Couchsurfing: When sharing is theft

This is admittedly minor, but I find it rather telling. At the moment, I’m doing some research on the so-called “sharing economy” for my book, and in particular am digging into the background of the travesty that ensued when the founders of the Couchsurfing hospitality-exchange network chose to pivot it from something built on purely voluntary participation into a for-profit enterprise.

I hadn’t been to the Couchsurfing website itself for quite awhile — as in, the last time I visited, it was a .org. So when I first loaded it this time around, I was looking at it with fresh eyes. And maybe that’s why all of the images on the page that are ostensibly of satisfied Couchsurfers registered so oddly to me. You really can’t help but notice that, for self-submitted pictures of people from all over the world — and, at that, members of a site dedicated to free hospitality exchange — they seem unusually straightforward, consistent and professional in their composition and lighting.

Put more directly, they look like commercial stock photography. And that isn’t what you’d necessarily expect from a platform that theoretically prides itself on the strength and genuineness of the peer-to-peer relationships it enables. A few years ago, I would have had to wonder whether these images did in fact represent happy Couchsurfers; now, of course, we have Google Image Search. It only took me a few seconds’ clicking around to confirm what I had suspected — or actually, something even more troubling.

It’s not merely that these are not at all images of actual Couchsurfers; in itself, that might readily enough be forgiven. It’s that the images appear to have been downloaded, altered and used in a commercial context without their creators’ knowledge or consent — in one case, in fact, in direct contravention of the (very generous) terms of the license under which they were offered.

Here, let’s take a look:
– The image labeled “Jason” is one of photographer David Weir’s 100 Strangers, originally labeled with a copyright notice;

– “Dang” is a crop of commercial photographer Anthony Mongiello’s headshot of actor Stanley Wong;

– “Sonja” and “Gérard” are two of Chris Zerbes’ Stranger Portraits. While Chris does make his photos available under a Creative Commons license, they are clearly labeled that such use must not be commercial, that it must be attributed to him, and that no derivatives may be made from the original image. All of those provisions are violated here.

It’s bad enough that Couchsurfing would choose to use stock photography, when imagery of actual site members would tell a much more compelling story. But that they’ve chosen to gank images from hard-working photographers, to do so for commercial gain, without even a gesture at attribution? To me, that says a great deal about just what kind of “sharing” we mean when we talk about a sharing economy.

UPDATED: Couchsurfing has since removed the images in question, without otherwise acknowledging this post or my other attempts to communicate with them. For the record, such as it is, I enclose screenshots of the page as it previously appeared.



8 responses to “Couchsurfing: When sharing is theft”

  1. Reuben says :

    I had my photo stolen recently by a fairly respectable university. They grabbed it right off the NY Times website w/ no credit, and made no attempt to contact me. It’s epidemic.

  2. Sally G says :

    I share your outrage (poor choice of words?). However, I do not think that this is actually an example of the “sharing economy“, it is a perversion of the concept and must be loudly publicized and shunned. I just came from WordCampUS, and heard a great “lightning talk” by someone whose blog post, after going viral, had been reposted in its entirety on many blogs. He contacted the hosts and asked that the publish a snippet and a link; they all did. Then he searched for part of the text, instead of the title—and found a Facebook posting that had changed the title and gave a feminine, rather than a masculine, name and persona to the author. He asked Facebook friends to comment, thinking that about 12 would do so, and hundreds did, causing the page to post a note saying “if you came about Mr. Hong’s article, the person responsible has been disciplined, find it at his site (link)”. That also is the sharing economy—fan outrage policing the bad apples, those acting from ignorance, carelessness, or laziness correcting their actions when requested. So how do we take on the couchsurfing folks (after closing our accounts, with reasons given)? We who believe in the sharing economy must defend it, I think.

  3. Martha says :

    Every bit of calling out helps. Every instance of someone saying This Is Not OK is a plus. It’s increasingly normal to take without even bothering to look for any attribution, it’s a climate that needs to change and we can all help (as Sally says, above)

  4. Drew Meyers says :

    Hasn’t Couchsurfing been a .com domain for several years?

  5. Stanley Wong says :

    I am Stanley Wong. Thanks for letting me know of this. Definitely a weird thing…

  6. AG says :

    Uh…yes. As noted in the post itself. : . )

  7. AG says :

    As it happens, Sally, I *don’t* actually believe in the “sharing economy,” and I wonder why you would assume I do. It seems to me to be a pretty straightforward engine for the privatization of profit and socialization of risk, wrapped up in an appealing narrative.

    As Stafford Beer taught us, the purpose of a system is what it does. So if the sharing economy as presently constituted observably, consistently produces the kinds of outcomes that AirBnB and Uber and so on do, I think we’re justified in questioning it right down to its roots.

    As for “fan outrage policing the bad apples,” well, you tell me when that has ever worked.

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  1. - 8 December 2015

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