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Radical Refusal as Couchsurfing Goes Commercial

The final speaker at this AoIR 2012 session is Zeena Feldman, whose focus is on the Couchsurfing Website. She begins by suggesting that the Net has always been a space of competing discourses, a hybrid space, and the same is true for social media as well. Social media have been seen as technologies of resistance as well as of repression, and the case of Couchsurfing illustrates this.

The site is a social network for travellers which operates as a platform for exchanging stays in private homes; it frames non-commercial hospitality exchange as a means of fostering cultural understanding and exchange, "changing the world one couch at a time". The site was built by volunteer labour and is promoted by thousands of volunteer ambassadors. Volunteer members also do the main work of hospitality exchange, of course. From one perspective, then, this is a site for communitarian self-management.

At the same time, the site also raised substantial funds in the form of donations from its members, supposedly to cover its operating costs; more recently, the site also accepted venture capital funds and stated its intention to convert to a for-profit model. This resulted in a campaign by site members against these changes.

The first tactic used by members was watchdog disclosure, coordinated through a forum on the site itself. Members published information about donations handling, volunteer treatment, and other internal matters; many acted as whistleblowers. The primary aim of this was to expose dishonesty – this was transparency as rebellion. Some members of the forum also defended Couchsurfing's right to profit from the site, however. But speaking on the site is just another peer labour – for all it's reformist aspirations, it denotes the impossibility of free speech in this space.

Another tactic was to employ member profiles as acts of rebellion as well – by changing avatars, stripping profiles of information (thereby removing value from the site), or using the profiles to link to non-profit alternatives to the site.

Finally, some members conducted "reference warfare" by creating highly negative Couchsurfing references for Casey Fenton, the founder of the site; in the end, however, all such references were deleted from Fenton's profile. This was seen as sending a message to Fenton and the site's management about the userbase's feelings about the for-profit shift.

Such forms of activism as a form or radical refusal: power is achieved through negative affirmation rather than through a simple 'yes/no' response. Responses radically refigure what it means to participate; this democratic participation through capitalist spaces refuses a positioning as subject. In this, Couchsurfing constitutes an example for proprietary social media spaces more generally.