The growing popularity of online hospitality exchange networks like Couchsurfing and Airbnb point toward a new paradigm of sociality for a mobile and networked society as hospitable encounters among friends and strangers become entangled with social media and networking technologies. Inspired by Andreas Wittel’s notion of ‘network sociality’, this paper introduces the concept of ‘network hospitality’ to describe the kind of sociality that emerges around these new mobile, peer–to–peer, and online–to–off–line social networks. This article discusses five key features of network hospitality — sharing with strangers, feeling like a guest, engineering randomness, pop–up assemblages, and guests without hosts — and illustrates how network hospitality is implicated in the way people now ‘do togetherness’ online, off–line, and in between.
From network sociality to network hospitality
The rise of network hospitality
Features of network hospitality
Over the past decade, a number of online hospitality exchange networks, such as Couchsurfing (https://www.couchsurfing.org/) and Airbnb (https://www.airbnb.com/), have emerged on the Internet to help strangers meet online and arrange off–line encounters. These online–to–off–line social networks revolve around a paradigm of hospitality, both in the exchange of the material resources of accommodation and in the shifting performances of hosting and guesting among strangers. These practices represent a new social logic that I refer to as ‘network hospitality’. The aim of this article is to detail this interplay between hospitality and technology as a step toward understanding the way strangers encounter one another online, off–line and in between in a mobile and networked society.
As the title of this paper suggests, my argument is inspired by the notion of ‘network sociality’ Andreas Wittel introduced in 2001. Wittel’s article, ‘Toward a network sociality’, followed in a long line of intense scholarly debates over the social implications of the Internet — debates, it should be noted, that remain lively today. In the 1990s, as social identities and interactions began to play out in new online realms, scholars speculated that enduring relationships would disintegrate as we increasingly lived our lives in ‘virtual communities’ or ‘on the screen’ (Rheingold, 1993; Turkle, 1995). The central narrative of these debates revolved around the fate of community and the implications for public, social, and civic life in a ‘network society’ (Castells, 1996).
Wittel, for his part, argued that this shift from communities to networks had significant consequences, not just for the configuration of social life, but for the texture and feel of everyday lived interactions. In contrast to community, which entailed things like belonging, long–lasting ties, face–to–face proximity, and a common history or narrative, Wittel observed in network sociality:
Social relations are not ‘narrational’ but ‘informational’; they are not based on mutual experience or common history, but primarily on an exchange of data and on ‘catching up’. ... Network sociality consists of fleeting and transient, yet iterative social relations; of ephemeral but intense encounters. 
The observations Wittel made in his article focused on a narrow and privileged slice of life, namely middle class urban professionals working in the new media and the culture industries, but he put his finger on the pulse of a much broader development and he put a name to the kind of interpersonal relations that were coming to prevail in the network society.
In this paper, I share Wittel’s curiosity about the texture of everyday togetherness in an increasingly mobile and networked society. His observations about the informational and ephemeral qualities of social life tapped into the way new technologies at the time afforded more dispersed and delocalized modes of co–presence. If anything, the conditions of mobility and mediated communication Wittel described have only intensified. In this article, I acknowledge that intensification, but I also describe a somewhat different transformation, not from communities to networks, but from sociality to hospitality. That is, toward sociality as hospitality.
In the sections that follow, I first trace a shift from Wittel’s notion of network sociality to an emphasis on network hospitality. I then describe some examples of network hospitality to illustrate the rise of this new form of peer–to–peer and online–to–off–line social interaction. Finally, taking Wittel’s features of network sociality as a point of departure, I propose that network hospitality is characterized by five key features: sharing with strangers, feeling like a guest, engineering randomness, pop–up assemblages, and guests without hosts (see Table 1). The remainder of the article discusses each of these features in turn.
Table 1: Key features of network sociality and network hospitality. Network sociality (Wittel, 2001) Network hospitality Individualization Sharing with strangers Ephemeral and intense relations Feeling like a guest From narrative to information Engineering randomness Assimilation of play and work Pop–up assemblages Technology Guests without hosts
From network sociality to network hospitality
Wittel’s concept of ‘network sociality’ takes its cue from Castell’s (1996) claim that we are now living in a ‘network society’. Emerging out of two related transformations in economic production, namely the rise of the information age and the shift toward late capitalism, the network society revolves not around hierarchical structures but around non–linear complexes of social and technological flows such as globalization or the Internet. Within this context, Wittel’s use of the term ‘network’ refers both to new structures of electronic connectivity and to practices of making social and professional ties, but especially to the relationship between the two. In other words, network sociality is the social logic of a networked world.
In his article, Wittel identifies five defining features of network sociality. Because these features form the basis of the discussion that follows, I want to briefly outline Wittel’s framework here. First, he argues that network sociality is individualized. With social roles no longer prescribed based on the communities we are born into, we must actively construct our own social bonds and create our own identities. Out of the world of new media professionals, he offers as evidence the rise of free agents, free–lance work, and the DIY–biography: ‘the active construction of one’s own life’ .
Second, as dispersed professional work groups and social networks coalesce and disassemble, relations between people become brief but intense. Strangers bond quickly, but drift apart just as quickly — though never entirely out of the networker’s database of acquaintances. Third, Wittel describes a shift from narrative to informational interactions. Because relationships are no longer ‘rooted in a common and shared history’ , the brief interactions that make up social and professional lives are based more on the exchange of information — ‘catching up’ with one another — rather than on shared experiences or enduring narratives. Significantly, Wittel also ties this feature to a shift in the way people establish trust in a network society, noting trust may be more a function of reputation — information about a person or their position in the social field — than of a continuous relationship with a person.
Fourth, Wittel describes the assimilation of work and play. In network sociality, the distinction between private life and work life becomes indiscernible. Colleagues become friends, parties become networking opportunities, and people work at home or on holiday. Finally, Wittel acknowledges the central role technology plays in network sociality. As he puts it: ‘Network sociality is a technological sociality’ . Of particular importance, Wittel argues, are technologies of communication and travel that produce ‘technogenic closeness’ , as well as relationship management technologies, such as electronic databases, that hold a networked life together.
A lot has happened since then. Wittel published his article on network sociality before social networking technologies became the established fixtures of social life they are today. For example, when Wittel wrote about professional relationship management technologies, he was referring to the digitization of business cards, not professional networking sites like LinkedIn. Online and mobile social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare did not exist yet. The release of the first iPhone was still six years off. And online hospitality exchange sites like Couchsurfing and Airbnb had not yet been launched. In many ways, these technological developments have since crystallized Wittel’s predictions of ephemeral, individualized, and informational interactions between friends and strangers, but they have also afforded new qualities of social life online and on the move.
For one thing, society is not only becoming more networked, it is also becoming more mobile (see Urry, 2002, 2007; Hannam, et al., 2006). We travel for business or for pleasure or for a shot at a better life; we move through train stations and airports and neighborhoods and city streets as we go about our everyday lives; we travel to meet people who have traveled to meet us. As we do all of this, we alternate between what David Bell (2007) calls the ‘flickering moments’ of ‘hosting’ and ‘guesting’. Indeed, networking and mobility are often entangled through the prism of hospitality. The more we live our professional and social lives on the move, on the phone, and online, the more we find ourselves performing as hosts or as guests and encountering others in various contexts of hospitality.
These moments of hospitality are not confined to the hotels, restaurants, in-flight service or guided tours that constitute the hospitality industry. Hospitality seeps into the crevices of public and private life. In fact, small and large acts of hospitality pervade our everyday interactions to such an extent we might even argue, as David Bell (2011) does, that ‘hospitality is society.’
Scholars from a variety of disciplinary perspectives have suggested hospitality — or something quite like it — is what holds social life together (see Lynch, et al., 2011; Lashley, et al., 2007). Sociologists and urban geographers see hospitality in the way strangers interact and manage shared public space, such as city streets or cafés (Goffman, 1963; Bell, 2007). It is the logic that governs mundane actions like making room on the subway, holding doors open or passing a stranger a napkin in a café (Laurier and Philo, 2006). In anthropology, hospitality is the complex social mechanism through which relations are inhabited, ordered, reproduced and made meaningful. We might even say that hospitality is the oldest form of networking, as hospitality and its affinity practices, such as potlatch and gift–giving, have long been recognized as binding the kinship and friendship arrangements that lie at the heart of social reproduction (Mauss, 1990; Selwyn, 2000; Candea and da Col, 2012).
Hospitality is also found in the affective labour of ‘new work’ that is evident in an emerging ‘hostessing society’ where labour practices increasingly entail hospitable skills like coordinating, communicating, and caring (Veijola and Jokinen, 2008). In the public realm, national discourses about immigration and asylum are often brought home on the rhetoric of hospitality (see Derrida, 2000; Gibson, 2003; Komter and van Leer, 2012). It is the noble ideal behind the nation’s promise to welcome the ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ and behind political questions of human rights, citizenship and identity (Dikeç, 2002; Benhabib, 2006). Within such discourses, we find stark reminders that hospitality is often intertwined with hostility and always related as much to the conditions of exclusion as the conditions of welcome.
In the private spaces of our homes, as well, hospitality shapes interactions among family and friends, but also increasingly with people we don’t even know. This is the case with online hospitality exchange networks like Couchsurfing and Airbnb. These sites connect travelers to other strangers around the world, making it possible for them to welcome each other into their homes to sleep on their couches, air mattresses and spare beds. In these cases where online social technologies lead toward hosting and guesting, hospitality becomes a central part of our networking practices, and it is itself increasingly networked.
Taking all of this into account, I argue that what we need now is not just a better understanding of hospitality as sociality, but a better understanding of how hospitality intersects with social networking technologies to enable new configurations and textures of communal life between friends and strangers.
The rise of network hospitality
The phenomenon I refer to here as ‘network hospitality’ is relatively new, even though it is rooted in ancient traditions of welcoming strangers. Its more recent historical precursors include various formal and informal hospitality networks of people who would provide meals, aid, transportation or accommodation to traveling strangers. For example, Judith Adler (1985), in her historical analysis of tramping, describes how trade societies established networks of homes and inns to accommodate traveling craftsmen in the early nineteenth–century England. Following World War II, hospitality exchanges like Servas International or the American Field Services exchange program, were created to promote intercultural understanding in a postwar world. And Paula Bialski (2012) begins her book on intimate mobilities with a story about formalized hitchhiking programs in socialist Poland in the 1970s. A similar logic of connecting guests and hosts with one another continues to shape current network hospitality sites, only these connections are now initiated and facilitated online. Indeed, it was not until the turn of this century, with the proliferation of the Internet and online social networking platforms systematizing the exchange of hospitality among strangers, that we first saw the emergence of what I call network hospitality.
Perhaps the earliest example of this particular form of network hospitality was a Web site called Let–Me–Stay–for–a–Day.com published by Ramon Stoppelenburg in 2001. Stoppelenburg, at the time a 24–year–old student from the Netherlands, used his Web site to solicit free places to stay, meals, and transportation as he traveled the world. He received more than 4,000 invitations from hosts in 77 countries throughout his two–year journey. Around the same time, several hospitality exchange sites began to appear online, including Hospitality Club, Global Freeloaders, and Hospitality Exchange (see Germann Molz, 2007). The largest and ultimately the most popular of these hospitality exchange networks, Couchsurfing.org, was launched in 2003. Starting with just a handful of members, Couchsurfing has since grown to over five million members. Couchsurfing was followed in 2008 by the launch of the for–profit hospitality site Airbnb.com, which now boasts more than 250,000 listings and over 10 million nights booked. Through these Web sites, which operate on a networking platform like the one made familiar by Facebook, travelers can search for a fellow network member who is willing to host them — for free, in the case of Couchsurfing, or for a fee, in the case of Airbnb — in their destination. Members publish profile pages with information about themselves, photographs, friend links, and references from people who have hosted or stayed with the member. After searching these profiles, members can message one another online to request or offer accommodation.
Online hospitality exchange networks like Couchsurfing and Airbnb represent just one of many types of network hospitality. Other examples include home exchange sites like Wimdu.com and SabbaticalHomes.com (see Grit and Lynch, 2011); online ridesharing and hitchhiking sites (see Bialski, 2012; O’Regan, 2012); food–related networks and meal sharing sites like thuisafgehaald.nl, pop–up restaurant Web sites like RestaurantDay.com, and social eating sites like EatWithaLocal.com or Gusta.com; and, travel sharing Web sites, such as Vayable.com or RentaLocalFriend.com, that help travelers meet up with locals who are willing to show them around their town. What is notable about these sites — and what makes them exemplars of network hospitality — is the way they mobilize online networking practices into offline social interactions around a paradigm of hosting, guesting, and hospitality. These Web sites facilitate flexible peer–to–peer (rather than corporation–to–customer) exchanges of the material resources of hospitality (food, drink, beds, or rides) as well as the sociable resources of hosting and guesting (guidance, welcome, or conviviality in a new place).
As I have noted, network hospitality emerges out of a rich historical context of hospitality exchanges, but it is also emblematic of a renewed significance of hospitality in everyday life, of new ways of hosting and guesting, and of the shifting arrangements and emerging affects of communal life. This is not to suggest network hospitality is a universal mode of sociality; indeed, sharing food or accommodation or leisure time with strangers who meet online is still seen as a somewhat alternative social practice. However, neither is it isolated from the broader transformations we identify with modern social life. Network hospitality is deeply interwoven with contemporary phenomena such as the emergence of online social networking, the renaissance of the ‘sharing economy’, or the rise of pop–up culture. As such, the features of network hospitality I propose below are meant to extend a broader hypothesis about the shape and texture of everyday social life a network society.
The insights I offer here draw on my own and other scholars’ ethnographic studies of network hospitality, primarily focusing on Couchsurfing as the empirical context. My own work on network hospitality started in 2005 with an analysis of hospitality exchange Web sites. For eight months in 2009, and then again for several months in the spring of 2013, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork as a member of Couchsurfing by hosting, surfing with, and interviewing more than 50 Couchsurfers in the United States, Canada, Italy, and Finland (Germann Molz, 2007; 2012). This participant observation was accompanied by close analysis of online data such as user profiles, community discussion forums, and mission and vision statement documents published on the Couchsurfing Web site.
In the discussion below, I supplement my own empirical materials with findings from other researchers who have studied Couchsurfing and related network hospitality sites such as Airbnb and ridesharing networks. Many of the examples used to illustrate the discussion come from these ethnographic studies of Couchsurfing, but the features of network hospitality I outline in the sections that follow are not limited to practices of Couchsurfing. I argue that these data reflect broader trends in online social networking. They also reflect the social and spatial modes of network hospitality that characterize the way strangers relate to one another online, on the move, and in person in a mobile and networked society. Couchsurfing is merely one of the more visible examples of how network hospitality is making itself at home in mainstream culture, a trend that merits further study as it extends into parallel realms of practice.
Features of network hospitality
Sharing with strangers
Whereas network sociality emphasizes individualization, network hospitality revolves around sharing. Sharing has always been at the heart of human sociality, but amidst the rise of social media and networking sites, sharing has taken on new meaning. It has become one of the fundamental modes of online interaction. We connect to one another by sharing links, photos, memes and moods. We share our relationship status and our location and what we had for breakfast. Now, sharing online is translating back to sharing in the off–line world as individuals use online peer–to–peer networking sites to share everything from bicycles, parking spaces, movies and lawn mowers to our spare bedrooms — and not just with friends and family members, but with strangers all over the world. This trend, which has been labeled the ‘sharing economy’ or ‘collaborative consumption’ (see Botsman and Rogers, 2010), mobilizes the networking power of the Internet to support a form of consumer lifestyle that emphasizes access and experience rather than ownership.
It is no coincidence that many business, technology, and lifestyle journalists illustrate this trend with examples of network hospitality sites like Couchsurfing and Airbnb (see Kamenetz, 2011; Sacks, 2011; Geron, 2013; Stern, 2013), both of which employ online tools to facilitate the sharing of resources (namely a place to stay) among strangers. In some cases, this sharing involves the exchange of money; in others, it entails more informal systems of reciprocity. In both cases, however, the sharing economy leans heavily on a discourse of generosity, but served up with a healthy portion of technological solutions for regulating reciprocity and establishing trust.
In Couchsurfing, for example, the exchange of money is prohibited. Instead, hosts may volunteer to accommodate travelers to repay past gifts of hospitality or in the expectation that when they are traveling in the future someone else in the network will take care of them. Within Couchsurfing encounters themselves, there may also be implicit expectations of reciprocity — perhaps not in the form of material gifts, but in terms of shared conversations or sociability. As one New Yorker columnist observes, CouchSurfing is ‘free of charge, unless you count being incessantly sociable as payment’ (Marx, 2012). Unlike CouchSurfing, other network hospitality exchanges like Restaurant Day and some travel sharing Web sites like RentaLocalFriend.com charge money for sharing. In the case of Airbnb, users pay a fee for the service and for their accommodation. In fact, Airbnb’s revenues were estimated to be US$150 million in 2012 and are poised to exceed US$1 billion as more people use the site to share their spare bedrooms (Geron, 2013).
The question of sharing resources cuts straight to questions of risk and safety that have become commonplace in contemporary society (Beck, 1992). Brian Chesky, one of Airbnb’s founders and its current CEO, notes the payment required by Airbnb ‘puts both parties on their best behavior and makes the whole process more reliable’ . Whereas the free sharing of hospitality in Couchsurfing is premised on creating trust between strangers, in Airbnb the exchange of money, even small amounts, is seen to solidify a sense of accountability between guests and hosts.
Trust in the network society has long been a point of contention, but crucial to the kind of intimate sharing network hospitality involves. From the earliest online marketplaces, such as eBay, establishing trust between strangers online has been both necessary and notoriously difficult. One of the ways network hospitality sites help strangers establish a sense of trust with one another is through sophisticated online reputation systems (Masum and Zhang, 2004). Wittel suggests that as the basis of our sociality shifts from communities to networks, we should expect a ‘reconfigured trust’ to emerge . In this case, trust is founded not in ongoing relationships, but in the ‘complex, reciprocal intricacies of the transverse networks of information exchange’ that speak more to ‘mutual influence’ than to ‘mutual fatedness’ . For Wittel, this reconfiguration of trust is tied to a broader shift from a narrative sociality (rooted in a shared history or biography) to an informational sociality (based on the quick exchange of information). This is what reputation systems do: they facilitate an immediate informational exchange that projects a sense of trustworthiness.
In network hospitality sites like Couchsurfing and Airbnb, for example, members leave public references for one another after they have met in person. This online information becomes the basis for an individual member’s reputation within the network. In the absence of information derived from face–to–face encounters with people, an individual’s online reputation provides a ‘shadow of the future’ (Resnick, et al., 2000). Will this person be a respectful guest; a reliable host; a trustworthy person? In this way, social technologies produce an aura of trust by mimicking ‘the close ties once formed through face–to–face exchanges in villages, but on a much larger and unconfined scale’ .
In turn, a person’s ‘digital reputation’ can be used as a kind of currency (Hearn, 2010). For example, a Couchsurfer with an impressive digital reputation can expect to have more hosting offers or couch requests, and therefore more access to precisely the kinds of mobility and social interactions that will then enhance their digital reputation even more. Because of the way reputation compounds and spends in the sharing economy, many commentators refer to it in explicitly economic terms as a kind of ‘property’ or ‘capital’ that can be ‘accrued’ and ‘banked’ (see Kahn, 2010; Bostman and Rogers, 2010; Farooq, 2012). In other words, participation in the informal sharing economies of collaborative consumption revolves primarily around ‘reputation capital’ rather than economic capital.
It is worth pointing out, however, that reputation capital differs from monetary capital in that its value is relative. As we will see later, there may be some instances in which having too much reputation capital is a detriment to participation. Nevertheless, sharing and reputation are key elements of network hospitality. When Wittel identified individualization as one of the features of network sociality, he emphasized the individual responsibility to actively create our own social bonds and construct our own lives. In the sharing economy of network hospitality, this individualization takes the shape of reputation management. We become entrepreneurs of our own reputations, and reputation capital, not cash, is the currency of the realm.
Feeling like a guest
Network hospitality has a certain feel to it. For one thing, it refracts the generalized anxieties and affects of our time — boredom, passion, stranger danger, kindness. It also pulls into view and coalesces around particular attunements and disconnects of being together while on the move. This is what Wittel was trying to capture when he described network sociality as ‘ephemeral and intense’ . In many ways, this temporary but intense intimacy is not new. We might recognize it in a variety of existing concepts such as ‘communitas’ (Turner, 1969), ‘collective effervescence’ (Durkheim, 2008), and ‘emotional entrainment’ (Collins, 2004) or in Simmel’s (1950) discussion of the intimate confidences we are willing to share with strangers. Whereas these concepts refer to a rare or ritualized emotional state, however, I suggest the fleeting intimacy of network hospitality is becoming more common and more widespread. It is the affective condition of everyday sociality in a mobile and networked society.
In her richly ethnographic accounts of Couchsurfing and online ridesharing sites, Paula Bialski (2009, 2011, 2012) puts us in touch with the eddies of intimacy and emotional intensity that swirl up, if only briefly, as hosts and guests feel their way into each other’s lives and life stories. At times, Couchsurfers express a kind of spiritual fulfillment from these encounters, like Bialski’s respondent Eric from Seattle who describes spending an entire night talking with his guests about their hopes and dreams: ‘It is possible to do this with somebody you don’t know ... mutual trust and mutual exchange of feelings and thoughts ... [T]here is something that feels really sincere about it. There is this joy that washes over us all’ . The intimacy people experience in network hospitality is a common refrain, and one that surfaced frequently in my interviews with Couchsurfers as well. For example, Kaya, a graduate student, told me that with Couchsurfers it is possible to ‘get intimate really quickly; it’s like you immediately share a lot of personal things.’
As Kaya notes, this intimacy materializes quickly. But it fades just as quickly. Hosts and guests join together in moments of intimate rapport before being swept off into other currents of sociality, rarely staying in touch with one another, even online (Bialski, 2013). It is important to make a caveat about this fleeting intimacy. Although intimacy connotes a kind of rose–colored warmth, closeness is not always cozy. Intimacy can also involve vulnerability and suffocation. While network hospitality can produce deeply meaningful, trustful, and transformative encounters, not all meetings unfold in quite such idyllic terms. Leaving aside the rare but more serious violations such as sexual assault or theft, ethnographies of Couchsurfing reveal many minor but awkward moments (see Bialski, 2011; Buchberger, 2011). Sometimes hosts don’t show up or decide at the last minute that they cannot accommodate someone. Guests stay up too late at night or sleep all day. There are cultural misunderstandings or just general misunderstandings over house keys, cooking, cleaning, smoking, and so on. At other times, these intense encounters may feel stifling, as in the case of Adam, a Polish Couchsurfer who felt obligated to stay up late into the night listening to his host talk about his personal problems . Bialski refers to these interpersonal disconnects as ‘faulty interactions’ .
However, awkwardness is not necessarily the opposite of intimacy; in fact, it may be a function of it. Togetherness can be messy and wonderful as hosts and guests insert themselves emotionally and physically into one another’s personal lives, even if for a short time. Navigating this ambiguity requires a particular set of skills, as Bialski  argues:
Negotiating interaction between strangers, hosting and being hosted, entering a stranger’s private home, avoiding intimacy, anticipating closeness, becoming attached and then detached — these are all skills people have to acquire and adapt to as they increasingly become mobile and come into contact with mobile others.
In this sense, network hospitality also involves particular forms of affective labor (see Hochschild, 1983). Hosts and guests have to know how to feel and how to work up, manage, express or suppress certain emotions in certain contexts, and how to do so quickly. For example, greetings and goodbyes may both be emotionally overloaded, even though the encounter is fleeting.
Finally, network hospitality taps into a desire to feel in certain ways. In network hospitality, affect becomes a destination in itself. People travel with the desire to have intimate interactions and meaningful connections with other people (Bialski, 2009; Conran, 2011). Perhaps it is a desire to feel the ephemeral intimacies and messiness described above, or perhaps it is a desire to feel connected to humankind, to feel a sense of belonging to a global community, or to immerse oneself in the ‘cosmopolitan ambience’ of network hospitality (see Chen, 2013). Perhaps it is a desire to get a fleeting feel for someone else’s life, to sense the spark of sexual desire or to feel the thrill of romantic flirtation. Perhaps it is a desire to ‘click’ with someone, even at the risk of an awkward encounter. Because in the case of network hospitality, even worse than a fleeting or faulty interaction is an interaction that leaves no emotional impression whatsoever.
A common theme that emerged in my early fieldwork on Couchsurfing was ‘like–mindedness’. Many Couchsurfers saw like–mindedness with others as a basis for trust. This was the case for one couple I met who hosted and surfed regularly. Deirdre, an international student advisor, and Santosh, a graduate student, agreed to meet me at a small downtown café where we chatted about Couchsurfing over cups of fair–trade coffee. When I asked whether they thought Couchsurfing was safe, Deirdre responded: ‘I feel like the kind of people who would use this website are a like–minded community of people ... the people who are on that website tend to be safe people anyway.’ To which Santosh added: ‘If you’re outgoing, kind of flexible with stuff, and open to crashing anywhere, then you would be on that website.’ In this exchange, Deirdre and Santosh described the Web site as a clearinghouse of kindred spirits with shared interests in traveling and experiencing other cultures. But this is the thing about network hospitality. The people we are connecting with are not complete strangers. They are strangers like us.
This phenomenon of like–mindedness is not limited to Couchsurfing; in fact, researchers have observed that homophily — a tendency to connect with people who are like us — is a common feature in online social networks. Although homophily produces a sense of social cohesion and security in mediated social networks, critics worry it may also create an echo chamber effect in which an individual’s existing ideas are infinitely reinforced (boyd, 2005; McPherson, et al., 2001). As with the reputation systems I described earlier, we might understand this association between like–mindedness and trust as a function of the shift from narrative to informational sociality that Wittel observes . In this case, search algorithms and reputation systems produce trust through the systematic exchange of information to match up prospective guests with compatible hosts. But ‘like–minded–ness’ poses another kind of threat: boredom. If the people we encounter are like us, there is no ‘emotional kick’ to spice up the social interaction (Zuev, 2013; Picard and Buchberger, 2013).
In my recent research with Couchsurfers, a new theme has surfaced: ‘randomness’. This theme first emerged in my conversation with Théo, a Couchsurfer who had been hosting several times per month when I met him. Théo is also a researcher and an environmental activist who incorporates his Couchsurfing encounters, along with practices such as hitchhiking and dumpster diving, into his activist lifestyle. When I asked Théo, who is originally from France but now lives in Finland, why he had been hosting so frequently, he explained that hosting Couchsurfers is a way to ‘just very gently have discussions about things I care about’. For example, he asks his guests not to bring meat into his home as a way of initiating conversations about vegetarianism and climate change. According to Théo, ‘vegetarianism is the most obvious because the discussion is stimulated by the common living experience because you end up having those meals [together].’
Théo feels the need to initiate these conversations with strangers because opportunities to discuss these topics have become limited within his existing social networks. The circle of like–minded activists and academics Théo works with already know what he will say about vegetarianism or the environment, and they will likely say the same thing. Because Théo finds himself missing candid discussions with multiple perspectives, he looks for randomness in his network hospitality encounters. Now, he searches for people who do not have a polished profile with dozens of references — like himself — but rather for ‘the more average local that just tried Couchsurfing once or twice.’ He goes out of his way to accept Couchsurfers who have different backgrounds from his own or who have few references. Théo prefers these interactions because ‘sometimes you have more frank exchanges. It’s a bit more difficult, but at the same time you go out of your own circles.’
The problem, which Théo openly acknowledges, is that he may not provide very much randomness for his guests. As a self–proclaimed ‘Super Couchsurfer’ and international expat in the city where he now lives, he worries that he offers a fairly standardized level of hospitality: ‘When people come to my flat I already have .... my routines of Couchsurfing.’ He thinks hosting other reputation–rich Couchsurfers is boring for him and boring for them. As he puts it, they have the same experience, the same conversations, and the same yogurt in the refrigerator if they visited a ‘Super Couchsurfer’ in Paris or Sao Paolo or Dhakar or Boston.
It is no coincidence that Théo is an expat host; this is quite common in Couchsurfing and, combined with a desire to connect with like–minded people, it can lead to a kind of globalized or cosmopolitan hospitality culture. When randomness rather than like–mindedness is the priority, having too much reputation capital may actually detract from the quality of experiences people seek in network hospitality. Théo is wary of this and uses Couchsurfing in a conscious search to connect with people who have different backgrounds and perspectives from his own rather than with the most compatible guest.
In her research, Bialski concludes that one of the defining features of intimate mobility is the ability to choose which strangers we interact with; she calls these ‘choice encounters’ rather than ‘chance encounters’ . In many ways, the design logic behind search algorithms and reputation systems seems to write chance out of the equation altogether. However, network hospitality also points to a renewed valorization of randomness. Network hospitality may not be about choice or chance, but precisely about the ability to choose chance. The same technical features of the Couchsurfing Web site that some members use to find ‘like–minded’ hosts and guests — such as individual profiles, references, and filtering algorithms — enable users like Théo to engineer randomness into their Couchsurfing encounters.
This strategy of engineering randomness may not be all that counterintuitive in light of the affective qualities I outlined in the previous section. Researchers note that randomness can engender certain affective responses: joy, thrill, fun, creativity or a feeling of being refreshed, along with the jarring sense of disorientation (Leong, et al., 2008). So the desire to feel a certain way may intersect with an algorithmic search for randomness. The kind of sociality that emerges in network hospitality thus oscillates between ‘like–mindedness’ and ‘randomness’. Navigating this tension is one of the balancing acts network hospitality requires of us.
Although Wittel did not present his hypothesis about network sociality primarily as a spatial analysis, his focus on the blurred boundaries between work and play anticipated the debates over the spatiotemporal reconfiguration of everyday social life in technology–saturated societies. In particular, scholars have argued that mobile communication and networking technologies have shifted the relations of absence, presence, proximity, and distance, leading to new forms of mediated co–presence and new kinds of hybrid spaces (Katz and Aakhus, 2002; Aurigi and De Cindio, 2008). Network hospitality is certainly implicated in the connected spaces and mediated presence indicated in these debates, but I argue that its spatiotemporal logic is best understood in terms of pop–up assemblages.
Consider for example, Restaurant Day, a one–day food carnival that allows anyone to open a restaurant for a day. Launched in Helsinki in 2011, Restaurant Day is coordinated and advertised through social networking sites like Facebook. The event takes place only four times per year and in an ever–changing range of random venues, with temporary chefs serving diners in their living rooms or out of their kitchen windows. Pop–up hotels are another example. Enterprises like Sleeping Around and Snooze Box convert shipping containers into modular hotel rooms that can be assembled, disassembled, and reassembled almost anywhere at a moment’s notice. Restaurant Day and pop–up hotels are typical of the new spatial and temporal arrangements of life in a network society where ‘pop–up spaces have become familiar phenomena in both the art of consumption and the consumption of art’ . This recent trend toward pop–up culture and consumption has been fuelled by online social media and networking platforms that alert a plugged–in audience when and where a temporary bar, gallery, shop, club, restaurant, food truck, or hotel will appear.
This online and off–line coming–together of people, places, and the material culture of hospitality — such as food or beds — invites us to rethink the taken–for–granted–ness of the spatiotemporal configurations of hospitality and encounters with strangers in everyday life. The commercial tourism industry has traditionally been premised on a ‘spatial fix’ of heavy capital investment, with high–end all–inclusive tourist resorts to budget–end backpacker ‘ghettos’ concentrated in relatively permanent and inflexible spatial arrangements. In the case of network hospitality, however, hospitable encounters among mobile strangers are much more fluid and rhizomatic. They are not just happening in fixed public or commercial spaces, but also popping up in off–the–beaten–path neighborhoods and in the private realms of people’s homes.
In his research on Couchsurfing in Russia, Dennis Zuev argues that Couchsurfing recalibrates what counts as a tourist destination as private homes, residential neighborhoods, and rarely visited places are pulled into new assemblages of the tourist circuit. For example, the unremarkable Siberian town where a host lives may become a ‘potential treasure trove of secret attractions’ . During my fieldwork on Couchsurfing, I was often hosted beyond established tourist geographies — in a suburban neighborhood on the outskirts of Montreal, on a farm in New Mexico, or in a family bungalow in a small village in Finland. As I sat in my Finnish host’s kitchen listening to her stories of hosting a traveler from China and another from Germany, I was reminded of Zuev’s argument that Couchsurfing produces new and unlikely spaces of xenotopos, or sites where strangers encounter one another. Network hospitality connects people to people and disperses tourism from city centers into unexpected corners, which means that tourist circuits revolve less around conventional landmarks and more around the spaces and rhythms of everyday life (Zuev, 2011). The spatial emblem of everyday communal life — the neighborhood — becomes a tourist destination in its own right. In fact, Airbnb recently launched a new feature on its Web site called, appropriately, ‘neighborhoods’ to help travelers identify which area has the ‘vibe’ they are looking for.
Encounters with people and places pop up in atomized moments of hospitality woven together across a dispersed network. Airbnb is a good example of how network hospitality harnesses the social Web to defy the social and spatial fixity of commercial hotels and reconfigure hospitality in far more flexible ways. In a report on the most innovative companies of 2012, Fast Company magazine has called Airbnb ‘a disruptive force in the stagnant hotel industry’ (Carr, 2012). Consider this quote from Airbnb’s CEO Chesky in an interview with Fast Company: ‘Today, if you add up all of our listings in New York City, it’s probably safe to say we’re 10 times larger than any hotel. We’re on almost every single block in the city’ .
Chesky’s comments about the dispersed nature of Airbnb call to mind Hotel Transvaal, an artistic project created in The Hague in response to a governmental urban regeneration scheme that would involve demolishing and rebuilding houses in the Transvaal neighborhood. A group of artists and architects visualized this regeneration initiative instead as a hotel, with artist–designed hotel rooms situated across the neighborhood in houses slated for demolition. In their analysis of the project, Alexander Grit and Paul Lynch (2012) explain that ‘Hotel Transvaal is unlike any other hotel, since it is not fixed in one building, but includes an entire neighbourhood’ . They go on to describe how Hotel Transvaal breaks from conventional structures of hospitality, transforming streets into hallways, houses into hotel rooms, and inhabitants into hosts and guests. For Grit and Lynch, Hotel Transvaal is organized as an ‘assemblage’ that re–imagines tourist circuits and accommodations as dispersed, connective and open rather than linear, fixed and enclosed.
Whether this respatialization of hospitality into people’s private homes and across the residential areas of cities is good or bad for local residents remains an open question. Local residents may resent having tourists as their temporary neighbors and at least the conventional arrangements of commercial hospitality concentrate and contain the unwelcome impacts of tourism. Network hospitality is an impermanent assemblage. It is fleeting, and therefore more flexible, but also perhaps more precarious.
Guests without hosts
In addition to reworking the spatial arrangements of hospitality between strangers, network hospitality also reconfigures the hierarchical relationship between ‘hosts’ and ‘guests’. Like network sociality, network hospitality is inseparable from the infrastructure of communication, transportation, and social networking technologies that underpin it. The way hosts and guests come together in peer–to–peer and online–to–off–line networks, and the way these hospitality encounters between strangers unfold, are mutually embedded in the technological interfaces of online networking. This technological milieu of network hospitality potentially disrupts the categorical hierarchies of ‘host’ and ‘guest’ and instead entails fluid relations of host/guest/stranger within emerging emotional and material contexts.
The context of peer–to–peer and online–to–off–line hospitality can blur the distinctions between host and guest into instances of collaborative hospitality. In the case of Couchsurfing, this happens in several ways. First, within the network, all members are potentially hosts and potentially guests. Individuals alternately enact ‘hosting’ and ‘guesting’ performances (Bell, 2007) and travelers who use the network to surf are expected to ‘pay it forward’ by hosting other members when they have returned home. The extent to which network members do this is traced in their online profiles and becomes part of the reputation capital I discussed earlier.
Second, even if they are not traveling themselves, Couchsurfing hosts will often describe their hosting performances as a way of traveling through their guest’s stories or of seeing their own home through new eyes. Third, it is often the case that Couchsurfing hosts are, themselves, guests in the places where they host. As I mentioned previously, many of the Couchsurfers I interviewed did not consider themselves ‘locals’, but rather were immigrants or expats or somehow temporarily living in the place where they were also hosting other Couchsurfers.
Finally, Couchsurfers often describe their encounters as a kind of collaborative hospitality in which guests host their hosts, or everyone hosts each other. Guests cooking a meal for their hosts has become a kind of trope of the Couchsurfing encounter. Bialski describes a common experience when she was hosting two French travelers in Warsaw. She recalls that ‘Quentin and Jerome literally “took over” my kitchen and made me a French apple tart. On their way out, I made them a few sandwiches with Polish ham to take on their train journey to Moscow. In both instances, the guest French travelers, and the host (me) took turns in creating food and giving food — rituals which helped all of us feel at home with one another’ . There is something in this story about strangers ‘taking over’ one’s kitchen that fundamentally challenges the dichotomous hierarchy of ‘host’ and ‘guest’ and radically complicates the hospitable relations of care, service, sovereignty, and reciprocity associated with that dichotomy. In this sense, network hospitality potentially moves us toward what Eeva Jokinen and Soile Veijola refer to as the ‘post–host–guest society’ .
This is not to say network hospitality necessarily flattens hierarchies, or that we are witnessing a kind of technology–fueled democratization of the labor of sociality. In real terms, we do not need to look very far, either within or beyond the hospitality networks I describe here, to see that the power, labor, control, and fruits of hospitality are not equally distributed, especially in terms of nationality, social class, and gender (see Veijola and Jokinen, 2008; Buchberger, 2011; Chen, 2013). But even acknowledging these problematic and nuanced aspects of Couchsurfing hospitality encounters, network hospitality offer us another scenario for imagining what a world of guests without hosts — or hosts without guests — might possibly look like. In these cases, network hospitality frames tourism and hospitality less as a private escape — which bears echoes of the abdication of social obligations — and instead as an engagement between and among mutually responsible people.
What does organizing our social life around digital devices, transportation technologies, and online networking systems do to our sense of sociality and to the way we think about and relate to the familiar and strange others who move through this world with us? Wittel predicted, and rightly so, that these shifts toward networking technologies would problematize privacy, commodify relationships, and rework concepts such as ‘trust, loyalty, hierarchy, power and conflict’ . Social and technological developments over the past decade have largely proven Wittel’s original predictions to be true. It appears the effects Wittel described — the fleeting intimacy, the reconfiguration of spatiotemporal parameters of social life, and the mutual embedding of online and off–line social interactions — have only intensified in the decade since his article was published. I have introduced the concept of ‘network hospitality’ here not to replace Wittel’s notion of ‘network sociality’, but to extend it toward a more nuanced understanding of where and how people come together in a technology–saturated society. While my discussion of network hospitality highlights many similar features to the ones Wittel identified, this overview of network hospitality has also offered a unique perspective on emerging practices of peer–to–peer, online–to–off–line, and pop–up encounters among friends and strangers. My goal has been to bring attention to the interpersonal interactions, the circulation of material resources, the affective performances of conviviality, as well as the related avoidances and exclusions, that place hospitality at the center of these emerging social relations.
Network hospitality is emblematic of the complex ways strangers are learning to live with one another under the conditions of late modernity. As my discussion here suggests, it challenges our assumptions about who counts as a friend or a stranger, about the dichotomy between host and guest, and about the distinctions between private and public or fixed and fluid spaces of interaction. It pushes us to interrogate relations of power, trust and reputation alongside desires for authentic or intimate or random encounters with others. It also reveals the affective qualities of a network society — what it feels like to live in brief but intimate and in flexible but precarious social worlds. Above all, network hospitality keeps us attuned to the way networking technologies are woven into our everyday lives and how their meanings and practices are constantly in play. This makes network hospitality fertile ground for ongoing research.
As trends in network hospitality move from the margins to the mainstream, they pose important questions that merit deeper empirical research on the shape and feel of communal life in a networked world. For example, although some scholars have paid careful consideration to the way trust or indebtedness circulate in online exchanges (see, for example, Lampinen, et al., 2013), much more research is needed to examine the interplay of trust, reciprocity and reputation as a framework for sharing with strangers. In particular, a critical examination might uncover the way these networking systems mitigate risk, but also reproduce it as the assumed ‘norm’ against which encounters with others are negotiated. The notion of reputation in this context also warrants more critical analysis, especially in light of the neoliberal imperative toward entrepreneurial selfhood.
The affective qualities of network hospitality also need more empirical specificity. Paula Bialski’s studies of intimate mobilities have paved the way for ethnographic research to reveal the everyday affects of being together with strangers. The complex strategies of engagement and avoidance that Couchsurfers or hitchhikers employ have much to tell us about the broader challenges and opportunities we might expect to navigate — and the skills we will need — as we increasingly encounters others, especially on the move. This research may also shed light on the tensions between choice and chance and between randomness and homophily. While it is interesting to note how these tensions inform everyday experiences of networking and hospitality, we must also ask what kinds of subjectivities, responsibilities, anxieties, and aspirations are at stake in these competing desires for sameness and difference.
Likewise, the spatiotemporal shape of networks also requires more critical examination. Like the pop–up encounters they facilitate, these networks are also temporary and provisional. Despite a popular narrative of constant growth, hospitality exchange networks like Couchsurfing, Airbnb, and the many other sites that have come online in recent years, may ebb and swell. For example, alternative narratives questioning Couchsurfing’s viability are now making the rounds on blogs and discussion forums (see Coca, 2013). Even as Couchsurfing is charged with outgrowing its own success, however, new networks like BeWelcome.org or Tripping.com are coalescing. In addition to the temporality of these networks, we must also pay more attention to the geographies these networks produce. To what extent, and by what definitions, are these networks as ‘global’ as their proponents claim? How are spatial scales such as local, urban, or global produced in the performances and discourses of network hospitality?
Finally, we should take seriously the interrelation of network hospitality with emerging social and technological practices that shape everyday life today. Although the features of network hospitality outlined in this article are especially evident in hospitality exchange networks like Couchsurfing and Airbnb, network hospitality is not limited to this context. On the contrary, I have argued that it is the social logic underpinning broader trends toward peer–to–peer, online–to–off–line, collaborative and mobile sociality that are bringing bodies, places, technologies, and material resources into new assemblages. In this sense, spaces of hospitality and performances of hosting and guesting are woven into parallel sociotechnical trends as well, such as the rise of the sharing economy, collaborative consumption, and pop–up culture. In this sense, network hospitality extends beyond individual uses of technology to help us understand the emergence of broader patterns of sociality that will prevail in a mobile and networked world.
About the author
Jennie Germann Molz is Associate Professor of Sociology at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her research focuses on tourism mobilities, mobile and social networking technologies, and emerging forms of sociality. She is the author of Travel connections: Tourism, technology and togetherness in a mobile world (Routledge, 2012) and a founding co–editor of the journal Hospitality & Society.
E–mail: jmolz [at] holycross [dot] edu
This paper was written with support of a Fulbright Core Scholar grant, which was held at the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland in 2013. Parts of this paper were presented at a conference at the University of Amsterdam and in a seminar at the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology at Aalto University. I am grateful to the participants and organizers of these events, with particular thanks to De–Jung Chen, David Picard, and Airi Lampinen, as well as colleagues at the University of Lapland, especially Soile Veijola, for their encouraging support of this project.
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Received 9 August 2013; revised 29 January 2014; accepted 11 February 2014.
“Toward a network hospitality” by Jennie Germann Molz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Toward a network hospitality
by Jennie Germann Molz.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 3 - 3 March 2014