For a while, Couchsurfing had an amazing run, connecting travelers with hosts and helping strangers become friends. Until around 2011, it was a way-crazy gift-economy for hospitality on a global scale, with more than five million members (now seven million) in 90,000+ cities. Who would have thought that a loose non-market community could ever get so big while retaining its ideals and ethical stance?
Alas, Couchsurfing’s popularity created some new problems of its own, and the site was plagued by some dubious management decisions, technical challenges, and the lack of funds. At Medium.com, Roy Marvelous explains what happened in 2011:
Basically, Couchsurfing owed tax money (its tax-exempt status as a non-profit was not approved), it needed far more investment in servers and it needed to hire more engineers to reprogram the site to make it scalable. And apparently, the only viable solution was to become a for-profit, sell a portion to venture capitalists and have it run by professionals.
The problems were real but I’ll be blunt: Couchsurfing was stolen from its members. This was code, content & community built by the members, for the members. None of those volunteers, working for free under the false pretense that Couchsurfing would stay non-profit, received any equity in this new corporation. Why couldn’t there have been another way? I would have donated money. I would have been happy with advertising. They could have moved Couchsurfing HQ to Berlin or Chang Mai or Santiago rather than be based in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the world.
The moment Couchsurfing was sold, it stopped becoming a community and started becoming a service, not unlike Yelp or Meetup or Facebook. And herein lies the problem: Couchsurfing now has an identity-crisis.
After the Internal Revenue Service refused to grant Couchsurfing tax-exempt nonprofit status – formally known as “501(c)(3)” status under the tax code – Couchsurfing decided to become a “Certified B Company,” or “for-benefit” corporation. As Marvelous points out, this was apparently the only way to move forward. (But is this true?) By 2012, Couchsurfing had raised more than $22 million in venture capital money and it was on its way to becoming another profit-oriented corporation in the “sharing economy.” (The so-called sharing economy, it should be noted, is less about sharing than about micro-rentals of things that previously could not be marketized.)
In other words, a once-flourishing commons failed to navigate the challenges of scale, management and funding. What was once a people-based gift economy became an Internet service with a populist, happy-face marketing veneer.
Since its corporatization, the site's cultural ethic and vibe shifted. This was inevitable once venture capital investors became involved because VCs generally want to earn some serious return on investment. And that requires advertising, cross-branding promotions, discount deals with various travel companies, etc. In other words, a new ethic, a new set of implicit relationships with people, a hyper-awareness of marketing identity. Yet the absence of all the familiar marketing come-ons and market relationships was precisely what Couchsurfers treasured.
Personally, this new incarnation of Couchsurfing is not necessarily a bad thing. The site was and is still useful as a way to meet interesting people while traveling. But let’s be clear: the site is no longer a commons, and the cultural vibe that once animated it will surely change further. When the new corporate owners and investors came on board, all of the accumulated social equity and goodwill created by Couchsurfers was essentially monetized. A great opportunity to create a new organizational form on a vast scale was lost. And the pressures to adopt a more market- and service-based culture, instead of a commons culture, will only grow, especially as Couchsurfing management compares itself to AirBNB and similar "sharing economy" business models.
I’m sure that one can dissect this history as a matter of individual personalities, management choices and so forth, but I think the bigger story is the void of institutions, infrastructures and funding to help new commons grow and flourish.
Couchsurfing’s evolution into a corporation should be a cause for reflection. Is this fate inevitable for any commons that wants to scale? Is incorporation as a business the only realistic end-point,even for a remarkably popular commons? How can a commons-oriented enterprise secure sufficient funds to expand and manage itself properly?
It strikes me that here is where the cooperative movement and the commons might learn a lot from each other, and perhaps come up with some constructive new revenue and participation models. The model used by so many open source communities may be worth emulating. The Linux and Apache open source communities, for example, receive invaluable support from affiliated foundations led by respected elders from the hacker communities. Money can be raised and filtered through the foundations – but the open-source communities can continue to function as commons retain the integrity of their relationships, culture and ethics.
Perhaps there are other ways that capital expenses and working funds could be raised. Crowdfunding is an obvious possibility for raising “gift investments” in commons infrastructure. The point is to de-couple the logic of the market from that of a commons. This means escaping the impersonal, transactional mentality of the market and nourishing social commitments to a larger set of purposes. Put another way, the challenge is to imagine new ways of structuring functional trusts in which stewardship, not money-making, can prevail as the top priority.
It would be great if a venture fund for commons could be established, or if a crack team of commons-oriented financers and management consultants could be brought together. Maybe the commons-friendly Institute for Social Banking http://www.social-banking.org in Switzerland might wish to tackle this challenge.
There is an alternative to Couchsurfing that hews to its original vision of a hospitality gift economy. It’s called Bewelcome.org. This website functions as a French nonprofit organization that relies entirely on donations and volunteers. There is a lot to be said for this approach, but as the Couchsurfing experience showed, there are also limitations. One of the great unmet challenges ahead is how to incubate and support new commons so that they can grow and become a more stable, durable institutional form.