CHERIAN GEORGE, FRANCIS LIM KHEK GEE
Building Trust on Electronic-to-face Social Network Sites: Case Study of CouchSurfing.org
This thesis examines the process of trust-building on electronic-to-face Social Network Sites (e2f-SNSs), where users first connect online and then extend the connection to the offline realm. Using CouchSurfing.org as a case study, I investigate how users of an e2f-SNS utilize tools given by the platform to build sufficient trust to initiate face-to-face interactions.
CouchSurfing.org is a platform that connects travellers and locals, to match them up for free accommodation offered by the locals. Since most of these connections are fostered between complete strangers, trust issues are salient. How do people manage to achieve the level of trust to host strangers in their homes, or meet strangers in a completely foreign territory? In a pool of potential hosts and guests, how do users choose who to host and who to surf with? What do people look for in the interaction online, to be able to make the decision to make a face-to-face connection?
The research methods that I used are participant observation, interviews and cyber ethnography. Key concepts were synthesized from different disciplines, including the theoretical framework of trust by Möllering (2001, 2006), as well as multiple perspectives on research areas such as Social Network Sites (works by boyd, Ellison, Lampe, Donath, Steinfeld, etc.), subcultural capital (Thornton, 1996), reflexive cosmopolitanism (Kendall, Woodward and Skrbis, 2009), and presentation of self (Goffman, 1959). Analyzing the findings from the field, I first demarcate the niche of e2f-SNSs, and explain their key features that are conducive to building trust: through online profiles, trust mechanisms, a matching system for members to achieve instrumental goals, and a strong virtual community. Because trust is highly contextual and interpretative, I describe the nuances and idiosyncrasies of trust as gleaned from the interview respondents.
The thesis argues that user-to-user trust is built through trustors forming narratives of trustworthiness, from information gathered from the e2f-SNS platform. These narratives are about the potential interactions, in judging the person who is on the other end of the interaction, and the match between the trustor and trustee in an offline setting. The narratives are used to aid the trustors in overcoming irreducible uncertainty and make the leap of faith from online interactions to offline encounters. There are two angles from which I analyze narratives of trustworthiness: the factors that form the narratives, and the strategies that users employ to create and decipher them.
At the macro level, the presence of a metanarrative creates the imagination of a community of trustworthy travellers, and perpetuates the social norms of how members of the community should interact with one another. At the micro level, the narratives are shaped through individual, idiosyncratic perceptions of risk and expected outcomes of the interactions. On e2f-SNSs, users are offered an array of features and tools to build the narratives, through sending and interpreting signals of purposeful presentation of self. Through impression management in a way that reflects traits deemed important by the community, users accumulate subcultural capital in embodied and objectified forms, so that they come across as trustworthy members of the community who understand the rules of engagement. Trustees manage their impression to help trustors build favourable narratives, while trustors gather information to form an impression of the trustees to decide whether they should meet or not.
In 2008, at the commencement of my research, CouchSurfing.org had about 500,000 members; in 2013 it has close to 6 million members, an increment of more than tenfold. Within these five years, CouchSurfing.org underwent a drastic transformation. In the thesis, I document the development of events as it unfolded, from the days of a strong community and vibrant volunteering culture, to beyond CouchSurfing International’s conversion to a for-profit organization. I found that most CouchSurfing members were relatively impervious towards the alleged trust violations and controversies of CouchSurfing International at first, although there were expressions of dissent from a group of active members. However, the change of direction of the organization towards a focus on activities and events (i.e. taking the emphasis off hosting and surfing) and a rapid expansion of member base slowly diluted the strong metanarrative. Subsequent technical changes implemented on the forums and matching system adversely affected the trust-building processes, by disrupting the virtual community and its generation of social norms, and upsetting the host/surfer dynamics.
This study will benefit the field of social media studies that focus on hybrid online/offline communities, and studies of interpersonal trust online. Through first explaining how trust is built, and then demonstrating the real world implications when these processes are disrupted, I argue that the success of an e2f-SNS depends on its technological affordances to facilitate the building of narratives of trustworthiness. This can be accomplished through capturing the essence of the community and propagating its metanarrative, and supporting the users’ creation of narratives through distilling relevant information of their expectations and circumstances. The e2f-SNS succeeds when it is able to build trust and make good matches between users for a satisfactory offline experience.Image credits go to DaveAustria.com
The thesis is 205 pages long, and contains 7 chapters. It would be interesting for people who are interested in the issues of trust-building in social media, online/offline communication, online communities, and Couchsurfing.
Notably, there is an entire chapter documenting the history of CouchSurfing, from its inception to its conversion to a for-profit organization, and related controversies. It is the first academic account of the fascinating history of CS and covers the early days, the age of the volunteers, the conversion to a for-profit organization, and an eventual mainstreaming beyond the conversion. A lot has changed since I ended the research, but I believe that this will be interesting to those who want to understand the subculture of CouchSurfing and how it evolved to what it is today.
You may want to look at the Table of Contents for an overview before you download the thesis.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.This means that you are free to share (copy, distribute and transmit) the thesis, under the following conditions:
- You must attribute the work to me in a citation, or include a link to this page.
- You may not use the work for any commercial purposes.
- You may not alter, transform, or build upon this work.
Please contact me if you'd like to have the fulltext of these articles.
Tan, J.-E. (2013). “Performing Cosmopolitanism as Subcultural Capital: A Macro-level View of Trust on Couchsurfing.org”. In S. Buchberger & D. Picard (Eds.), CouchSurfing Cosmopolitanisms: Can Tourism Make a Better World? Surrey: Ashgate.
Tan, J.-E. (2010). “The Leap of Faith from Online to Offline: An Exploratory Study of Couchsurfing.org”. In A. Acquisti, S. Smith & A.-R.Sadeghi (Eds.), Trust and Trustworthy Computing (Vol. 6101, pp. 367-380): Springer Berlin / Heidelberg.