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.