The Commodification of the Couch

For the past couple of month, much of my time was occupied by intensely staring at a single document which was to become my Master’s thesis for the Digital Media & Society programme at Uppsala University. The idea behind the work was basically to explain life, the universe, and everything through the struggle of ‘the commons’ versus ‘commodification’ in online spaces, using the exemplifying case study of ‘hospitality exchange networks’. I am using the wonderful platforms of Couchsurfing and BeWelcome as examples of manifestations for those concepts; the most interesting, inspiring and motivating part of all research process was, indeed, to interact with many members from both communities; thanks, awesome people, for all your input & drive!

For the curious:

Hospitality exchange (HospEx) networks – online platforms facilitating the connection between a traveler and a local resident – embody many of the cyber-utopian promises intrinsic to the Web as it started out 25 years ago. Such sites have often been conceptualized as a new and daring trend in a booming ‘sharing industry’ and have been researched for topics such as trust, reputation, and online identities. Yet, a more critical look uncovers that crucial issues of ownership, power, digital labour, and organizational structures have often been left out. 

To fill this gap, this thesis investigates upon the antagonistic struggle between the commons and processes of commodification in the light of critical theory and political economy. The research shows that examples with characteristics of both concepts are manifested in the niche social networking space of HospEx platforms. The biggest of those platforms, Couchsurfing.org, changed its organizational orientation from a non-profit, commons-based project towards a for-profit company in 2011 – an instance of commodification. An analysis of both quantitative and qualitative community data shows that the transformation consequently concerns a member on multiple levels. The structural change of ownership results in a loss of transparency and privacy, an alteration of the platform’s integrity, a sacrifice of the ‘uniqueness’ of the community, and a differing relationship between the user and the platform. 

To shed light on an antagonistic force and suggest an alternative, community-based governance approach, the work further explores the specifics of a platform guided by the logic of the commons. Interviews with volunteers of the non-commercial, non-profit HospEx platform BeWelcome.org helped to deepen an understanding of how a digital commons can be sustained and what challenges they face. The thesis concludes that the developments observed on Couchsurfing are not an exception but rather characteristic and part of a broader trend manifested in all areas of digital media, and indeed modern society in general: commodification processes frequently jeopardize the commons and incorporate them into the logic of capital.

For the even more curious: Here’s a link to the thesis uploaded on a platform that will require you to sign up & spam you in consequence, therefore you might prefer a straightforward direct PDF download. Of course, it’s all Creative Commons content so enjoy & share (both optional). Questions?

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MA Thesis Teaser: ‘Commons vs. Commodification’

Background & Rationale

The task of the my Master’s thesis in the working is to study the relation of the commons and commodification processes on social media platforms. The commons are, based on the work of political economist Elinor Ostrom, to be understood as a resource shared by a group of people that is subject to social dilemmas (Ostrom 1990), whereas commodification, from a critical political economy perspective, refers to the “process of transforming use values into exchange values” (Mosco 1996 141). Internet researchers often neglect to critically engage with issues of power, digital labor, and processes of commodification when engaging with so-called ‘social media’ phenomena. Furthermore, important questions revolving around ownership and the commons are frequently left out. Using a relevant case study exemplifying commodification processes of the communication commons, the thesis is striving to connect theoretical issues around power structures, political struggles, participatory democracy, and the strengthening of the commons with empirical data.

Taking a historical perspective of existing capital accumulation strategies online and further situating current developments on the interconnection of Internet and society within that frame, potential developments and futures can be identified. A discussion of often-forgotten early and non-commercial applications of the WWW (e.g.,  Usenet) will remind the reader of the initial promises of the Web. In this light, the history of the Internet and the WWW can, departing from the usual utopian discourse, be told as a story of increasing commercialization, from the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to the IPO of Facebook, and  therefore as a story of struggle between commerce and the commons, where commodification is a “typical threat” to the knowledge commons (Hess & Ostrom 2011 5).  Arm in arm goes the history of consumer culture and advertising, both shaping and shaped through the emergence of the Internet.

An analysis of sites fitting into the ‘social media’ frame promises fruitful results since the strive for a co-operative society is, at least in theory, especially alive in those realms.Taking the case of social media platforms dedicated to provide alternative ways of traveling as empirical grounds, the research strives to illustrate that the current model of informational capitalism potentially endangers societally valuable projects by commercializing the ownership structures; the resulting strive for profit (and not necessarily user satisfaction) may have threatening  and negative consequences for all potential users and society at large. A discussion will add to and build upon recent work such as Sandoval (2014), questioning the social in ‘social media’, or Fuchs (2014) elaborating on issues of unpaid digital labour of Internet prosumers. Thoughts going beyond the corporate ownership of social media platforms allow a vision of what potentials could be found in ‘truly social’ media and a common-based Internet. Touching on key questions on the public sphere and public debate, the “exploitation of public discourse for corporate interests is a rather undeveloped line of possible research” (Biltereyst & Meers 2011 428), thus this thesis aims towards such a contribution by providing a theoretical discussion about the workings of power and the commons and then empirically examining current developments around social media platforms in the light of critical Internet theory.

References

Biltereyst, D. & Meers, P., 2011. The Political Economy of Audiences. In J. Wasko, G. Murdock, & H. Sousa, eds. The Handbook of Political Economy of Communications. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Fuchs, C., 2014. Digital Labour and Karl Marx, New York: Routledge.

Hess, C. & Ostrom, E. eds., 2011. Understanding Knowledge as a Commons, Boston: MIT Press.

Mosco, V., 1996. The Political Economy of Communication, London: Sage.

Ostrom, E., 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sandoval, M., 2014. From Corporate to Social Media, London: Routledge.

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