notes that e2f-SNSs are part of a
broader trend of “online-to-offline technologies” (Bialski 2013). Such technologies
include dating websites, hitchhiking/ride-sharing websites, public marketplace websites
like, and “hobby-based meet-up websites, such as” (Bialski
2013:164). Membership into all of these online communities means that users have
something in common such as their relationship status, ideologies concerning the
environment, hobbies, values, living arrangements, or an interest in saving money.
Moreover, these “online-to-offline” technologies reshape patterns of sociality by
redefining how users pick out new members of their social circles and develop


relationships with them (Bialski 2013:164). It is a selective yet intimate process because
on the whole, members of “online-to-offline” communities are like-minded. There is
much crossover between e2f-SNSs and the concept of the sharing economy due to users’
interests in sharing resources, learning from one another, and trusting others via online
reputation building (see chapter seven).
Therefore, although individuals who engage in “online-to-offline technologies”
meet strangers from around the world, shared ideologies (most commonly surrounding
ethical, responsible, and sustainable touristic practices vis-à-vis the model of mass
tourism) predetermine that everyone on the website is, to some extent, like-minded
(Germann Molz 2012:93-95).
Examples of online hospitality exchange networks for like-minded tourists
include, Hospitality Exchange at,,,, and,
which have emerged since 2000 (Bialski 2007:8; Tan 2012:13; Germann Molz 2013b:44;
Lampinen 2014). Some of these networks have exploded in popularity while others have
fizzled out. Once more, despite subtle differences in how individuals gain membership
into their networks, all members of these online hospitality exchange networks hold one
thing in common: their ideology concerning travel and consumption.


3. The Context, Underpinnings, and Membership of

A 20-something nomad fulfilled a dream which he has kept in the back of his
mind since he was 12 years old: a road trip around the entire continental United States.
Coming off a multiple year stint of warehouse work in Centralia, Washington, the
journeyer had had enough with the daily grind of heavy lifting. On his journey, he stayed
in backyards, living rooms, graveyards, campsites, yachts in the Atlantic Ocean and even
luxury hotels. By the end of his trip, he had stopped in over 70 locations and drove a car
held together with epoxy glue to show for it.
In preparation for the trip, the traveler had sent out a short letter to friends and
family around the country which explained his route, rationale, and request for
hospitality. Over thirty responses were sent back to him and a preliminary route was set
which followed the offerings of lodging around the country. Many of the letters sent to
him were from unknown names: friends of friends who didn’t mind helping out a
stranger in need. Multiple degrees of separation existed between the letter writers who
offered him a place to stay and the road tripper.
What motivated the meanderer to pack his 1977 Ford Fiesta full of the
necessities—money, camping gear, camera, journal, and map of the US—and travel the
country? His mission statement was simple: see how things are made, find out more
about his homeland, and meet people in the process.
Intended to only last a year, the meanderer finished up his journey after nearly 18
months. The unexpected hospitality in unlikely places kept him afloat when his budget
dwindled. Upon returning to the Pacific Northwest, the drifter felt discontent returning


to a sedentary lifestyle. His home did not offer a chance to talk to new people on a daily
basis nor the opportunities for hands-on learning about unknown aspects of life in places
that were unfamiliar to him.
I know this story well as it belongs to someone who is near and dear to my heart:
my father. I do not retell the story for sentimental reasons. Instead, I ask: Was Rick Sany
a hospitality exchange enthusiast before the advent of the Internet and online hospitality
exchange networks? Even though he was on the receiving end of hospitality and local
travel advice on his 1979 road trip, Rick has welcomed and assisted travelers who visit
his stomping grounds ever since. His motivations to take his road trip were akin to those
of members of online hospitality exchanges: learn from locals, meet new and interesting
people, and stay in alternative lodging arrangements that circumvent mainstream options
such as motels.
This close to home example of meandering, soul-searching, and the hospitality
provided by strangers aligns with the values of peer-to-peer networks of hospitality
exchange which preceded the era of online hospitality exchange networks. Indeed, it is
more likely that my father was inspired to reach out to his extended network for
hospitality because of secondhand stories that he heard about homestay arrangements
organized by Servas International since its establishment in 1949.
Long before the World Wide Web, Bob Lutweiler founded Servas International, a
non-profit run by volunteers that originally started in Askov, Denmark (Germann Molz
2011:217). World War II had just ended and Servas International intended to bring the
world closer together and promote world peace by creating cross cultural travel
experiences. (It was originally known as Peacebuilders.) Members of Servas International


sent postcards and called one another to organize homestays. Nowadays, Servas
International boasts a list of over 100 countries in which members can arrange
homestays. Needless to say, Servas has expanded since the late 1950s. Servas
International eventually made use of the Internet (one of the reasons for the
organization’s current breadth) and other online hospitality exchange networks have
followed the model of Servas International. Multiple scholars accredit Servas
International as the original hospitably exchange organization from which others have
grown (Bialski 2007:6; Germann Molz 2011:217; Germann Molz 2012:86).
In this chapter, I introduce the online hospitality exchange network that I focus
in on for the remainder of my thesis: Many of the “Core Values”
posted on resonate with the lofty, global community building
ideologies promulgated within the Servas International network. As such, I use Servas as
point of departure to discuss the central tenets of the couchsurfing community. Then I
pinpoint a pivotal moment in’s history in order to analyze deeply
rooted beliefs of couchsurfers about how the network ought to be used. This dialectical
analysis of recent events in the history of couchsurfing reveals the contentious nature of’s conversion into a corporation, which many couchsurfers have
regarded as a bastardization of the original non-commercial intentions of the network. I
then illustrate a variety of the lesser-known uses of the couchsurfing network beyond
arranging hospitality exchanges. Finally, I situate couchsurfing as a form of alternative

‘Couchsurfing’ refers to practice of travel made possible by the couchsurfing network, actual travel
experiences, and the couchsurfing community whereas ‘,’ in contrast, refers to
content on the network’s website as well as the organization itself.



Before delving into any analysis, I should mention that projects
a vision of hospitality exchanges which differs from how couchsurfing materializes at the
ground level. Couchsurfing is an elusive display of transnational hospitality
configurations. “Elusive” because theorizing an international social phenomenon as if it
takes one definitive form is not an easy nor possible feat. Therefore, considering that any
attempt to generalize couchsurfing inevitably flattens the contours of the experience for
over seven million users, bear in mind that my intent is to present couchsurfing in its
form which corresponds to the organization’s Core Values. In other words, the official
face of the couchsurfing network.

The Values of
In an attempt to remain as objective as possible, I analyze the practice of
couchsurfing exclusively in relation to the “Core Values” and mission statement found on (There will be ample time for critique in later chapters.) Before I
provide a representative account of couchsurfing hospitality arrangements, it is necessary
to understand what—according to’s mission statement—is at stake
when one decides to couchsurf:13
We envision a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful
connections with the people and places they encounter. Building meaningful
connections across cultures enables us to respond to diversity with curiosity,
appreciation, and respect. The appreciation of diversity spreads tolerance and
creates a global community. (Couchsurfing 2014a)

My explanation of underpinnings of a typical couchsurfing exchange is a product of a combination
of primary research, personal experience, and study of the scholarship of couchsurfing.



Clearly, membership into the global couchsurfing community provides users with far
more than a free lodging service. Neither “hospitality,” “hosting,” nor “lodging” are
mentioned in’s mission statement. The hospitality exchange element of
couchsurfing is instead expressed in the language of acceptance, learning, and sharing
with/from the unknown Other; the mission statement promotes a pro-cosmopolitanism
worldview, which will be addressed in later chapters.
A look back at the early history of couchsurfing helps reveal how “meaningful
connections” became the focal point of the network. In April 2000, an American Web
developer named Casey Fenton purchased a plane ticket to Reykjavik, Iceland and
decided to send out a mass message to university students at the University of Iceland in
the hope of arranging a free place to stay. In less than a day, Fenton had received more
than fifty offerings of hospitality (Germann Molz 2012:32). The majority of the
responses expressed interest in spending time with a traveler in a new place (Suttie et al.
2011). Not only students volunteered a place for Fenton to stay; he was shocked to end
up staying “with a socialite and nationally known R. & B. star” (Marx 2012). Fenton
encountered the generosity of strangers in Iceland, thereby planting the seed for his
future plans which lied at the intersection of social networking and in-person hospitality.
By 2003, Fenton launched, based on his positive experiences of
hospitality in Reykjavik. Quite simply, he intended for the couchsurfing project to
connect travelers with hosts around the world. Sociologist Paula Bialski had direct
contact with Fenton during the first few years that was online and
recalls hosting Fenton and three of his friends in her living room in Warsaw. A master’s
student of sociology at the time, Bialski had trouble categorizing couchsurfing


friendships into theoretical frameworks until Fenton pieced it together for her.14 He
explained his rationale, personal experiences, motivations, and intent for the nature of
connections formed through the couchsurfing project, which Bialski recapitulated:
Individuals were forming post-friendships [on couchsurfing] – friends with
‘instant benefits,’ removed from the time and space they were living in while at
the same time reaping benefits of intensity and candid intimacy that is typically
shared only among lifelong friends. Moreover, not only was this [couchsurfing]
system de-commercializing tourism, it was creating a new focal point in tourism –
the person not the place was now important. (Bialski 2007:12)
In other words, although the current mission statement of does not
reflect it, Fenton aimed to start a hospitality exchange network that provided members
with an alternative to capital-driven mass tourism (see Germann Molz 2013a:224). When
couchsurfers utilize the network for free hospitality—and as a route to build “meaningful
connections”—they also cut their ties with symbols of touristic authority such as travel
agents and guidebooks, thus passing the torch to couchsurfing hosts to provide local
knowledge and tips (Germann Molz and Gibson 2007:8). According to, the local host, as opposed to the physical location (i.e. touristic
destination) in which the host resides, is the fundamental motivation to arrange travel
experiences with the couchsurfing network.
Furthermore, “the person not the place” simultaneously refers to not yet known
couchsurfers as “meaningful connections” as well as suppliers of intimate hospitality
arrangements. Bialski furthers this dual meaningfulness in the context of couchsurfing by
ascribing the term, “Intimate Tourism” to the phenomenon (Bialski 2007:85-86). I find

Bialski’s sociological perspective proved helpful to Fenton as he developed the couchsurfing
network. Fenton invited her to Montreal in July of 2006 to partake in the Couchsurfing Collective
meeting which brought together an interdisciplinary array of individuals who “shared a common goal
of improving the couchsurfing website” (Bialski 2007:13-14; Bialski 2013:162).



Intimate Tourism fitting because insofar as it describes how boundaries of privacy and
space are broken down when strangers become hosts/guests as members of the
couchsurfing community. Intimate Tourism is both conversationally, spatially, and
emotionally rich (Bialski 2007:85) has grown exponentially since its grassroots beginning. Even
though exact statistics are difficult to obtain, it is widely known that there are over seven
million registered members of the couchsurfing network worldwide. A couchsurfing
community exists in every country in the world representing over 350 languages. In
terms of total couchsurfing experiences (e.g. any event organized on
that unites members in-person), there have been well over 20 members million since
2003 (Couchsurfing 2012). Nearly 40% of couchsurfing is between the ages of 18 and 24,
and about 50% are from North America and Europe (Germann Molz 2012:35).
As the previous chapter explained, face-to-face hospitality does not happen
organically, instead relying on the Internet to connect strangers-turned-couchsurfers. To
showcase the range of ways in which couchsurfers can participate on, I
first discuss critical trust-building components of a couchsurfing profile page. Then, I
explain other ways to use couchsurfing that are not focused on hosting guests overnight..
Throughout this section, I refer to the “Core Values” of and hint at
how the project intends to build a global community of travelers in search of
“meaningful connections.”


Online Couchsurfing Profile Pages: A Tour
Couchsurfing profile pages resemble those on other social networking websites.
Along with biographical information such as hometown, education, and, age,
couchsurfers are asked questions that encourage introspection and self-reflection. In this
regard, couchsurfing profiles diverge from the genre of standard online social networking
pages. (See Appendix B for a screenshot of my personal profile page.) In agreement with
the first Core Value on—“1. Share Your Life—users are asked to fill
out responses to prompts such as “Types of People I enjoy,” “One Amazing Thing I’ve
Seen or Done,” and “Teach, Learn, Share” on their profiles. The philosophical nature of
these questions intends to yield substantive, revelatory, and genuine responses from
couchsurfers. Another portion of profile pages requests that couchsurfers name their
“Locations Traveled” and proficiency levels in foreign languages. Profiles include a list of
friends (which cannot be hidden by modification of privacy settings), and display the
degree of closeness for each connection. Friends are an “Acquaintance,” “Couchsurfing
Friend” “Friend,” “Good Friend,” “Close Friend,” or “Best Friend.” By displaying how
couchsurfing friends feel about each other, couchsurfing profile pages present trust and
accountability as an ordinary element of the online couchsurfing community.
In addition to giving couchsurfers insight into members’ personalities and
interests, couchsurfing profiles notify other couchsurfers about how one intends to
participate in the project. This is chiefly accomplished by setting one’s “CouchStatus.”
There is space for an explanation of the physical space along with a photograph of the
sleeping arrangement to be offered to couchsurfing guests. Put differently, setting a
CouchStatus responds to the question of whether or not a couchsurfer is able to host


other members of the network. Couchsurfers are allowed to pick from four options:
“Yes,” “Maybe,” “Not Right Now (but I can hang out),” and “I’m Traveling.” The
absence of a straightforward “No” should not fall off the radar. With these four options
to choose from, couchsurfers are considered to always be participating in the
couchsurfing project, albeit indirectly. Indeed, as the fourth Core Value suggests,
couchsurfers “Stay Curious” and “become better global citizens through travel” as well
as learning from couchsurfers when they come knocking at the door.
Even though the CouchStatus indicates the physical space (e.g. bed, couch, or
sofa) that couchsurfers are willing to share, Jennie Germann Molz observes that “[t]he
‘couch’ in CouchSurfing is a metaphor for the hospitality the host is willing to extend …
CouchSurfing blurs the distinction between host and guest by encouraging everyone who
surfs on other people’s couches to also be willing to offer their couch to a traveller in
need.” (Germann Molz 2011:218). Couchsurfing profile pages offer two methods of
contacting other members: “Send Message” and “Send a CouchRequest to [couchsurfer’s
username]!” Whereas “Send Message” appears as an ordinary blue hyperlink and leads
couchsurfers to an empty box in which to write a message, the “Send a Couchrequest to
[couchsurfer’s username]!” button jumps out at couchsurfers since it is in boldface and
encircled in’s color of choice: bright orange. The interface of
couchsurfing profile pages encourages couchsurfers to send CouchRequests and hence
the third Core Value—“3. Offer Kindness”—in the form of hospitality arrangements for


strangers. Exchanging messages might suffice but prefers that users
forge “meaningful connections” in-person.15
Unmentioned to this point yet paramount to how the couchsurfing community
functions are trust and reputation. It should go without saying that there is a great deal of
trust required to invite a couchsurfer—who is only known as an online profile page—
into one’s home. possesses a host of trust-building features such as
references, vouches, location verification, and community designations. All four of these
safety features appear on various parts of a couchsurfing profile page. Badges that
symbolize community designations appear on the top of a member’s profile, and the
most common ones are that of a “Pioneer” (a member who donated to the couchsurfing
project when it was in its non-profit phrase) and “Ambassador” (indicative of
couchsurfers nominated by other members who embody’s Core
Values and do an outstanding job at bringing couchsurfers together).
Vouches also show up beside the icons that indicate if couchsurfers have received
a community designation. However, vouches are a form of verifying one’s
trustworthiness that belongs to the entire community, instead of community designations
that are granted by organization of To “vouch for” another
couchsurfer, one must have already have received three vouches from other members of
the network.16 Jun-E Tan states that, with the vouching system, “the network of trust is
Like the other online hospitality exchange networks which I have previously mentioned, connects strangers online and expects that members will accommodate one
another in the corporeal world (Bialski 2007:16; Bialski and Batorski 2010; Bialski 2011; Germann
Molz 2011:218; Rosen et. al 2011; Germann Molz 2012:86; Tan 2012; Germann Molz 2013b:44;
Picard 2013:13; Lampinen 2014).
16 Lauterbach et al. quantified the degree of friendship between couchsurfing friends and found that
very high percentages of couchsurfing friends labeled as “best friends”—as high as 60%—had
vouched for one another (Lauterbach et al. 2009). Additionally, Lauterbach and colleagues report


expanded slowly to the periphery” (Tan 2012:15). Indeed, the “Safety FAQ” page on confirms that popular decision is the basis of the couchsurfing
community, and it is a “self-moderating community” (Couchsurfing 2014b).
While Couchsurfing is a free to join and participate, if members wish to build
their trustworthy reputation further, they may donate a minimum of $25 to have their
physical location “verified.” Couchsurfing administrators send a postcard to members
with a code that they must submit online to confirm their address listed. In other words,
couchsurfers with an extra icon on their profile says, “Location Verified” proves that
public profile pages belong to individuals who live at addresses confirmed by the
administration of the couchsurfing network.
Finally, public references left on profile pages by other couchsurfers are the
cornerstone of building trust within the online couchsurfing community. Following any
couchsurfing experiences—hospitality, meetups, daylong trips to tourist attractions,
parties, coffee dates, or even instances in which hosts give advice to guests about what to
see when they’re on the road—members are expected to give feedback (see Appendix B
to see how the reference section appears on a couchsurfing profile page). Couchsurfers
mark references as positive, neutral, or negative, and write a tidbit about the recipient of
the reference.17 (See Appendix C for a screenshot of the references section of a
couchsurfing profile page.)
that only 6.8% of couchsurfers had received a vouch. Although the study is from 2009, at which
point the couchsurfing community was composed of 666,541 members, it still reflects the pressure
which exists between in-person friends to automatically reciprocate vouches even if they might be
deserved and the exclusivity of vouches for a privileged part of the couchsurfing community
considered trustworthy (cf. Tan 2010:372).
17 Since it is customary for couchsurfers to write a bit about their time with another member of the
couchsurfing community, other couchsurfers are able to refer back to references to see if one has a
history of doing his/her part in the hospitality exchange experience (Germann Molz 2013b:47).


References are a form of institutional memory that can be accessed by any
member of the couchsurfing community. Positive references may lead to increased
participation within the network and negative references may alienate members from
future participation. (Negative references are incredibly scarce in the couchsurfing
community; the disproportionate ratio of positive to negative references is addressed in
chapter six.) In theory, these testimonials are the basis of trust in the couchsurfing
community, and fundamental for couchsurfers to view before they contact each other to
request/provide hospitality.

Hospitality Offline and In-Person: Groups, Meetups, Events, and Host/Guest
With technical systems in place to ensure that members are verified as
trustworthy, couchsurfers log off of the site and take their experiences of hospitality to
the non-virtual world. Before I explore couchsurfing in its most widely used form—
hospitality exchanges—I first address other opportunities for couchsurfers to gather
online and visit with each other in real life.
Couchsurfing profile pages grant members access to a seemingly endless amount
of message boards under the “Discuss” tab on From Esperanto
language learning exchanges to Burning Man enthusiasts to unicycle riders to clubbing
fans of Dubai, is truly a platform of microcosms of like-minded people
with niche interests. While there are plenty of eccentric groups on, the
majority of them have practical application for travelling couchsurfers in unknown
locations. Members of couchsurfing are automatically added to a group (location-specific


“Places”) that corresponds to their location of residence.18 Therefore, locals can easily
field questions from travelling couchsurfers who request recommendations, tips, and
local knowledge about lands unknown to them.
When I was in Costa Rica for Winter Break 2010, I was away from my nuclear
family for the holidays. So, I proceeded to find a surrogate family of couchsurfers with
whom to celebrate. On the San José group page on, I identified a
Christmas potluck in a suburb of San José. I had never had such a multicultural
Christmas experience; I sat at a table with a couple of Frenchmen, a Canadian, multiple
ticas (Costa Ricans), and a handful of Americans from all over the States.19 After helping
clean up the host’s home, many of us went our separate ways.
In the past few years, has added a feature that allows
couchsurfers to create organized events (complete with RSVP capability). Larger
couchsurfing communities—typically in urban areas—hold weekly pub-crawls in which
hosts and travellers can hang out and have a drink. Couchsurfing Ambassadors (given
this role by the couchsurfing community) often lead the charge in putting on events.
Event listings and group posts frequently list the organizer’s cell phone number so that
the meetups will take place smoothly.
At the heart of the couchsurfing project are experiences of shared hospitality
between couchsurfing hosts and their guests. These exchanges typically begin after a
Meant to streamline the online discussion capability of the couchsurfing community, the
introduction of “Places” caused controversy within the couchsurfing community. Jun-E Tan notes
that older groups were archived and no longer accepting members with little notice from (Tan 2012:164). “Places” intended to merge interest and location-based groups
into one but instead divided how couchsurfers joined groups.
19 Although slightly irrelevant, I should add that these French couchsurfers were in the process of
driving a biodiesel-powered school bus from Canada to as far down into South America as the bus
could manage.


travelling couchsurfer combs through a collection of hosts’ online profile pages. The
traveller then sends CouchRequests (including dates of arrival/departure, transportation
to the host’s location, and a personalized message) to a handful of hosts and awaits their
responses. It is unusual for couchsurfers to request hospitality for more than a few days
because they do not wish to neither inconvenience their host nor overstay their welcome
(Germann Molz 2012:33).20
When couchsurfing hosts confirm a CouchRequest, it is normal to provide
stipulations concerning their guests stay from the beginning. (Other background
information appears on hosts’ profile pages.) For instance, a host might have a prior
engagement during the time when his guest had hoped to arrive. This minor deal will not
prevent hospitality if it is brought to the table for discussion. Open dialogue diffuses any
conflicts before they arise. So, cordial negotiation, flexibility on the part of host and
guest, and conversation are supposed to give rise to a “meaningful connection” between
host and guest.
The openness established during online conversation on
extends to in-person hospitality. In other words, couchsurfing becomes nebulous when
guests enter the home of their host. Once guests arrive at the home of their host, it is
customary for them to express their gratitude by offering to provide something in
exchange for their host’s hospitality such as “cooking a meal, taking the host out,
bringing a small gift or offering some other gesture,” as the “Safety FAQ” page on

I learned—from personal couchsurfing experience and responses elicited from interviews—that
couchsurfing hosts occasionally invite guests to stay for longer if they get along particularly well with
their guests.


46 recommends (Couchsurfing 2014b).21 Some hosts clear their weekend
schedules when they are expecting couchsurfing guests whereas others may do the
opposite: provide a house key to their guest and only be face-to-face in the evenings
when both parties are home after busy days. Hosts chiefly decide the degree to which
guests are integrated into their lives. Besides a place to sleep, hosts—at the very
minimum—also provide guests with a grasp of nearby locations of touristic value such as
museums, interesting neighborhoods, and landmarks.
Even though currency does not change hands between host and guest during a
couchsurfing hospitality experience, there is monetary value to the services, knowledge,
and resources which are shared with guests. On an organizational level,
strictly forbids payment “or labor in exchange for your [access to one’s] couch,” as stated
in’s “Community Guidelines” (Couchsurfing 2014c).
According to, what fills the role of money for members of the
network? First, access to a community of “meaningful connections” substitutes for
payment. And second, under the condition that host and guest feel a “meaningful
connection,” positive references also take over the need for money. Awarding an
indicator of trustworthy reputation—in the form of a written reference that will appear
publicly for the rest of the couchsurfing community to view—should be more valuable
than money in the economy of couchsurfing.
From the perspective of, the network supplies non-commercial
arrangements of free hospitality for tourists who would rather connect with mindful,
compassionate, and curious strangers than participate in mass tourism. In general, this
This is not the only mention of compensation in couchsurfing experiences. I address the
couchsurfing network—as an economy—in chapter seven



has been the resounding sentiment among couchsurfers since the network began.
Therefore, when announced that it was converting from a non-profit
to a B Corporation, a small—yet boisterous—percentage of devoted couchsurfers began
to mobilize other couchsurfers to protest against the corporate restructuring (Tan
2012:134-149; Germann Molz 2013a:224).

The Corporatization of
Couchsurfers, many of whom had adored the network for its provision of
alternative travel arrangements, felt ripped off. Movement in the corporate direction
represented a soulless and commodified future of couchsurfing which, by extension,
would deteriorate the virtuous nature of couchsurfing hospitality exchanges. How could
the human-centered organization of couchsurfing forget its roots? Many couchsurfers
were up in arms over the ordeal, and viewed the conversion as “the beginning of the
end” for couchsurfing as a free service which operated sans explicit payments between
hosts and guests.22 Narratives of growth and greed made up the bulk of polemics against
corporatized couchsurfing:
I used to say that Couchsurfing was globalization done right, where ideas and
exchange mattered more than money or status. When you met someone who said
they were a Couchsurfer, that it meant they had a different viewpoint on life, that
they knew how to share, and were culturally open minded [sic]. …. Unfortunately,
we live in a world obsessed with growth, and the Couchsurfing management has
fallen into this corporate trap. Was it inevitable that the site would expand
beyond word-of-mouth? Probably. Could it have been done in a way that
respected the values and people that spurred Couchsurfing’s initial organic
growth. Definitely.23
Peter, “Couchsurfing: The Beginning of the End?,” November 15, 2012,
23 Nithin Coca, “The End of a Dream: Couchsurfing’s Fall,” May 6, 2013,


The aforementioned attitude symbolizes that of couchsurfing fundamentalists
who ended up petitioning for couchsurfing to remain a non-profit. In reality, the
situation was far more complicated and deserves more attention. Dissident couchsurfers
protested the conversion by attempting to migrate portions of couchsurfing’s
membership to other hospitality exchange networks (namely, signing
petitions, and adding banners to their couchsurfing profile page pictures which said
“Property of CorpSurfing” and “C$” (Tan 2012:136-137; Germann Molz 2013a:225).24
In a post to, a community of ex-couchsurfers committed to
starting an open-source iteration of the couchsurfing network, a blog author urged
couchsurfers to post negative references on Casey Fenton’s public profile page.25
Most couchsurfers met the change with indifference (Tan 2012:138). I review this
important moment in the history of couchsurfing to demonstrate how the Core Values
of were disrupted with the corporate transition. Furthermore, I
attempt to tease out the tremendous moral undertones of the couchsurfing project,
about which I have remained silent thus far.
Prior to 2011, couchsurfing had assumed the role of a bona fide non-profit even
though the organization had never officially received a decision concerning its 501c3
status (Germann Molz 2013a:224). When there was no longer a chance that
couchsurfing’s 501c3 bid would be accepted, the organization became a B Corporation.
It is easy to forget the “B,” which tells much of the story. Instead of convert into a fully-

The Kings of Couchsurfing, “’Build Up, Branch Out’ Campaign,” March 22, 2013,
25 Unspecified author, “C$ Feature: No Negative References,” August 27, 2011,


fledged corporation, couchsurfing opted to transition into a benefit corporation, that is, a
socially and environmentally responsible corporation that is held to a higher standard of
transparency and accountability than a standard corporation.
Shortly after the change of couchsurfing’s corporate status, Benchmark Capital
and Omidyar Network invested $7.6 million in the project (Perlroth 2011). Business
terminology, blog posts from couchsurfing founders with guilty consciences, and
monetary investments aside, couchsurfing did not change the services that it provided
for members. The Couchsurfing Blog (written by paid members of the
team) sought to put out the initial firestorm by assuring skeptical couchsurfers that the
project would remain the same: “CouchSurfing will never make you pay to host and surf.
It’s against our vision to exclude anyone from having inspiring experiences for financial
reasons, and that’s not going to change just because our methods of generating revenue
Yet couchsurfers felt cheated on a deeper level—an ideological level.
Couchsurfing—now a corporation—had breached their trust and collective motives for
joining the network: avoid the commercializing elements of mass tourism by taking part
in a “global community.”
Attentive readers of subtext will realize that this controversy illuminates the lofty
elements of virtue, altruism, and morality which are implicit within the couchsurfing
project. Akin to the broader agenda of alternative tourist movements, couchsurfing looks
past the wallet and instead into the eyes of the wallet’s owner (Germann Molz
2013a:225). That is to say that tolerance, diversity, and multiculturalism—terms ripe with
Unspecified author, “A New Era for Couchsurfing,” August 24, 2011,



assumptions of moral character—are the rewards for participation in the couchsurfing
project. Authentic human-to-human contact (i.e. “meaningful connections”) takes the
place of money, which may only fuel insincere forms of mass tourism.

Couchsurfing as an Online Manifestation of Alternative Tourism
Motivated by the prospect of making “meaningful connections” with others, one
might wonder if there are other communities of tourists like the couchsurfing
community. In other words, are couchsurfers the only crowd who put first “the person
not the place” when they travel (Bialski 2007:12)? The short answer is that couchsurfers
are not alone in their quest to prioritize human connection over beach getaways. The
World Wide Web grants contemporary tourists the option to know the “local” (Bialski
2007:22)—for instance, with possible hospitality arrangements in every country of the
world via the couchsurfing network. Nowadays, tourists may escape the hegemonic
frameworks of mass tourism to pursue other options such as alternative tourism
As a result of the parallels between couchsurfing and tourist movements sparked
from an interest in authentic connections, I argue that the couchsurfing projects falls
under the broader category of “alternative tourism.” Therefore, as a means to conclude
this chapter, I open the aperture of the couchsurfing network to draw comparisons
between popular alternative tourism movements and couchsurfing.
Anthropologist Nelson Graburn proposes that contemporary alternative tourism
movements have their roots in the “long distance youth travel in the 1960s and 1970s”
which flew in the face of commercialized mass tourism of the prior decades (Graburn


2012:176). Alternative tourism, as a practice, supports the agenda of cross-cultural
understanding, authentic connections with the Other, tolerance, dissolve structural
inequalities that exist within mass tourism,27 and provision of services that equally benefit
host/guest or traveler/local (D’Amore 1988; Ketabi 1996; Butcher 2003; Matthews 2008;
Chambers 2009; Conway and Timms 2010; Lyons et al. 2012:362) while offering an
“explicit critique of mass tourism and the capitalist market economy more broadly”
(Germann Molz 2013a:212-213). The commonalities between these goals of alternative
tourism and the couchsurfing network are readily apparent.
In the field of Tourism Studies and the anthropology of tourism, scholars have
sought to categorize—by labeling—the multitude of emergent alternative tourism
movements. To name a few: post-tourism—which admits that an authentic touristic
experience is a myth (Feifer 1985; Ritzer and Liska 1997; Rojek 1997), slow tourism
(Poon 1994; Conway and Timms 2010:332), ecotourism (Stronza 2001; West and Carrier
2004; Weaver 2005; Klak 2007; Wearing and John 2009), pro-poor tourism (Torres and
Momsen 2004; Ashley and Haysom 2006; Hall 2007), responsible tourism (Spenceley
2008), homestay tourism (Wang 2007), and fair trade tourism (Boluk 2011).
Additionally, gap year tourism (Lyons et al. 2012), volunteer tourism (henceforth
“voluntourism”) (Wearing 2001; Söderman and Snead 2008; Butcher and Smith 2010),
and ethical tourism (Smith and Duffy 2003; Lisle 2010; MacCannell 2001) have received
considerable amounts of attention. These three practices align most closely with the
couchsurfing project as they generally draw from a similar demographic of educated 20-

Resolution adopted by the U.N. General Assembly, Global Code of Ethics for Tourism: For a
Responsible Future [2001]


somethings from the West. To clarify this claim, I transition away from categories of
alternative tourism—which, admittedly, can only tell a small piece of the story—and
provide a personal ethnographic account as a voluntourist at a non-profit in surfing town
in West Africa from January 2014.
Before I left the United States, I Skyped with the executive director of the nonprofit who assured me that, while abroad, “you’re not a tourist; you’re a volunteer.” Her
words stuck with me throughout my experiences teaching literacy lessons to elementaryaged children. My perspective was limited by my short amount of time at the non-profit;
classes at Whitman awaited me following Winter Break. However, I had a chance to
interview multiple long-term volunteers, most of whom were taking a semester or full
year off from college.28 Barrett, a 21-year-old volunteer from California, told me that she
had spent multiple months fundraising the money required to pay for her plane ticket
and volunteer fees. She shared her thankfulness to be associated with a reputable local
organization instead of a hostel or the like:
If I was a tourist out surfing, you know, I wouldn’t be spending the time with the
kids and with the culture and with the people as much as I am here. I wouldn’t be
living with, you know, 10 [West African] boys who have grown up here.
I recall that I could hear waves crashing and the screams of teenage “Sponsored
Scholars” in the background while we chatted. Indeed, it was a reminder that leisure was
within earshot even while teaching two to three hours of English lessons to West African
children per day.
When voluntourists—like Barrett and I—paid to volunteer at the non-profit, we
also contributed to the room and board of West African high school students who lived
Lyons et al. uphold that “[v]olunteer tourism undertaken during a gap year is a fast growing
phenomena” (Lyons et al. 2012:367).


in the non-profit’s house—these were the “Sponsored Scholars” who were also in charge
of running the organization in their home country. The Americans who had started the
non-profit had, over the course of time, transitioned the now teenage “Sponsored
Scholars” into the directors of the non-profit. All the while, the Americans performed
checkups (via flying across the world but, more frequently, on Skype) on the non-profit
when various voluntourists came and went; quite frankly, the relationship between the
locals and Americans struck me as paternalistic at best.
Despite my hesitations, Barrett was an excellent spokesperson for the
transformative nature of her experience as a voluntourist. Her explanation alludes to how
West Africans and voluntourists work hand-in-hand:
You put more into it [volunteering] and come out of yourself and become selfless
and grow in so many ways; [I know that the West African locals are] going to
change me more [by the time that I leave].
At the same time, even though Barrett’s account underlines her self-growth as a
charitable individual, it fails to pinpoint how West Africans will prosper from her
presence. Most critiques of voluntourism follow this model: locals and volunteers will
never see eye-to-eye because of inherent differences of worldview, privilege, and
ideology (Matthews 2008; Lyons et al. 2012:368). Furthermore, opponents of
voluntourism propose that Western tourists’ desire to find meaning in their time spent
overseas will cause the recipient community to be tokenized as a symbolic center for
authentic engagement with the Third World (Zakaria 2014a; 2014b).
Like couchsurfing hospitality experiences, voluntourism—as it plays out at the
ground level—diverges from its lofty ideological form. For the remaining chapters, I
continue to carry with me a similar sense of skepticism and aim it at the couchsurfing


project’s reported capability to form authentic, “meaningful connections,” which are
unattainable in commercial mass tourism.


4. From Doug’s Online Profile to Hospitality: Building Nostalgic Community

“Nathan! Welcome! Come on in.”
Before I knew it, I found myself on the receiving end of a warm embrace with a
couchsurfer who I knew next to nothing about. Four online messages represented the
extent of our relationship at the time. Should I be worried by this apparent warmness? I thought
instinctively. My guards were up. A bit shaken, I responded by making a passing remark
about the snowy road conditions which had slowed my drive from Walla Walla to Boise.
Again, this amiable stranger didn’t skip a beat and led me to his room. I felt hesitant and
unsure of what to expect from his private space. He entered first and took a seat on the
side of his bed, and then turned his attention to a four-foot tall poster: a detailed
topographic map of the mountainous state of Idaho.
It turned out that Doug knew more about topography, routes, and maps than I
would have expected; he was both an archaeologist and a skier. In fact, when I first met
Doug, he had only just returned from a full day of backcountry skiing about an hour
away from Boise. Despite his exhaustion from a long day in the mountains, he was eager
to tell me more about his deep involvement in the couchsurfing community. The entire
duration of my stay with Doug lasted about 15 hours and yet he managed to provide me
with a spacious couch to sleep (beside a woodstove with as many wool blankets as I
could handle), a chance to take a bath in his homemade outdoor geothermal tub, and
unlimited access to all five of his homemade ice creams in his freezer. What are Doug’s
intentions? Why this special treatment for me? Is he being “for real”? My mind was abuzz with


I proceeded by probing into Doug’s intentions further with the following
question: “What is it that makes people write references [on your couchsurfing profile
page] like ‘Doug’s Boise experience is the best there is!’? What is about what how you
host that makes your ‘Boise experience’ stand out?”
Doug did not hesitate to respond and began to speak excitedly about
differentiates his hosting arrangement from others: “We offer people a little something
different, in terms of, you know, you get to stay in a place [to stay] that’s not normal …
It makes you think about what’s different. Plus, I know Boise pretty well. A lot of hosts
can do this … but [other hosts] experience is going to be very different from our
experience. Your feeling of community is going to be different with them than with us.”
He paused for a moment to explain what hospitality looks like when he hosts
couchsurfers, “We take you in, and we take you in, I think, in a deeper way than even the
best hosts can. And it’s not that they’re not good hosts but … when you’re here, you’re
part of something that’s a little bit bigger.”
As was the case in many other interviews that I conducted with couchsurfers,
Doug mentioned the presence of “something bigger” at work in the case of
couchsurfing. Was this unnamed feature of the couchsurfing experience an ethereal
connection to Boise which tourists could not access with just a travel guidebook? Did
Doug possess the ability to showcase Boise in its “original” form, perhaps as a glimpse
into Boise’s pre-tourist attraction past? Could there be something about Doug’s
personality that makes couchsurfers honest and sincere when they are around him?
Admittedly, these reflective questions arrived second to my initial critical
judgments. I had heard these claims before. Therefore, my knee-jerk reaction was to


dismiss most grandiose claims of “something bigger,” which I often considered to be
superficial regurgitations of global community ideologies that are common on But, as Doug continued to speak passionately about the role of
community in his daily life, I thought once more about my negative first impression.
Perhaps there really was “something bigger” that I was missing.
My feelings of skepticism direct this chapter. I present the story of Doug, a
couchsurfing ambassador/host in Boise, to chronicle how nostalgia can work to
construct alternative modernities that relate to couchsurfing. Because the relationship
between modernity, the past, nostalgia, and authenticity is often hazy, I utilize Doug’s
narrative of modernity and couchsurfing setup to tease out the nuances of this
relationship. I weave in Dean MacCannell’s theory that tourism is fundamentally a quest
for authentic experiences throughout the chapter. To begin, I contextualize the theme of
authenticity in the study of the Internet and online communities.
Authenticity—a term often utilized as a catchall term for sincerity,
trustworthiness, legitimacy, genuineness, and originality in the study of tourism—has also
become a central theme in academic discussions of communication mediated by the
Internet. Some scholars claim that the Internet requires users to reveal their “true selves”
if they wish to have fruitful interaction (McKenna et al. 1998) whereas others believe that
online communication becomes based on relationships that flitter in and out of existence
(Wittel 2001:51). Others argue that the Internet reduces the amount of individual social
cues transmitted from user to user which emphasizes group behavior (Kiesler 1986). In
other words, individual behavior may become less salient, replaced by online collectives.
Some of the earliest predictions speculated in terms of transitioning from antiquity to


modernity; indeed the dominant narrative of modernity, as the antithesis to the authentic
past, would cause a “disintegration in sincerity,” leading to society’s alienation from its
“real self” during in-person social exchanges (Berger 1973:82).
Doug’s beliefs echo predictions of scholars who believe that the Internet will
fragment society and cause Internet users to lose the ability to feel close to one another.
Yet for Doug, the couchsurfing network is a different story. He told me that the
couchsurfing community is one of the few “shining examples of how to use the
Internet.” According to Doug, the Internet’s potential is realized in the couchsurfing
network, which he distinguishes as unique compared to other online social networks.
It is not uncommon for scholars to lump social networking websites with online
hospitality exchange networks; Doug is not one of these scholars. In fact, he views
Facebook as a polar opposite to online communities like couchsurfing. Doug told me
Facebook is an anti-social network. Instead of people getting together and talking
about stuff and having a little get together, you can sit at your computer in your
house by yourself and you can shoot little friggin’ emoticons to people. … What
is that? You’re not connecting with someone. It gives you a false feeling of
community and false feeling of connection.
Doug implies—by listing all the isolating effects of relying on social networking websites
to communicate—that couchsurfing is one method to combat the reportedly impersonal
nature of online interaction. Although seen here in conversational terms, Doug captures
the essence of couchsurfing: getting people together, talking about stuff, and having get
togethers.29 According to Doug, these three activities are on the verge of disappearing

I interpret “get togethers” as either daylong couchsurfing meetups or the longer-term host-guest



from modern life. Couchsurfing removes falseness from the equation by mandating that
initially online interaction move to in-person settings in the corporeal world.

Doug’s Worldview and MacCannellian Modernity and Premodernity
Dean MacCannell’s theories in the field of the sociology of tourism align most
closely with Doug’s views on the importance of community and in-person conversation
in the modern world. MacCannell published The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class
in 1976, which has since become a seminal work in studies of tourism. MacCannell
writes from a Structural Marxist perspective. As a result of his theoretical background, he
conceptualizes the world as a dualism: modernity and premodernity. These categories
cannot be divorced from the emergence of capitalism, which MacCannell believes is a
critical component of modernity.
He claims that modernity is fragmented—largely because of the assumption that
modern individuals have been alienated from labor—and no longer retains the intimacy
and authenticity of the premodern past. The commodification of labor power propels
“moderns” (MacCannell’s word for individuals who live in modernity) to seek out
noncommodified connections to the world. Long gone is the era that celebrated
personalized, artisanal labor. According to MacCannell, modernity not only separates
moderns from their labor but also from themselves, their peers, and their surroundings.
In class Marxist fashion, MacCannell does not consider moderns to be passive
agents. Instead, they actively fight the battle to resurrect the authenticity of the past
(premodernity). Moderns believe that “reality and authenticity are thought to be
elsewhere: in other historical periods and other cultures, in purer, simpler lifestyles”


(MacCannell 1976:3). Although The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class concentrates
on museums, attractions, and sightseeing (among other examples) for moderns to
experience premodernity, I zero in on how MacCannell dissects the motivations of
modern tourists.
MacCannell’s tourists are pilgrims on a quest for authenticity which once existed
during non-alienated, premodern times. Modern tourists chase the elusive individuated
culture often considered intrinsic in the era of premodernity. (Nina Wang suggests
objective authenticity as a name for MacCannell’s theoretical stance on authenticity, which I
will utilize in this chapter as well [Wang 1999:352-353].) However, even though modern
tourists desperately desire “a glimpse ‘behind the curtain’” (Germann Molz 2012:113) in
order to take a peek at an authentic “original,” noncommercial, and non-alienated
manifestation of premodern culture, they might only view an artificial reconstruction
anyways. It appears that the harder that modern tourists work to look “backstage” at
local culture in its original form, the more they alienate themselves from their
surroundings. Another helpful way to imagine the pilgrimage of MacCannell’s modern
tourist is to visualize a pot of gold that waits at the end of a rainbow; the more that he
tries, the more distant his prize becomes.
Despite all the work that modern tourists dedicate to experience local culture in
its non-alienated form, MacCannell’s central argument is that “staged authenticity” never
fails to be at play. In other words, since local cultures rehash their reality for tourists to
view, “staged authenticity” operates at all times.30

Multiple scholars even posit that MacCannell’s “back stage”—the region of supposed “original”
authenticity of local culture—is often as fabricated as the clearly reproduced tourist attractions that
make up the “front stage” (Steylaerts and O'Dubhghaill 2011:265-266; Wang 1999:353).



MacCannell’s premodern society resembles Doug’s community-centric worldview
that posits that face-to-face conversations—without the use of instant messaging or the
Internet—bring people together. Premodern society functions under the assumption
that, “truth and nontruth are socially encoded distinctions protected by norms. The
maintenance of this distinction is essential to the functioning of a society that is based on
interpersonal relationships” (MacCannell 1976:91). Modern society diverges from intimate
family structures that create stability in premodernity (MacCannell 1976:91) and towards
an individuated way of life: “Real life relations [of moderns] are being liberated from
their traditional constraints as the integrity of society is no longer dependent on such
constraints” (MacCannell 1976:92). Moderns are alienated from each other, and the era
of tight-knit relationships is on the way out.
Doug could be considered one of MacCannell’s moderns in that he has not given
up hope and still believes that elements of a non-alienated premodernity exist today.
Despite his frustration with the illegitimacy of connections formed online, Doug is an
optimist who believes that strong interpersonal connections are still possible in the
Digital Era. His views are informed, in large part, by his extensive history of living in
intentional communities. He has witnessed and felt the affective benefits of living in an
intentional community. Once I had talked to Doug for a while, one thing was clear: his
passion for sharing permaculture and intentional community living with others is
inextinguishable. I will return to Doug’s personality in a moment.
While Doug shared that he is disillusioned with the status of how modern society
communicates, he has identified how he can work to remediate the fragmentation of
modern social relations: “I’ve realized that I consider that the only way that we can fix


things is to create these [intentional community and, by extension, couchsurfing]
connections that society is working really hard to sever.” Clearly, Doug is carefully
optimistic, partially due to his belief that all humans are interconnected in a global
community. He admits that in his narrative of modernity that modern society is
crumbling and something must be done if society has any chance at retaining any sense
of genuine connectedness. Doug believes in a revival of community which starts with
couchsurfers who temporarily stay at his home, extending outward to society at large.
Doug proposes that as couchsurfing guests visit and stay at his home, they receive
exposure to fresh ideas surrounding the benefits of living in an intentional community.
Doug does not expect for guests to have a paradigm shift and give up everything in order
to live in an intentional community; instead, he believes that his job is done if guests only
experience a minute hint of “something bigger.”
“If people leave here with one idea, we win. We extend community further,”
noted Doug.

Nostalgia for the Past
Black and white define MacCannell’s categorization of premodernity and
modernity. Both cannot exist simultaneously; modernity has effectively replaced
premodernity. Anthropologist William Bissell confirms the importance of time in
relation to looking back at the past: “The flow of time also must not only be
irretrievable, but tinged with loss. The present must be compared to other moments and
marked as a moment of decline—as in the fall of empires, for example, or national
eclipse, or a loss of power and position by a particular social group” (Bissell 2005:221).


Yet, for Doug, the imagination plays a critical role to envision a narrative of
modernity that draws from the premodern past but positions it in the current day. To
Doug, time passes in a fluid, nonlinear fashion which means that the present retains
elements of an authentic past. Doug sees opportunity in reportedly disconnected modern
times. In more specific terms, Doug perceives life in the Digital Era as genuine so long
as individuals lead lives that revolve around a sense of community. As I have stated,
Doug cites couchsurfing, intentional community living/building, and permaculture as
examples of choices which for people to combat the disingenuousness and alienation of
With discussion headed in a direction that elaborates upon non-alienated social
relations in the modern day, it would be naïve to continue without mentioning the trope
of nostalgia. Indeed, the New Oxford American Dictionary defines “nostalgia” as a
“[s]entimental longing for or regretful memory of a period of the past, esp. one in an
individual's own lifetime; (also) sentimental imagining or evocation of a period of the
past.” Since Doug celebrates the wonders of community as well as the closeness tied to
MaCannell’s premodern times, is he living in a nostalgic time of the past?
Nostalgia rose to the surface during my conversation with Doug even before he
spoke about the power of community. While recalling how he originally confirmed that
hospitality was at the heart of couchsurfing, Doug explains how couchsurfing rejuvenates
an old-fashioned practice but in the present day: “That’s what happened back in the day
when you were a stranger. You showed up in a town, you didn’t know anyone … and
someone said, ‘Oh! You’re a stranger, and you need help.” Couchsurfing jibes
particularly well with Doug because it allows for him pay tribute to his sense of etiquette


which he accredits to his East Coast roots. While growing up, hospitality was made a
priority in his family. With this insight, it is safe to say that nostalgia plays two roles,
speaking to both types of nostalgia mentioned in the definition in previous paragraph.
First, Doug imagines an earlier period in his life. Couchsurfing becomes an
opportunity to pay homage to the East Coast baggage which he carries—but in a positive
sense. Second, in reference to the other component of the New Oxford American
definition, Doug idealizes an era “back in the day” that helped strangers out in unfamiliar
places.31 What is odd about this fantasy is that Doug, as a 30-something, was never alive
during the epoch to which he alludes. In this regard, he becomes yet another usually 20
or 30-something urbanite who rejects mainstream modernity by joining other
movements to counteract the reported alienation of society.32 The movements to which
Doug subscribes are intentional community living and permaculture homesteading.
Doug corroborated his fantasizing about interconnectedness of society before his
time when challenged me to name the last time that I had heard that someone, “died for
the ‘greater good.’” His question was a head-scratcher; I hesitated. So Doug answered
the question for me, tapping the table with each syllable to emphasize the gravity of his
words: “We are still those people [who believe in the greater good]. We haven’t lost it.”
Similar to the case of hospitality “back in the day,” there are still opportunities to
reinvigorate modernity to make it less isolating.
Scholars of couchsurfing often utilize Kant’s cosmopolitical idea of “universal hospitality” when
couchsurfers recount stories of nostalgic hospitality. In 1795, Kant introduced “universal hospitality”
in Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, which proposes that all citizens of the earth retain the right to
be amiably received by locals (Kant 1932). “Universal hospitality” was directed at globe trekking
groups like nomads, soldiers, travelers, explorers, vagabonds, pilgrims and sojourners. The parallels
between couchsurfing and “universal hospitality” should be apparent.
32 See the ethnographic vignettes in chapter one for more examples of services, organizations,
companies, and websites that create connections to the past.


Mission: Build an Intentional Community
Intentional community building encapsulates the sincerity of interaction found in
hospitality “back in the day” and the greater good. Until this point, I have referred to
Doug’s living arrangement as a home but it would be naïve to leave it at that. In reality,
he lives in an intentional community which he describes as, “a community that works on
building community.” I was convinced that Doug misspoke when he first told me this—
what a redundant thing to tell me! Yet again, I was too quick to judge. At the point of my
interview, five people lived in Doug’s intentional community.33 All members of the
community commit to building community—community members are not just rent
payers. Their shared ideology brings them together to form a collective. The intentional
community doubles as a permaculture homestead, which creates more opportunity for
members to rely, connect, and trust one another in working together for the system to
Doug was first experienced intentional community living in Tucson, Arizona. He
was floored by the “communality” and how the intentional community had “affective
and nurturing effects on people’s health.” Doug felt the effects himself; he explained that
he had been transient, disconnected, temporary, and nothing but an “archaeologist
following the shovel, contract to contract” up until when he found his first intentional
community. It not only helped him but also healed him.

He told me that he “owns” the intentional community only in the sense that his name is on the
mortgage. Other than that, it was truly a collective.
34 In a nutshell, permaculture homesteading is a system of design which has agricultural roots but has
since expanded to mean “permanent culture.” In permaculture systems, humans follow nature’s
patterns to live sustainably and utilize all resources created within the system so that multiple uses of
a resource never get overlooked. Doug boils the concept down to people asking, “how can we model
nature in building farms?”


His mission became clear: start an intentional community in Boise. In 2008,
Doug relocated and did just that. 17 others have lived in the community since it’s
inception, with members staying for as little as a month and as long as two years. Over
the years, the intentional community has become a “nexus for a lot of meetings.” People
who identify as Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (Doug served in Haiti), archaeologists,
couchsurfers, fruit tree trimming neophytes, and even permaculture guild members have
used the community’s living room to meet up. Individuals are brought together from a
smattering of unique communities which, by their very presence in the physical space of
the community, spreads the message of community building to all attendees. Doug
would chalk this up as a “win” because, slowly but surely, yet another member of society
has been exposed to the sincerity and connectedness of intentional communities.
When I imagined the gatherings held by local networks in the community’s living
room, I had trouble ignoring the images of symposiums and round table discussions that
came to my mind. I fell victim to romanticizing these gatherings as survivals of “back in
the day” eras, just as Doug has done. My mind’s eye exposed stereotypical scenes of
ancient times that are undoubtedly linked to Grecian traditions and medieval times,
respectively. With these images on my mind, it became clear that I had bought into the
nostalgic sense of community and conversation afforded by Doug’s couchsurfing
experience. I recall my exact location when I had this realization: laying down on one of
the couches in the community’s living room, warmed by the woodstove beside me. My
physical positioning is relevant because it epitomizes the spirit of permaculture that
permeates within the community. Literately hundreds of couchsurfers had slept on the


same sofa as me and discussants had used the sofa as a place to sit during community
meetings. Indeed, even a piece of furniture held multiple purposes in Doug’s community.
In spite of my newfound belief in community that I developed during my stay
with Doug, my skepticism still drives this chapter. I do not intend to undermine the
curative benefits of community members’ lived experiences. Rather, I find it useful to
dissect the apparent polar opposition between modernity and authenticity as a means of
studying the trope of nostalgia, following the lead of sociologist Jennie Germann Molz.
Molz concedes that MacCannell’s objective authenticity has some merit when
applied to toured objects but inevitably creates a paradox for the elusive status of
authenticity in a broader sense (Germann Molz 2012:130). Meethan furthers the
argument by adding that MacCannell’s premodern versus modern divide implies that “all
that modernism brings with it will by definition be false, alienating, unreal and inauthentic”
(Meethan 2001:91). Authenticity—as couchsurfers’ access to Doug’s local Boise
experience or even a feeling of the intimacy created by community-based social relations
that may have occurred “back in the day”—acts as a quick fix for the disconnectedness
of modernity.
But applying authenticity to the wounds caused by modernity does not solve the
problem. The bandage of authenticity is actually “a thoroughly modern invention”
(Germann Molz 2012:130). The paradox lies in authenticity as simultaneously “a modern
realization that it was missing [from the present day]” (Germann Molz 2012:130) and a
remedy to the situation. The role of the Internet in this paradox further complicates
matters; the reportedly commodifying, insincere, and artificial impacts that the Internet
could have on modern society exist alongside the Internet’s potential to revive


community and “real” connections. Thus, authenticity contradicts itself due to its
curative and destructive qualities. While some may look back nostalgically upon
authenticity and shrug their shoulders at the prospect of reviving it, individuals such as
Doug seek to recreate authenticity of the past in their daily lives.
Although the opinions expressed by Doug dismiss Molz’s pessimism, it is worth
noting that Doug is cognizant that he might come across as overzealous in regard to his
passion for community. At multiple occasions during our interview, Doug concluded
retelling anecdotes that displayed the power of community with the disclaimer that “this
isn’t some New Age, hippie bullshit.” His fear of being falsely affiliated with other
groups which, from his perspective, are shoddy demonstrates Doug’s self-awareness.
Doug seamlessly removed himself from stories to reflect upon them; he could perform
the role of subject and observer when recounting a story. I deduced that Doug, perhaps
more than anything else, desired for me to take him seriously and refrain from dismissing
his tales as far-fetched. Just like the anxiety affiliated with modernity, Doug worried that
I would deem him disingenuous.
By the end of our interview, even though I felt a new optimistic regarding the
spirit of community in couchsurfing hospitality experiences, it became clear to me that
pristine authenticity—of an individual—is hard to find even in the heartfelt believers in
community. Doug showed trace amounts of Goffmanian performativity. This is not to
say that he was a bad host. As I argue in the upcoming chapter, performance exists on an
everyday basis and does not change the affective benefits of hospitality. I note that Doug
was guilty of performance because I thought it to be impossible for him to keep up his


level of passion for community at all hours of the day and in everything that he does
outside the confines of his community.
During my time with Doug, I wondered about what would occur when
couchsurfing guests were disinterested in experiencing “something bigger” during their
stay. In other words, what occurs when couchsurfers are only interested in a place to
sleep? Doug tacitly acknowledged that not all couchsurfers would be on the same page
when we spoke about which couchsurfers “get it,” and how their understanding of
“something bigger” shows up in references left on Doug’s public profile page. I accepted
the challenge, digging through his last year of couchsurfing activity in reference form.
The majority of Doug’s references were carefully written vignettes about specific
experiences shared by guests visiting Doug’s community. But after reading nearly fifty
references, a pattern emerged. It seemed to me as if some couchsurfers were guilty of
parroting certain themes of Doug’s community such as permaculture, community
garden, potluck, Game Night (a Boise meetup), and cooking. While these elements of
coalesce to form the spirit of community, they were not often articulated and left in list
format. On one hand, the fact that these components of the community were typed into
a reference indicates that couchsurfers had thought about them. And the repetition
found in Doug’s references could confirm that he treats everyone as a member of his
extended community.
But an alternative reading is possible as well. One could see the lack of
explanation of these hallmark pieces of Doug’s community as form of “Doug pleasing.”
He clearly wises for guests to have a breakthrough—be it large or small—and recognize


the power of community. Would couchsurfers perform artificial interest in Doug’s
enthusiasm if it meant that both host and guest came out of the experience happier?
The subject of feigning genuineness materialized in a reference left by a Canadian
host when Doug visited British Columbia: “Doug is the epitome of what couch surfing is
all about. He greets you with a warm hug, is easy-going and flexible with plans and is
interested in just about everything (or good at faking it).” This reference gives the
impression other members of the couchsurfing community are aware that performances
take place during couchsurfing experience. But it is noteworthy to mention that such
“stagedness” does not detract from Doug’s positive personal qualities. Performance is
the common thread which runs through the next chapter, and will be complicated in the
upcoming pages.


5. Reading Profiles, Reading People

My explanation of digging through Doug’s long list of references left on his
profile by other couchsurfers paves the way for a broader discussion of how online
profile pages function within the couchsurfing community. I found that the profiles are
not only studied but, more importantly, interpreted by others members to judge if the
user responsible for the profile is an individual who is worth meeting. My informants
considered what information on profiles was left unsaid (e.g. excluded) as well.
Therefore, as my informants’ point of views explicate, profile pages operated to
transform strangers into couchsurfers.
During my interviews with couchsurfers, all of them expressed the importance of
presenting a thorough and complete profile page. Judging by the views of informants, I
gathered that an incomplete profile page communicated naivety within the couchsurfing
community. Additionally, a weak profile page was seen as a lost opportunity to meet
someone new, a potential “meaningful” connection.
This information was not entirely new to me; I was reminded of times when I
sought out a couchsurfing host with whom to lodge. I scrutinized over hosts’ profile
pages until I decided upon one that I thought presented an enthusiastic snapshot of their
in-person personality. I recall reading potential hosts’ profiles and reading notices that
hosts would only respond to requests from couchsurfers who commented upon specific
elements of their profile. These public notices were meant to dissuade couchsurfers who
requested hosts en masse, thus commodifying the search for a genuine, compatible host
for a guest in need. Like form letters sent to employers which lacked personalization,


copy-and-pasted messages were frowned upon within the couchsurfing community (Tan
For me, the process of searching for a host sometimes seemed akin to scanning
through a list of Google search results in the hope of selecting a credible source. Yet this
comparison is limited because shopping around for credible sources only affects the
person who sits in front of a Mozilla Firefox window. Clicking on a search result on
Google only takes one to a website; in the context of couchsurfing, one click could lead
to hosting, connecting, visiting, or befriending a stranger.
The significance of examining users’ profiles pages is backed up by’s webpage entitled “How to Read a Profile.” Novice couchsurfers may
access this guide, which suggests that couchsurfers “Look for something [on a profile
page] that can spark a connection: a shared interest, a type of humor, or something you
think you can learn from this member” (Couchsurfing 2014d). Nowhere does the guide
encourage couchsurfers to screen couchsurfers based on the lodging arrangement which
they have to offer. Instead, it suggest that couchsurfers should “Read for personality,”
which I interpret as a subtle reference to the core couchsurfing ideology of possessing an
interest in forging “meaningful connections.”
Insofar as my analysis of reading profile pages is correct, it is safe to say that
browsing through profile pages requires more than reading all the constituent parts
which make up a profile. Even the organization of couchsurfing tells members to trust
their gut when looking at profiles. Couchsurfing asks that members be suspicious of
questionable profile pages, implicitly admitting that couchsurfers—in the non-virtual
world—might not turn out to be like how they portray themselves online. In this regard,


the couchsurfing profiles page is a double-edged sword: manipulatable by users and
manipulative in the possibly fake messages they send to other couchsurfers.35 Jennie
Germann Molz adds that online representations for couchsurfers are able to make
“identity or location more transparent and accessible,” which may, in turn, cause other
couchsurfers to be “more suspect” of all the information (2012:117). Moreover, online
profile pages act like the concept of the ethnographic present, which means that users
are only privy to a window of self-representation at a given moment (boyd 2004; Tan
2012:100; Picard 2013:15). To nuance the art of reading profile and the anxieties about
digital representation, I transition to informants’ sentiments surrounding couchsurfing
profile pages.

Suresh: Extravagance Downplayed
I will now complicate matters by introducing Suresh, whose interview raised a
central paradox to authenticity construction related to how he portrays himself on his
profile page. In fact, I nearly did not interview Suresh because I was so underwhelmed by
his public profile page. Despite his fair amount of recent hosting activity in Seattle, every
section of his profile was completed in sentence fragments: How come his references reflect
positive couchsurfing experiences if he does not divulge his full identity to others? I thought. My
interview with Suresh challenged what I had learned before: an articulate, carefully
assembled, and thorough profile page demonstrates to the couchsurfing community that
one genuinely cares about the project and its legitimacy.
Sherry Turkle adds further context to anxieties of online communication and representation:
“[texting, posting, and profile pages] let us present the Self as we want to be. We get to edit and that
means we get to delete. And that means we get to retouch the face, the voice, the flesh, and body”
(Turkle 2012).



Surely Suresh would articulate himself as he did on his profile page; I expected
for Suresh to respond to my interview questions with simple, vague, and superficial
answers. Instead, I had breakfast with an Indian couchsurfer who was attentive to detail,
careful to select his words in order to express exactly what he meant, and passionate
about couchsurfing. He accredits his Indian upbringing to how he approaches hospitality
on couchsurfing. “Guest is God” is an Indian mantra which Suresh applies to organizing
personalized lists of Seattle attractions which depend on his guests’ interests. Suresh
relies on his guests’ profile pages to get a sense of their interests.
“Why not let people know that you’re so interested in helping them out?” I asked
Suresh. His response revealed the paradox. Suresh told me that he strategically leaves out
details about his “Couch Information”—that is, the specificities of the lodging
arrangement which he affords couchsurfers when they visit—and intends to only vaguely
represent himself on his profile page. This seemed nonsensical to me, so Suresh walked
me through it.
First, it should be known that Suresh lives in a ritzy apartment in downtown
Seattle with plenty of room to share. His living arrangement might appear flashy to
budget couchsurfers, and Suresh worries that he might attract hosting requests from
couchsurfers who only see Suresh as an avenue to a lavish couchsurfing setup. Thus, his
profile page abridges what he has to offer couchsurfers, stating: “i live in Downtown
,pretty close to space needle ,pike’s place.”
Second, according to Suresh, some Americans on social networking websites are
“totally different people online.” He detests status-seeking Facebook users who create
profiles which are only utilized to post photos and “check-ins” when they visit a new


“hot spot.” It is not the act of using Facebook that bothers Suresh—he is frustrated with
the disingenuous aspect of posting seemingly cheerful updates solely for the purpose of
extra attention. Despite the social climber critique of Facebook users, Suresh still
appreciates the network because he sometimes cross-checks couchsurfers with their
Facebook pages to “see if they are real people.”
So, Suresh’s skeleton profile does not arise from laziness nor inability to express
himself. Instead, he abstracts his online identity on purpose. His goal is still to meet
“real” people. But, by depicting less of his personality instead of more, Suresh attracts
couchsurfers with the genuine interest of meeting him. Couchsurfers are unable to fully
screen Suresh and must rely on the references left by others. Therefore, he hosts
couchsurfers who end up being intrigued by the process of connecting with a stranger.
Authenticity, in this formulation, refers to couchsurfing guests’ motivations to
visit with Suresh because they want to meet someone new, instead of exploiting him for
his luxurious accommodations. Couchsurfers’ desires to make real connections are
welcome whereas taking advantage of hosts for their space could further reify the capitalcentric model of impersonal mass tourism. From my perspective, Suresh is aware of the
performance associated with his online representation. He reckons that other
couchsurfers—like me, at first—are oblivious to his careful profile arrangement, scrolling
directly to the ratio of positive to negative references left on his profile.

Auguste: Couchsurfers Read Between the Lines
Auguste gives couchsurfers more benefit of the doubt than Suresh. This could be
accredited to the fact that Auguste’s perspective comes from a position of primarily


being hosted, as he is a graduate student in France and is unable to host couchsurfers at
this point in his life. From Auguste’s point of the view, couchsurfers not only carefully
read what is presented to them on profile pages but also their subtexts. He places the
onus on both hosts and guests; hosts must accurately represent themselves and
couchsurfers reading profiles must accurately interpret what information is presented to
them. In this regard, authenticity is a cyclical co-constructive process.
I interviewed Auguste when he was couchsurfing in Boise, which he was visiting
to conduct fieldwork on Idahoan conservative politics for his master’s degree in political
science. He shared with me that he “would much rather see a profile that is quite clear
about what they [hosts] want.” So, transparency is central to Auguste’s ideal couchsurfing
profile page. To further this point, he set up a hypothetical situation in which a
couchsurfer’s profile page listed that its owner does not smoke, eat meat, or drink
alcohol. Satirically, Auguste told me that he indulges in all three of these vices. Regardless
of the lifestyle differences which might arise between Auguste and his hypothetical host,
he felt as if he could still connect with his host but ultimately admitted that, “I don’t
want to take the risk.” In other words, Auguste realizes that a “real” connection might
not come from a host with fundamental lifestyle differences. He tacitly acknowledges
that building a connection with a host might require that he cover up his lifestyle choices,
which is inherently inauthentic action.
One reading of Auguste’s hypothetical scenario suggests that he hastily admits
defeat upon learning about differences, consequently conceding a possible “real”
connection with a host. However, while the lifestyle differences between Auguste and
fictional host are not insurmountable, I propose that it is critical to remember that the


hypothetical host purposefully included his consumptive preferences. Digital
representations of couchsurfers inherently compress components of identities; therefore
including that one abstains from vices must be a part of one’s genuine self. Information
integrated into public profile pages represents what couchsurfers want others to know
about them before they meet face-to-face.36
On the flip side of the coin, omitted details from a public couchsurfing profile
page explicate one’s identity as well. Auguste shared that he thought couchsurfers must
read between the lines when they browse profile pages: “The unspoken message, you
know, you have the subtext in what’s written there [on the profiles].” By deciphering the
subtext, couchsurfers, “know what they’re going to get even though hosts haven’t spelled
it out.”37 Clearly, Auguste is guilty of hyperbole because couchsurfers never know “what
they’re going to get” when host/guest exchanges materialize in the virtual world, and
only have a sense of what will unfold. Auguste assumes that all couchsurfers have the
aptitude to analyze a public profile and draw conclusions, which resembles Auguste’s
training as a political scientist. Moreover, Auguste’s belief reflects his optimistic stance
that couchsurfers will connect with interesting, genuine, and hospitable individuals. He
has internalized the altruistic message which disseminates on its list of
Core Values.
Auguste presents a stance based on individual agency for couchsurfing hosts and
guests. In his model, potential hosts have an obligation to post precise information for
A portion of a New Yorker article (written by a satirical journalist who was new to the
couchsurfing community) does an apt job at expressing how couchsurfers decide on who to contact:
“I’d selected [my host from others after] winnowing out those whose narratives included the words
‘party,’ ‘vegan,’ and ‘free spirit,’ and the phrases ‘I believe in the journey,’ ‘Never stop learning, never
stop loving,’ and ‘Burning Man’” (Marx 2012).


other couchsurfers to study. As a result, the couchsurfing community who end up
looking at these profiles are responsible for thoroughly reading and accurately analyzing
the information on profile pages. In this paradigm, couchsurfers have agency yet
interface with one another in a passive and isolated manner. In other words, members
post a profile, wait until other scrutinize over it and reach an understanding of it, then
finally contact them. The process does not occur at the same time.
I could not help but think that Auguste’s method seemed an inefficient method
to judge if another couchsurfer is worth meeting. Therefore, I ask: Why leave
representation up to interpretation when couchsurfing intends to put members of the
network in physical proximity with one another?

Ignacio: Simulate Dialogue to Determine Sincerity
An answer to this question arrived in the form of an interview with a Peruvian
couchsurfer named Ignacio, which revealed a more direct approach to determining
couchsurfers’ genuineness than that of Auguste. His insights unearthed a third unique
technique to assess couchsurfers’ integrity online. Unlike the aforementioned viewpoints
of other informants, Ignacio stressed the importance of replicated conversations between
couchsurfers: online messages exchanged back and forth.38 Ignacio believes that it is
easier to read couchsurfers’ personalities from how conversation progresses in
couchsurfing messages instead of solely analyzing couchsurfers’ attempts to virtually
represent themselves on their profile pages. At the same time, he explicitly identifies the

Typically, couchsurfing message conversations arise after a couchsufer first scouts another out and
then sends a CouchRequest or a message.


section of his profile which is a façade, representing his awareness of performance on
profile pages.
Ignacio assured me that, “a profile is a starting point,” but “when you see how
communication flows in messages, you can get to know someone by the way they write
and communicate.” He reported that he normally exchanged five to six messages
between prospective guests before he agreed to host them in Boise.39 As far as profile
representation was concerned, Ignacio did not appreciate the uncertainty of profiles
which demonstrated that couchsurfers were newcomers to the community: “two
references, one picture—you never know.” For Ignacio, online profiles could offer small
clues into couchsurfers’ identities but the act of communicating itself helped Ignacio
overcome the sense of uncertainty which he felt towards novice couchsurfers.
Here the Internet simulates an inherently face-to-face social activity:
conversation. If Ignacio believes that he can engage in an authentic, intriguing, and
natural conversation online, then the same qualities will translate to conversation when
he communicates with his guest offline and in his home. Conversation, in the form of
messages sent back and forth between potential guests, compensated for suspicions of
inauthenticity which certain profiles exuded. In other words, although Ignacio had the
final say as to whether or not a couchsurfing guest could surf at his home, both host and
guest contributed in the construction of authenticity online.
The contradictory element of Ignacio’s principled attempt to reproduce the flow
of conversation came in the form of his online persona, which compensates for how he
comes across to strangers in the non-virtual world. On the topic of online


Ignacio studies bilingual education at Boise State University. He hails from Lima, Peru.


representation, he mentioned that I should note that he selected a strategic profile
picture for his couchsurfing profile: grinning for the camera. Ignacio explained the genre
of profile page construction; couchsurfers expect warm personalities even though
Ignacio admits that “I’m not a smiley person this much.” In fact, in Peru, new
acquaintances sometimes going the impression that he was not so happy: “people
sometimes think I’m grumpy.” So, although Ignacio wishes to converse with potential
guests because “the get to know each other starts [there]”, he dons an online persona to
attract couchsurfers to reach out to him in the first place.
Ignacio’s online persona echoes the stance of Sherry Turkle regarding profile
page performances: “In a profile, there is no room for error. You are reduced to a series
of right and wrong choices” (Turkle 2010:273). In this regard, Ignacio fills out his profile
page with “right choices” in order to be received well by other couchsurfers. His
inauthenticity is not malicious—a smiling profile pictures represents his awareness of the
genre of digital representation. Ignacio alters his online self to cut to the chase—that is,
skip the formalities of profile reading and instead engage in what Ignacio believes to be
the most authenticity-laden element of couchsurfing in the virtual world: messaging
dialogue between host and guest.

Authenticity Negotiated by Host/Guests and the Role of Affective Authenticity
By way of making anthropological sense of the variance in methods to interpret,
assess, and construct authenticity within the couchsurfing network, I propose Jennie
Germann Molz’s question as a starting point, which succinctly summarizes the topic of
this chapter. Following Molz, I wonder how the online, social, and connective


component of the couchsurfing community—critical for the community to function—
can synchronously “operate in the cultural imaginary as both harbingers of the
inauthenticity of modernity and points of access to authentic experience” (Germann
Molz 2012:130).
Ignacio’s point of view fits hand in glove with the proposition of Steylaerts and
O'Dubhghaill who posit that authenticity “emerges out of local dialogical ‘back-andforths’” (2011:266). According to these scholars, no single sense of authenticity exists.
This applies directly to virtual self-representation because hosts and guests have as long
as they want to write carefully crafted messages by which to persuade the couchsurfer
recipient to consider their genuineness and trustworthiness. Dialogue between hosts and
guest might ebb and flow but, as couchsurfers read the quirks, idiosyncrasies, and
tendencies of their online recipients, they learn authenticity as a performed practice. It
could be said that couchsurfers develop the skills to write in the genre of authenticity
when they engage in online dialogue and construct profile pages. But does the entire
couchsurfing community assimilate to performing their “true selves” on their profiles
and in messages, thus leading to widespread sincerity without a trace of performance?
Moreover, should we be worried about the genre of authenticity as a coercive practice
which wipes out any prospect of sincerity in the couchsurfing community?
In reference to the former, I would respond say, “maybe.” To say, “yes” would
essentialize the experience of millions of couchsurfers and to say, “no,” would further
romanticize some of couchsurfing’s lofty—yet imperfect—Core Values concerning the
overwhelming amount of “meaningful connections” created as a result of the network.
(For a lengthy discussion of the constructed reality of the couchsurfing community, see


chapter six.) Therefore, a better answer comes in the form of evaluating how one gains
membership into the couchsurfing community. To participate in the couchsurfing
community, other members must deem one trustworthy and genuine. Inevitably,
portions of the couchsurfing community are weeded out if they act contrary to what
Paula Bialski claims is a shared ideology of all couchsurfers: their willingness to place
trust in strangers (Bialski 2012:168-169). Members of the community who are unwilling
to act in accordance to this ideology might receive red flags—in the form of negative
references on their profile pages—which greatly decreases their likelihood of being
hosted in the future.
My response to the latter question might seem redundant if one is familiar with
academia: it’s all relative. Authenticity, to quote Nina Wang and her discussion of
constructive authenticity within the industry of tourism, “is a result of how one sees
things and of his/her perspectives and interpretations” (Wang 1999:355). Quite simply,
authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. Defining authenticity becomes an ongoing
social process (Bruner 1994:408) framed by couchsurfers’ implicitly (e.g. the subtext of a
online profile and reading the flow of a message exchange) and explicitly (e.g.
communicated expectations found online and offline) expressed expectations of
authenticity to the rest of the community. Authenticity is not constructed singlehandedly, but rather by on-going performances on the part of host and guest.
Considering that authenticity—as it stands now—is an elusive, pluralistic, and
fluid concept in the couchsurfing community, I will interrogate such uncertainty in order
to reach an uplifting conclusion. In other words, to declare certainty in the changeability
of authenticity would be lazy.


First, constructing authenticity in the couchsurfing community is a social process
which, by extension, signifies that it is collaborative. Edward Bruner, who supports the
model of constructivism, implies that authenticity is not a personal journey but rather an
activity of contestation (Bruner 1994:408), that is, an occurrence reserved for multiple
people. Collaboration requires interpersonal connection, which couchsurfers supported
as one of their chief interests in the project. Second, Culler postulates that “symbolic
authenticity” is the result of social construction inherent in constructive authenticity
(Culler 1981). “Symbolic authenticity” makes an appearance in the couchsurfing
community in that couchsurfers deem profile pages and interactions as authentic or
inauthentic following their expectations and perceptions of “signs and symbols” which
denote authenticity (Rojek 1997:53; Wang 1999:356). Even if such exchanges and selfrepresentations are, in reality, staged, couchsurfers still benefit even if they are duped
into it.40 Therefore, performance can benefit couchsurfers. Profile pages “manage the
impression” which is projected to from one couchsurfer to another (Tan 2012; Tan
Third, on the topic of performance, re-enactments—which I interpret as granting
of hospitality to strangers in a nostalgic, “back in the day” sense—are not solely
spectacles for tourists to passively observe. As Wang argues, re-enactments transform
into activities in which tourists may participate and feel the “cathartic nature” of the act
despite the re-enactment’s status as authentic or inauthentic (Wang 1999:359). The reenactment model lends itself well to couchsurfing profile pages because online

Analyses of the socially constructed nature of authenticity in tourism have long been prevalent in
the social sciences. Refer to Authenticity and Commoditization in Tourism by Erik Cohen for a perspective
on the concept written on the brink of the Digital Era (Cohen 1988).



conversions of lived identities inevitably re-present and exclude information. Not all is
captured online. Another useful way to consider what is projected to the couchsurfing
community in a profile page’s subtext is to consider Goffman’s notion of that which is
“given” in addition to that which is “given off” (Goffman 1959).
I consider the previous paragraph as an amalgamation of considerations which
coalesce into yet another understanding of authenticity. The theory which emerges is
what I designate affective authenticity. Despite skepticism on my part and that of my
informants, there was no denying that couchsurfers walked away from hospitality
exchanges feeling refreshed, spirited, and hopeful. Just as Alexander I. Chaplin found,
couchsurfers conceived of their hospitality experiences as legitimately “life-changing”
even though many academic perspectives on couchsurfing writes off the lived benefits of
the networks as merely “cherished illusions” of cosmopolitanism (Chaplin 2012:4-5). My
informants had “genuine encounters with otherness,” which made them feel thankful for
being part of an online community such as couchsurfing (Chaplin 2012:6).41
In my interviews, I heard an occasional gripe about couchsurfers who did not
offer to wash dishes after they ate a meal that was prepared for them but, by and large,
couchsurfers looked past couchsurfers’ lack of domestic knowhow and were instead
thankful for the network’s ability to make “real” connections possible. While gray areas
may have occurred in the virtual world, in-person couchsurfing hospitality arrangements
caused couchsurfers to feel emotions, in other words, “felt realities,” that made them
believe in the power of humanity interconnected (Chaplin 2012:5). The strangers-turnedYu Wang reached a similar conclusion in her study of homestay tourism in China. She notes that
even though, “the object [of tourism] (the Naxi homes) is being overtly ‘staged’ through various
modifications, its authenticity can still be perceived and even enjoyed by the guests” (Wang



hosts/guests presented in my informants’ stories were humanized, authenticated, and
appreciated because they were members of the couchsurfing community. Even though I
found that an element of performance exists within the couchsurfing community, it was
not coercive. In other words, anxiety regarding in/authenticity was overshadowed by the
positive affective benefits of couchsurfing hospitality exchanges.


6. When Hospitality Breaks Down: In Way of Critique

In the preceding chapters, I have presented the practice of couchsurfing in its
idealized form (chapter three), an ethnographic look into hospitality in the home of a
couchsurfing host (chapter four), and a walk-through of the logical decision-making
processes of couchsurfers who wish to take an online connection to the non-virtual
world (chapter five). Although these chapters have been peppered with anxieties of the
Digital Era in couchsurfers’ narratives of modernities, the accounts have largely reflected
the positive outlook promulgated in the mission statement on
Due to this underlying sense of unchecked optimism, I have compiled a sample of three
scenarios in which hospitality breaks down between members of the couchsurfing
community. Informants’ narratives, my secondary research, and personal experience
inform these scenarios. The forthcoming selection of hypothetical scenarios emulate—
not to be confused with duplicate—the lived experiences of couchsurfers and intend to
comment upon a broader array of subjects in anthropology (namely gender, race, and
trust) through a discussion of rifts in couchsurfing hospitality. All in all, couchsurfing
community building and sociality do not escape the critiques of racism, sexism, and
sexual harassment that often go along with online communities.

Scenario #1: The online profile page of a male couchsurfer indicates—under the
Couch Information section of his page—that he prefers to only host female
In a discussion of couchsurfers’ motivations to host, my informant Ignacio put it
bluntly: “Guys just want to get laid.” Unfortunately, his response did not shock me.

Even though the fourth Community Guideline on states that utilizing
the couchsurfing network to look for dates or romance is considered “harassment,” I
had heard my fair share of horror stories involving single female couchsurfers
(Couchsurfing 2014c).
These stories followed a similar plot: a female couchsurfer arrives at the home of
a male host and feels an implicit—yet present—pressure to either hook up with her host
or damage the exchange of hospitality for both of them.42 A blog post by Agnes
Walewinder illuminates that hosts may only gently hint at their interest in hooking up
with passive remarks such as, “’The door to my bedroom is open all night!”43 Other
hosts are more forward still and might post—under the Couch Information section of
their profile—that they expect for their guests to share their bed with them. Jun-E Tan
claims that the phrase “CouchSurfing is not a dating site” is often used in jest, as if to
admit that sexualized couchsurfing will take place even if prohibited (Tan 2012:81-82).
In a post by Nithin Coca titled “The End of a Dream: Couchsurfing’s Fall,” she
explains that the extra attention received by female couchsurfers has only been
exacerbated by the expanding membership of the network (as a product of the network’s
corporatization): “According to an ambassador in New York City, females posting on
the message board in that city can get 50 messages from men, most of whom have empty
or near empty profiles.”44 Multiple of my male informants expressed frustration that they

By no means do I insinuate that women are expected to compensate men for their willingness to
host them. I rather intend to highlight that “meaningful connections” can be sexualized in some
couchsurfing hospitality exchanges.
43 Agness Walewinder, “Couchsurfing or Sexsurfing? What is the Difference Nowadays?,” March 17,
44 Nithin Coca, “The End of a Dream: Couchsurfing’s Fall,” May 6, 2013,


felt as if potential female guests pigeonholed them into a category of “creepers” who
only reached out to women due to sexual motives. That is to say, the changing face of
couchsurfing bars some members from participating in the original goal of couchsurfing:
hospitality exchanges.
Yet not all couchsurfers cry foul about the network as an online matchmaking
service. On the blog post entitled “8 Signs Of A Slutty CouchSurfer Girl,” the author
lists ways in which couchsurfers may analyze profiles pages “to handpick those who
wanted to have sex.”45 Worse yet, a blog called “Couch Bangs: The Naughty Side of
CouchSurfing” exists to recount tales of memorable hooks up mediated by the
couchsurfing network.46 The title of a sensational article on Business Insider gives away its
slant: “Couchsurfing’s Sex Secret: It’s The Greatest Hook-Up App Ever Devised.”47
Loveroom, a website for international travelers to meet in a biblical sense, emerged for
populations of tourists who are more drawn to sex than cultural exchange. As hook ups
between members are the intended result of the network, members’ attractiveness is
central to the community of users on since it qualifies members
for free lodging.
In sum, couchsurfing as a means to sleep with members is against what Jun-E
Tan’s informants call “the spirit of couchsurfing” (Tan 2012:84; Tan 2013:150). This
spirit implies that the pleasure in couchsurfing should be in forging “meaningful
connections” and through cross-cultural exchange. Yet—as a

Maverick, “8 Signs Of A Slutty CouchSurfer Girl,” February 1, 2013,
47 Julianne Zigos, “Couchsurfing’s Sex Secret: It’s The Greatest Hook-Up App Ever Devised,”
December 7, 2013,


corporation—is unable to enforce an ethos of acceptable couchsurfing behavior because
it intentionally leaves couchsurfers responsible for their own actions, much to the dismay
of Bitch Magazine blogger Maddy Van Deven who wishes for couchsurfing to protect
solo female travelers.48 Thus, the couchsurfing will continue to host individuals who see
to sexualize their “meaningful connections.”

Scenario #2: After sending CouchRequests to a few hosts, a guest fails to accept
or decline the hospitality that is offered by him. A few days later, one of the
rejected hosts sees a reference left the guest on the profile of another local host.
“What’s wrong with what I have to offer?” asks the host who was turned down.
Two of my informants recalled stories of being turned down after they received
personalized CouchRequests from members of the network who would soon arrive in
their city. They were frustrated that well-intentioned couchsurfers would make the effort
to reach out them and never confirm if they planned on staying with their host. Worse
still, my informants were convinced that their non-white race prompted their potential
guests to lodge with another host in their cities. In Cosmopolitanism as Subcultural Capital,
Jun-E Tan identified racism as the “worst taboo” that could be committed within the
couchsurfing community (Tan 2013:149). Perhaps the couchsurfing community is not as
obsessed with cross-cultural learning as it seems.
Ignacio told me that guests perceived him as Mexican and were thus dissuaded
from sending CouchRequests to him. He explained the reportedly shady reputation of
Mexicans in his town and was unhappy that couchsurfers were not willing to distinguish
Ignacio’s Latino identity as Peruvian. As for Suresh (an Indian host in Seattle), he
Maddy Van Deven, “On the Map: Is Safe for Women?,” August 16, 2009,



believed that white couchsurfers turned him down solely because an experience with a
white host “was easier than an Indian experience.”
For me, allegations of stereotyping, racism, and special treatment allude to
multiple social phenomena: the acquisition of cultural capital during tourism and
cosmopolitanism. In other words, it may be easier to think of these strategic selections
by couchsurfing hosts as bettering their chances at amassing experiences that can
produce the best travel stories for friends back home (Picard and Robinson 2012).
Indeed, name-dropping an unpronounceable destination from a recent trip (Schillinger
2014) distinguishes the tourists from the travelers (Boorstin 1961:85; Rojek and Urry
1997:1). To select to hosted by a more “authentic” host is key for couchsurfers who are
involved in the “status-seeking one-up-man-ship” to walk away from a touristic
experience with a better story (Germann Molz 2012:130).
However, the desire to associate with the Other works in the other direction as
well. Ignacio also admitted that Peruvian hosts would rather host white Americans or
Canadians instead of other Latin Americans. Sightseeing with white people served to
build hosts’ reputation as a cosmopolitan or urbanite. Bernard Schéou found that
Vietnamese couchsurfing hosts were motivated out of an interest to have the West—
Europeans and Americans—in their living room (Schéou 2013:129). Even in Tunisia,
where Sonja Buchberger conducts research upon the couchsurfing community, local
couchsurfers imagined hosting Westerners “as a mark of distinction among neighbors”
(Buchberger 2013:88).


Accounts of couchsurfing to gain social distinction hint at cosmopolitanism, a
theory which I only touch upon.49 It is a challenge to strip cosmopolitanism of moral
connotations, but I believe John Urry provides a largely objective account:
“Cosmopolitanism involves an intellectual and aesthetic stance of openness towards
divergent experiences from different national cultures. There is a search for and delight
in contrasts between societies rather than a longing for uniformity or superiority”
(1995:167). As heartwarming as Urry’s cosmopolitans sound, a more specific definition
of the theory is necessary. Thus, I turn to Kendall et al. who theorize that two breeds of
cosmopolitanism exist: reflexive and unreflexive (Kendall et al. 2009). The latter is relevant
to couchsurfers’ logic to surf as a means acquire social distinction. Unreflexive
cosmopolitans are caught up in the aesthetics of consuming difference, which prevents
them from accepting difference on an emotional such is the case in reflexive
cosmopolitanism. In summary, cosmopolitanism is deeply intertwined with the
couchsurfing community—simultaneously the reward of couchsurfing—but only if
members represent the “right” kind of difference (Germann Molz 2013b:49).
But, if couchsurfers deem other couchsurfers’ differences to be uninviting, they
might be weeded out by use of the reputation system (see chapter three). So,
“’questionable’ subjects” are alienated which leads to “creating an enclosed cosmopolitan
community – paradoxically, a close community of open-minded and like-minded people”
(Germann Molz 2013b:57). Insofar as the couchsurfing community polices its own

An entire edited volume has been written on the topic of couchsurfing as a means to
cosmopolitanism (Picard and Buchberger 2013).



membership, it is challenging to say that it is a truly “global community,” as promulgated

Scenario #3: Following an unsafe, dangerous, or uncomfortable experience with a
couchsurfing host, a member knows that it is right to leave a negative reference
on the host’s public profile page but is dissuaded from doing so out of a pressure
to only write positive references.
99.6%. That is to say, at the point in the history of the couchsurfing network
when only 3.2 million couchsurfing experiences had occurred, only 0.4% of references
left of the millions were marked as negative or neutral (Tapon 2012:59). In an analysis of
couchsurfing references left during a randomly selected week in 2009, Lauterbach et al.
noted that only 0.17% of references were negative (Lauterbach et al. 2009). The data here
suggests that the couchsurfing is a definitive method to create positive experiences
between fellow international tourists. However, I am skeptical to believe in percentages
which show evidence of certainty. In other words, is it possible that the percentage of
positive references on is inflated?
One possible answer to this skeptical question comes from my own experience
couchsurfing in Jaipur, India in July 2010. While traveling through Rajasthan, I lodged
with a family who lived outside of the heart of Jaipur. They taught me how to cook
chappati, select the best mangos from the neighborhood’s roaming mango vendor, and
even about the distinctions between Jainism as opposed to Hinduism. Despite their

The majority of the membership of the couchsurfing community lives in Western nations and
some couchsurfers complain that Western couchsurfers are “cosmopolites only while on tour; once
they return home, they keep their houses closed to people whom they consider completely different
in terms of culture or religion” (Buchberger 2013:28). Although only an anecdotal example from a
Tunisian couchsurfing host, it hints at the idea that cosmopolitanism comes in many shapes and



friendliness, I still took the standard travel precaution of counting my rupees at the end
of a day and then storing my rupees and passport under my mattress when I slept. I can
say with certainty that I had the equivalent of $100 stolen from me by my hosts. I came
to this realization after I had lost my rupee notes overnight, perhaps when I woke up to
use the restroom. At first, I was sure that I would confront my host family about my
missing money. Yet I felt pressured to give them the benefit of the doubt. If I were to
confront them—as their gracious guest—I would run the risk of ending our hospitable
It wasn’t until I had left their home that I decided to stand up for myself. On the
phone, I tried to explain (my hosts were fluent English spakers) that I was missing some
money without passing judgment but my hosts took it personally. Since my hosts were a
family—husband, wife, and 3-year-old—I felt ashamed for having to assume anything
disingenuous of them. A few days after our phone conversation, I tried to visit their
profile page to leave a reference and was surprised to find that their profile no longer
existed; they had deleted their page. I couldn’t be sure if this act was a method to cover
up their thievery or just a coincidence. Nonetheless, it was fishy.
Once I had arrived back to the States from my trip to India, I wanted to tell my
family about some of the couchsurfers who I had met while I was away. I showed them
some profile pages from hosts. During this visit to, I also recognized
that the dishonest hosts’ profile page had reappeared online. Before I knew it, I had
already written a scathing negative reference but hesitated before I clicked “submit,”
which would have published the reference online. In fact, I deleted it. If I would have
posted a negative reference, I would have risked starting a firestorm in which both


profiles—mine and theirs—would ultimately be emblazoned with a badge of
untrustworthiness for the rest of the couchsurfing community to view: a negative
Although my story is an isolated example, it presents a snapshot of how
couchsurfing experiences might occur that yield positive references even if the
experience was far from positive. Another reason for the homogeneity of couchsurfing
references could be a product of the lofty Core Values (see chapter three), mission
statement, and “spirit of couchsurfing” (Tan 2012:84) that couchsurfers are made
familiar with as they participate in the network. In other words, the utopian rhetoric of could illicit specific results.

I assume that my hosts would not have left a positive reference on my couchsurfing profile page
since they were aghast that I would even think to accuse them of stealing.


7. Obfuscate the Exchange of Money to Better the World

In Joyless cosmopolitans: The moral economy of ethical tourism, Debbie Lisle argues that
ethical tourists function under a “discursive monopoly [that] encourages the virtues of
ethical tourism and condemns the pursuit of pleasure endemic to mass tourism,” thereby
moralizing tourism (Lisle 2012:142). In her model, ethical tourists trade in their time to
relax for “doing good,” which, in their eyes, not only betters the world but also betters
themselves as individuals (Lisle 2010:148).
Lisle skillfully express the role of ethics in tourism yet gives little attention to the
requirements of ethical tourists to arrive in a location in which to “do good.” In other
words, consumption (in the form of plane tickets, supplies for travel, fees to partake in
ethical tourism projects, and even lodging) is implicit in the practice of ethical tourism.
These tourists cannot participate in ethical tourism without expending money.
Spending—an activity which could contribute to international economic equalities
between developed and developing nations (esp. in the sector of tourism)—seems to fly
in the face of ethical tourists’ virtuous and non-commercial motivations. Yet, from the
perspective of ethical tourists, their money might be considered virtuous since it is only
being used to better the world. Mass tourists have reportedly hedonistic spending
practices if examined through the prism of ethical tourism.
What I wish to highlight is that even though money has a role in the agenda of
ethical tourism, consumption is veiled during the practice. Value is ascribed to “doing
good,” thus overlooking the position of money in ethical tourism.


In this chapter, I seek to fill in the hole that I left vacant in the previous chapter. I
left out a scenario that attended to the nexus of monetary exchange and the couchsurfing
community. Like ethical tourism, the couchsurfing community muddies how money,
exchange, economies, and methods of compensation act within displays of hospitality.
First, I articulate how the members of the couchsurfing community pariticpate in
monetary exchange without opening a wallet. Second, I propose that the couchsurfing
network is better understood as an example of a sharing economy based on
collaboration, resource sharing, and online technologies. To draw this project to a close,
I end on a high note and conclude with a final anecdote from Doug that demonstrates
the emotional benefits of couchsurfing.

Frugality Transforms
According to my experience in the couchsurfing community and findings of
other scholars, tourists are initially attracted to the couchsurfing community by the
prospect of free travel arrangements but then fall in love with the like-minded
membership of the network and opportunity for cross-cultural exchange (Picard 2013:23;
Tan 2013:151). This mythologized narrative reveals two personal transitions which
individuals undergo when they join the couchsurfing community: superficial to deep and
personal benefit to collective growth. In this story, couchsurfers only want to save
themselves money and are only interested in hosts who are willing to provide free
hospitality. But then, after experiencing a couchsurfing hospitality experience firsthand,
they are captivated by the social intimacy which couchsurfing affords. Couchsurfers
become “deep” in that they separate themselves from their initial self-centered interests


of frugality and see the glory in other couchsurfers as part of a larger transnational
community. By decentralizing commercial transaction, couchsurfers make space for
authentic exchanges that ignore privilege, money, and personal assets.
Romanticized stories that refer to personal betterment that subsequently
transform the world into a global community of strangers-turned-friends are
heartwarming. Yet warm and fuzzy feelings cover up inequity. Similar to the case of
ethical tourism, there is an underlying monetary requirement to participate in the
couchsurfing community. Ignoring the obvious fact that one must be able to afford to
plane, train, or bus tickets, couchsurfers must also possess documentation if they intend
to travel internationally (e.g., a passport), language skills (proficiency levels can be listed
on an online profile page), and what Loader and Dutton call “network literacies” (Loader
and Dutton 2012:611). The final piece of this list signifies that, if couchsurfers cannot
use/own a computer, they will be unable to navigate/access the Internet, thus
extinguishing their chances to build a trustworthy online reputation on
It could be argued that because currency has no place in the couchsurfing
community, hospitality is priced in time, energy, and friendship. Further, “learning,”
“growing,” and “sharing” are hallmarks of the ethos of and
couchsurfing profile pages which contribute to the non-commercial roots of the
couchsurfing community (Picard 2013:23). Yet, even though speaking in terms of
“meaningful connections” takes the place of room prices, hospitality cannot be stripped
Even if couchsurfers have occasional Internet access, the couchsurfing community favors societies
in which individuals have constant access the Internet. While Internet cafés help out, couchsurfers
are better able to participate in the network when they have the capability to regularly receive
updates, messages, and schedule changes from potential hosts/guests.



of monetary value. In other words, couchsurfing hosts provide services for tourists (who
are fellow members of the couchsurfing network) like lodging, travel advice, and
hospitality. If couchsurfing guests were not members of the network, they would be
required to spend money on these services in order to visit a destination.
While money might not be at the forefront of couchsurfers minds, it is still
present within the couchsurfing community but translated into the language of
hospitality. Resources—of monetary value—belong to the community instead of
individuals. Therefore, couchsurfing unequally benefits the West and, due to economic,
linguistic, and structural constraints, represents humanity—a “global community”—as “a
global middle-class of mainly younger people” who speak English (Picard 2013:24). A Sharing Economy
Rachel Botsman, widely considered the principal spokeswoman for
“Collaborative Consumption,” categorizes the couchsurfing network into a broader
category of sharing economies. Although various social scientists and economists
specialize in the phenomenon of the sharing economy, Botsman represents how the
sharing economy is understood by laypeople largely due to the popularity of her TED
talk titled “The currency of the new economy is trust” (Botsman 2012). In 2010,
Botsman (and co-author Roo Rogers) published What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of
Collaborative Consumption, which was the first book of its kind to coalesce the historical,
social, economic, and political background that produced Collaborative Consumption.53

Even the book is branded in the spirit of Collaborative Consumption; on the inside panel of the
book a space exists for readers to list their name, date, location, and “note for the next reader.” The
original owner of the book is encouraged to create a “code name” for their book and then track its



Botsman and Rogers summarize the combination of factors behind Collaborative
The convergence of social networks, a renewed belief in the importance of
community, pressing environmental concerns, and cost consciousness are moving
us away from the old top-heavy, centralized, and controlled forms of
consumerism toward one of sharing, aggregation, openness, and cooperation.
(Botsman and Rogers 2010:xx)
Collaborative Consumption utilizes peer-to-peer networks—both on and offline—to
cultivate the feeling of community that is produced when individuals pool their
Even though their book paints in broad strokes, mainly due to the fact that
Collaborative Consumption and sharing economies have not yet fully emerged yet, it
accurately foregrounds the role of online connection to situate Collaborative
Consumption as distinct from half-century old movements like “cooperatives,
collectives, and communes” (Botsman and Rogers 2010:xv). Reputation plays a larger
role than currency because “reputation is the measurement of how much a community
trusts you,” and affects one’s degree of participation in a sharing economy (Botsman
2012). (Think back to the impact of Toby’s Uber driver rating in chapter one.) In The
Sharing Economy Lacks A Shared Definition, Botsman breaks down the differences between,
for examples, a business-to-consumer peer economies and collaborative economy—
couchsurfing falls under the category of a “peer-to-peer sharing economy” (Botsman
2013). Botsman does not separate sharing economies which have non-monetary benefits

journey on Below the space for the book’s “code name,” there
are seven more spaces for readers to write their name after reading.


versus those which have profit potential, thereby lumping couchsurfing into the same
category of Airbnb.54 fits the mold of the sharing economy because it relies on online
reputation building mechanisms to predict trustworthiness in non-virtual settings,
sharing of physical space, and functions outside the bounds commercial tourism options.
Moreover, the couchsurfing network speaks to “a renewed belief in the importance of
community,” which Botsman and Rogers link to the fear of losing social intimacy in the
Digital Era (Botsman and Rogers 2010:xx).

“I certainly can’t pay you back”: A Final Word from Doug
With this in mind, Doug’s narrative of modernity—which celebrates the
couchsurfing network as a route to spreading a nostalgic spirit of community to the
world at large—no longer sounds as fantastical (see chapter four). After connecting with
hundreds of other couchsurfers, Doug told me that he believed that couchsurfing
functioned as an alternative economy that ascribed value to feelings instead of currency.
No matter how many couchsurfers walked through his door, Doug realized that he was
participating in an unequal exchange in which hosts “can never repay me [Doug].”
However, this did not bother Doug in the slightest.
In recent sharing economy news, in just six years of existence, Airbnb is valued at $10 billion (Rusli
et al. 2014). It is the already the fifth-largest hotelier in the world (Carr 2014). From my perspective,
Airbnb represents a solution to corporatization and implicit profit potential of the couchsurfing
network. Instead of ignore the role of money in hospitality, Airbnb acknowledges it while still
committing to opening up places for shared hospitality (for a price) around the world (Ikkala and
Lampinen 2014). Reviews for Airbnb hosts and guests intend to put users on their best behaviors
when in the presence of each other (Germann Molz 2014). Airbnb is on track to have over one
million listing on its website by the end of 2014 (Carr 2014). It appears that Airbnb might take away
from the profits of the world’s leading hoteliers such as Marriott, Four Seasons, and Hilton but a
recent study—focused on the effect of Airbnb on the profits of lower-end hotels in the state of
Texas over the last decade—found the long-term losses would be marginal (Zervas et al. 2014).


I conclude with a final optimistic account of the couchsurfing community. After
multiple chapters of criticism, I wish for informants’ devotion to the couchsurfing
network to resurface.
In this account, Doug narrates in second person. “You” refers to a couchsurfing
host. Doug seeks to reimburse his hypothetical host with a product into which he put
time and effort:
I can and I jar and I make jellies as well as pickled goods. I love to bring a jar with
me [when I couchsurf]. I like to say, ‘This [jar of jelly] is something from me. I
made this and therefore I respect you.’ … This jar of jelly does not adequately
pay you [the couchsurfing host] for the place that you’ve given me to sleep. This
jar of jelly would sell on the open market for 10 dollars. I make some damn good
jelly. If I stay in a hotel in your town, it’s 60 bucks. O.K., that’s already an
unequal exchange. And then you’re probably going to hook me up with a friend
at the rental counter at a local place who’s gonna’ get me a deal on a bike to go
around town or you’re going to tell me where the good hot spring is nearby or
even where I should go ski. You aren’t going to lie to me—why would you?
There’s no reason for that. … You’re going to help me out. You’re going to give
me something that I can never get at a hotel.
The price of what you give to me becomes exorbitant. I certainly can’t pay you
back for it with my jar of jelly. But, it becomes unimportant. It’s like a barter
economy: you need something [hospitality and travel advice] and I have
something entirely different [community]. Couchsurfing becomes an economy of
respect and an economy of love, and an economy of hospitality. And if you’re
making the effort to be a part of the community, we’re all good. Done.
Provided that couchsurfers treat each other with care, Doug surmises that couchsurfers
do not care what they “get” out of a couchsurfing hospitality experience after it is
completed. Perhaps a “meaningful connection” is more than enough.


Appendix A
• Tell me about how you experienced travel before you joined the couchsurfing
• How has your experience as a member of the couchsurfing network redefined
travel in your life?
• What motivated you to join the couchsurfing network in the first place?
• Imagine that a couchsurfing guest knocks on your door after you have arranged
to host him.
o What do you expect from your guest as a host?
o How has your understanding of hospitality been shaped through
o Does it differ from how you understood it when you were younger?
• Compare the couchsurfing scene here [hometown of the interviewee] to how it
takes form in other places in which you have couchsurfed.
• What role does trust play in how you use the couchsurfing network?
• Visualize the couchsurfing project as a single person.
o What does this person look like?
o What are his/her personal qualities like?
• What would the couchsurfing project look like without the Internet?
o Please expand upon on how you think the Internet will/won’t have a role
in our lives in the future.


Appendix B


Appendix C


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