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Rethinking Authenticity In Tourist Experience

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             THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO



   Rethinking Authenticity in Tourist Experience:
 analyzing the motivations...
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 Rethinking “Authenticity” in Tourist Experience: Analyzing the Motivations of Travelers
            in Two Newly Emerg...
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strangers, and the strangers themselves, are now so appealing for a growing segment of the
touring population in capita...
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Rethinking Authenticity In Tourist Experience

  1. 1. 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 2011 A paper submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Master of Arts degree in the Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences Faculty Advisor: Karin Knorr Cetina Preceptor: Kathleen Fernicola
  2. 2. 2 Rethinking “Authenticity” in Tourist Experience: Analyzing the Motivations of Travelers in Two Newly Emergent Person-To-Person Hospitality Networks By: Zachary Lamb This study examines the motivations of people who belong to person-to-person travelers‟ hospitality networks like CouchSurfing and Air Bed and Breakfast. Such networks allow travelers 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 study finds that “authenticity-seeking behavior” is a primary motivation, among others, for participating in travelers‟ hospitality networks. Based on these findings, a revitalization of the concept of authenticity in tourism scholarship is suggested. To analyze individual motivations and preferences for a particular tourism modality, this study deployed a combined approach of semi-structured life-world interviews and ethnographic observations. The results reveal that a plurality of motivations – authentic experience, economic savings, intimate personal connection, social distinction, enchantment, and social networking – combine to make travelers hospitality networks 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 or a 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 of a stranger in an unfamiliar context. Will the stranger be a good stranger? Or will they be a bad stranger, nay, an “ax-murderer” looking to loot, pillage, and injure my person (Germann Molz 2007: 66)? The same anxieties plague any host who is kind enough, or crazy enough, to open his or her home to a stranger. Yet despite inherent ambivalences, millions of people are now engaging in this sort of personalized hospitality all over the world today with the help of several newly emergent online-offline travelers‟ hospitality networks such as CouchSurfing International, Global Freeloaders, Air Bed and Breakfast, and Roomorama. These networks allow people to connect over the Internet and stay in one another‟s homes while travelling, either for free as in CouchSurfing and Global Freeloaders, or for a nightly fee as in Airbnb and Roomorama. With titillating intrigue and ostensible danger, what motivates people in large and growing numbers to travel in this fashion? A Marriot in Manhattan and a Marriot in Manchester will 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 networks facilitating this novel form of tourism, this study seeks to understand why the private homes of
  3. 3. 3 strangers, and the strangers themselves, are now so appealing for a growing segment of the touring population in capitalist societies? The theorization of tourism and its motivations is as diverse as its subject. Do tourists travel because they‟re alienated and crave an elusive sense of authenticity (MacCannell 1973, 1976; Pearce and Moscardo 1986)? Are tourists searching for inauthentic replications, or simulacra, of modern life (Boorstin 1961; Baudrillard 1983; Feifer 1985; Ritzer and Liska 1997)? Is authenticity even a relevant category (Cohen 1988; Reisinger and Steiner 2005), and if so, 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-religious experiences 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 as such, people will tour for different reasons, and to see different things. Indeed, many scholars have 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 tourism on 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 either stay in a hotel or a hostel when traveling, or with an acquaintance. However, this is no longer the case as the popularity of person-to-person hospitality networks grows, opening up private homes to 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 to the trend. Indeed, the networks described and analyzed in these pages are only beginning to be studied (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 space of a hotel room and into the living room of a local person. Such intimate engagement with the local other dramatically alters the entire travel experience in ways not previously theorized. As such, the sociology of tourism stands to benefit from an analysis of the motivations of travelers who 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-structured life-world interviews with hosts and travelers from Airbnb and CouchSurfing, and from observations in homes and at social events. My findings reveal a plurality of motivations that
  4. 4. 4 combine to make travelling in this fashion enticing for cosmopolitan travelers. Particularly, many respondents indicated that their experiences travelling in these networks are more “authentic,” or “real,” than those of the standard mass “tourists” that they pejoratively malign. Although pronounced trivial, even useless (Reisigner and Steiner 2005), the burgeoning popularity of person-to-person travelers‟ hospitality networks suggests that the concept of authenticity merits revival in tourism scholarship. In the next section I will explore the theoretical foundations of the concept of authenticity. I will relate the desire for authenticity among contemporary tourists to changes in global 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 two communities 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 for future research. II. Theory Authenticity in the Literature My findings suggest the need to reinvigorate debates about authenticity in tourism experience (Boorstin 1961; Brown 1996; Bruner 1989, 1994; Cohen 1988; Daniel 1996; Handler and Linnekin 1984; MacCannell 1973, 1976; Pearce and Moscardo 1986; Redfoot 1984; Reisinger and Steiner 2005; Salamone 1997; Selwyn 1996; Silver 1993; Wang 1999). Since its beginnings, 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 between objects, 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. Operating with this view of authenticity, Boorstin (1961) and MacCannell (1973, 1976) debated its role in tourism. Boorstin (1961) denigrated modern mass tourism and held that tourists relished in the consumption of “pseudo-events,” which were brought about by the commodification of culture (Wang 1999: 352). “Pseudo-events” are necessarily inauthentic, Boorstin maintained, and by consuming them, tourists replicated the inauthentic patterns of their everyday lives. “The
  5. 5. 5 tourist,” Boorstin argues, “seldom likes the authentic product of foreign culture, he prefers his own 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 find authenticity when they travel. Borrowing from Goffman (1972 [1959]), MacCannell argues that tourist space is divided into “front” and “back” regions. This divide entails a tension. Back regions 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 a representation disguised as authenticity, or a front region staged as a back region. The aims of MacCannell‟s (1973 1976) modern tourist, then, are to penetrate as deeply as possible into societies back regions in hopes of finding the authentic. Although in disagreement, both of these early theorists of tourism held that authenticity was an objectively verifiable quality that positively or negatively motivated tourists. With the passage of time, this view fell out of fashion. Scholars of tourism began to borrow from social constructionism (Berger and Luckman 1971; Gergen 1985; see Schwandt 1994 for a review) to conceptualize authenticity. Constructivists hold that authenticity is based on interpretation, is historically and culturally contingent, and is socially constructed (Bruner 1994; 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), all effect subjects‟ perceptions of the authentic. To further complicate authenticity, Cohen (1988) argues that something originally regarded as inauthentic can become authentic over time in a process he calls “emergent authenticity.” Cohen uses Disney World to illustrate emergent authenticity. Thus, according to Culler (1981), and constructivists generally, what we search for when we travel is “symbolic authenticity” decided upon by our own criteria. Still a third perspective, loosely labeled postmodern, trivializes the importance of authenticity for explaining tourism, or denies its existence entirely. With “hyperreality” (Eco 1986), and “simulacrum” (Baudrillard 1983), postmodern thinkers insist on deconstructing the boundaries between sign and reality, copy and original. In postmodern social theory, simulation
  6. 6. 6 ordains. 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, Ritzer and Liska argue contrary to MacCannell and assert that tourists unabashedly search for the inauthentic in an overtly rational “McDisney” society (1997: 107), where McDonald‟s restaurants and Disney theme parks are paradigmatic of society broadly. With this assertion we are back to Boorstin‟s (1961) critique. Yet now the tourist searches for the inauthentic not because they‟re simpletons as Boorstin held, but rather, because the authenticity of the original has 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 feelings activated by the liminal process of tourist activity” (1999: 351). Tourists engage in activities that facilitate an exploration of the authentic self, and thereby achieve an “authenticity of Being,” a state in which one is “true to oneself” (Wang 1999). Wang argues that being “true to oneself” is achieved in relation to an ideal of authenticity that arises in modern society in response to the existential conditions of modernity (1999: 360). The ideal of authenticity, Wang maintains, has both romantic and nostalgic elements. It is nostalgic in the sense that we idealize states in which people “are supposed as freer, more innocent, spontaneous, purer, and truer to themselves than usual” (Wang 1999: 360). The modern ideal of authenticity is also romantic “because it accents naturalness…and feelings in response to the self-constraints imposed by reason and rationality in modernity” (Wang 1999: 360). Tourism is a way to step outside of the rationalized structures of the everyday and connect with these ideals (Wang 1999: 361). In this view, tourists engage in things like camping, mountaineering, and perhaps even CouchSurfing, to aid in an idiosyncratic exploration of the “authentic self” and cultivate an authenticity of Being. Wang maintains that a sense of the authentic self “involves a balance between the two parts of one‟s Being: reason and emotion, self-constraint and spontaneity, Logos and Eros, or what Freud called the „reality principle‟ and the „pleasure principle‟” (1999: 360). Modern societies have shifted this formula to 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).
  7. 7. 7 Thus, for Wang, the search for the authentic self emerges in reaction to what Ritzer (1993) has called the “Mcdonaldization of society,” the process whereby culture comes to resemble to the rationalized efficiency of McDonalds restaurants. By stepping outside of the dominant institutional 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 as Reisinger and Steiner (2005: 80) suggest. It is true that the idea is not relevant for some categories of tourists (see Ritzer and Liska 1997 for an example), but for the tourists studied in this paper, I argue that the concept is relevant, especially “existential authenticity.” If we assume with Baudrillard (1983) the ubiquity of simulation, especially in tourist sites, where are we to find authenticity? Can we? Might it elusively lurk in the home of a local person, waiting to be cultivated by non-instrumental social relations? Presumably, the home is not a site of “staged authenticity” (MacCannell 1973), and as such, represents the ultimate back region in Goffman‟s scheme (1972[1959]). Indeed, my data suggests that people do act on the basis of perceived authenticity. For these travelers, the private home of a stranger might be the last bastion of the authentic.1 Merely sitting on a café veranda gawking at passer-bys will no longer pass for an authentic experience for some people. Instead, travelers need to “get to know” a local intimately in order for authenticity to be experienced. Commodifying the Self If tourists explore the authentic self in a break with the everyday when they travel, then we must inquire about its opposite: the self in day-to-day life. How is the self structured in such a way as to seem inauthentic? Knorr (2001: 526) suggests that the “lack-wanting” self, derived from the work of Lacan (1975), is in the process of displacing the “I-You-Me” version of the self, theorized by Mead and Freud. In the lack-wanting model, the self is constituted through a continued perception of lack in relation to an idealized self that is constantly reflected to the subject in a hypothetical mirror. Lack implies desire, and we have a constant desire to eliminate the lack. Given that desire is constant, lacks cannot ever be truly eliminated, and the 1 I make no claim that there is such a thing as “objective authenticity.” Rather, through interviews with members of Airbnb and CouchSurfing, I found that authenticity was a relevant category for them. Insofar as the actors depicted in these pages are motivated by the concept, the observer‟s claims are irrelevant.
  8. 8. 8 consummation of one desire creates future lacks that need satisfaction from other sources (Knorr 2001: 526). In this model, the self is a “structure of wantings in relation to a continually renewed lack” (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, has become “exteriorized” in the media (2001: 527). We are constantly bombarded with flows of images, 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. The mirror incessantly directs our attention to objects and lifestyles that others have, and that we lack. Knorr maintains that objects have come to be foregrounded in the mirror “at the expense of social principles and structures” (2001: 527). In this model, then, by virtue of an exteriorized mirror 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 desire things in modern consumer society. For Campbell, in modern societies a general orientation towards consuming is required. Rather than our wants being directed at particular things, we want and desire in a generalized and transcendent fashion: we “want to want” and “desire to desire” (Corrigan 1997: 10). For Campbell, then, wanting is a generalized state of being, a process 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 an innate propensity of human psychology, but rather, has been inculcated by industrial civilization (1983: 282). Following Weber into the realm of consumption, Campbell argues that the philosophy of Romanticism provided the foundation for this desiring “consumer ethic” by legitimating 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, Campbell argues (Corrigan 1997: 15). With this we have two distinct “hedonisms,” the traditional and the modern, which are underpinned by qualitative differences in the nature of desire (Campbell 1987). Critically for Campbell, desiring in and of itself has become a pleasurable endeavor for modern individuals through the vehicle of daydreaming. In this scheme, daydreaming about purchasing goods provides us with pleasurable sensations as we fantasize about what the goods might bring to us. Yet when we actually obtain the goods, the actual use-value isn‟t likely to be
  9. 9. 9 as emotively powerful as was the daydreaming. As such, our desire is constantly searching out new things to fantasize, and is never able to be satiated like in the lack-wanting version of the self. Ephemeral and fleeting, yet intrinsically pleasurable, our desires are constantly shifting from object to object, and market to market. With these models of the self we see that individuals constantly desire new things with which to construct selves. Enmeshed in a market-based society, when our daydreams disillusion us and our lacks become renewed, we must turn perforce to the market to procure the constituents of selfhood. The self is sustained by concatenations of market transactions over a lifetime that stimulate afresh the cycle of lacking and desiring each time we pass through the checkout 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 has become more “inauthentic” to social actors perceptually. The Market Construction of Meaning Through market liberalization, the globalization of production has eroded older, primarily national, class alignments and antagonisms while further separating production and consumption globally (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001: 9). The working classes of formerly industrial societies have been thrown into flux by recent deindustrialization (Wilson 1996; Smith 2001), such that some 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 become transnational 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 in Player Piano, international capital increasingly seeks to liberate itself from labor (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001: 10). Moreover, the globalization of production has induced ripple effects that are felt within national borders. Indeed, Smith (2001: 7) argues that for people in the contemporary United States “tenuousness and uncertainty have become „normal‟ facts of work and employment across the occupational spectrum…” The precariousness, contingency, or “flexibility” of contemporary work diminishes its ability to serve as a stable and meaningful referent for individuals today.
  10. 10. 10 What are the consequences for the stability of meaning? Knorr (2001) argues that the concept of “desocialization” helps us to understand how the process of structural change relates to social meaning systems. Knorr (2001: 520) argues that “de-socialization” occurs when previously 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, Knorr maintains, coincides with processes of emergent “postsocial” forms, whereby relationships not previously labeled social, acquire the term (2001: 527). As such, postsocial theorization implies agency, cultural creation, and continuity, as new meaning systems come to replace older institutions and structures. For Knorr, meaningful postsocial relationships are increasingly forged with objects, rather than with other people. Indeed, “the modern untying of identities has been accompanied by an expansion of object-centered environments,” Knorr maintains, “which situate and stabilize selves, define individual identity just as much as communities and families used to do…” (2001: 525). Central to the argument at hand is the claim that we‟re currently in the midst of a postsocial re-ordering of meanings that, crucially for in present context, has heightened the perception 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 to such 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 and Isherwood (1976), argue that goods help us to stabilize social meanings, which are inherently unstable throughout the course of events. In this way we use goods to construct culture, and to make it “visible” for a time in consumption rituals. In this scheme, goods are “good to think with” (Corrigan 1997: 18). Similarly, McCracken (1988) argues that goods serve as “bridges to displaced cultural meanings.” According to McCracken, cultures close the gap between reality and unfulfilled ideals with goods. For instance, if I want to get in touch with an idealized state, I need only think about its trappings. “The individual reflects on the eventual possession of…a cottage 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 the lack-wanting self that was reviewed above. Where Marx sought to bridge the gap between reality and the ideal with revolution, McCracken contends that we actually do this with commodities. In an age of growing secularism, commodities are the new “opiate of the masses.”
  11. 11. 11 In addition to bridging the gap between the real and the ideal, as well as helping us think through our culture, goods enable us to establish distinction between ourselves, and others around us. The idea that we establish social differentiation, and even act politically, through consumption 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 modern period has morphed into “pecuniary emulation.” The need to assert our wealth vis-à-vis others in a game of status compels us to display our wealth and our leisure conspicuously. Weber had a similar notion when he argued that status helps to define the boundaries of class. Bourdieu argued that distinction is achieved through individualized choices regarding what commodities to consume (see Holt 1988 for an application of Bourdieu‟s model to an American context). “We consume not products but symbols,” Bourdieu argued, “with the intention of establishing distinction between ourselves and other social strata…” (Lash and Urry 1987: 293). Bourdieu‟s theorization of consumption is consistent with Baudrillard (1981), who argued that the consumption of products per se is not what is important. Buadrillard argued throughout his career that we when consume, we‟re actually consuming “sign-values,” which is another value component of the commodity. Each sign-value is related to others in a code of signs that governs our consumption choices (Lash and Urry, 1987: 288; Ritzer 1997; 80). Thus, the choices we make with consumer goods says something about us socially to others living under the same code of signs. We‟re now forever on the “coolhunt” (Gladwell 2001) looking for niche products to display and assert our cultural capital in the game of signs. Such cultural trends fall back in on the organization of production, sustaining a dialectical relationship. For instance, the aversion to mass-production, Urry maintains, stems from an increased 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, and articulates individuality through its consumption choices. Given the proliferation of consumer choice in Post-Fordism, individuals construct their identities in a patchwork fashion, pulling from a myriad of sources (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001: 15; Lasch 1979: 166). Lasch, presaging the 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 of popular film and fictions, and fragments torn form a vast range of cultural traditions (Lasch,
  12. 12. 12 1979: 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 the globalization of the economy (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001; Miller 1995). Not only is consumption 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 modern wellsprings of social meaning such as class, work, church, civil society, family, and home, are no longer 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 to desire 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 the notion of authenticity. I propose to do so with the concept of “commodity fetishism” (Marx 2008[1869]). Following Marx, I define commodity fetishism as an ambiguity or opaqueness between the perception of cause and effect, which can lead to a sense of unreality or, in this case, inauthenticity. When people do not apprehend themselves or their actions clearly in relation 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 are grounded in a myriad of individual actions and behaviors, which sustain and reproduce institutions through time. Thus, for Glaeser, we misapprehend institutions when we take them to be immutable social formations. Similarly, Marx argued that rather than seeing our fellows as social producers, we see them as competition, and in this way we are alienated from each other. On this basis Marx (2008[1869]) argued that the essentially social character of production is obfuscated by the atomized nature of commodity production under capitalism. It is my claim, then, that such ambiguity or opaqueness of cause and effect has become more acute in the 21st century as the globalization of production has severed older (Fordist) cause and effect linkages. Indeed, the characteristic feature of life in late-capitalist societies (Jameson 1991) is a sense of mystification, of arcane forces that affect individuals in oblique and unascertainable ways (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001: 27). Giddens (1994) has referred to this as
  13. 13. 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 in occult beliefs in western capitalist societies (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001: 27). “As the connections between means and ends become more opaque, more distended, more mysterious,” Comaroff and Comaroff assert, “the occult becomes an ever more appropriate, semantically saturated metaphor for our times” (2001: 27). If our joys, plights, and biographies cannot easily be linked to the mechanics of society, gone is our sociological imagination (Mills 1959). We can‟t blame society for anything, nor can we feel ourselves entitled to anything from it. Without clear circuits of social impact, who, then, are we to blame when things like the Great Recession of 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 sugarcane plantations of the Cuaca Valley…it is clear that the devil is intrinsic to the process of the proletarianization of the peasant and to the commodification of the peasant‟s world,” Taussig argues, “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 occurring today with the spread of the market into the spiritual, bodily, and ideational spheres? If so, then might such rampant commodification induce its opposite: the desire for the concrete, the tangible, the knowable, the genuine, the de-fetishized, or the authentic? I answer in the affirmative 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 the methodology used. III. Data and Methodology I first heard about CouchSurfing from a friend in 2009 while studying in college. I was sympathetic 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 getting a real local‟s perspective when travelling. I sensed that I was the “type” of person who would enjoy 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.
  14. 14. 14 Suffice it to say, I didn‟t get any “surfers” wanting to stay with me. When the time came to conduct a summer “field school” project as an undergraduate in anthropology, I wanted to meet other surfers and learn about CouchSurfing, so I decided to actively engage the network for research purposes. In that initial project, I asked two questions: 1) who are these “surfers?” and 2) why do they do it?2 After completing the project I let it wane as a scholarly interest. I intended to move on to other things as a graduate student. After all, the economic recession was in full swing, there was real pain out there, so why study something so seemingly innocuous as CouchSurfing? Yet in time I came to see that CouchSurfing was not historically pallid. Rather, the network 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, or dialectical, terms. This suspicion was lent credibility, and consequently my scholarly interest in CouchSurfing was revitalized, when I discovered that there were many other phenomena like it popping up in advanced capitalist societies. Through the Internet, people are now coming together in novel ways to share, redistribute, and consume goods in a fashion that breaks with the institutional paradigm of hyperconsumption (Roo and Rodgers 2010). Suspect that the popularity of these networks was indicative of their appeal to new social motivations, I set out to learn how the people that use CouchSurfing and Airbnb interpret their activity, and make meaning out of their experiences with others in the network. Indeed, all I had entering the “field” was a loose sense that these networks were significant, and that their consistently growing popularity could tell us something about the structural changes induced by the globalization and deindustrialization 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 CouchSurfing and Airbnb. Why did they like to travel in this way? What kind of experiences do these networks offer? 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 of people? 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 these 2In the earlier project I conducted two interviews. I also surfed and hosted once myself. I have made sparing use of these earlier transcripts in the analysis presented below.
  15. 15. 15 idiosyncratic significances to a scholarly audience seeking to understand the emerging contours of human sociality, community, and culture in the 21st century. With such an orientation, semi-structured life-world interviews, grounded in phenomenological epistemology, suggested themselves as the most appropriate style of interview.3 The semi-structured, open-ended approach allows the respondent to elaborate the aspects of their experiences that matter to them, in their own categories, without the researcher supplying pre-established constructs, as in a survey questionnaire. It was essential that respondents be allowed to articulate their experiences in their own terms. Although I had my own 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 the field. However, I wasn‟t going in blind. In each interview I came equipped with an interview guide that contained themes and questions I wanted to explore. Common interview themes were peoples‟ motivations for participating, and their thoughts and beliefs about the networks. I also aimed to elicit the respondent‟s descriptions of their experiences. I adopted a conversational style that maintained flow and induced respondent comfort. Indeed, in most cases, all, or sections of the interview guide, were abandoned for a period to let the respondent voice what was significant and meaningful to them. Consistent with an approach aimed at generating depth, meaning, and interpretation, I wanted to find a few people that could tell me a lot, rather than many people who could tell me some of what I wanted to find out. I thought that 10 – 16 interviews were appropriate. I began to scout both www.couchsurfing.org and www.airbnb.com for participants. I was perforce confined to restrict my sample to people living in the Chicago area, as they would be easiest for me to access. But Chicago has approximately 3,500 Couch Surfers and 214 people with listings on Airbnb. The immediate question, then, was how to narrow down my field of respondents and find a good selection of representative people? I followed two distinct, but consistent, processes in this regard. In CouchSurfing, there is a section on the website for sub-groups, and each city has its own “local group.” These city groups exist to facilitate events, outings, and get-togethers that allow local surfers to meet and connect while they‟re not travelling. Local events attract a cohort of active and well-experienced surfers, and also brand new surfers who are looking to get a 3For an exposition of the semi-structured life-world interview see Kvale, Steinar and Brinkmann, Svend (2009) chapter 2.
  16. 16. 16 foothold in the community. As a relative neophyte, I felt that attending these gatherings would provide me with a natural opportunity to recruit respondents, as well as the chance to observe Couch 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 me acquisitive glances. At other times, I would not jot any notes at all and just interact with those who were present. At still other times I would frantically jot notes in private, slipping away from the “action” for brief periods of time to write my impressions in my moleskin notebook. I did not feel it necessary, or even a good idea, to divulge my research purposes to everyone I had a casual conversation with. I met four of the five surfers whom I interviewed at these local events. I would talk to people at these events and ask them questions to discern their level of involvement with CouchSurfing. Based on these conversations, I would evaluate the people I was meeting, and ask only 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 with a 30-year old man who lived in a house with three other Couch Surfers. He said that they hosted a “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 a second event, I met a man who was brand new to CouchSurfing, and was going to local events to meet people in hopes of securing positive references for his profile before taking a trip to Europe. I felt that a neophyte‟s interpretation of the network would be a valuable contribution. I met still a third respondent who had experience with two CouchSurfing communities – Detroit and Chicago – so I approached her for an interview. Moreover, I used the CouchSurfing website, specifically the Chicago local group‟s website, 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. These people 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, and seemed to be the main organizer of CouchSurfing events in Chicago. Prior to even going to a local event, I knew I wanted to interview this man. I met him at the first CouchSurfing event I
  17. 17. 17 attended. My hunch about his importance to CouchSurfing Chicago was corroborated when others at the event described him as a “legend,” or as a “myth.” Given his enthusiasm, about CouchSurfing, he was happy to talk to me for well over two hours when I would later interview him. 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 the opportunity to discuss the project with many people, and conduct “mini” interviews. These conversations were valuable ways to verify my developing interpretations. To find respondents in Airbnb, I followed I slightly different process. Given that people charge their guests a nightly rate, I wanted to capture a range of prices.4 Following the same guideline that “more experience is better than less,” I selected people based on the number of reviews they had on their profile. I aimed to interview people with over 20 reviews. I also tried to get a wide-ranging sample of prices. I wanted to see if, and how, hospitality differed as the price of accommodation changed. Given that Airbnb does not have local community events as regularly as CouchSurfing, I relied on Internet messages via the Airbnb website to connect with respondents from that network.5 The five Airbnb hosts I interviewed priced their accommodations 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 the network. 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 of CouchSurfing and Airbnb in Chicago. One-shot interviews are obviously less desirable with an interview approach that seeks to obtain deep meanings and interpretations of a subject‟s experiences. However, although I only interviewed each respondent one time, I interacted with many of them repeatedly at the CouchSurfing events I attended. With repeated contact, I had the opportunity to ask them questions over time, to observe their behaviors, and build rapport, all before turning the tape recorder on. Moreover, one woman who I interviewed from Airbnb was 4 The cheapest Chicago listing with at least one review as of 6/8/11, implying someone had actually 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 under the official auspices of the organization. Two respondents belittled these events and suggested that they were awkward and contrived.
  18. 18. 18 so interested in CouchSurfing that she requested to come with me to an event. Taking her to this event enabled me a second opportunity to interact with her. During this time, she told me some things that “occurred to me after our interview.” However, the decision to engage in one-shot interviews, rather than multiple interviews, was made both on the basis of time constraints and on 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 home interviews enabled me to see the type of accommodation that was either “gifted” or sold to guests. Were the hosts‟ houses or apartments objectively “high quality?” Was their location good relative to Chicago attractions? Did hosts have their guests sleep in beds, on couches, or on the floor? Where did guests put their belongings? Where did they inhabit? What did hosts provide for their guests? Spatially, where did hosts and guests interact? I felt that these concerns were especially acute with Airbnb because I wanted to see how the “quality” of accommodations differed 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 their home. All but two interviews were conducted in the homes of respondents, eight of the ten in total. The other two interviews, both with Couch Surfers, were conducted in my home given logistical constraints. Still a third advantage of in home interviews was that I could actually see hosts and guests interacting. In three of the five interviews with members of Airbnb, I witnessed my 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 the procedures that hosts went through when interacting with a guest. In these instances, I seized on the opportunity to talk with these guests about their motivations for travelling in the Airbnb network. These impromptu interactions provided me with insights I could not have obtained elsewhere by allowing me to speak with guests in Airbnb, and witness their interactions with my respondent. I was able to glean a typical pattern of interaction. To really grasp the experiences my respondents were describing, I felt that it was essential to open my home and host travelers in both CouchSurfing and Airbnb. This made me a functioning participant in both networks and provided me with yet a third source of data when added to interview and observational field data. I hosted four different guests, or groups of guests
  19. 19. 19 in 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 me in interviews and at gatherings. I could feel what it was like to have someone in the house for three straight days; I could monitor what I did to prepare for my guest‟s arrival; I could gage my expectations; I could see whether or not being paid effected my behavior as a host. Such experiences invaluably help the novice to interpret the fact that one of my respondents has hosted 177 different Couch Surfers in three years or the fact that three of my Airbnb respondents have made over $10,000 a year through their efforts hosting. By experiencing hosting for myself, the weight of these statements and the meanings they carry are made less opaque. A study aimed at uncovering the meanings of experience could not have proceeded, I maintain, without a participation component. Practically, I made the decision not to interview the people I hosted beyond conversational questioning and answering. However, I disclosed in both my CouchSurfing and Airbnb profiles that I was doing research on the network, but I did not push for a formal interview.7 I also did not tape record any of these interactions, but instead, made field notes during the time my guests were staying with me. I felt that going too formal with interviews might detract from the authentic experience of the encounter. Yet I should add in passing that my research, when we would talk about it, seemed to interest all of my guests, and two groups even told me that my research interests were one of the reasons that they had decided to stay with me. To summarize: the empirical data underpinning the analysis presented in this paper has been drawn from ten interview transcripts (five in each network), give observations at local CouchSurfing meetings, and five hosting experiences (four in Airbnb and one in CouchSurfing). Thematically, in the interviews I explored the motivations my respondents had for participating in these networks, the guiding processes by which they operate within them, the experiences they have had, and the friendships they have made through their involvement. As such, this is necessarily an interpretive project, and some may criticize my work on this basis. I have taken as 6 I should note that I didn‟t accept everyone who asked to stay with me. I declined around 3 surfers and 3 people wanting to stay with me from Airbnb. Like those whom I interviewed, I had a 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 with the network. My Airbnb profile has been viewed 455 times since March of 2011. This discrepancy is likely due to the fact that there are fewer people on Airbnb than CouchSurfing.
  20. 20. 20 data the meanings that people attribute to an aspect of their lived experience: sociality and travel in two new online-offline travelers‟ hospitality networks. Unless one regards the subject‟s lived reality as ontologically and epistemologically valid, my findings and conclusions will fall on deaf ears. IV. Analysis In this section I will draw on interview and field data to analyze the motivations for belonging in Airbnb and CouchSurfing. The research finds a plurality of motivations that combine to make these novel travelers‟ hospitality networks appealing for a segment of the touring 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 the rationalized “McDisney” style of tourism (Ritzer and Liska 1997), people in travelers‟ hospitality networks desire experiences that are incommensurable, unique, and affectively rational. As such, I will argue that authenticity in this context is code for the unique and the singular, as opposed to the rational and the standardized. Yet the travelers and hosts who were my respondents also valued the economic savings that they received from travelling in these networks. Thirdly, social networking with other people locally when not travelling is still a third motivation for participation found by the research. Moreover, for hosts, thinking about strangers coming into their home is a source of daydreaming that can add variation to the everyday, not to mention income if hosting in Airbnb. Hosts too are after unique and pleasurable experience in addition to monetary income. Finally, I will argue that by touring in this fashion, people establish distinction between themselves and more conventional “tourists.” My respondents possessed high cultural capital, and see CouchSurfing and Airbnb as a means to exhibit this publicly. I will next 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 Fenton took a low budget holiday to Iceland. Having little money, Fenton got the idea to hack into the University of Reykjavik‟s computer system and spam over 1500 college students to ask them if he could crash on their couch for the weekend. Impressed by the volume of positive responses
  21. 21. 21 from students who offered to show Fenton “their” Iceland, he vowed never to “rot in a hostel or hotel again” and the idea for CouchSurfing was born. Now anyone may take part by going to www.couchsurfing.com and registering with the network. Upon registration, people fill out online 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 is complete, users can begin to engage the network and “surf” the couches of the world, free of charge. Since 2004 when it was officially launched, CouchSurfing has grown at an exponential rate while also becoming transformed into an international nonprofit organization under the moniker: CouchSurfing International. As of June 2011, CouchSurfing has 2.8 million members in 284 countries. But such a global representation is misleading when one looks at demographics. People who use CouchSurfing, known esoterically as “surfers,” are primarily found in the urban areas of wealthy capitalist societies. The top five CouchSurfing cities in order are as follows: Paris, London, Berlin, Istanbul, and Montreal. Regionally, North America and Europe account for 77.6% of all surfers, while Africa, Central America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East combined, only account for 6.5%.8 Demographically, 85.5% of couch surfers are between the ages of 18 – 34. It should be strongly emphasized that the average user is a young white male around 28 years old from a wealthy capitalist country.9 Although the network is ostensibly global, it is not truly global in the sense that Internet access and a modicum of wealth are 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 will point out below, there are these types of people on CouchSurfing, but the majority of the surfers with 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 and you‟re planning a trip to Chicago. The first thing you would do is search online in the 8 These numbers have shifted since 2009 when I began this research. The percentage of surfers from North America and Europe combined has moved down from 79.6% to 77.6%, while the latter 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 in CouchSurfing,” and Jens, a 22-year-old female surfer remarked that we “need more girls.”
  22. 22. 22 CouchSurfing network, using the “couch search” function, to find other surfers who are living in Chicago. When you find a few people that you‟re interested in staying with, discriminated by your own idiosyncratic criteria, you then message them and ask to “surf their couch.” If they like you, again decided upon by their own personal evaluation of you, they may accept your request.10 In this sense, people travel to see other people, and not just a de-populated environment, as would a more conventional tourist. The effects of this type of travel on a person‟s perception of places and others can be profound. Derek, a 35-year-old surfer from Minneapolis, MN, told me that he had been to Paris twice, but didn‟t like it until he surfed in the city 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.” Derek appreciated that his host “took us to dinner parties at his friends‟ places.” At these parties Derek said 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 CouchSurfing produced a strong emotive affect that transformed his opinion of an entire city in a way not previously 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 the organization‟s belief that through exploring the world, connecting with strangers, and appreciating global diversity, provincial prejudices can be eradicated and tolerance will spread. Cohesion in the CouchSurfing community is achieved through shared values that champion reciprocal exchange (Germann Molz 2007). CouchSurfing functions via a non- monetized and de-commodified reciprocal economy; where culture, knowledge, trust, and close personal encounters, rather than money, are the primary currencies. In this social world, the 10Some people take this in peculiar directions: an experienced 32-year-old female surfer from Chicago 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 may not fully read her profile before asking to stay with her, a breach of etiquette abhorred by some surfers.
  23. 23. 23 monetization of surf-host exchanges is strictly taboo. The following excerpt from CouchSurfing‟s official “Vision Statement” makes this clear: “Staying with your host(s) is also always free; it is contrary to the values of Couch Surfing and against our terms of use to charge someone to surf your couch. Many surfers like to bring their hosts gifts or treat them to a meal as a „Thank you,‟ but this is not a requirement. There are infinite ways to reciprocate goodwill.” – Accessed from www.couchsurfing.com on 4/23/11. The ideational logic of nonmonetary reciprocity that underpins the CouchSurfing mission is subversive of, if not outright antagonistic to, the instrumental rationality of capitalist markets. As commodification, and thereby markets, continue to extend their reach and diversity, making inroads into the cultural, spiritual, even ideational spheres, CouchSurfing stands in defiance of their cultural logic. The CouchSurfing community is a space within a broader web of market exchanges where people can explicitly and consciously engage in reciprocal, gift-like exchange. Indeed, people who provide “gifts of hospitality” to strangers go out of their way to do so, and are often very happy to have the burden. As such, a large number of people attach a greater significance to CouchSurfing, and through their efforts, help to sustain the adage: “CouchSurfing is more than just a free couch.” The Story of Airbnb The inspiration for Airbnb came in 2007 when a design conference was coming to San Francisco, CA, and all of the hotels were booked for the weekend. Two young design students, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, who lived in the area and were attending the conference themselves, decided to open up their apartment to stranded attendees. The two had “a great time making a few new friends,” but nothing more was thought of the idea until later in the year when the economic recession would force them into unemployment. Unable to find jobs, Chesky and Gebbia decided to launch Airbnb as a business. Initially, the friends thought that their service would cater mostly to conference crowds, not realizing their model‟s larger appeal. Indeed, the company‟s initial public offering in 2008 attracted little attention. Investors thought the idea was too risky. Why would anyone want to stay with a stranger?11 The company had a slow start, and 11http://techcrunch.com/2011/05/30/airbnb-has-arrived-raising-mega-round-at-a-1-billion- valuation/
  24. 24. 24 didn‟t get going until the 2008 Democrat National Convention in Washington, DC, which proved to be the tipping point for the business. Since then, Airbnb has grown rapidly. The company increased its total nightly bookings by 800% in 2010 alone, and now has over 2 million nights booked to date. In a second round of fundraising in May of 2011, Airbnb collected $100 million dollars from investors, and is now valued at over $1 billion dollars.12 To date Airbnb has over 1.6 million 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 its members and for the organization. Travelers are charged a nightly fee that is priced individually by 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 $106. The money is collected immediately by Airbnb and is not dispensed to the host, usually via direct deposit, until 24 hours after the guest has checked in. In this way, Airbnb uses its centralized institutional strength to discourage malfeasance.13 Prices for accommodations vary considerably in the network, as do the types of properties available. On Airbnb you can find couches, bedrooms in homes, entire apartments, and even castles and houseboats for rent. On the low end, hosts charge 20 – 30$ per evening. On the high end, hosts charge 100$ or more per night. Some of the more exotic 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 in calculated market logics. Quite the contrary, those who use Airbnb are not immune to the cultural 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 liked the “adventure,” and likened staying with me to staying with her children. In a promotional video for 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 4/23/11 12 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 email information without booking for fear that they might take their business “off of the network.” As such, my respondents would often have to give me their contact information in “code.” In other cases I would be instructed to contact them at their place of employment.
  25. 25. 25 Similarly, the objective statement of Airbnb, a self proclaimed “community-marketplace,” is as follows: “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 it's 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 4/23/11 The idea of a community marketplace embodied in the statement above could also be read as an attempt at infusing social and cultural meaning into market exchange. Airbnb seems to be an amalgam of reciprocal and market exchange, instrumental and affective rationalities. Although Airbnb does not publish detailed demographic statistics like CouchSurfing, the organization does give researchers other clues about the composition of its membership. Airbnb recently celebrated its 1 millionth night booked in February of 2011. To commemorate, the network published a celebratory document in which the company divulged that the most frequently occurring occupations among its members are teachers, retirees, photographers, architects, designers, journalists, lawyers, entrepreneurs, nurses, chefs, and flight attendants in that order.14 The document also reveals that the top employers present in the Airbnb network are Google, IBM, The United Nations, Microsoft, and the US Army. Moreover, the top colleges represented in the network are Harvard, Colombia, Berkeley, UCLA, and NYU. These occupational and collegiate trends in the Airbnb network lend support to the assertion that users of 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 firsthand cultural experience, perhaps even authenticity. The table below provides a comparative overview of the two networks: CouchSurfing Airbnb Began: 2004 2008 Inspiration: Icelandic Vacation Conference/Recession Number of Members: 2.9 Million N/A 14 My findings confirm this statement. I interviewed a photographer who hosted travelers, and a teacher, an Egyptologist, an entrepreneur, and a chef all came to stay with me.
  26. 26. 26 Number of Nights 3.3 Million 2 million Surfed/Booked: Countries Represented: 246 180 Cities Represented: 80,538 13,000 Most 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, Austin Average Age: 28 N/A There is overlap between the networks. Although a market exists in one network and a reciprocal economy ordains in the other, given that both networks put strangers in close contact in 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 themselves and tourists based on the concepts of “authenticity” and “reality,” which they claim CouchSurfing and Airbnb facilitate. Jen, a 32-year-old surfer form Minneapolis, MN stated that surfers “are not just going to go to the „touristy‟ places, I want to know what it‟s really like.” Jen went on to add: “I don‟t want to do any touristy things. I‟d rather see the stuff tourists don‟t know about.” And Alison, a 37-year-old artist and surfer from Minneapolis, MN said her motivations 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 a guidebook version.” In reference to Chicago, Michael a 30-year-old anthropologist and vegan chef tells me that CouchSurfing provides you with an opportunity to experience the “local stuff that isn‟t part of the tourist thing, but is really, what the city is.” Moreover, Laura, a 27-year old nurse 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.”
  27. 27. 27 Francisco, a 25-year-old high school history teacher explicitly equates hotels with artificiality in the 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 Airbnb made 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-person hospitality 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 I interviewed suggests that we need to take seriously authenticity as a motivation to travel in person-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 CouchSuring and Airbnb facilitate touristic experiences that are wholly personal, idiosyncratic, and 15The 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 the former, and contrivance with the latter.
  28. 28. 28 singularized. When a person steps away from familiar institutions such as agencies and hotels that 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 a direct 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 while he‟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 their honeymoon trip through Europe. Laura, reflecting on that trip, speaks generally about the benefits 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 is what gives travelers‟ hospitality networks their appeal while being constitutive of authenticity for the people who use them. Indeed, Laura goes on to tell me excitedly about an upcoming trip to Alaska 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. 29. 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 of his guests to “walk the train tracks” in Chicago and through an abandoned urban field “past a couple 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 the personal sites of each local person, feeling this to be more authentic than what a guidebook may tell us. Authenticity, for the travelers studied in this paper, is found in the day-to-day experiences of a local other. In telling recognition of user-desires, Airbnb recently added a feature to its website that allows hosts to label their favorite neighborhood “gems” in relation to the location of their home on a map. In this way, potential consumers can see what each host might want to personally show them before making a decision about who to book with. Each host is going to have 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 of experiences stand in opposition to the “Mcdisney” mode of tourism theorized by Ritzer and Liska (1997). Moreover, the hyper-individualized mode of travel facilitated by CouchSurfing and 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 tourism attractions with the inauthentic. With this rubric, grounded in classic sociological binary, there may by degrees of authenticity in these networks. For instance, given that the hospitality offered 16 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 to Chicago, and so he doesn‟t know it that well yet. Laura, a 27-year-old nurse who just moved to Chicago 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 it used to be. I feel negligent like this.”
  30. 30. 30 in Airbnb is purchased, extra pressures are placed on hosts that are not be present in CouchSurfing. At a minimum, hosts feel pressure to make sure that their dwelling is clean when a guest arrives. Ray, a self-employed designer has made over $10,000 in nine months hosting travelers 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 preparatory cleaning: “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 Fieldnotes We can compare this with another excerpt from my fieldnotes. Justin, a Couch Surfer, elaborates when 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 Fieldnotes We could argue then, that in Airbnb there is an element of “staged authenticity” (MacCannell 1973) that is produced by the commodification of hospitality. Hosts want to “do it right” and this implies a degree of production. John and Allyson took such interior production to the greatest extent of any of the people I interviewed. In reference to providing breakfast for his guests, John states 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 “ultra right-wing Christian couple” because they thought they might have to pretend like they were married: “if we would have to pretend that we‟re something we‟re not, then we‟re done, we‟re not hosting them.” Though people in Airbnb are still getting an authentic gaze of the local 17From my fieldnotes on 4/29/11: “Ray‟s efforts show. His guest room has got one full-sized bed, plain white walls, a tube television on top of a dresser, and nightstand with an alarm clock beside the bed. I‟m talking to Ray as he is changing the sheets of the guest bed. Ray tells me that he “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.”
  31. 31. 31 other‟s life and home, they do so in more of a staged fashion than people who travel in CouchSurfing. Thus, there are degrees of authenticity available in these networks if the inauthentic 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 potluck dinner. We began to converse. Jordan told me that for him, his motivations for joining CouchSurfing were “70% wanting to meet interesting people, and 30% the economic aspect.” In an interview a few weeks later, Francisco, also a new surfer, echoed Jordan‟s comments about the 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 told me that for him: “80%” of his motivations were to “see what its like,” and “20%” were to save money. And Pedro, a 30-year-old student of music technology from Lithuania, told me that he and his girlfriend were looking to save money on their American trip because “everything else had been so expensive.” These comments indicate that a variety of motivations combine to make budget travelers‟ hospitality networks appealing for a segment of the touring population. Instrumental and affective rationalities intermingle in travelers‟ hospitality networks, making them 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 these networks particularly appealing. But what can be said about hosts who open their homes to travelers? Ostensibly only a money making venture, hosting in Airbnb is in fact more complex. Hosts get a new source of income, but also the experience of human connection that adds variance to their everyday. For
  32. 32. 32 instance, John, a 29-year-old IT consultant from Chicago divulged that money is “probably the least 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 through Airbnb almost continuously, but yet feels that “no one could do this if they didn‟t want to have people 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 someone doing it if that (money) were the only payoff. If they didn‟t like people and sharing space then it‟s not going to be worth if financially.” And what about people in CouchSurfing who aren‟t getting paid? Justin, a theatre aficionado, has hosted approximately 177 people in the 3 years that he 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 in CouchSurfing himself, but says he hosts about “three times a month.” Again and again, these people reiterated to me that hosting travelers was “a great way to meet people,” and to “travel without 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 to accommodate a traveler? What do they get out of the experience? Its not just guests, hosts too are after rich, unique experiences. Indeed, part of the seduction of person-to-person hospitality networks are the feelings of intrigue, thrill, and anxiety that accompany the unknown and the mysterious. 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 about what 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 their guests, 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
  33. 33. 33 hedonism, and is constitutive of the self. In this sense, both parties are after pleasurable experiences with which to augment the self. Yet openness to the unknown has its boundaries. People who use these networks must be sure that the strangers coming into their homes are genuinely who they claim to be. When new members sign up with Airbnb, the network suggests that people post their listings to Craigslist to help promote themselves and get bookings. However, none of the people I interviewed felt comfortable 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 that becomes threatened when the doors are opened to people that use Craigslist. Therefore, it is not complete unknown, but rather “bounded unknown” that provides intrigue for people. The strange is 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 who the 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 five respondents from CouchSurfing reported to having had sexual intimacy with either their hosts or guests. Exemplary is Ray, who before becoming a full-time Airbnb host, was a Couch Surfer for two years and in that time met a Turkish fiancée (they‟re now broken up), and also a girlfriend of six 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 has the potential to lead to sex. Reflective of an implicit sexual self-selection on behalf of Couch Surfers, 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. 34. 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 daydreaming about 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 travelers hospitality networks, especially CouchSurfing, benefits individuals even while they‟re not traveling, providing yet another motivation for participation. Justin, a very active organizer of local 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 travel opportunities rare, CouchSurfing local groups are integral to cultivating a sense of belonging in a community. Jen articulated that the Minneapolis local group fulfills her desire to “hang out with other 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 on the 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. It's 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: "I've only been a member of CS for 12 days now and so far I've 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 you're in or near opens up so many possibilities to hang out with people in your area. All in all I'm very excited to really start getting into this community." These general sentiments were echoed by several of my respondents who articulated that the local group is hugely important for their overall CouchSurfing experience. Indeed, Michael revealed that “a good chunk of my social life revolves around the Chicago local CouchSurfing
  35. 35. 35 group.” Michael told me that he was “shopping around for new friends” when he began to get involved 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 his day-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 in Dublin 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 Ann Arbor, Michigan. This communal aspect of CouchSurfing also suggests that people may counter the 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 that were not previously possible. Local people and their homes, as well as their favorite places and activities, 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 argue that these travelers‟ hospitality networks counter the increasing alienation and atomization of social 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 of isolated individuals and families, we‟re super isolated. Couch Surfers want to be more like a community.” 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 argued above that alienation stems from the increasing marketization of, and epistemic confusion in, social life. However, David offers his own view:

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