Trust based interactions in an online world
The internet has given people the ability to form communities. People could communicate with others from all over the world from the moment it became available to the public. It has developed into something that is embedded in our way of life. All over the internet there are groups in which people interact with others from around the world, across timezones and beyond organizational boundaries. People who do not know each other find their way in communities to exchange goods and services, but with these online transactions the risks involved are in general larger than those based on established long-term offline relationships. Reputation and trust are important factors in the online transactions, and the more significant the transaction, the more important these factors are. When a platform works as a mediator between their users one can argue it is their responsibility to safeguard both online and offline integrity of their users by having a trustworthy reputation system. Especially for hospitality services where it is their goal to help travelers meet and share their homes. Therefor this paper will examine the following question, ”To what extend do trust relationships build on peer-to-peer interactions on digital sharing platforms such as Couchsurfing.com affect the trust relationship in offline society?”.
To answer this question a digital framework will be used in which a number of articles and white papers will be examined in order to formulate an answer to the central question. In the framework there will be investigated how the different sources can have an input in determining the final stance on the question. The sources will be structured so that the content about a specific topic from each source can be compared rather than analyzing one source a time. This way for each topic there will be the maximum input from the sources to get a view as complete as possible.
In light of the current modernization in which the internet and digital platforms play a bigger role in connecting not just people from all around the world, but in your own environment as well. There is an increase of peer-to-peer based digital platforms such as Uber and Airbnb. A digital platform is a technology-enabled business model which facilitates exchanges between several groups that don’t know each other necessarily (Castellani, 2016). Beside this core characteristic there are also some things which determine wether or not a digital platform will be successful such as enabling trust for its community and offering an easy-to-use user experience. Couchsurfing.com can be described as a Social Networking Site (SNS) which enables its members to communicate with each other in order for travelers to find a place to stay and for hosts to open up their house to a traveller (Rosen, Roy Lafontaine, & Hendrickson, 2011). Besides being a SNS Couchsurfing.com is also a network good. This means (meaning and one sentence) that for a user, their value of the site increases when the amount of other users increases. In reaching where they are now Couchsurfing.com benefitted from the increase of reliance on the IT-based e-commerce systems. This facilitated the platforms who had their focus on the sharing of goods and services such as Couchsurfing, Zipcar, Neighbourgoods and Sharetribe (Hamari, Sjöklint, & Ukkonen, 2015).
The crux of peer-to-peer is that the interactions are direct between clients without the interference of another party (Chang, & West, 2006). Fleura Bardhi and Giana M. Eckhardt (2015) argue that the term sharing economy as it is used nowadays lost it’s meaning and when we’re talking about a ”sharing economy” we’re referring to a ”access economy”. They define sharing as a form of social exchange which takes place between people that are know to each other, without any profit (Bardhi, & Eckhardt, 2015). Eckhardt and Bardhi state that the way it is now, with a company as an intermediary between consumers, it is rather the consumer paying for access to someone’s good or service for a certain amount of time. The reason why Couchsurfing.com is a good platform to use to examine this problem area is because it should be one of the closest platforms to the true meaning of a ”sharing” economy the way Bardhi and Eckhardt (2015) describe it. Besides the fact that Couchsurfing.com is a good platform to use based on its model involving true sharing, it is also a model which requires a high level of trust from both parties. The users are sharing their house, their home as a host, and on the other side as a traveller you enter a for you unknown environment by entering a ”strangers” house. This means that Couchsurfing.com as the intermediary takes partial duty in safeguarding both parties via tips and the ability to contact their Safety Team via their website.
The vision that Couchsurfing.com has is that they envision a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter. Building meaningful connections across cultures enables us to respond to diversity with curiosity, appreciation and respect. The appreciation of diversity spreads tolerance and creates a global community. Within this they have 5 main values being ”Share Your Life”, ”Create Connection”, ”Offer Kindness”, ”Stay Curious” and ”Leave it Better Than You Found It”. Their core activities are to offer a platform at which both people who need a place to travel and would offer a place to travellers can meet and make sure to guarantee the safety of its users (Couchsurfing.com, 2017).
The concept of the platform was born in 1999 by Casey Fenton when he had found a cheap ticket to Iceland but had no place to stay and hacked into the University of Iceland database to send out an email to its students to request for a place to stay (Moran, 2011). On his way back he came up with the idea to make a website out of it and he registered the Couchsurfing.com domain. It took until 2003 to form Couchsurfing International Inc. as a non-profit corporation and the website itself was launched the year after in 2004. The at the time CEO and co-founder Dan Hoffer believed that to keep innovating the non-profit status was an obstacle and in 2011 the company got rid of its non-profit status to go to a for-profit organization. Therefore, bypassing the obstacles and regulations that were in the way of innovation that accompanied the non-profit status. The company went on to be a certified B company, which in the US is a certification for socially responsible for-profit organizations. Couchsurfing.com believed that its vision of cultural exchange made them compatible for the status. (Lapowsky, 2012). In conjuring with the company going for-profit they managed to raise 7.6 million USD in a first round in 2011 and another 15 million USD in a second round in 2012 raising a total of over 22 million USD in venture capital (Gallagher, 2012). By going for-profit they lost support from part of their users. The owners found that the hard part was making a business out of hospitality exchange. This has not just been a problem for Couchsurfing.com but also for new competitors with a similar model. They all failed, and the reason why Couchsurfing.com is still around is because of the success it still lives off from when they were non-profit and had their peak (Coca, 2013).
To get started on Couchsurfing.com a complete process of de-anonymisation is necessary as described by Ronzhyn (2013). Where other SNSs have the ability to be whoever you want online, this is no option on Couchsurfing.com, where the goal of interaction is to accumulate in meeting offline. Because of the nature of the platform and it’s inevitability for offline interactions the SNS requires the authenticity of not only the name of it’s users, but also their address and photos. Verification is for example done by matching the name and billing address of the card that is used for the verification payment to the one indicated by the user on the platform (Ronzhyn, 2013). Once an account has been created one has the option to find a host, or activities to do in the desired city by searching via either ”Explore” or ”Find Hosts”. For example, in New York, when searching for a host one will have the choice of almost 340 000 Couchsurfers who are willing to open up their home for a traveller. On the profile of a host it shows the average time it takes the host to reply, their references, friends, languages and the beginning of their story about themselves. If at first glance one is not able to find someone who meets their demands to stay at, the travelers are able to set some filters such as ”Mutual Interests”, whether or not smoking is allowed, kids, pets, the type of accommodation, all kinds to find someone one is comfortable staying at. Once the traveller has found someone, they visit their profile where they will find some more about them including references, if they’ve hosted people before. Via their profile you are able to send a request in which you state your desired arrival and departure date, the size of the party you will be traveling with and a message in which you can introduce yourself and perhaps tell some more about your trip and plans. It is then up to the host to decide whether or not they would like to host the traveller during your stay in the city. A growing market where people are receptive for the idea of sharing and which is also showing more and more economic opportunities is Asia-Pacific (Burbank, 2014). This unique cultural area can be a boost for the Couchsurfing platform when they experience an increase in travelers going to this part of the world and the people there hosting these travellers via Couchsurfing.com. However, with so many people still being part of the Couchsurfing community it is not just for finding a place to stay when traveling. Arun Sundararajan writes in his book The Sharing Economy, The end of Employment and the Rise of Crowd-Based Capitalism (2016) that numerous members, when arriving in a new city, have no intention to find an accommodation, but simply use Couchsurfing.com to connect with locals who are part of the Couchsurfing community. This is the closest example to a pure gift economy that Sundararajan has encountered in the modern sharing economy. Much like Bardhi and Eckhardt (2015) discussed in their article as mentioned before.
The philosophy from Couchsurfing.com fits right in with the goal of the sharing economy. The word ”share” is literally the main focus of their mission which is for ”…Couchsurfers to share their lives with the people they encounter…” and their vision with this is that they desire them ”…fostering cultural exchange and mutual respect.” This is their way of contributing to the sharing economy and the way they differentiate themselves from platforms such as Airbnb where a monetary transaction is involved and you do not actually share the house with the owner. Sharing is the case with Couchsurfing.com and this is the way it stimulates the sharing of culture and respect between people. To determine whether or not they are a successful company depends on what is considered successful, a company making a profit or succeeding in reaching their goal. Since Couchsurfing.com is a for-profit company there is a case to make to determine their success on their profit, but with them having such a clear vision which they are trying to achieve through their company, for this paper success will be determined whether or not they are successful in achieving their goal. With a community of over 14 million people in over 200 000 cities (Couchsurfing.com, 2017) you can argue in the favour of them being successful in bringing people together. It is hard to prove if this also means that the fostering of cultural exchange and mutual respect by Couchsurfers happens, but with the users who are part of the community sharing these views it is expected that this does happen.
The majority of the people who are part of the Couchsurfing community and had more than 3 Couchsurfing experiences operated as both a host and travelled themselves which helps strengthen the trust relationship involved in the peer-to-peer interactions on which the website is based (Adamic, Lauterback, Shah, & Truong, 2009). Nonetheless, the majority starts off with traveling and not hosting themselves. One might prefer to experience themselves how it is to be part of the Couchsurfing community in the role that might require a lower threshold of trust, since you are selecting someone to stay at rather than letting someone in your own home. Ang and Zaphiris investigate the development of trust in the Couchsurfing community in their book Social Computing and Virtual Communities (2010). Luhmann (1979) as mentioned in Ang and Zaphiris’ (2010) book states that the way trust is achieved is that this happens within a familiar world. Ang and Zaphiris tackle the question of how a virtual community such as Couchsurfing manages to create this type of ”familiar world” in which their users develop relationships of trust in both each other and the platform itself. They do so by looking at the stages in which trust emerges. The first one being that individual predisposition towards the purpose of the online community enables the user to relate. When the members of the community together relate to the common goal for which they use the platform there already is a process of self-selection in the initial trust. The second stage is the way trust is developed and established by navigating through the potential hosts. The recommendations a profile has, together with the self-presentation play an important role in creating a sense of similarity with the person. Through the mechanism of homophily, the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with similar others, this strengthens the development of a trust relationship. Finally, the future trust relationship is strengthened during the offline contact, so during the actual couch surfing. This in turn will give the couch surfer a higher sense of trust for future ventures (Ang, & Zaphiris, 2010). Not just that, but by leaving a honest feedback and recommendation which will also increase the initial trust of future surfers. On the other side, it also increases the trust of the host in the travelers that comes to his or her home. Liu (2012) adds something else to the formula for developing trust. Based on the comparison Whitty & Joinson (2009) make between online interactions and Thibaut and Kelly’s ”stranger-on-the-train” phenomenon in Social Exchange Theory (1959), Liu says that people will be more relaxed when talking about disclosed and intimate aspects of themselves to someone who they do not expect to meet again. This does not only go for such one-time experiences, but for online interactions where their corespondent seems to be more remote as well (Liu, 2012). Part of the theory behind this is the effect when one can dissociate from the time-space separation and keep this separation during the first two stages of online trust development. This is what makes it hard to translate the trust relationships established on online platforms such as Couchsurfing.com to offline practice, where this sense of dissociation of time-space is impossible when you are face-to-face with someone.
The hypothesis to the main question based on the information provided by the articles is that the trust relationships someone has online will have a direct effect on the trust relationships someone experiences offline.
There is no conclusive answer to how the trust relationship build on peer-to-peer interactions on Couchsurfing.com influences trust relationships in offline society. This is based on the limitation of the linkage between the process of trust development online and offline. Future research should focus on this linkage between the levels of trust experienced by people both online and offline and to research if there is a linkage between the level of trust someone has online and their level of trust offline. To research this, the future research should contact members from SNSs and online sharing platforms and question them about both the online and offline trust they experience and investigate if there is a relationship between both the online and offline trust relationships.
The goal of the research was to find out whether the way trust relationships build on peer-to-peer interactions develop on Social Networking Sites and digital platforms such as Couchsurfing.com influence the trust relationships in offline society. In conclusion, even though there is a high level of trust involved in the interactions on these platforms and this may affect offline trust relationships there is yet to be done any research to connect these levels of online and offline trust relationships as experienced by its users. Therefore, the answer to the main question is that peer-to-peer interactions on online platforms such as Couchsurfing.com do not influence trust relationships in offline society.