Editor’s note: Last week we published an article titled The End of a Dream: Couchsurfing’s Fall, which generated hundreds of comments and over 5000 Facebook likes. It’s clear based on the comments that a great deal of passion exists when it comes to the Couchsurfing community, both those frustrated with the current state of the organization and those who still feel it offers a service that no one else can match. Nithin Coca, the author of the original article, came across to some as “giving up” on Couchsurfing. Quite the contrary, as he would love nothing more than to see the community he once loved so much return to glory. The following article is what he would do to “fix” Couchsurfing and re-appeal to disenfranchised members. Next week we’ll publish the first of a series of 4 articles from another Couchsurfing member who has been actives since 2006. He will discuss the good, the bad, and the future of Couchsurfing. If you like what you’ve read here, sign up for our Daily Dose to receive notification of any new articles we post.
You may not have even noticed it happened, but recently Couchsurfing officially hit six million members. To some, a milestone, to others, another sign of mass popularity ruining a good idea. In fact, despite the continued growth, 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 time is right to embark on an even greater, more ambitious project.
To do that, first we need to rebuild trust, increase openness, and recapture the idealistic spirit that spurred the sites initial organic growth. Without further adieu, my plan to save Couchsurfing, focusing on the tenets I believe are most important, from my experiences as a traveler and an activist.
Refocus on Members and Community
Facebook has users. Twitter has users. Google has users. Corporations like Wal-Mart, Apple, and HP have customers.
Couchsurfing has none of those. Couchsurfing has members.
In my professional life, I’m a social activist who has worked for many nonprofits and charities around the world, both good and bad. Thus, I understand how an organization builds trust with its membership. It’s one of the reasons 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 with members.
Members is why Couchsurfing is different than the aforementioned corporations. Members built the community, organized events, Couchcrashes, and set up groups for ridesharing, apartment hunting, camping trips, and more, often despite what was (and still is) a clunky, buggy site.
The reason that non-profit status would have been ideal is that many non-profits, such as my previous employers Sierra Club and Peace Action, have a board of directors that is elected by the members. The board votes on yearly budgets, program goals, and strategy with input from members. Sierra Club has a national headquarters, but also smaller chapters and groups all across the country, and one of the main roles of HQ is to provide tools to local organizers for their own independent campaigns. Thus, the structure empowers communities, as opposed to the top-down dictating of changes that Couchsurfing has recently been doing. .
I believe the structure would have better fit Couchsurfing than that of a B-Corp, and there is space for adaption too; no two non-profits are run the same way.
So, what can Couchsurfing, which was refused non-profit status, learn from groups like Sierra Club? For starters, treat members as members, not as users. 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. Create an equivalent of a board that can provide meaningful member input in a more accessible forum.
Sound ambitious? Well, there is an even more important point, one that relates directly to corporations.
Couchsurfing is a global network, one that, despite its United States headquarters and American CEO and founder, finds most of its members overseas. This makes it even more imperative that Couchsurfing integrate transparency into its organizational practices, otherwise, the vast majority of its members will continue to be disconnected from HQ.
Transparency is building trust through open sharing of information, a clear, fair decision-making structure, and adhering to industry standards for reporting and accountability. It seems like a slam dunk for a member driven social network to embrace transparency, but unfortunately, Couchsurfing has taken numerous steps to reduce transparency. There is no place to find staff bios, the CEOs profile is hidden, and network stats were removed with the move to corporate status. We are repeatedly told that things are happening “behind the scenes,” but CS gives no way to provide meaningful input and no insight into how it 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.
Transparency will go a long way in re-establishing the trust that the past years actions have cost the organization.
The fact that Couchsurfing is on the wrong side of this movement is a tragedy. Couchsurfing may be a corporation, accountable first to its investors, but we, the members, are the consumers, and Couchsurfing needs us. It is outdated, and frankly, a 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.
A first step would be to tell the truth about why Couchsurfing was unable to receive non-profit status and an explanation of where those millions in donations went in the years before the move to corporate status. Secondly, explain the role of venture capitalists in the organization and come clean about how management plans to monetize the site, so that funders receive a return on investment. Then, listen to members and create a more inclusive, open transparency strategy.
A Values-Added Couchsurfing
We can never return to the past. What we can do, though, is chart a path towards a greater future. Couchsurfing worked because surfers like me were empowered by their positive experiences as travelers and were excited to open up their homes to guests.
When guidebooks like Lonely Planet started suggesting Couchsurfing as an alternative to hostels, travelers started looking at Couchsurfing as a way to get free accommodation instead of a cultural experience. Media stories hyped the site as all about finding a free place to stay. Hosts – like me – started getting hounded with requests around festivals and conferences – in San Francisco, the week before Burning Man was especially full of atrocious requests from empty profiles.
Trust is fragile. One negative experience can cause a host to shut down his or her couch. There now seems to be an in-balance between surfers looking for hosts in certain cities (Paris, New York, Berlin) and hosts never getting requests in non-destination cities (such as Kansas City, where I am today).
An idea may lie in the original hospitality network, Servas, formed in the days before the internet. It was Couchsurfing with a book that had profiles of hosts, each vetted through an interview with another member. However, 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.
The human spirit
In Thailand this past year, I met a young man of mixed Burmese and Indian origin the old fashioned way. 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 immediately invited me to 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. He 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?”
I expected 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 like the one I witnessed in NYC, that money is necessary for hospitality exchange, that gender in-balances, in numbers and in society, are part of human nature. 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.
By focusing on members, establishing transparency within the corporate structure, and building an ethical base, I believe that Couchsurfing can be, again, the travel network that does change the world.
For more on Couchsurfing and other travel communities, read:
- Couchsurfing: Tips for a Smooth Experience
- 10 Ways to Use Couchsurfing
- 5 Online Tools to Help Enrich Your Offline Travel Experiences
- The Art of Keeping in Touch with Fellow Travelers
- 8 Ways to Travel for Free on Your RTW Trip
- Fill out a Traveler Profile on BootsnAll to become part of our online travel community.
To read more from and about author Nithin Coca, check out his author bio.