1 THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO Rethinking Authenticity in Tourist Experience: analyzing the motivations of travelers in person-to- person hospitality networks By Zachary Lamb August 2011A paper submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements forthe Master of Arts degree in the Master of Arts Program in the Social SciencesFaculty Advisor: Karin Knorr CetinaPreceptor: Kathleen Fernicola
2 Rethinking “Authenticity” in Tourist Experience: Analyzing the Motivations of Travelers in Two Newly Emergent Person-To-Person Hospitality Networks By: Zachary LambThis study examines the motivations of people who belong to person-to-person travelers‟hospitality networks like CouchSurfing and Air Bed and Breakfast. Such networks allowtravelers to stay with strangers in their homes while touring, either for free as in CouchSurfing,or for a small nightly fee as in Airbnb. Contrary to recent analyses of tourist behavior, this studyfinds that “authenticity-seeking behavior” is a primary motivation, among others, forparticipating in travelers‟ hospitality networks. Based on these findings, a revitalization of theconcept of authenticity in tourism scholarship is suggested. To analyze individual motivationsand preferences for a particular tourism modality, this study deployed a combined approach ofsemi-structured life-world interviews and ethnographic observations. The results reveal that aplurality of motivations – authentic experience, economic savings, intimate personal connection,social distinction, enchantment, and social networking – combine to make travelers hospitalitynetworks enticing options for a growing segment of the touring population in capitalist societies.Keywords: Authenticity, Commodification, Hospitality Imagine being told that in all of your future travels, you wouldn‟t be staying in a hotel ora hostel again. Instead, you‟d stay with a stranger in their home. Immediately anxiety sets in,even panic, as one begins to contemplate the peculiar idea of resigning one‟s safety to the care ofa stranger in an unfamiliar context. Will the stranger be a good stranger? Or will they be a badstranger, nay, an “ax-murderer” looking to loot, pillage, and injure my person (Germann Molz2007: 66)? The same anxieties plague any host who is kind enough, or crazy enough, to open hisor her home to a stranger. Yet despite inherent ambivalences, millions of people are nowengaging in this sort of personalized hospitality all over the world today with the help of severalnewly emergent online-offline travelers‟ hospitality networks such as CouchSurfingInternational, Global Freeloaders, Air Bed and Breakfast, and Roomorama. These networksallow people to connect over the Internet and stay in one another‟s homes while travelling, eitherfor free as in CouchSurfing and Global Freeloaders, or for a nightly fee as in Airbnb andRoomorama. With titillating intrigue and ostensible danger, what motivates people in large andgrowing numbers to travel in this fashion? A Marriot in Manhattan and a Marriot in Manchesterwill look exactly the same, but with these sites, consumers don‟t know what they‟re going to get.Through interviews with members of CouchSurfing and Airbnb, the two most popular networksfacilitating this novel form of tourism, this study seeks to understand why the private homes of
3strangers, and the strangers themselves, are now so appealing for a growing segment of thetouring population in capitalist societies? The theorization of tourism and its motivations is as diverse as its subject. Do touriststravel because they‟re alienated and crave an elusive sense of authenticity (MacCannell 1973,1976; Pearce and Moscardo 1986)? Are tourists searching for inauthentic replications, orsimulacra, of modern life (Boorstin 1961; Baudrillard 1983; Feifer 1985; Ritzer and Liska1997)? Is authenticity even a relevant category (Cohen 1988; Reisinger and Steiner 2005), and ifso, what kind of authenticity (Wang 1999)? Another line of thinking, inspired by Victor Turner‟s(1969) theorization of ritual process, posits that tourists‟ “pilgrimages” resemble quasi-religiousexperiences akin to liminality (Graburn 1983; Shields 1990; Eade and Sallnow 1991). Moreover,Urry (2002) has argued that tourists “gazes” are socially and historically constructed, and assuch, people will tour for different reasons, and to see different things. Indeed, many scholarshave developed typologies that attempt to account for the diversity seen in contemporary tourism(Smith 1989; Cohen 1979; Kohn, 1997). And still others have focused on the effects of tourismon locals‟ perspectives (Chambers 2000). Yet little attention has been paid to lodging choice as part of the tourist experience.Perhaps this is because until recently there were a limited number of options. One would eitherstay in a hotel or a hostel when traveling, or with an acquaintance. However, this is no longer thecase as the popularity of person-to-person hospitality networks grows, opening up private homesto travelers the world over. Where one stays when travelling, then, is no longer a mundane,innocuous, or non-trivial aspect of tourist behavior, and scholars of tourism have been slow tothe trend. Indeed, the networks described and analyzed in these pages are only beginning to bestudied (Germann-Molz 2007; Bialski 2008; Rosen et al. 2011). The potential for firsthand,insider knowledge of a place is greatly increased when one moves out of the depopulated spaceof a hotel room and into the living room of a local person. Such intimate engagement with thelocal other dramatically alters the entire travel experience in ways not previously theorized. Assuch, the sociology of tourism stands to benefit from an analysis of the motivations of travelerswho desire to stay with strangers in the privacy of their of home while touring. This research attempts to fill this gap. Data is derived from qualitative, semi-structuredlife-world interviews with hosts and travelers from Airbnb and CouchSurfing, and fromobservations in homes and at social events. My findings reveal a plurality of motivations that
4combine to make travelling in this fashion enticing for cosmopolitan travelers. Particularly, manyrespondents indicated that their experiences travelling in these networks are more “authentic,” or“real,” than those of the standard mass “tourists” that they pejoratively malign. Althoughpronounced trivial, even useless (Reisigner and Steiner 2005), the burgeoning popularity ofperson-to-person travelers‟ hospitality networks suggests that the concept of authenticity meritsrevival in tourism scholarship. In the next section I will explore the theoretical foundations of the concept ofauthenticity. I will relate the desire for authenticity among contemporary tourists to changes inglobal capitalism that have occurred in the last quarter of the twentieth-, and early twenty-first,centuries. In the third section I will explain the methodology I followed to research these twocommunities of travelers. In the fourth section I analyze the motivations of travelers in person-to-person hospitality networks. Finally, I summarize my findings and suggest directions forfuture research.II. TheoryAuthenticity in the Literature My findings suggest the need to reinvigorate debates about authenticity in tourismexperience (Boorstin 1961; Brown 1996; Bruner 1989, 1994; Cohen 1988; Daniel 1996; Handlerand Linnekin 1984; MacCannell 1973, 1976; Pearce and Moscardo 1986; Redfoot 1984;Reisinger and Steiner 2005; Salamone 1997; Selwyn 1996; Silver 1993; Wang 1999). Since itsbeginnings, authenticity has been debated consistently in the tourism literature. Trilling (1972:93) argues that the concept of authenticity was first used in museums to discriminate betweenobjects, and find the “real” thing. Reisinger and Steiner define “object authenticity” as the“noncontentious genuineness of an observable thing such as an artifact, fossil, or dress” (2005:69). This notion of objective authenticity implies that authenticity is something “out there,”empirically verifiable, and discernable by expert knowledge as it was in the museum. Operatingwith this view of authenticity, Boorstin (1961) and MacCannell (1973, 1976) debated its role intourism. Boorstin (1961) denigrated modern mass tourism and held that tourists relished in theconsumption of “pseudo-events,” which were brought about by the commodification of culture(Wang 1999: 352). “Pseudo-events” are necessarily inauthentic, Boorstin maintained, and byconsuming them, tourists replicated the inauthentic patterns of their everyday lives. “The
5tourist,” Boorstin argues, “seldom likes the authentic product of foreign culture, he prefers hisown provincial expectations (1961: 106).” MacCannell (1973, 1976) takes the opposite view,and argues that modern tourists are seeking to escape the alienation of modern life and findauthenticity when they travel. Borrowing from Goffman (1972 ), MacCannell argues thattourist space is divided into “front” and “back” regions. This divide entails a tension. Backregions can really be fronts that are “staged” to look like back regions (MacCannell 1973: 597).Indeed, tourists may think they‟re getting an authentic experience, but really, they may just get arepresentation disguised as authenticity, or a front region staged as a back region. The aims ofMacCannell‟s (1973 1976) modern tourist, then, are to penetrate as deeply as possible intosocieties back regions in hopes of finding the authentic. Although in disagreement, both of theseearly theorists of tourism held that authenticity was an objectively verifiable quality thatpositively or negatively motivated tourists. With the passage of time, this view fell out of fashion. Scholars of tourism began toborrow from social constructionism (Berger and Luckman 1971; Gergen 1985; see Schwandt1994 for a review) to conceptualize authenticity. Constructivists hold that authenticity is basedon interpretation, is historically and culturally contingent, and is socially constructed (Bruner1994; Handler and Linnekin 1984: 286; Spooner 1986; 220; Cohen 1988; 378; Wood 1993; 58).The authentic, then, is a hermeneutic, and emanates from subjects rather than flows from objects.Indeed, Wang writes: “authenticity is a projection of tourists‟ own beliefs, expectations,stereotyped images, preferences, and consciousness onto toured objects…” (1999: 355).Interpretive, authenticity becomes pluralistic and negotiable (Cohen 1988). Moreover, context(Salamone 1997), ideology (Silver 1993), and the interpretation of history (Bruner 1994), alleffect subjects‟ perceptions of the authentic. To further complicate authenticity, Cohen (1988)argues that something originally regarded as inauthentic can become authentic over time in aprocess he calls “emergent authenticity.” Cohen uses Disney World to illustrate emergentauthenticity. Thus, according to Culler (1981), and constructivists generally, what we search forwhen we travel is “symbolic authenticity” decided upon by our own criteria. Still a third perspective, loosely labeled postmodern, trivializes the importance ofauthenticity for explaining tourism, or denies its existence entirely. With “hyperreality” (Eco1986), and “simulacrum” (Baudrillard 1983), postmodern thinkers insist on deconstructing theboundaries between sign and reality, copy and original. In postmodern social theory, simulation
6ordains. For postmodern theorists, then, there is no place for either “objective” or “constructed”authenticity, and therefore, the concept can‟t possibly motivate tourist behavior. Indeed, Ritzerand Liska argue contrary to MacCannell and assert that tourists unabashedly search for theinauthentic in an overtly rational “McDisney” society (1997: 107), where McDonald‟srestaurants and Disney theme parks are paradigmatic of society broadly. With this assertion weare back to Boorstin‟s (1961) critique. Yet now the tourist searches for the inauthentic notbecause they‟re simpletons as Boorstin held, but rather, because the authenticity of the originalhas been destroyed and everything is a simulation. Or is it? So far we have only been speaking of the authenticity of toured objects. Wang(1999) proposes that we pay attention to “existential states of being” induced by tourist activity.“Existential authenticity,” Wang argues, consists of the “personal or inter-subjective feelingsactivated by the liminal process of tourist activity” (1999: 351). Tourists engage in activities thatfacilitate an exploration of the authentic self, and thereby achieve an “authenticity of Being,” astate in which one is “true to oneself” (Wang 1999). Wang argues that being “true to oneself” isachieved in relation to an ideal of authenticity that arises in modern society in response to theexistential conditions of modernity (1999: 360). The ideal of authenticity, Wang maintains, hasboth romantic and nostalgic elements. It is nostalgic in the sense that we idealize states in whichpeople “are supposed as freer, more innocent, spontaneous, purer, and truer to themselves thanusual” (Wang 1999: 360). The modern ideal of authenticity is also romantic “because it accentsnaturalness…and feelings in response to the self-constraints imposed by reason and rationality inmodernity” (Wang 1999: 360). Tourism is a way to step outside of the rationalized structures ofthe everyday and connect with these ideals (Wang 1999: 361). In this view, tourists engage inthings like camping, mountaineering, and perhaps even CouchSurfing, to aid in an idiosyncraticexploration of the “authentic self” and cultivate an authenticity of Being. Wang maintains that asense of the authentic self “involves a balance between the two parts of one‟s Being: reason andemotion, self-constraint and spontaneity, Logos and Eros, or what Freud called the „realityprinciple‟ and the „pleasure principle‟” (1999: 360). Modern societies have shifted this formulato inequality with its emphasis on rationalization. Indeed, Wang writes: “A sense of the inauthentic self arises when the balance between these two parts of Being is broken down in such a way that rational factors over-control non-rational factors (emotion, bodily feeling, and spontaneity) and leave too little space for the satisfaction of the latter” (1999” 361).
7Thus, for Wang, the search for the authentic self emerges in reaction to what Ritzer (1993) hascalled the “Mcdonaldization of society,” the process whereby culture comes to resemble to therationalized efficiency of McDonalds restaurants. By stepping outside of the dominantinstitutional paradigms of modernity, we may, then, search for an idealized authenticity of Being. There is too much to loose, I maintain, if we abandon the idea of authenticity asReisinger and Steiner (2005: 80) suggest. It is true that the idea is not relevant for somecategories of tourists (see Ritzer and Liska 1997 for an example), but for the tourists studied inthis paper, I argue that the concept is relevant, especially “existential authenticity.” If we assumewith Baudrillard (1983) the ubiquity of simulation, especially in tourist sites, where are we tofind authenticity? Can we? Might it elusively lurk in the home of a local person, waiting to becultivated by non-instrumental social relations? Presumably, the home is not a site of “stagedauthenticity” (MacCannell 1973), and as such, represents the ultimate back region in Goffman‟sscheme (1972). Indeed, my data suggests that people do act on the basis of perceivedauthenticity. For these travelers, the private home of a stranger might be the last bastion of theauthentic.1 Merely sitting on a café veranda gawking at passer-bys will no longer pass for anauthentic experience for some people. Instead, travelers need to “get to know” a local intimatelyin order for authenticity to be experienced.Commodifying the Self If tourists explore the authentic self in a break with the everyday when they travel, thenwe must inquire about its opposite: the self in day-to-day life. How is the self structured in such away as to seem inauthentic? Knorr (2001: 526) suggests that the “lack-wanting” self, derivedfrom the work of Lacan (1975), is in the process of displacing the “I-You-Me” version of theself, theorized by Mead and Freud. In the lack-wanting model, the self is constituted through acontinued perception of lack in relation to an idealized self that is constantly reflected to thesubject in a hypothetical mirror. Lack implies desire, and we have a constant desire to eliminatethe lack. Given that desire is constant, lacks cannot ever be truly eliminated, and the1 I make no claim that there is such a thing as “objective authenticity.” Rather, throughinterviews with members of Airbnb and CouchSurfing, I found that authenticity was a relevantcategory for them. Insofar as the actors depicted in these pages are motivated by the concept, theobserver‟s claims are irrelevant.
8consummation of one desire creates future lacks that need satisfaction from other sources (Knorr2001: 526). In this model, the self is a “structure of wantings in relation to a continually renewedlack” (Knorr 2001: 526). Moreover, Knorr argues that the mirror is no longer supplied by a“primary reference person” (as in a parent) and contained within an individual, but rather, hasbecome “exteriorized” in the media (2001: 527). We are constantly bombarded with flows ofimages, people, and commodities that offer “enchanted displays of possible selves” (Knorr 2001:527). This suggests that the mirror is an ontological presupposition of postmodern life. Themirror incessantly directs our attention to objects and lifestyles that others have, and that welack. Knorr maintains that objects have come to be foregrounded in the mirror “at the expense ofsocial principles and structures” (2001: 527). In this model, then, by virtue of an exteriorizedmirror our lacks are constantly reiterated, Knorr argues, by “institutional processes in a post-industrial society” (2001: 527). Campbell (1983, 1987) advances a similar idea of the self to explain why we desirethings in modern consumer society. For Campbell, in modern societies a general orientationtowards consuming is required. Rather than our wants being directed at particular things, wewant and desire in a generalized and transcendent fashion: we “want to want” and “desire todesire” (Corrigan 1997: 10). For Campbell, then, wanting is a generalized state of being, aprocess that is separate from the actual things or persons our desire is directed at (1983: 282).Campbell historicizes this argument with the claim that Being, equated with desire, is not aninnate propensity of human psychology, but rather, has been inculcated by industrial civilization(1983: 282). Following Weber into the realm of consumption, Campbell argues that thephilosophy of Romanticism provided the foundation for this desiring “consumer ethic” bylegitimating the search for pleasure and aggrandizement of the self. In traditional societies,pleasure was sought in direct embodied experiences like eating, drinking, relaxation, and sex.But now pleasure can be derived disembodied and idiosyncratically in the mind, Campbellargues (Corrigan 1997: 15). With this we have two distinct “hedonisms,” the traditional and themodern, which are underpinned by qualitative differences in the nature of desire (Campbell1987). Critically for Campbell, desiring in and of itself has become a pleasurable endeavor formodern individuals through the vehicle of daydreaming. In this scheme, daydreaming aboutpurchasing goods provides us with pleasurable sensations as we fantasize about what the goodsmight bring to us. Yet when we actually obtain the goods, the actual use-value isn‟t likely to be
9as emotively powerful as was the daydreaming. As such, our desire is constantly searching outnew things to fantasize, and is never able to be satiated like in the lack-wanting version of theself. Ephemeral and fleeting, yet intrinsically pleasurable, our desires are constantly shiftingfrom object to object, and market to market. With these models of the self we see that individuals constantly desire new things withwhich to construct selves. Enmeshed in a market-based society, when our daydreams disillusionus and our lacks become renewed, we must turn perforce to the market to procure theconstituents of selfhood. The self is sustained by concatenations of market transactions over alifetime that stimulate afresh the cycle of lacking and desiring each time we pass through thecheckout line. As such, the market has become inextricably linked with the process of self-construction. In the next section I draw on various literatures to argue that the everyday hasbecome more “inauthentic” to social actors perceptually.The Market Construction of Meaning Through market liberalization, the globalization of production has eroded older, primarilynational, class alignments and antagonisms while further separating production and consumptionglobally (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001: 9). The working classes of formerly industrial societieshave been thrown into flux by recent deindustrialization (Wilson 1996; Smith 2001), such thatsome social analysts have signaled the end of the “first world proletariat (Lash and Urry 1987:6).” Comaroff and Comaroff argue that at the same time, the capitalist class has becometransnational by seeking to “disengage from national obligations, loyalties, and affiliations(2001: 13). In a dystopian scenario presciently fictionalized in the 1950‟s by Kurt Vonnegut inPlayer Piano, international capital increasingly seeks to liberate itself from labor (Comaroff andComaroff 2001: 10). Moreover, the globalization of production has induced ripple effects thatare felt within national borders. Indeed, Smith (2001: 7) argues that for people in thecontemporary United States “tenuousness and uncertainty have become „normal‟ facts of workand employment across the occupational spectrum…” The precariousness, contingency, or“flexibility” of contemporary work diminishes its ability to serve as a stable and meaningfulreferent for individuals today.
10 What are the consequences for the stability of meaning? Knorr (2001) argues that theconcept of “desocialization” helps us to understand how the process of structural change relatesto social meaning systems. Knorr (2001: 520) argues that “de-socialization” occurs whenpreviously held social structures and institutions “empty out” and loose meaning. Yet de-socialization does not imply a loss of the social. Instead, the process of de-socialization, Knorrmaintains, coincides with processes of emergent “postsocial” forms, whereby relationships notpreviously labeled social, acquire the term (2001: 527). As such, postsocial theorization impliesagency, cultural creation, and continuity, as new meaning systems come to replace olderinstitutions and structures. For Knorr, meaningful postsocial relationships are increasingly forgedwith objects, rather than with other people. Indeed, “the modern untying of identities has beenaccompanied by an expansion of object-centered environments,” Knorr maintains, “which situateand stabilize selves, define individual identity just as much as communities and families used todo…” (2001: 525). Central to the argument at hand is the claim that we‟re currently in the midstof a postsocial re-ordering of meanings that, crucially for in present context, has heightened theperception of inauthenticity. To fill the postsocial meaning vacuum, consumption has stepped in to offer the “cure”(Lasch, 1979: 73). Comaroff and Comaroff argue that consumption has risen in importance tosuch an extent that it now shapes “selfhood, society, identity, and even epi-stemic reality” (2001:2). Indeed, consumer goods do much meaning making work. Douglas (2001), and Douglas andIsherwood (1976), argue that goods help us to stabilize social meanings, which are inherentlyunstable throughout the course of events. In this way we use goods to construct culture, and tomake it “visible” for a time in consumption rituals. In this scheme, goods are “good to thinkwith” (Corrigan 1997: 18). Similarly, McCracken (1988) argues that goods serve as “bridges todisplaced cultural meanings.” According to McCracken, cultures close the gap between realityand unfulfilled ideals with goods. For instance, if I want to get in touch with an idealized state, Ineed only think about its trappings. “The individual reflects on the eventual possession of…acottage and in the process reflects upon the possession on an entire way of life…spouse,domestic arrangement and so on,” McCracken contends (1988: 110). This sounds much like thelack-wanting self that was reviewed above. Where Marx sought to bridge the gap between realityand the ideal with revolution, McCracken contends that we actually do this with commodities. Inan age of growing secularism, commodities are the new “opiate of the masses.”
11 In addition to bridging the gap between the real and the ideal, as well as helping us thinkthrough our culture, goods enable us to establish distinction between ourselves, and othersaround us. The idea that we establish social differentiation, and even act politically, throughconsumption has a long history (Baudrillard 1981; Bourdieu 1984; Veblen 1899). Veblen (1899)argued that we were imbued with a natural propensity towards emulation, which in the modernperiod has morphed into “pecuniary emulation.” The need to assert our wealth vis-à-vis others ina game of status compels us to display our wealth and our leisure conspicuously. Weber had asimilar notion when he argued that status helps to define the boundaries of class. Bourdieuargued that distinction is achieved through individualized choices regarding what commodities toconsume (see Holt 1988 for an application of Bourdieu‟s model to an American context). “Weconsume not products but symbols,” Bourdieu argued, “with the intention of establishingdistinction between ourselves and other social strata…” (Lash and Urry 1987: 293). Bourdieu‟stheorization of consumption is consistent with Baudrillard (1981), who argued that theconsumption of products per se is not what is important. Buadrillard argued throughout hiscareer that we when consume, we‟re actually consuming “sign-values,” which is another valuecomponent of the commodity. Each sign-value is related to others in a code of signs that governsour consumption choices (Lash and Urry, 1987: 288; Ritzer 1997; 80). Thus, the choices wemake with consumer goods says something about us socially to others living under the samecode of signs. We‟re now forever on the “coolhunt” (Gladwell 2001) looking for niche productsto display and assert our cultural capital in the game of signs. Such cultural trends fall back in on the organization of production, sustaining a dialecticalrelationship. For instance, the aversion to mass-production, Urry maintains, stems from anincreased desire in postmodern society to be seen and treated in a socially differentiated fashion(2002: 87). Fordist production is incompatible with a culture that emphasizes difference, andarticulates individuality through its consumption choices. Given the proliferation of consumerchoice in Post-Fordism, individuals construct their identities in a patchwork fashion, pullingfrom a myriad of sources (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001: 15; Lasch 1979: 166). Lasch, presagingthe coming of the postmodern cultural critique, argued that people in his “culture of narcissism”construct identities based on “material furnished by advertising and mass culture, themes ofpopular film and fictions, and fragments torn form a vast range of cultural traditions (Lasch,
121979: 166).” Lasch‟s critique is suggestive of the exteriorization of the mirror in the lack-wanting model of the self. Our identities are fluid and negotiable. We “shop” for them. As we see, then, the cultural importance of consumption has increased concomitant theglobalization of the economy (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001; Miller 1995). Not only isconsumption central to our notions of self, it is intimately linked with social distinction, identity,and processes of cultural meaning making. Although it would be naïve to assert that modernwellsprings of social meaning such as class, work, church, civil society, family, and home, are nolonger meaningful referents, it is not unfounded to argue that these categories have become co-opted by, or intertwined with, consumer objects, which themselves imply market transactions.This increasing “Mcdonalidization” (Ritzer 1993) of capitalist societies has led some people todesire affective, non-instrumental relations like those found in CouchSurfing.Intensifying the Fetish But we still have yet to relate the structural and cultural trends reviewed above to thenotion of authenticity. I propose to do so with the concept of “commodity fetishism” (Marx2008). Following Marx, I define commodity fetishism as an ambiguity or opaquenessbetween the perception of cause and effect, which can lead to a sense of unreality or, in thiscase, inauthenticity. When people do not apprehend themselves or their actions clearly inrelation to others socially, or to social structures, they operate with a fetishized understanding.Glaeser (2011) argues that we fetishize institutions in this way by not understanding that they aregrounded in a myriad of individual actions and behaviors, which sustain and reproduceinstitutions through time. Thus, for Glaeser, we misapprehend institutions when we take them tobe immutable social formations. Similarly, Marx argued that rather than seeing our fellows associal producers, we see them as competition, and in this way we are alienated from each other.On this basis Marx (2008) argued that the essentially social character of production isobfuscated by the atomized nature of commodity production under capitalism. It is my claim, then, that such ambiguity or opaqueness of cause and effect has becomemore acute in the 21st century as the globalization of production has severed older (Fordist) causeand effect linkages. Indeed, the characteristic feature of life in late-capitalist societies (Jameson1991) is a sense of mystification, of arcane forces that affect individuals in oblique andunascertainable ways (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001: 27). Giddens (1994) has referred to this as
13“ontological insecurity” inherent in “reflexive modernity” (see Knorr 2001: 524). Interestingly,coincident with a decline in the belief of salvation by society we observe a concomitant rise inoccult beliefs in western capitalist societies (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001: 27). “As theconnections between means and ends become more opaque, more distended, more mysterious,”Comaroff and Comaroff assert, “the occult becomes an ever more appropriate, semanticallysaturated metaphor for our times” (2001: 27). If our joys, plights, and biographies cannot easilybe linked to the mechanics of society, gone is our sociological imagination (Mills 1959). Wecan‟t blame society for anything, nor can we feel ourselves entitled to anything from it. Withoutclear circuits of social impact, who, then, are we to blame when things like the Great Recessionof 2007 cause millions around the world to loose their jobs when US housing market collapses?In times of significant social change, we can turn to mystical ideas. Indeed, Taussig (1980)studied the effects of the transition to capitalism on South American miners. “In the sugarcaneplantations of the Cuaca Valley…it is clear that the devil is intrinsic to the process of theproletarianization of the peasant and to the commodification of the peasant‟s world,” Taussigargues, “he signifies a response to the change in the fundamental meaning of society…” (1980:18). Might a similar disruption of taken for granted processes of meaning making be occurringtoday with the spread of the market into the spiritual, bodily, and ideational spheres? If so, thenmight such rampant commodification induce its opposite: the desire for the concrete, thetangible, the knowable, the genuine, the de-fetishized, or the authentic? I answer in theaffirmative and argue that CouchSurfing and Airbnb stand as examples of “defetishization,” or of“authenticity-seeking.” I will elaborate these points in the analysis section. Next I explain themethodology used.III. Data and Methodology I first heard about CouchSurfing from a friend in 2009 while studying in college. I wassympathetic to the idea personally before deciding to engage the network for research purposes.Like many others, I thought the concept was a great way to meet interesting people while gettinga real local‟s perspective when travelling. I sensed that I was the “type” of person who wouldenjoy CouchSurfing. Yet exactly who, or what, that “type of person” was, eluded me at the time.I registered with the network in 2009, filled out a profile, and put my “couch” up for visitors.Living in a sleepy university town in central Minnesota, I wasn‟t exactly on the touristic path.
14Suffice it to say, I didn‟t get any “surfers” wanting to stay with me. When the time came toconduct a summer “field school” project as an undergraduate in anthropology, I wanted to meetother surfers and learn about CouchSurfing, so I decided to actively engage the network forresearch purposes. In that initial project, I asked two questions: 1) who are these “surfers?” and2) why do they do it?2 After completing the project I let it wane as a scholarly interest. I intendedto move on to other things as a graduate student. After all, the economic recession was in fullswing, there was real pain out there, so why study something so seemingly innocuous asCouchSurfing? Yet in time I came to see that CouchSurfing was not historically pallid. Rather, thenetwork allows us a unique perspective on culture, society, and consumer politics in late-capitalism, if one only sees CouchSurfing, and other travelers‟ networks like it, in structural, ordialectical, terms. This suspicion was lent credibility, and consequently my scholarly interest inCouchSurfing was revitalized, when I discovered that there were many other phenomena like itpopping up in advanced capitalist societies. Through the Internet, people are now comingtogether in novel ways to share, redistribute, and consume goods in a fashion that breaks with theinstitutional paradigm of hyperconsumption (Roo and Rodgers 2010). Suspect that the popularityof these networks was indicative of their appeal to new social motivations, I set out to learn howthe people that use CouchSurfing and Airbnb interpret their activity, and make meaning out oftheir experiences with others in the network. Indeed, all I had entering the “field” was a loosesense that these networks were significant, and that their consistently growing popularity couldtell us something about the structural changes induced by the globalization anddeindustrialization of the economy. As such, I didn‟t, and couldn‟t, set out to hypothesis test.Instead, I aimed to elicit the meanings that people attached to their experiences in CouchSurfingand Airbnb. Why did they like to travel in this way? What kind of experiences do these networksoffer? Do the people who travel in them attach any higher significance to what it is they do?After all, CouchSurfing describes itself as a “project” and Airbnb a “community marketplace.”What do these terms mean when placed into a local context, inhered in the minds of a myriad ofpeople? Such were my early motivating questions. In short, I wanted to understand the trope:“CouchSurfing changed my life.” Armed with such data, I felt I could then translate these2In the earlier project I conducted two interviews. I also surfed and hosted once myself. I havemade sparing use of these earlier transcripts in the analysis presented below.
15idiosyncratic significances to a scholarly audience seeking to understand the emerging contoursof human sociality, community, and culture in the 21st century. With such an orientation, semi-structured life-world interviews, grounded inphenomenological epistemology, suggested themselves as the most appropriate style ofinterview.3 The semi-structured, open-ended approach allows the respondent to elaborate theaspects of their experiences that matter to them, in their own categories, without the researchersupplying pre-established constructs, as in a survey questionnaire. It was essential thatrespondents be allowed to articulate their experiences in their own terms. Although I had myown hypotheses, I maintained a posture of deliberate naïvete. Moreover, the semi-structured life-world interview style was uniquely suited to the open-ended research questions I brought into thefield. However, I wasn‟t going in blind. In each interview I came equipped with an interviewguide that contained themes and questions I wanted to explore. Common interview themes werepeoples‟ motivations for participating, and their thoughts and beliefs about the networks. I alsoaimed to elicit the respondent‟s descriptions of their experiences. I adopted a conversational stylethat maintained flow and induced respondent comfort. Indeed, in most cases, all, or sections ofthe interview guide, were abandoned for a period to let the respondent voice what was significantand meaningful to them. Consistent with an approach aimed at generating depth, meaning, andinterpretation, I wanted to find a few people that could tell me a lot, rather than many people whocould tell me some of what I wanted to find out. I thought that 10 – 16 interviews wereappropriate. I began to scout both www.couchsurfing.org and www.airbnb.com for participants. Iwas perforce confined to restrict my sample to people living in the Chicago area, as they wouldbe easiest for me to access. But Chicago has approximately 3,500 Couch Surfers and 214 peoplewith listings on Airbnb. The immediate question, then, was how to narrow down my field ofrespondents and find a good selection of representative people? I followed two distinct, butconsistent, processes in this regard. In CouchSurfing, there is a section on the website for sub-groups, and each city has itsown “local group.” These city groups exist to facilitate events, outings, and get-togethers thatallow local surfers to meet and connect while they‟re not travelling. Local events attract a cohortof active and well-experienced surfers, and also brand new surfers who are looking to get a3For an exposition of the semi-structured life-world interview see Kvale, Steinar andBrinkmann, Svend (2009) chapter 2.
16foothold in the community. As a relative neophyte, I felt that attending these gatherings wouldprovide me with a natural opportunity to recruit respondents, as well as the chance to observeCouch Surfers interact with each other first hand. I attended five different “weekly meet ups.”Two of the weekly meet-ups I attended were potluck dinners at a local surfer‟s home in Chicago.The other three events were at bars and restaurants in the city of Chicago. I was a participant-observer at these meetings. Sometimes I would jot notes openly, which would garner meacquisitive glances. At other times, I would not jot any notes at all and just interact with thosewho were present. At still other times I would frantically jot notes in private, slipping away fromthe “action” for brief periods of time to write my impressions in my moleskin notebook. I did notfeel it necessary, or even a good idea, to divulge my research purposes to everyone I had a casualconversation with. I met four of the five surfers whom I interviewed at these local events. I would talk topeople at these events and ask them questions to discern their level of involvement withCouchSurfing. Based on these conversations, I would evaluate the people I was meeting, and askonly those people whose input I thought would contribute to my study, about doing an interview.In no case was my request for an interview denied. At my first event, I fell into conversation witha 30-year old man who lived in a house with three other Couch Surfers. He said that they hosteda “couple of time a month,” and attended local events. Although he had not yet travelled, or“surfed,” himself, I asked him to be a respondent based on his extensive experience hosting. At asecond event, I met a man who was brand new to CouchSurfing, and was going to local events tomeet people in hopes of securing positive references for his profile before taking a trip toEurope. I felt that a neophyte‟s interpretation of the network would be a valuable contribution. Imet still a third respondent who had experience with two CouchSurfing communities – Detroitand Chicago – so I approached her for an interview. Moreover, I used the CouchSurfing website, specifically the Chicago local group‟swebsite, to find and recruit respondents. Each city in the CouchSurfing network has local“ambassadors” and “moderators” who have volunteered to take a more active role locally. Thesepeople are very involved with the network, and so I targeted them on this basis. For instance,through a scan of the website I found one man who had been in the network for three years, andseemed to be the main organizer of CouchSurfing events in Chicago. Prior to even going to alocal event, I knew I wanted to interview this man. I met him at the first CouchSurfing event I
17attended. My hunch about his importance to CouchSurfing Chicago was corroborated whenothers at the event described him as a “legend,” or as a “myth.” Given his enthusiasm, aboutCouchSurfing, he was happy to talk to me for well over two hours when I would later interviewhim. Attending local events, then, was a natural point of entrée into the CouchSuring community.Even though I only formally interviewed five surfers, the local events provided me theopportunity to discuss the project with many people, and conduct “mini” interviews. Theseconversations were valuable ways to verify my developing interpretations. To find respondents in Airbnb, I followed I slightly different process. Given that peoplecharge their guests a nightly rate, I wanted to capture a range of prices.4 Following the sameguideline that “more experience is better than less,” I selected people based on the number ofreviews they had on their profile. I aimed to interview people with over 20 reviews. I also tried toget a wide-ranging sample of prices. I wanted to see if, and how, hospitality differed as the priceof accommodation changed. Given that Airbnb does not have local community events asregularly as CouchSurfing, I relied on Internet messages via the Airbnb website to connect withrespondents from that network.5 The five Airbnb hosts I interviewed priced theiraccommodations as follows: $35, $45, $55, $75, and $84, and these hosts each had 54, 30, 44,14, and 79 reviews respectively. I feel that this is a sufficient range to be reflective of thenetwork. Interestingly, as the price of accommodation rises above $100, the number of reviews,and ergo the number of people actually booking, goes down. Overall I conducted ten one-shot interviews (five in each network) with members ofCouchSurfing and Airbnb in Chicago. One-shot interviews are obviously less desirable with aninterview approach that seeks to obtain deep meanings and interpretations of a subject‟sexperiences. However, although I only interviewed each respondent one time, I interacted withmany of them repeatedly at the CouchSurfing events I attended. With repeated contact, I had theopportunity to ask them questions over time, to observe their behaviors, and build rapport, allbefore turning the tape recorder on. Moreover, one woman who I interviewed from Airbnb was4 The cheapest Chicago listing with at least one review as of 6/8/11, implying someone hadactually stayed there was $22. The most expensive listing with at least one review was $300.Such an expensive price got you an unoccupied flat in downtown Chicago.5 Airbnb occasionally has sponsored meet-ups for local hosts, but they are always directed underthe official auspices of the organization. Two respondents belittled these events and suggestedthat they were awkward and contrived.
18so interested in CouchSurfing that she requested to come with me to an event. Taking her to thisevent enabled me a second opportunity to interact with her. During this time, she told me somethings that “occurred to me after our interview.” However, the decision to engage in one-shotinterviews, rather than multiple interviews, was made both on the basis of time constraints andon the substantive aims of this study. All interviews were transcribed and analyzed as text. In all cases I felt that it was essential to interview these people in their homes. In homeinterviews enabled me to see the type of accommodation that was either “gifted” or sold toguests. Were the hosts‟ houses or apartments objectively “high quality?” Was their location goodrelative to Chicago attractions? Did hosts have their guests sleep in beds, on couches, or on thefloor? Where did guests put their belongings? Where did they inhabit? What did hosts providefor their guests? Spatially, where did hosts and guests interact? I felt that these concerns wereespecially acute with Airbnb because I wanted to see how the “quality” of accommodationsdiffered across the price spectrum. What did a customer get when they paid $35 as opposed to$84? These significant questions could only be answered by interviewing respondents in theirhome. All but two interviews were conducted in the homes of respondents, eight of the ten intotal. The other two interviews, both with Couch Surfers, were conducted in my home givenlogistical constraints. Still a third advantage of in home interviews was that I could actually seehosts and guests interacting. In three of the five interviews with members of Airbnb, I witnessedmy respondent handle the arrival of a paying guest. In two instances, our interviews were cut-short by a guest‟s arrival. Yet such “interruptions” were rewarding because I could then see theprocedures that hosts went through when interacting with a guest. In these instances, I seized onthe opportunity to talk with these guests about their motivations for travelling in the Airbnbnetwork. These impromptu interactions provided me with insights I could not have obtainedelsewhere by allowing me to speak with guests in Airbnb, and witness their interactions with myrespondent. I was able to glean a typical pattern of interaction. To really grasp the experiences my respondents were describing, I felt that it wasessential to open my home and host travelers in both CouchSurfing and Airbnb. This made me afunctioning participant in both networks and provided me with yet a third source of data whenadded to interview and observational field data. I hosted four different guests, or groups of guests
19in Airbnb, and one Couch Surfer during the data gathering process.6 Hosting allowed me to see,even feel, for myself in a non-trivial way the types of experiences my respondents related to mein interviews and at gatherings. I could feel what it was like to have someone in the house forthree straight days; I could monitor what I did to prepare for my guest‟s arrival; I could gage myexpectations; I could see whether or not being paid effected my behavior as a host. Suchexperiences invaluably help the novice to interpret the fact that one of my respondents has hosted177 different Couch Surfers in three years or the fact that three of my Airbnb respondents havemade over $10,000 a year through their efforts hosting. By experiencing hosting for myself, theweight of these statements and the meanings they carry are made less opaque. A study aimed atuncovering the meanings of experience could not have proceeded, I maintain, without aparticipation component. Practically, I made the decision not to interview the people I hostedbeyond conversational questioning and answering. However, I disclosed in both myCouchSurfing and Airbnb profiles that I was doing research on the network, but I did not pushfor a formal interview.7 I also did not tape record any of these interactions, but instead, madefield notes during the time my guests were staying with me. I felt that going too formal withinterviews might detract from the authentic experience of the encounter. Yet I should add inpassing that my research, when we would talk about it, seemed to interest all of my guests, andtwo groups even told me that my research interests were one of the reasons that they had decidedto stay with me. To summarize: the empirical data underpinning the analysis presented in this paper hasbeen drawn from ten interview transcripts (five in each network), give observations at localCouchSurfing meetings, and five hosting experiences (four in Airbnb and one in CouchSurfing).Thematically, in the interviews I explored the motivations my respondents had for participatingin these networks, the guiding processes by which they operate within them, the experiences theyhave had, and the friendships they have made through their involvement. As such, this isnecessarily an interpretive project, and some may criticize my work on this basis. I have taken as6 I should note that I didn‟t accept everyone who asked to stay with me. I declined around 3surfers and 3 people wanting to stay with me from Airbnb. Like those whom I interviewed, I hada set of criteria by which I evaluated the people asking to stay with me.7 As of 6/8/11, my CouchSurfing profile has been viewed 253 in the two years I have been withthe network. My Airbnb profile has been viewed 455 times since March of 2011. Thisdiscrepancy is likely due to the fact that there are fewer people on Airbnb than CouchSurfing.
20data the meanings that people attribute to an aspect of their lived experience: sociality and travelin two new online-offline travelers‟ hospitality networks. Unless one regards the subject‟s livedreality as ontologically and epistemologically valid, my findings and conclusions will fall ondeaf ears.IV. Analysis In this section I will draw on interview and field data to analyze the motivations forbelonging in Airbnb and CouchSurfing. The research finds a plurality of motivations thatcombine to make these novel travelers‟ hospitality networks appealing for a segment of thetouring population. A primary motivation cited by respondents was to have “authentic,” “real,”or “insider” experiences. Respondents claimed that CouchSurfing and Airbnb facilitated“authentic” experiences in a way that conventional tourist structures could not. Against therationalized “McDisney” style of tourism (Ritzer and Liska 1997), people in travelers‟hospitality networks desire experiences that are incommensurable, unique, and affectivelyrational. As such, I will argue that authenticity in this context is code for the unique and thesingular, as opposed to the rational and the standardized. Yet the travelers and hosts who weremy respondents also valued the economic savings that they received from travelling in thesenetworks. Thirdly, social networking with other people locally when not travelling is still a thirdmotivation for participation found by the research. Moreover, for hosts, thinking about strangerscoming into their home is a source of daydreaming that can add variation to the everyday, not tomention income if hosting in Airbnb. Hosts too are after unique and pleasurable experience inaddition to monetary income. Finally, I will argue that by touring in this fashion, people establishdistinction between themselves and more conventional “tourists.” My respondents possessedhigh cultural capital, and see CouchSurfing and Airbnb as a means to exhibit this publicly. I willnext describe each network in greater detail before proceeding to the theoretical analysis below.The Story of CouchSurfing The inspiration for CouchSurfing came in 2003 when its American founder Casey Fentontook a low budget holiday to Iceland. Having little money, Fenton got the idea to hack into theUniversity of Reykjavik‟s computer system and spam over 1500 college students to ask them ifhe could crash on their couch for the weekend. Impressed by the volume of positive responses
21from students who offered to show Fenton “their” Iceland, he vowed never to “rot in a hostel orhotel again” and the idea for CouchSurfing was born. Now anyone may take part by going towww.couchsurfing.com and registering with the network. Upon registration, people fill outonline profiles about themselves and answer questions such as: “types of people I enjoy,”“personal philosophy,” “amazing things done and seen,” and “all about me.” Once a profile iscomplete, users can begin to engage the network and “surf” the couches of the world, free ofcharge. Since 2004 when it was officially launched, CouchSurfing has grown at an exponentialrate while also becoming transformed into an international nonprofit organization under themoniker: CouchSurfing International. As of June 2011, CouchSurfing has 2.8 million membersin 284 countries. But such a global representation is misleading when one looks at demographics. Peoplewho use CouchSurfing, known esoterically as “surfers,” are primarily found in the urban areas ofwealthy capitalist societies. The top five CouchSurfing cities in order are as follows: Paris,London, Berlin, Istanbul, and Montreal. Regionally, North America and Europe account for77.6% of all surfers, while Africa, Central America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and theMiddle East combined, only account for 6.5%.8 Demographically, 85.5% of couch surfers arebetween the ages of 18 – 34. It should be strongly emphasized that the average user is a youngwhite male around 28 years old from a wealthy capitalist country.9 Although the network isostensibly global, it is not truly global in the sense that Internet access and a modicum of wealthare preconditions. In interviews, respondents often described surfers qualitatively by their“openness,” or as “open-minded” and “accepting.” Given that accommodations are free,intuitively one might expect the network to attract a vagabond clientele. Indeed, and as I willpoint out below, there are these types of people on CouchSurfing, but the majority of the surferswith whom I had interactions, both during fieldwork and in interviews, were not poor vagabonds,but rather, were young professionals who valued the network for the cultural richness it offers. Tapping into such richness is easily done. Suppose that you belong to CouchSurfing andyou‟re planning a trip to Chicago. The first thing you would do is search online in the8 These numbers have shifted since 2009 when I began this research. The percentage of surfersfrom North America and Europe combined has moved down from 79.6% to 77.6%, while thelatter category has increased from 5.5% to 6.5% of all registered surfers.9 Laura a 26-year-old female stated at a potluck dinner “we need more black people inCouchSurfing,” and Jens, a 22-year-old female surfer remarked that we “need more girls.”
22CouchSurfing network, using the “couch search” function, to find other surfers who are living inChicago. When you find a few people that you‟re interested in staying with, discriminated byyour own idiosyncratic criteria, you then message them and ask to “surf their couch.” If they likeyou, again decided upon by their own personal evaluation of you, they may accept yourrequest.10 In this sense, people travel to see other people, and not just a de-populatedenvironment, as would a more conventional tourist. The effects of this type of travel on aperson‟s perception of places and others can be profound. Derek, a 35-year-old surfer fromMinneapolis, MN, told me that he had been to Paris twice, but didn‟t like it until he surfed in thecity on his third visit. Derek‟s view of Paris changed when he said he stayed with a “great host.”“I was only going to stay two nights,” Derek declared, “but he convinced me to stay five.” Derekappreciated that his host “took us to dinner parties at his friends‟ places.” At these parties Dereksaid he met local Parisians who instructed him to “go „here,‟ this is my favorite place in town,”and revealed to him “this is what I love about Paris!” Derek‟s experience CouchSurfingproduced a strong emotive affect that transformed his opinion of an entire city in a way notpreviously possible. Indeed, Derek‟s story illustrates what the network hopes to achieve: “At CouchSurfing International, 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.” – Official “Mission Statement” of Couchsurfing International accessed from www.couchsurfing.com on 4/23/11.These ideals get acted out in a myriad of surfer/host interactions all over the world. It is theorganization‟s belief that through exploring the world, connecting with strangers, andappreciating global diversity, provincial prejudices can be eradicated and tolerance will spread. Cohesion in the CouchSurfing community is achieved through shared values thatchampion reciprocal exchange (Germann Molz 2007). CouchSurfing functions via a non-monetized and de-commodified reciprocal economy; where culture, knowledge, trust, and closepersonal encounters, rather than money, are the primary currencies. In this social world, the10Some people take this in peculiar directions: an experienced 32-year-old female surfer fromChicago wrote on her profile that “Somewhere in your request you must incorporate the word„cassoulet,‟ if not I will NOT host you.” This “secret word” is a guard against someone who maynot fully read her profile before asking to stay with her, a breach of etiquette abhorred by somesurfers.
24didn‟t get going until the 2008 Democrat National Convention in Washington, DC, which provedto be the tipping point for the business. Since then, Airbnb has grown rapidly. The companyincreased its total nightly bookings by 800% in 2010 alone, and now has over 2 million nightsbooked to date. In a second round of fundraising in May of 2011, Airbnb collected $100 milliondollars from investors, and is now valued at over $1 billion dollars.12 To date Airbnb has over 1.6million nights booked with listings in over 180 countries and 13,000 cities. Airbnb works just like CouchSurfing, but exists as a capitalist enterprise, both for itsmembers and for the organization. Travelers are charged a nightly fee that is priced individuallyby each host or “seller.” Airbnb collects 3% of each transaction from hosts, and 6% from guests.For instance, if a host charges $50 per night and the guest stays for 2 nights, the host receives$97 dollars and Airbnb collects $3 from the host. The guest is then charged $106. The money iscollected immediately by Airbnb and is not dispensed to the host, usually via direct deposit, until24 hours after the guest has checked in. In this way, Airbnb uses its centralized institutionalstrength to discourage malfeasance.13 Prices for accommodations vary considerably in thenetwork, as do the types of properties available. On Airbnb you can find couches, bedrooms inhomes, entire apartments, and even castles and houseboats for rent. On the low end, hosts charge20 – 30$ per evening. On the high end, hosts charge 100$ or more per night. Some of the moreexotic properties can even go for more than $300 per evening. The bulk of Airbnb‟s traffic,however, occurs at price points under $100. But I should be careful not to convey a picture of Airbnb that drowns all sociality incalculated market logics. Quite the contrary, those who use Airbnb are not immune to thecultural richness of intimate personal exchange that users of CouchSurfing thrive and seek out.Indeed, Diana, a 73-year-old retired teacher said she decided to stay with me because she likedthe “adventure,” and likened staying with me to staying with her children. In a promotional videofor Airbnb on its website, Brian Chesky, co-founder of the network, muses: ”How cool would it be to have people from many different cultures living together? What kind of world would that be? I think it would be a better one.” – Taken from www.Airbnb.com on 4/23/1112 http://venturebeat.com/2011/05/30/airbnb-raising-100-million-round/13 Airbnb also does not allow its members to openly exchange phone numbers and emailinformation without booking for fear that they might take their business “off of the network.” Assuch, my respondents would often have to give me their contact information in “code.” In othercases I would be instructed to contact them at their place of employment.
25Similarly, the objective statement of Airbnb, a self proclaimed “community-marketplace,” is asfollows: “We connect people who have space to spare with those who are looking for a place to stay. Guests can build real connections with their hosts, gain access to distinctive spaces, and immerse themselves in the culture of their destinations. Whether its an urban apartment or countryside castle, Airbnb makes it effortless to showcase your space to an audience of millions, and to find the right space at any price point, anywhere.” – Taken from www.airbnb.com on 4/23/11The idea of a community marketplace embodied in the statement above could also be read as anattempt at infusing social and cultural meaning into market exchange. Airbnb seems to be anamalgam of reciprocal and market exchange, instrumental and affective rationalities. Although Airbnb does not publish detailed demographic statistics like CouchSurfing, theorganization does give researchers other clues about the composition of its membership. Airbnbrecently celebrated its 1 millionth night booked in February of 2011. To commemorate, thenetwork published a celebratory document in which the company divulged that the mostfrequently occurring occupations among its members are teachers, retirees, photographers,architects, designers, journalists, lawyers, entrepreneurs, nurses, chefs, and flight attendants inthat order.14 The document also reveals that the top employers present in the Airbnb network areGoogle, IBM, The United Nations, Microsoft, and the US Army. Moreover, the top collegesrepresented in the network are Harvard, Colombia, Berkeley, UCLA, and NYU. Theseoccupational and collegiate trends in the Airbnb network lend support to the assertion that usersof Airbnb, like Couch Surfers, do not engage in this sort of travel because its cheaper. Instead,they are likely motivated by the same factors as surfers: closeness, intimacy, and firsthandcultural experience, perhaps even authenticity. The table below provides a comparative overviewof the two networks: CouchSurfing AirbnbBegan: 2004 2008Inspiration: Icelandic Vacation Conference/RecessionNumber of Members: 2.9 Million N/A14 My findings confirm this statement. I interviewed a photographer who hosted travelers, and ateacher, an Egyptologist, an entrepreneur, and a chef all came to stay with me.
26Number of Nights 3.3 Million 2 millionSurfed/Booked:Countries Represented: 246 180Cities Represented: 80,538 13,000Most Popular Cities In Paris, London, Berlin, New York, Paris, Vancouver,Order: Istanbul, Montreal, Vienna, Barcelona, San Francisco, Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Berlin, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Barcelona Boston, Wash DC, AustinAverage Age: 28 N/A There is overlap between the networks. Although a market exists in one network and areciprocal economy ordains in the other, given that both networks put strangers in close contactin the privacy of a home, we can subject them to the same analytic.Authenticity = Singualrization My respondents were quick to distance themselves from “tourists” and “touristy things.”In many interviews, respondents consistently made invidious distinctions between themselvesand tourists based on the concepts of “authenticity” and “reality,” which they claimCouchSurfing and Airbnb facilitate. Jen, a 32-year-old surfer form Minneapolis, MN stated thatsurfers “are not just going to go to the „touristy‟ places, I want to know what it‟s really like.” Jenwent on to add: “I don‟t want to do any touristy things. I‟d rather see the stuff tourists don‟tknow about.” And Alison, a 37-year-old artist and surfer from Minneapolis, MN said hermotivations to surf were to “see what it‟s really like…like real restaurants, real fun places to go,real parties…to get a more authentic representation of the places you‟re visiting, and not aguidebook version.” In reference to Chicago, Michael a 30-year-old anthropologist and veganchef tells me that CouchSurfing provides you with an opportunity to experience the “local stuffthat isn‟t part of the tourist thing, but is really, what the city is.” Moreover, Laura, a 27-year oldnurse laments that without a “fantastic” host in Paris: “I would have been stuck going to the Louvre. I didn‟t go to the Louvre. I didn‟t go to the Eiffel Tower. I didn‟t do any of those touristy things when I was there, but I had like the best week. I was just doing all of those things I would actually do if I were someone who lived there and had a good group of friends there.”
27Francisco, a 25-year-old high school history teacher explicitly equates hotels with artificiality inthe statement below: “So I think more than anything its (CouchSurfing)… as dumb of a phrase as it is… keeping it real. It just seems so artificial, you know, to be in a place that offers room service and that kind of stuff…to get a better sense of where you‟re at and the people that are from where you‟re visiting, CouchSurfing seems to be that kind of thing.”Ray, a 44-year-old self-employed designer who has made over $10,000 hosting people in Airbnbmade a similar suggestion about the artificiality of hotel accommodation: “I‟d prefer to go stay with person rather than in a hotel most of the time anyway. And I would prefer something that was a little more unique. When I go to NYC and stay in a hotel, I usually stay in one of the designer hotels like the Paramount.” Interviewer: What makes you want to stay with a person rather than in a hotel? “I think I‟m more comfortable talking to a person than a concierge. Getting the real idea. I think a lot of the concierges are on the take. They‟re only going to direct you towards what they have been given directions to. Well I know for a fact a lot of them are on the take. They‟re getting money for every person they refer to a restaurant or an event. I‟d rather talk to somebody who has no ulterior motives.”From these combined remarks, one can argue that the people who travel in person-to-personhospitality networks perceive that they‟re getting a different, if not more “authentic,” or “real,”experience than tourists who stick to the guidebook. “Tourists” who remain in the front stage, at“McDinsey” sites, and the realm of appearances, cannot get backstage and experience “reality,”“authenticity,” and “actual day to day life.” The frequency of this trope among the travelers Iinterviewed suggests that we need to take seriously authenticity as a motivation to travel inperson-to-person hospitality networks.15 For these travelers, authenticity is equated with, and perhaps a code word for, unique,different, personalized, or singular, and the inauthentic is that which is contrived, instrumental,and rationalized. Indeed, in lieu of overly rationalized “McDisney” tourism, both CouchSuringand Airbnb facilitate touristic experiences that are wholly personal, idiosyncratic, and15The notion of “Authenticity” in my data invokes many classic sociological binaries: pre-modern vs. modern, affective vs. instrumental rationality, non-capitalist vs. capitalist, organic vs.mechanical solidarities, gesellschaft vs. gemeinschaft, where authenticity is equated with theformer, and contrivance with the latter.
28singularized. When a person steps away from familiar institutions such as agencies and hotelsthat have long mediated tourist experience, standardization and rationalization are diminished.This is why so much energy is put into selecting the right host. The person chosen will have adirect impact on the type, and quality, of consumer experience. For instance, David, a 22-year-old Psychology student describes the process he goes through to find a person to stay with whilehe‟s traveling in the CouchSurfing network: “I try to look for people that seem to have similar interests. Someone who talks exclusively about partying, I‟m probably not going to have as much fun with them as someone who talks about philosophical discussions and is like let‟s go climb an abandoned building. That type of person I‟m much more likely to send a message to.”Michael, in a similar fashion, describes a typical evening spent with a traveling couch surfer: “We were originally going to go out and I was going to show him the Music Box Theatre, which is one of our local art houses that‟s nearby. But when his friend was feeling to ill, we thought we might as well just sit around and get to know each other better. So he and I ended up talking about science and the scientific community in the US versus other places in the world, and the ethics. That got us into a conversation about Kantian philosophy… You know, just how those evenings generally tend to go.”Laura and her newlywed husband traded off between CouchSurfing and hotels on theirhoneymoon trip through Europe. Laura, reflecting on that trip, speaks generally about thebenefits of CouchSurfing below: “When you stay with hosts it is so much better. They‟re going to tell you where to go, they‟re going to introduce you to their family and friends. They‟re going to tell you local customs, how much you should be paying for something, and what bus route to take. You know what I mean? It‟s so much better, and you get really interesting glimpse of the local culture versus like going to a Hard Rock Café and everything is Americanized. You‟re actually going to the Turkish bath house, and going to smoke hooka in that small little scary room because they‟re going to take you. That‟s the difference.”Based on Laura‟s comments about wanting to avoid the Hard Rock Café and things that are“Americanized,” and others above, we can argue that the singularization of tourist experience iswhat gives travelers‟ hospitality networks their appeal while being constitutive of authenticity forthe people who use them. Indeed, Laura goes on to tell me excitedly about an upcoming trip toAlaska where she‟ll stay with her 101st surfer by her estimation: “She was like oh when are you coming? I‟ll introduce you to my friends and I‟ll show you my favorite glacier. That‟s Fantastic! I mean that‟s the thing as a tourist me a Jeremy
29 at a hotel, are we going to find her favorite glacier? No. There‟s no way that we would even find… like know how to do anything with a glacier. She‟s like I‟ll take you to my favorite brewery. It‟s so awesome, a way better vacation.”Similarly, Craig a 50-year-old photographer and longtime host in Airbnb recalled taking one ofhis guests to “walk the train tracks” in Chicago and through an abandoned urban field “past acouple of homeless camps.” “You know, all that stuff you‟re not supposed to do,” he tells me.Craig is fond of taking his guests on walking tours like this.16 As is seen, then, each of these experiences described above are profoundly different,singularized, and reflective of the idiosyncrasies of the host. In this sense, we travel to see thepersonal sites of each local person, feeling this to be more authentic than what a guidebook maytell us. Authenticity, for the travelers studied in this paper, is found in the day-to-day experiencesof a local other. In telling recognition of user-desires, Airbnb recently added a feature to itswebsite that allows hosts to label their favorite neighborhood “gems” in relation to the locationof their home on a map. In this way, potential consumers can see what each host might want topersonally show them before making a decision about who to book with. Each host is going tohave their own “family and friends,” their own unique “Turkish bath houses,” “glaciers,”“homeless camps,” “railroad tracks,” and “scary rooms to smoke hooka in.” These types ofexperiences stand in opposition to the “Mcdisney” mode of tourism theorized by Ritzer andLiska (1997). Moreover, the hyper-individualized mode of travel facilitated by CouchSurfingand Airbnb is uniquely suited to the postmodern aversion to mass production and standardization(Urry 2002).Airbnb: Degrees of Authenticity The travelers analyzed in this paper equate standardized and rationalized tourismattractions with the inauthentic. With this rubric, grounded in classic sociological binary, theremay by degrees of authenticity in these networks. For instance, given that the hospitality offered16 The inability to deliver a unique experience as a host produces anxiety and disappointment.Francisco expressed anxiety about not being a very good host because he is relatively new toChicago, and so he doesn‟t know it that well yet. Laura, a 27-year-old nurse who just moved toChicago also worried about her ability to host: “I don‟t have a group of friends so it‟s different.Its like „oh we can go here, here, and here,‟ and „here‟s a set of keys,‟ but its not as hands on as itused to be. I feel negligent like this.”
30in Airbnb is purchased, extra pressures are placed on hosts that are not be present inCouchSurfing. At a minimum, hosts feel pressure to make sure that their dwelling is clean whena guest arrives. Ray, a self-employed designer has made over $10,000 in nine months hostingtravelers through Airbnb. He tells me that he “decided to do it right,” which for him meant“modeling the guest room like a hotel room.”17 I also felt compelled to do engage in preparatorycleaning: “I went out and bought a sheet set, a blanket, and pillows for my future Airbnb guests. Additionally, I will give the place a thorough cleaning the day that my guests arrive. I feel like they should walk into a clean place considering that they‟re paying customers.” – Excerpt from 4/29/11 FieldnotesWe can compare this with another excerpt from my fieldnotes. Justin, a Couch Surfer, elaborateswhen I informed him about the existence of Airbnb: “Justin starts talking about the dirty old shower curtain he‟s got. I‟ve been meaning to replace that he tells me. If had someone paying $15 I‟d feel “obligated to get a new one,” Justin muses. “But if you‟re coming into my life” (implying this is what happens in CS and not in AB) “then ok...” “If someone is surfing with me then I expect them to come to events, but if you‟re paying me, then, whatever.” – Excerpt from 5/12/11 FieldnotesWe could argue then, that in Airbnb there is an element of “staged authenticity” (MacCannell1973) that is produced by the commodification of hospitality. Hosts want to “do it right” and thisimplies a degree of production. John and Allyson took such interior production to the greatestextent of any of the people I interviewed. In reference to providing breakfast for his guests, Johnstates how he tailors his hospitality for each guest: “We try to think about the flavor profile for the breakfasts. Breakfast is the one meal of the day where people feel like they want to get back to their national roots.”Yet the production only goes so far. John also told me that he and Allyson didn‟t host an “ultraright-wing Christian couple” because they thought they might have to pretend like they weremarried: “if we would have to pretend that we‟re something we‟re not, then we‟re done, we‟renot hosting them.” Though people in Airbnb are still getting an authentic gaze of the local17From my fieldnotes on 4/29/11: “Ray‟s efforts show. His guest room has got one full-sizedbed, plain white walls, a tube television on top of a dresser, and nightstand with an alarm clockbeside the bed. I‟m talking to Ray as he is changing the sheets of the guest bed. Ray tells me thathe “didn‟t do anything special, just went to IKEA and bought some things for his apartment.”Ray taps on the pillows and tells me he bought pillow protectors. He‟s smiling about this.”
31other‟s life and home, they do so in more of a staged fashion than people who travel inCouchSurfing. Thus, there are degrees of authenticity available in these networks if theinauthentic is equated with the “staged.”The Economic Motivation: Expanding Consumer Surplus I met Jordan, a 25-year-old Chicago man and brand new surfer at a CouchSurfing potluckdinner. We began to converse. Jordan told me that for him, his motivations for joiningCouchSurfing were “70% wanting to meet interesting people, and 30% the economic aspect.” Inan interview a few weeks later, Francisco, also a new surfer, echoed Jordan‟s comments aboutthe economic benefit of CouchSurfing: “And ultimately, you know, what do I have the money for? If there‟s enough for the plane ticket, and meals, you want to squeeze as much of that as possible, and if I can remove an expensive by not having to pay $100 a night to stay in a hotel, or whatever the cost is, I‟ll go for that.”Michael, another Chicago surfer, told me that he got into CouchSurfing because: “I was going to be taking a trip to London. I heard about CouchSurfing before from a friend of mine, and I figured it would be a great way to find a place in London that was a whole lot cheaper than going to the…a…what do you call it…the…hostel! And at the same time be somewhere closer to the city center, be safer.”Marek, a 24-year-old entrepreneur who came to stay with me through Airbnb for $25 a night toldme that for him: “80%” of his motivations were to “see what its like,” and “20%” were to savemoney. And Pedro, a 30-year-old student of music technology from Lithuania, told me that heand his girlfriend were looking to save money on their American trip because “everything elsehad been so expensive.” These comments indicate that a variety of motivations combine to makebudget travelers‟ hospitality networks appealing for a segment of the touring population.Instrumental and affective rationalities intermingle in travelers‟ hospitality networks, makingthem popular choices for travelers. However, as I have pointed out above, other motivations –authentic experience and close personal connection – combine with the economic to make thesenetworks particularly appealing. But what can be said about hosts who open their homes to travelers? Ostensibly only amoney making venture, hosting in Airbnb is in fact more complex. Hosts get a new source ofincome, but also the experience of human connection that adds variance to their everyday. For
32instance, John, a 29-year-old IT consultant from Chicago divulged that money is “probably theleast important aspect, it just goes into an account that we don‟t even look at.” And Jenny, a 48-year-old artist from Chicago, has made over $10,000 in one year by hosting travelers throughAirbnb almost continuously, but yet feels that “no one could do this if they didn‟t want to havepeople around.” This was echoed by Charlie who, after telling me that he had made around$13,000 dollars hosting in three years on Airbnb, was quick to add: “I can‟t imagine someonedoing it if that (money) were the only payoff. If they didn‟t like people and sharing space thenit‟s not going to be worth if financially.” And what about people in CouchSurfing who aren‟tgetting paid? Justin, a theatre aficionado, has hosted approximately 177 people in the 3 years thathe has been involved with CouchSurfing, an average of just over 1 per week. Or Michael, a 30-year-old vegan chef and anthropologist from Chicago who has not actually travelled inCouchSurfing himself, but says he hosts about “three times a month.” Again and again, thesepeople reiterated to me that hosting travelers was “a great way to meet people,” and to “travelwithout leaving home.”The Thrill of the Unknown: Anticipating the Singular and the Strange Apart from money, what makes someone want to sacrifice time and energy toaccommodate a traveler? What do they get out of the experience? Its not just guests, hosts too areafter rich, unique experiences. Indeed, part of the seduction of person-to-person hospitalitynetworks are the feelings of intrigue, thrill, and anxiety that accompany the unknown and themysterious. Wondering about “how things are going to go,” and “who is my guest going to be,”can be a source of daydreaming that adds variance to the everyday. Charlie‟s description aboutwhat he likes about hosting in Airbnb is suggestive of this process: “I like the kind of anticipation, and the unknown, of whose coming up the stairs. And: „hell I guessed wrong again. All this time I thought it was a guy, and who would have guessed that this name is a girl‟s name in Lithuanian?‟ And I like that. I like being surprised. I like the grouchy people on email that when they come are delightful. So that‟s what it is. If I knew even your essence as you were coming up the stairs, it takes something away from it. I like the thrill.”For Charlie, thoughts about his mysterious guests are sources of pleasure. Hosts, much like theirguests, are consuming experience through their engagement in traveler‟s hospitality networks.Such wonder and enchantment provide individuals with another cycle of “desire-daydreaming-consummation” that is not dissimilar to that which Campbell (1987) argues defines modern
33hedonism, and is constitutive of the self. In this sense, both parties are after pleasurableexperiences with which to augment the self. Yet openness to the unknown has its boundaries. People who use these networks must besure that the strangers coming into their homes are genuinely who they claim to be. When newmembers sign up with Airbnb, the network suggests that people post their listings to Craigslist tohelp promote themselves and get bookings. However, none of the people I interviewed feltcomfortable doing this. Charlie muses about the safety of Airbnb and his personal boundaries: “I‟ve never done that link with Craigslist. That creeps me out, and I don‟t know why. You‟re from Pakistan and I know you (referencing a past guest), why would you buy a ticket to come to Chicago and stay with me, and rob me along the way? It never even registers in my mind. It‟s that cloud of people on Craigslist that worries me. You have to know what you‟re looking for to find me when you go through Airbnb.”The safety systems of Airbnb and CouchSurfing effectively bound the community in a way thatbecomes threatened when the doors are opened to people that use Craigslist. Therefore, it is notcomplete unknown, but rather “bounded unknown” that provides intrigue for people. The strangeis a familiar strange, and therefore, can become a source of unthreatening daydreams. Convinced that strangers are going to be safe, people can entertain daydreams about whothe stranger will be, and how their interaction will proceed. And in these networks, peoples‟desires and daydreams are often sexual in orientation. Although not a dating site, three of the fiverespondents from CouchSurfing reported to having had sexual intimacy with either their hosts orguests. Exemplary is Ray, who before becoming a full-time Airbnb host, was a Couch Surfer fortwo years and in that time met a Turkish fiancée (they‟re now broken up), and also a girlfriend ofsix months from Portland, OR. “Its people self-selecting,” Ray tells me, “someone is saying:„which dude am I comfortable staying with for a week?‟” This sort of “self-selection” often hasthe potential to lead to sex. Reflective of an implicit sexual self-selection on behalf of CouchSurfers, Laura described difficulties getting a couch while on her honeymoon with her husband: Interviewer: How did you decide whether to surf or stay in a hotel? “We would have surfed the whole time… When I was single on my profile everyone was like okay, yes, come stay with me, but when I had a husband on my profile, people were less likely to host us. Single men are thrilled to host single women, but not to host a couple.” Interviewer: Who did you stay with then single women? Other couples?
34 “No, men. There are way more men couch surfers. I‟ve always stayed with men. Subconsciously as a single woman I look for a single man to stay with that I have things in common with rather than a girl.”Daydreaming is part of the excitement on both sides. Sexual intrigue is fodder for daydreamingabout the unknown other in travelers‟ hospitality networks.Social Networking Through the CouchSurfing Local Community In addition to capturing a larger consumer surplus, having authentic experiences,daydreaming about the strange, and making intimate personal connections, belonging in travelershospitality networks, especially CouchSurfing, benefits individuals even while they‟re nottraveling, providing yet another motivation for participation. Justin, a very active organizer oflocal events in Chicago described CouchSurfing as a “social tool” that he can draw upon. Indeed,given that people must perforce spend the majority of their time working, thus rendering travelopportunities rare, CouchSurfing local groups are integral to cultivating a sense of belonging in acommunity. Jen articulated that the Minneapolis local group fulfills her desire to “hang out withother people who are open, adventurous, and like-minded,” and Alison added that the group is a“really tight-knit crew.” In the same vein, an anonymous surfer left the following testimonial onthe CouchSurfing website: “In everyday life, it can be hard to find deeply motivated, nonconformist, cultured people with high goals in life: really interesting people. But CouchSurfing is just full of these individuals. Its a conglomerate of well-intentioned people, of good karma, and you just have to jump in to enjoy it. The CouchSurfing project definitely changed my life.” –The excitement of a new surfer about entering the community is revealed below: "Ive only been a member of CS for 12 days now and so far Ive noticed an INCREDIBLE sense of community here. Everyone seems to be incredibly nice and helpful and very eager to meet new people. Just joining the group for the city that youre in or near opens up so many possibilities to hang out with people in your area. All in all Im very excited to really start getting into this community."These general sentiments were echoed by several of my respondents who articulated that thelocal group is hugely important for their overall CouchSurfing experience. Indeed, Michaelrevealed that “a good chunk of my social life revolves around the Chicago local CouchSurfing
35group.” Michael told me that he was “shopping around for new friends” when he began to getinvolved with CouchSurfing because many of his other friends were settling down and doing the“Olive Garden thing.” Michael used the CouchSurfing local group to completely reinvent hisday-to-day friend circle and now claims that “all of my friends know each other.” Similarly,David used the CouchSurfing local group to create a social network while living abroad inDublin for a summer. In a self-described “depression” David engaged the local group and“totally lifted me out of this lonely depression” by experiencing the CouchSurfing “family feel.”Likewise, Laura used CouchSurfing to find and make “best friends” when she moved to AnnArbor, Michigan. This communal aspect of CouchSurfing also suggests that people may counterthe alienation of modern life through travelers‟ hospitality networks while at home.Alienation, Atomization, and Authenticity in Post-Tourism Travelers‟ are using these networks to tour the day-to-day lives of others in ways thatwere not previously possible. Local people and their homes, as well as their favorite places andactivities, are now readily consumable tourist sights that have become subject to the tourist gaze.But why have these networks emerged now? And why is the desire for authenticity so popular?Has it always been with us latently, only to be liberated by postmodern technology? No, I arguethat these travelers‟ hospitality networks counter the increasing alienation and atomization ofsocial life by facilitating experiences that bring about an “authenticity of Being” (Wang 1999).Indeed, Jen, a 32-year old surfer from Minneapolis, states her belief that “society is full ofisolated individuals and families, we‟re super isolated. Couch Surfers want to be more like acommunity.” In a similar fashion, David muses about the existence of CouchSurfing today: “I almost want to say that for our culture, and especially for our generation, there is a lot of alienation that‟s actually fairly recent. Whereas like 100 years ago maybe CouchSurfing in America would have been redundant because there might have been a social system set up for that already. Now that those don‟t exist, I think, now that everything is much more impersonal and money based, its unnatural not to have CouchSurfing. CouchSuring fills a natural void that didn‟t always exist”Where does “alienation,” and the “natural void” spoken of above, come from? I have arguedabove that alienation stems from the increasing marketization of, and epistemic confusion in,social life. However, David offers his own view: