Privatizing Collaboration: Rhetorical Strategies of Legitimacy in the Transformation of a Hospitality Exchange Platform

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 16:45
Oral Presentation
Karolina MIKOLAJEWSKA-ZAJAC, Kozminski University, Poland
There is a growing recognition that digital platforms increasingly structure everyday lives, yet their business models often remain nebulous (Scholz, 2013; Srnicek, 2016). Van Dijck (2013: 15) recognized that “balancing user participation against for-profit business strategies posed a real challenge to the digital media industry”. Companies managing platforms navigate between a few publics, including users, funding institutions, and regulatory bodies, in their effort to secure legitimacy. This paper describes the legitimacy crisis in Couchsurfing (CS), a collaborative hospitality platform which was transformed into a for-profit in 2011.

Launched in 2004, the platform drew on rhetoric and practice of open collaboration: it attracted many volunteers offering various contributions to its development and operated as a non-profit. The growth of the user base led to a governance crisis and to the emergence of a more crystallized organizational structure and culture, emphasising that one of the key values of CS is that it will always remain non-profit. Yet, CS’s application to become a charity was ultimately denied. The organisation managing the platform was dissolved and replaced by a for-profit corporation which received venture capital funding (about $22.6m). The transformation was announced to the community ex post and resulted in a severe backlash.

The paper draws on over 70 interviews with CS volunteers, (former) employees, founders, and “regular” users; as well as documents, press articles and other relevant texts collected through web scraping. I reconstruct the legitimating accounts (Creed et al., 2002) meant to persuade CS members to accept the change and the latter’s counterarguments. The leaders framed the situation both in a negative (“we had no choice”) and in a positive way, emphasizing that the new organizational form will serve the organization's mission better. The dispute is a case of a struggle over the meaning of a collaborative technology and voluntary labour.