When it comes to designing web services, an individual user is often taken as the starting point.
In many cases, it’s a good, practical assumption to make. It can, however, prove to be problematic when it comes to the so called ‘sharing economy’ where people share resources, such as physical space and tangible items, with others with the help of networked tools. After all, our homes, possessions, and everyday lives are often shared with others.
Considering these dynamics of sharing from a more focused perspective, I interviewed couples, families, and housemates who accommodate strangers in their homes via Couchsurfing.org. The interviews were conducted in metropolitan areas in the US in the summer of 2012, primarily in the interviewees’ homes – the same domestic spaces that the participants offer to open up for visiting couchsurfers. The study is a step towards unraveling practices of account sharing in the context of networked hospitality exchange.
While Couchsurfing.org allows users to set up profiles that explicitly represent ‘several people’, the site is limited in its support for everyday account sharing. The structure of profiles is not convenient for presenting multiple people, nor is the messaging system set up to encourage multiple profile owners to cooperate in handling requests from potential visitors.
Findings concerning what it means to use a single account as a multi-person household reveal several challenges. These include:
- Presenting multiple people with a single profile
- Coordinating and negotiating how the household responds to requests it receives
- Sharing the benefits of a good reputation in a fair way among household members
Beyond particular details, these challenges are not confined to Couchsurfing.org or even to other similar non-monetary networked hospitality exchange services, such as Bewelcome and Hospitality Club. Further parallels can be found, for instance, from sites like Airbnb and Bizpora that help people monetize their willingness to make domestic spaces available to others. Here, too, the need to negotiate with other household members over access to domestic spaces may arise, with the added question of how the exchange of money between hosts and visitors affects the dynamics among hosts.
Similar issues are important also for ‘collaborative consumption’ systems that facilitate, for instance, local online exchange or ridesharing. Since sharing and exchanging can concern goods that are co-owned by multiple people, such as cars, bikes, or other tangible items, questions of accumulating a reputation and achieving satisfactory coordination of exchange activities are of crucial importance in this context, too.
On Couchsurfing.org, members may face challenges due to the scarce support for account sharing, for example in how to continue participation as a reputed member after a life change. However, consequences could be much more troubling in other systems that use the social and economic value of reputation more systematically as a condition for access to participation and other valued resources.
Adopting a design focus beyond individuals and developing services that support account sharing in practical yet fair ways is no easy task. This is, however, an increasingly critical issue to address as systems that facilitate network hospitality and other forms of collaborative consumption permeate the everyday lives of a growing number of people.
Amidst the rising rhetoric of a ‘reputation economy’, it is necessary to engage the inclusions, exclusions, and inequalities that reputation metrics may renew or create, especially if they fail to acknowledge people’s account sharing practices.
A preprint (pdf) of the paper Account Sharing in the Context of Networked Hospitality Exchange is already available. The paper will be presented in February at the CSCW 2014 Conference in Baltimore, USA. Research for this paper was conducted during my internship at Microsoft Research New England in 2012. I am indebted to Mary L. Gray, Nancy Baym, and other members of the Social Media Collective for their invaluable advice and support throughout the project.
Picture credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/plutor/3169836251/