Couchsurfing: Stopping the Downward Spiral

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You may not have even noticed it happened, but last week Couchsurfing officially hit six million members. To some, a milestone, to others, another sign of how mass media popularity is ruining a good idea. It should come as no surprise that there is widespread discontent about the direction the site is taking, and an active search for alternative platforms.

While I may have doubts about today’s Couchsurfing I also believe the potential is still there to embark on an even greater, more ambitious project.

Before we can envision that future, Couchsurfing needs to take concrete steps to rebuild trust, increase openness, and recapture the spirit that spurred the sites initial organic growth. Thus, in response to the huge response of my initial article, my plan to save Couchsurfing based on my experiences as longtime Couchsurfer, traveler and social activist.

Refocus on Members

Facebook has users. Google has users. Corporations like Wal-Mart, Apple, and HP have customers.

Couchsurfing has none of those. Couchsurfing has members.

As a social activist, I’ve worked for many nonprofits around the world. Thus, I understand how an organization builds trust with its membership. It’s also why I’ve been so vocal about Couchsurfing’s Management, who seem to be ignoring even the most basic, time-honored practices with regards to communication, involvement, and outreach, not to mention the new realities of an interconnected world.

Remember – it was members who built the community, organized events, invasions, and setup groups for ridesharing, apartment hunting, potlucks, and more, often despite what was (and still is) a clunky, buggy site.

For that sort of community, non-profit status would have been ideal. Many non-profits, such as my previous employers Sierra Club and Peace Action, have a board of directors that is elected by the members and is independent of staff, but votes on yearly budgets, program goals, and strategy. Sierra Club has a national headquarters, but also chapters and groups all across the country, and one of the main roles of HQ is to disseminate information and provide tools to local organizers for their own independent efforts. Thus, the structures empowers the regions. They aren’t dictated to by a CEO who never had a profile until he was hired.

I believe the structure would have have better fit Couchsurfing than that of a B-Corp.

Steps to build a more member-oriented organizational structure.

#1 – Treat members as members, not as users.

#2 – Build an organizational structure that empowers communities around the world, by building tools they request, not generic “place” pages that mix up cities and make finding useful information difficult.

#3 – Create an equivalent of a board that can provide meaningful member input in a more accessible forum.

#4 – Fire or demote the new CEO and all new, staff, and open up the hiring process to meaningful community input.

Sound ambitious? Of course. But this is only the beginning to the future Couchsurfing. Next, a complete shift in how Couchsurfing communicates with members, following a paradigm global shirt.

English: transparency

Transparency

If Couchsurfing is to be a truly global network, it also needs to integrate transparency into its organizational practices, otherwise, the vast majority of its members will continue to be disconnected from HQ and the slide in meaningful interactions will only continue.

Transparency means building trust through open sharing of information. It seems like a slam dunk for a member driven social network to embrace transparency, but, unfortunately, Couchsurfing has taken numerous steps in the opposite direction. Today, there is no place to find staff bios, the CEO’s profile is hidden, and network stats, once freely available, are now gone. We are repeatedly told (only in English) that things are happening “behind the scenes” but are given no way to provide input, and no insight into how Couchsurfing really operates.

Companies deal with issues like this all the time, and the internet – the same platform that made Couchsurfing possible – is fostering shifts in openness and corporate accountability. Remember Wikileaks? A global movement has blossomed over the past two years, showing how we live in an era of information.

There are calls to open up access to Government, to widely implement tracking of Corporate Social Responsibility standards, and, now, companies in some industries are required to manage their supply chains. Just this week, there was a campaign launched to force clothing manufacturers sign a pledge to ensure safety standards in overseas factories, in response to the horrific factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 600 people. If this was a few decades ago, we’d never have even heard about the factory, and, of course, Couchsurfing wouldn’t exist.

The fact that Couchsurfing is on the wrong side of this movement is a tragedy. Yes, it is a corporation, accountable first to its investors, but we, the members, are the consumers, and Couchsurfing needs us. It is outdated, bad corporate practice, to hide behind walls of secrecy. Transparency will go a long way in re-establishing the trust that the past years actions have cost the organization.

Steps towards an Open Couchsurfing.

#1 – Tell the truth about why Couchsurfing was unable to receive non-profit status.

#2 – Explain where those millions in donations went in the years before the move to corporate status.

#3 – What is the role of venture capitalists in the organization?

#4 – Come clean about plans to monetize the site so that funders receive a return on investment.

#5 – Listen to members and create a more inclusive, open transparency strategy that integrates global, not Silicon Valley, standards.

Once Couchsurfing implements transparent communication practices, we can move to the final step – regaining the famous spirit, through a reassertion of values.

A Values-Added Couchsurfing

We can never return to the past, but we can chart a path towards a greater future. Couchsurfing worked because surfers like me, were empowered by their positive experiences as travelers, were excited to open up their homes to guests once they had their own place.

Trust is fragile. One negative experience can cause a host to shut down his or her couch. There is now a major imbalance between surfers looking for hosts in certain cities (Paris, New York, Berlin) and hosts never getting requests in non-destination cities. How to rebuild this trust, and reintegrate safety into a network that, still, has its base in finding a free place to stay?

An answer may lie in the original hospitality network, Servas, decades old, which relied on books of potential hosts in each country in lieu of online profiles. Safety was maintained through a system in which hosts were vetted by existing members. But Servas was more than just a free place to crash. At its base was a powerful ethical mission – that each friendship the organization built was a step on the path towards world peace. Hospitality exchange meant building connections between boundaries that would tie humanity together into a web of love.

I’m not saying Couchsurfing should become focused on world peace, but if it had an ethical purpose, it could move beyond just being a “free place to stay” website, and events could move beyond “let’s get drunk at a bar.”

It could be a movement.

#1 – Using the new structures,  convene a digital conference of all active members to determine a universal, ethical foundation for Couchsurfing.

#2 – Implement the agreed upon ethical goals in all communications and re-brand the site so that it’s not longer just about finding a place to stay.

Hands_Holding2

The Human Spirit

In Thailand this past year, I met a young man of mixed Burmese and Indian origin. From the second I met him, I knew he was someone with a good heart, a genuine person, who treated those around him with respect and love.

We only spoke for a few minutes, but he invited me to visit him at his University, and a few days later, I came. He showed me around the beautiful countryside and took me to one of the oldest Thai floating markets, and talked about life, family activism, and his travels. I was astonished to hear about when he was just 17, he biked around Southeast Asia, from Vietnam all the way through Indonesia, alone, with little money. I asked him, how did you find a place to stay, expecting the answer to be, well, Couchsurfing.

“When I was tired, I would just find some homes, and knock on their door until someone let me stay.”

“Was it tough finding someone?”

“No, I never had to knock on more than two or three homes.”

Oftentimes, they had no language in common, speaking in gestures or short phrases. In exchange for their hospitality, he would cook dinner. More often than not, they would become close.

“When I left, they would often say, don’t go, stay longer,” he said, smiling.

That is why I vehemently disagree that human nature leads to hook-up oriented events, or that money is necessary for hospitality exchange. There was, and is, a greater, natural human spirit of sharing that breaks down social and cultural barriers, and it is that spirit that Couchsurfing needs to recapture to grow into a positive force for change.

This is only the start of the conversation. Please share your ideas for Couchsurfing in the comments. With enough fervor, HQ won’t be able to ignore us.

26 comments
CeeGee
CeeGee

Oh my god, Godwin's law kicks in in the OP already!

Don't do that, it devaluates your argument to next to nothing. Completely unnecessary to make your point, and it can be very offensive.

RickiMcKenti
RickiMcKenti

that is exactly what i/we plan to do! they have gone WAY too far! CS has No idea what they are in for. all we wanted was to have the profiles re-instated WITH the contacts and references, along with a sincere apology...and you know what we got??? NOTHING! so, to say the least, it`s ON!

RickiMcKenti
RickiMcKenti

Hello everybody!!!!
Here you will find the truth about Couch Surfing and their disgusting behaviour with blind people.
Below you'll find an article of my blind friend who had a lot of troubles with Couch Surfing and finally his profile was deleted by Couch Surfing.
 

Hello,

My name is Idji and I am blind. I am half French, half English in my education but I have a French passport.

I am so sorry to be blind. On Couchsurfing it is even dirty and forbidden! Yes, I tried to open a profile on Couchsurfing and I have been deleted two times because I AM BLIND.

The first time I have been deleted because I was asking my friend to write for me. I was dictating my text but she was writing and I specified in my profile that I was doing so. Then Couchsurfing deleted my profile, explaining that my girlfriend having already a profile it was  a fake profile from my girlfriend because one is not allowed to write for somebody else!

So the armless people, paralysed people, blind people you can forget Couchsurfing. Like in Germany in the past, the handicapped people are not welcome.

As I don’t give up quickly I wrote a second profile… well… more exactly the same one, where I was specifying that I used “Jaws”, a system that allows blind people to write on the internet. This time I wasn’t going through somebody else to write my profile but as unfortunately I’m still blind it stayed dirty and I was deleted again so that Couchsurfing stays clean of handicapped people.

And that is not all. There is a guy called Sam from Rome who behaved in an obsessed way with my girlfriend because he wants only sex . He went with my girlfriend on bike to visit Rome. They were supposed to go away for two hours.  Of course I stayed in the house. How could I join? And it makes me happy to leave my friend visiting Rome in a different way. After two hours I started to worry and my friend was asking to go home to respect the time of two hours.

And Sam said, yes, yes, we are on our way. But my friend was lost in the middle of Rome and Sam went on lying to my friend, wasting time. Finally after a lot of arguments, my friend came back to the house more than five hours later.

During this time, of course, I worried more and more. In the house where I was, i.e. in the house of Sam, leave also two old women (his aunt and grandma, I think). As Sam has a mobile I said “Could you call your grandson to know if everything is fine?” and she answered “I call no one, you go back to your room and you say without moving”.

As a blind person I was absolutely kidnapped. After more than four hours I could find the door out, which is not easy for a blind person, and I could escape the house. I was in the corridor, knocking on every door and asking to call the police. Some neighbours tried but it was always engaged. You know, that is Rome. After a long time in the corridor my friend arrived from her five hour tour and guided me back to Sam’s house.

There my girlfriend and I we had a big argument against Sam to whom we said “Ok, we call the police”. He was there, afraid and very apologetic, and he said “Please stay home, I’m so sorry. I will do everything to be apologetic”. The next morning ,very early, we left.

 And when we try to leave a bad reference to Sam, each time I am deleted because in spite of the darkness of this man, I have something even more disgusting; I am blind!

This Sam is on the two websites: Couchsurfing and BeWelcome. On BeWelcome we left a clear negative reference and everybody can know who this man is. But on Couchsurfing this man is highly protected.

In spite of his protection he has quite a lot of bad references where a lot of girls are specifying that this man is obsessed about sex. So the girls can stay, but me as a blind person, despite this horrible story I am not allowed to write anything because I am worse than Sam, I AM BLIND!

Here is what the leaders of Couchsurfing wrote to me:

“ Idji's profile was deleted because it directly breached our Terms of Use. Let me explain this in greater detail. Profiles in our system can only be created and used by the person they represent (in this case that would have to be Idji). I don't say that Idji is not a real person, on the contrary! But members are not allowed to create or use a profile on behalf of somebody else. Since you were the one who created that profile for Idji, our Terms of Use were directly broken (even if you didn't mean to)”

Isn’t it disgusting? It reminds me the SS during the war.

In France, which is a democratical country, the blind people are respected. There is a national association for the protection of blind people and when I am going to be in France I will go to this association to sue Couchsurfing for discrimination against handicapped people.

On Couchsurfing and BeWelcome, when I travel I always try to be friend, but even more to help a lot. In Romania there is a guy, Costel, that I helped quite a lot and he did a film about me, spontaneously. I leave here the reference of this film on YouTube so that everybody can see how I behave when I travel on Couchsurfing or BeWelcome.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMVdEGI8MMg

Well… today it will be only BeWelcome. So that you can see through this little film that in spite of being blind I am not a stinking piece of shit that deserves only a couch in a concentration camp. I think that this story is absolutely incredible in darkness but it is really the truth.

About Sam and my blindness we kept every dialogue we had with Couchsurfing that will be of course part of the file to sue them. I am ready to send it to anyone who wants the file that we have about this story.

I am happy today to be on BeWelcome where it seems that the handicapped are welcome. Thank you to BeWelcome to exist because in spite of being blind I feel like going on to exist, to have friends, and to help other people.

Thank you for your reading.

Here is the link to my profile:

http://www.bewelcome.org/members/IdjiUsmu

Here are the links to Sems profiles on couchsurfing and on bewelcome:

http://www.couchsurfing.org/people/s5m/ (in the meanwhile his profile is as well deleted)

http://www.bewelcome.org/members/S5MROMA

Villagehopper
Villagehopper

@RickiMcKenti Sue Couchsurfing. It is a cooperation, registered in the USA. There are anti-discrimination laws that protect you. You have a good case, perhaps the building blocks for a class action lawsuit. Consider it, you will have plenty of support. 

CSFacts
CSFacts

CS corporate management has advanced the idea that CS is a B-Corp. In reality, CS is a C-Corporation, an organization that is legally obliged in the US to "maximize stockholder profit". CS has no other legal status than as a C-Corporation. 

In the State of California, where CS has its offices, there is a real B-Corp legal status, also know as "Benefit Corporation". When the assets of CS were taken from the community for the personal benefit of a couple people, they decided instead to incorporate their new business in Delaware. There is no indication that CS will ever seek Benefit Corporation status.

Propagating the myth that CS is a B-Corp, and somehow "socially responsible" is counter-productive and simply false. By US law, CS is legally forbidden to be socially responsible, any act of social responsibility must be a public relations gesture which results in increased monetary value for investors. This is US law as confirmed by the US Supreme Court.

floc
floc

@metavurt:
Are you mistaking me for someone else?

I didn't ask accusatory questions, I didn't ask any question at all. Also I certainly don't want to help changing CS. If you read my comment you will see that my whole point is: Couchsurfing is fine as it is. It's more than that, it's alive and kicking, never been better. Stop the badmouthing, already...

And stop your threats of violence for gods sake, what's wrong with you?

metavurt
metavurt

@floc - I'd really like to know why you're just sniping from the comment section. All you've done is ask accusatory questions, and you've done nothing to offer how you'd like to help. If you're so passionate about the failure of CS (passionate enough to just keeping pointing at it like a manic monkey), then start giving us ideas about how it can be saved. Or, go away. Your negative energy is unappreciated, unwarranted, and unwelcome. 

Let's do this - tell me something constructive, tell me how you'd like to help. Tell us ideas you have about ways that we could start improving things, start an internal movement, that'd help others see the good in CS, and help spread that. Go.

For the record I've mainly been a host, and sometimes a guest, via CS, since 2007 - just in case you thought maybe I was new to the game, and I'm probably older enough than you that in many cultures it'd be just fine if I smacked the smirk off your face with my fist, in case you're here just to stir up trouble. Recognize that I really will take you to task if all you are interested in is tearing down a structure rather than help rebuild it.

@excinit - your previous article and this one, I both believe are on the right path. I think the main thing to take away from the current situation of CS is that we're going thru a generational change. Remember, those that were in their mid-20s 5-8 years ago, are now hitting and/or in their 30s - and at least in the States, that means finding someone, being married, and probably moving to a suburb to start raising kids.

I hosted 5 people for Lollapalooza last year, and they were all cool, but the 3 new ones were actually so hesitant about the whole thing they were afraid to ask if they could have a cigarette on my deck! I had never had that happen before - and yes, they were "younger" people, I'd say early 20s. On the flip side, the month prior I had hosted a young French married couple and they ate me out of house and home without even moment's hesitation, nor a thank you, nor any reciprocal gesture. (I always open my home with "my house is your house" - however this was a first in not having ANY reciprocity)

And yet, again this past summer, I was supposed to host CSer for only 2 days, and we hit it off so amazingly well she ended up being my roommate for the summer, and we're still very much in touch one year later.

I have people I hosted in 2007 that still look me up to this day, if they know we are in the same area globally. And I have that same thing with people I just hosted last fall. So.... here's the deal:

CS got a lot bigger, a lot quicker, than anything we'd ever experienced. Look at how everything exploded, not just CS, but Facebook, txting, snapchat, video chat, networks, connections, hell even fantasy sports. Everything was going digital and then everything started going mobile and that's your kicker (this is my area of business btw). It's that last layer of interaction that helped skyrocket things because now you have people being able to look up anything while they're in a cab, a bus, on the train, or on a bike.

CS didn't have the staff, the philosophy, or the will power to manage that in a way that would maintain the integrity of the original intent. Ergo, it morphed into what humans naturally morph into, ESPECIALLY when the average age of use is below late 20s, and that is - a meet n greet (and hope we bang).

PM me if you want to brainstorm on stuff because honestly, even though right now I'm not in a position to host ( I moved to a small apt w/ a new roommate AND I'm in a gork neighborhood) I really do wish to see CS continue, and not only that, but improve, grow and mature - because the framework is there, the manpower is available, we just need an assessment, leadership, and a force spearheaded by people who believe in CS to accomplish this.

b

floc
floc

You may not have even noticed it happened, but appearently Couchsurfing is in a downward spiral. You better use something else for no real reason.

Global Nomads
Global Nomads

How about giving BeWelcome a try? It is becoming everything that C$ hoped to be, and much more.

FilipeTeixeira
FilipeTeixeira

@Global Nomads The problem is that BW is designed to meet people and not to meet travellers. I find it more and more full of spam, guys searching for girls, people who just want to party, and in the end well it's becoming what CS became over the last years.

It's hard for me to see it as a good start.

Villagehopper
Villagehopper

@FilipeTeixeira @Global Nomads Sounds like both are not so great...do we need a new one?

Global Nomads
Global Nomads

@Villagehopper @Global Nomads @FilipeTeixeira There is, no worries about that. We have only a bit over 100 references, but we sent a message to all our friends one by oone. In the message we mentioned that we are migrating to BeWelcome, told our reasons, and then asked them to inform us about their profile address if they ever decide to start using BeWelcome. Plenty of them were already in there so we got their references moved right away, and the rest are slowly moving and we get the rest of the references added one by one. This happened after C$ had removed our friends references and starting censoring user profiles. Before you do that, print a copy of your profile and all our references just in case C$ will attack you, too.

Villagehopper
Villagehopper

@Global Nomads @Villagehopper @FilipeTeixeira  Your right that I should join, otherwise how can I know. I guess the biggest reason I havn't joined, the biggest reason I have stuck with CS, is that I have something like 170 positive references, if only there was a way to carry that over to bewelcome. 

Global Nomads
Global Nomads

@Villagehopper @FilipeTeixeira @Global Nomads Why to create yet another hospex when there is a perfectly good one available which can be transformed to whatever you like thanks to BeWelcome being open and free? Just join the forums, marketing and dev teams and start making the difference.

excinit
excinit moderator

@Global Nomads ive been on it for 4 years. when i was in SE Asia, i found 0 members in Malaysia and Taiwan. Perhaps its useful in Europe and the US, but not really elsewhere.

Global Nomads
Global Nomads

@excinit @Global NomadsIn the past years when we travelled in the area, SEA was quite bad in all hospex systems except maybe Malaysia. Minimal about of hosts, plenty of fortune seekers, female only hosts, tour guides, and in general troubles with stolen stuff, drugs, prostitution, etc. The area lives from tourism and such areas are usually not the best for hospex.

BeWelcome becomes more and more useful when people like you and us join it and start contributing. We believe it is right now the best choice we have.

Global Nomads
Global Nomads

@Villagehopper @Global Nomads @excinit Red lights is not equal to sex tourism. Many travel to Thailand to meet their second wives of kids, or live there with their Thai family. The visa system of Thailand prefers this type of sex tourism. Even  globally sex tourism is one of the most important branches of tourism.

Why sex tourism is so touchy issue for you? Did you have a
 Thai partner? Where and when in SEA have you lived?

Villagehopper
Villagehopper

@Global Nomads @Villagehopper @excinit "SEA lives from sex tourisms" ---I will agree that is the case with Pattaya, patpong, and a few other places around SEA, but realistically the red lights don't shine everywhere, most places don't have sex tourism, yes there are brothels but they are targeted toward the locals, not to tourists. And while I get a disproportionate amount marriage proposals in Thai villages http://www.yourworldyourhome.com/dozen-marriage-proposals/ I feel that relationships, sex and sex tourism isn't a driving force behind 99% of hospex (at least none that I have ever seen)

Villagehopper
Villagehopper

@Global Nomads @excinit I've lived in SEA for years, I've hosted hundreds of CSers and been hosted by plenty. Not one time, as a single male or as a couple, has anyone even contacted me about anything others then what CS should be about. Your over generalization of SEA is is unthinkable.

Global Nomads
Global Nomads

@excinit @Global Nomads There is a big difference if you travel as a couple or as a single male in SEA. Perhaps that explains the differences in experiences. SEA lives from sex tourisms and it is only natural if that reflects to hospex circles as well. In SEA we have had positive hospex experiences only in Malaysia and we have spent in the area some 3 years or so.

excinit
excinit moderator

@Global Nomads @excinit i think that's an vast overgeneralization of SE Asia. Perhaps certain (and very small) parts of the region are like what you said, but otherwise, people there are very warm, open, and honest. I've had wonderful experiences with CSers all over Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia during my time living and traveling there over the past several years. 

But i agree - and am cautiously optimistic about BW! Like i said, ive been on it for four years, but I'm still waiting for my first BW request. thats great that BW is growing in Malaysia! 

Global Nomads
Global Nomads

@excinit Just checked that there are currently 214 people in BeWelcome from Malaysia. Not too bad.

AnnFoo
AnnFoo

Nithin,

When Couchsurfing first began in 2004 it started as a tiny grassroots movement with a website that behaved like a drunken chainsmoking backpacker wondering the streets of prague - frequently crashing and burning.

After the big crash in 2006, it relaunched as CS version 2, and you could liken this to the renaissance of CS - the whole community donated time and resources to rebuild the site. This crash reinforced the values and ethics that CS was built on, and reminded us what it was all about. 

But that was a community driven response to an external threat. Now that CS is a B-Corp, I percieve the threat to be internal. How do you deal with an internal threat within a community whilst protecting the integrity of that community? How do you undo all that mainstream publicity? (And yes, I do consider the mainstream advertising CS did to be part of the problem, as it failed to properly represent the core CS values and this is where CS lost it's vison).


It's unfortunate that it had to come to this, but I do think that members need to be tested periodically. I don't have any ideas that don't sound like some kind of nazi fraternity initiation nightmare, but do you?


Villagehopper
Villagehopper

@AnnFoo How do you test members? It seems like members are tested. Most members are as awesome as the amount of references they have.   When someone has 100+ references I don't need to read their profile to know we will get along :) 

PatriceRenard
PatriceRenard

Thanks Nithin. My name is Patrice (from France) and I am on CS since 2007. You put on words what I think about what Couchsurfing is turning on! I don't like it and I don't recognize CS anymore as this free and open community it has been for years. I would like that CS website be only the wonderful tool and media for people around the world who share this original spirit of hospitality and love meeting others people. That's all!

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