A recurrent problem for any successful digital commons is the temptation to privatize and monetize the value generated by it. Once enough value has been created (impressive web traffic, cool software, a repository of information), the people in charge inevitably get to thinking, “Hey, this could be worth a lot of money!” And so begins the insider-driven enclosure of an informal commons, usually cloaked in soothing rationalizations.
The latest example is CouchSurfing’s lunge toward the marketplace. CouchSurfing is an international gift economy that lets people find a free “couch” to sleep on in more than 81,000 cities around the world. Begun in 2003, the website has always prided itself on being a self-organized, tightly knit and trusting community for authentic cultural encounters and generous hospitality. It has been the deliberate antithesis of crass tourism and commercial travel. Travelers are actually prohibited from paying their hosts because the whole enterprise is meant to foster meaningful social encounters. The whole enterprise has been run as a community, not as a business enterprise. (I blogged about CouchSurfing here in 2010.)
Imagine the shock and dismay of many CouchSurfers to learn that “their” website is now a for-profit corporation that recently raised $7.6 million from Benchmark venture capital and the Omidyar Network. The official reason given is that CouchSurfing needs to hire ten top-notch programmers to assure that the website can stay current and compete with a number of for-profit travel/hospitality sites that have arisen, such as Tripping.com, AirBnB and OneFineStay.com. To its credit, CouchSurfing “owners” have filed to become a “B Corporation,” which legally allows to pursue mission-oriented goals as well as financial ones.
Still, devoted CouchSurfers have reason to be angry. It appears that much of the sweat-equity that they contributed to the community is about to monetized and that they will have little say in its future evolution. It’s entirely likely that the community vibe will start to erode as the business side of the website starts to prey upon the community by trying to sell it stuff or data-mine its personal information and travel habits.
CouchSurfers were not consulted in advance about the site’s change of direction; they simply took for granted the founders’ benevolent supervision. This may have been naïve, but what is the practical alternative? Individual users have little chance of organizing to push a benevolent founder into establishing a more robust form of governance and accountability. But that means they remain vulnerable to future dispossession.
This whole episode has the same feel as Arianna Huffington’s sale of the Huffington Post to AOL. It was the ol’ switcheroo: get the rubes in the door by incanting “we are family” and rallying around shared ideals -- and then once the emotionally invested community grows to a sufficient scale, bring in the lawyers and venture capitalists to convert it all into a privately owned money machine. Presto: an ingenious inside-job enclosure of the commons.
Now, in their defense, Huffington liked to point out that the Huffington Post was always a business venture and that it took lots of money to develop it. Quite true. But does that mean that the loyalists whose unpaid blog posts and web-linking built the brand equity should have no stake in its disposition? Why should the business possibilities always trump the legitimate interests of commoners?
The Huffington Post and CouchSurfing episodes both underscore an important point: it is vital to clarify and secure the governance and legal and financial stewardship of an apparent commons at the outset. It is also vital to establish new sorts of commons-based governance models that have legal standing and financial viability. Otherwise, a community’s hard work can be summarily commandeered by a selfish autocrat or entrepreneur simply because “going private” is the path of least resistance: familiar, legal and lucrative.
Of course, an aggrieved community always has the potential of stalking off. But this retort is something of a empty kiss-off. A community shouldn’t have to make that sort of a painful choice in the first place. Moreover, once a community gets large enough – in the case of CouchSurfers, three million people! – it’s extremely hard to mobilize a significant scale of defections to hurt the for-profit venture. As a practical matter, the utility and brand recognition of an established website likely trumps the threat of defections. Yes, at the margins, a handful of disaffected commoners may bruise the “brand reputation” of the new venture (think of protests against Facebook’s privacy-hostile innovations), but there are always lots of newbies willing to be late-comers to the party.
Is this the only evolutionary pathway for online communities?
I think online communities have much greater potential. They should not simply serve as free or low-cost staging areas for incubating new businesses. It is easy for the stewards/managers of digital commons to unilaterally take websites private and convert them into conventional business enterprises (albeit with a gloss of social commitment). The would-be commoners, by contrast, have a collective-action problem in organizing themselves to take charge of the enterprise, manage it as a commons and raise operating funds and capital to compete with market players.
The world lucked out that Craig Newmark is a decent guy who is not into making scads of money, but rather a benevolent steward of a for-profit enterprise (Craigslist) with the trappings of commons practices. It's not a commons, but it emulates the ethos of a commons. I also admire entrepreneurs who come up with new ways to build innovative businesses. But I see no reason why proto-commoners should be dispossessed of all the hard work and social buzz that they may contribute in making community-driven startups successful. The long-term benefits of treating the software code, website or database as a commons are likely to exceed the ultimate payoff pocketed by the private entrepreneur. But strategically, the lone CEO, entrepreneur or investors group has the upper hand in deciding the fate of online communities. The commoners are unorganized and disempowered.
If Daniel Hoffer, the president and CEO of CouchSurfing, is serious that he simply wants to keep the website features cool and contemporary, and that requires capital, he should make clear that the community will have some meaningful participation in its future directions. Otherwise, the community should brace itself for a future filled with advertising, data-mining, subtle marketing tie-ins and come-ons, dubious motivations, and so on. The Benchmark venture capitalists will have to earn their return on investment somehow. The final result may still be a worthy thing -- but it won't be CouchSurfing as people know and love it today.
CouchSurfing has been a remarkable and special experiment showing that a gift economy can indeed scale to international dimensions via the Internet, and that a project can leverage and give voice to people's best, most hospitable motives. It would be shameful if it degenerates into just another cash cow.