A Study on the Changing Modality of People’s Intercultural Schemas through Participation in CouchSurfing Website



Received: 04/20/2016

Accepted: 09/10/2016

Extended abstract

Introduction and statement of the problem: Increasing multicultural contacts in the age of globalization is inevitable. The point is particularly true because the transportation system as well as the Internet have profoundly facilitated people’s modes of communication. In this situation, social networking sites play a significant role. Social networking sites not only provided people with the opportunity to extend their relationships with their existing network of friend and families, but they have also facilitated expanding relationships with strangers. This function becomes important when they accelerate communications among people from different cultural backgrounds. In this regard, people interacting in these participatory platforms have the opportunity to increase their intercultural knowledge and consequently change their preexisting schemas towards other cultures. One of the leading social networking websites that has provided this opportunity is CouchSurfing.

Research objectives: The primary objective of this paper is to investigate the modality of changing people’s intercultural schemas through participating in CouchSurfing social networking website. CouchSurfing was established as a hospitality service website in 2004. People participating in this website announce their readiness to host one or more people from other countries at their home. In doing so, the volunteer hosts require to subscribe to the site and specify their location. In addition, they must accept the website authentication rules in order to prevent possible misuses. In this regard, they can provide the visitors accommodation in their houses and show them around. One of the main benefits of this sort of hospitality exchange is attaining a better, closer and deeper understanding of other countries and cultures. In this case, there is a possibility for changing peoples’ schemas towards others. The CouchSurfing website has been selected as case study of the paper as its main function is increasing cultural sharing among people.

Theoretical framework: In this article, we applied schema theory proposed by Endicott, et al. (2003) which explains how peoples’ intercultural schemas change either profoundly or superficially in different situations. According to Endicott et al (2003), schemas can be obtained through first-hand experiences as well as indirect way through observation or reading. Change of people’s schema is not always a conscious process. They change over the time through encountering new situations. In this regard, it is significant to understand to what extent people’s participation in CouchSurfing website – as an indicator of encountering new situation – can change the modality of their existing schemas.

Methodology: In order to examine the degree of change in people’s intercultural schemas through participating in CouchSurfing website, we applied qualitative content analysis. We selected four items including (1) self-representation; (2) building trust; (3) facilitating interaction among users; and, (4) increasing users’ knowledge about the visited cultures for further analysis. We studied both texts, features and functionality provided on website and profile content of 30 users based on purposive sampling to examine these items.

Results and discussion: Each of the above four mentioned items were analyzed separately. Analyzing the website indicated that, in terms of self-representation, the website has provided a sphere for people to interact with their real identity. For example, some features of the website such as ‘about me’, ‘overview’, and ‘references’ are designed in a way that they make people to provide their real information. In addition, because the nature of the website is about hospitality exchange in the real world, people have to interact with each other with their actual identity and information. Otherwise, they will not be able to continue their activities in the website seriously. Moreover, the ‘references’ section reinforces this process. The reason is the fact that receiving positive feedback from other users requires that they show their real activities. In this case, the article suggests that the majority of the users interact with their real identities rather than through fake accounts. Accordingly, the level of trust among users will possibly increase. In addition, the article suggests that the CouchSurfing website applied good strategies for building trust among users. For example, it only verifies the users who provide their name, postal address and bank account information.

It should be mentioned that the platform has some features such as ‘message’, ‘groups’, ‘events’, ‘discussion board’ and ‘sending request to become coach’ through them it facilitates interaction among members. In ‘message’ section, people have the opportunity to send message to other members of the website. In ‘group’ section, people are able to construct new groups based on their interests and to join the existing groups in the website to learn new thing about journey, tourism, other cultures and opportunities for travel in different places. The ‘discussion board’ is a unique opportunity for exchanging ideas and increasing multicultural knowledge and competencies. It is important to mention that the topics in discussion boards are not limited to travel and tourism. They contain other topics including multicultural activities such as language exchange.

Finally, the paper suggests that taking part in the website has provided users with the opportunity to increase their knowledge about other cultures. Moreover, by interacting in the website people’s schemas towards other cultures and countries will possibly change. While this change is superficial rather than profound, it is a very good point of departure in multicultural contacts. Analyzing the users’ references for their hosts generally, and for their Iranian hosts, particularly, indicated that the majority of feedbacks contained positive orientations. Through the positive references that are based on their real trip, the members describe the level of hospitality of the culture they have visited. The important point about writing these references is that they provide other members, who have not visited the mentioned places and people, to gain new perspectives towards other cultures.

Conclusion: The results indicated that the CouchSurfing website was successful to provide its users with different information regarding other cultural conditions and to increase their knowledge regarding other cultures. Accordingly, the article suggests that while the CouchSurfing website facilitates changing people’s schemas in superficial rather than profound level, it has been successful to do a starting point in this process. With reading more information and having more interaction in the website, there will be more possibilities for people to change some of their intercultural schemas more strongly.