Re-realizing the Dream: How to “Fix” Couchsurfing

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

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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.

Global transparency

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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

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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

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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:

To read more from and about author Nithin Coca, check out his author bio.

 

manifesto - make meaningful connections

Photo credits: 2 – Matt CallowWikimedia Commons, all others courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.

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  • Brooke Allen said at 2013-05-16T20:03:15+0000: I am so glad you published this.I am the man who is preparing the 4-part series about Couchsurfing next week that I'm calling The Good, The Explanation, The Bad, and The Future. I was a 54-year-old hedge fund manager in 2006 when I first discovered CS, and it changed my life by renewing my faith in humanity and giving me a new purpose.I am glad you are not giving up on Couchsurfing. Neither am I.But exactly what is it that we are not giving up on?Before we know how to save something we need to know what it is we are saving. The new corporation is behaving like it is building a website to provide services to customers that, for marketing reasons, they call "members." If we, the “members” say we are their “consumers” and they have to give us what we want, then what if the many of us now want a big multi-city booty call? Shouldn't they give it to us?You say it is these members who built a community… but is Coucsurfing a community? This question cannot be answered before we know what the word “community” means – a tougher question than you might think.Or is Couchsurfing really a mission? In which case isn't the community defined by that mission, not by its nominal members? You might be a "member" of a website through some passive declarative act, and you might support the mission by sending money somewhere, but you are not a "citizen" of the community until you act in accordance with the mission. If the mission is antithetical to running a booty call then does it really matter how many people want one? The opposite; treating a gathering like a booty call becomes a reason for losing citizenship.Or is Couchsurfing a particular ethos? In such a case the story of the Thai student being able to find a place by knocking on doors means Couchsurfing is already more advanced in S. E. Asia then in Europe or North America. In which case shouldn't the goal of a website to wean its members off using a website and get them to knock on doors and welcome strangers into their homes when they come knocking?Perhaps Couchsurfing is a technological solution to the wrong problem – we need to learn to trust first, not be incapable of trust without a computer and a wi fi connection. I hitch-hiked 25,000 miles in college and almost never knew where I was going to stay on any given night until I met a complete stranger who would put me up. Or I’d stay up all night, sometimes in rain and snow. So what? – hardship builds character. Couchsurfing could have helped me back then, but not for the reasons you might think, but for another reason I’ll explain soon.In addition to the hundreds of acquaintance, and the dozen or so new dear friends I've made through CS, it is the act of trying to get my head around these questions that I've come to a better understanding of what I want for myself, the people I care about, and all of humanity. CS has even given me a new mission in life, and for that I will be forever grateful.The reason I want CS to survive and thrive is not because I will ever have a problem finding a place to stay (or paying for it if I must) or finding a local to talk to. And I am not afraid to knock on the doors of strangers.I want CS to thrive because through it many others will find meaning in their lives.I believe the fundamental question is: What exactly is the essence of Couchsurfing?Once we know what Couchsurfing is, then we can see if the corporation and the shareholders that currently hold title to the brand are worthy of it. And if they claim to be, we will then be able to judge their progress, and if the fail then we will know what to do next.
  • Justin Velander Holt said at 2013-05-17T03:57:56+0000: This article doesn't even begin to touch upon the more egregious and overreaching abuses committed by CS HQ to its members in the last six months. Ever since the launch of the Place pages in December 2012, there have been literally thousands of us who have tried to discuss/negotiate with and offer our constructive criticism and (free) assistance to paid CS employees who claimed to be our professional representatives with the hope of improving both the site and community relations.Sorry to say, things only got worse from there.That said, before you can even begin to discuss how to fix the site, more effort must be made to research everything else rotten with the site practices. Censorship, vague justifications for the deletion of outspoken members, safety concerns with the Place pages that took months to fix, inherently flawed Beta testing, a new "zero tolerance" policy that still hasn't been fully spelled out -- there's so much more that you have yet to address.My recommendation? Start here: http://couchsurfingcontroversies.wordpress.com/2013/03/15/cs-controversy-the-place-pages-and-banned-ambassadorsThe author of that blog did her best to present a clear and concise timeline of events of everything that's happened since the Place page feature was launched. Once you read her blog, please make the effort to follow *and* read all the content in the source links provided in those posts. By doing so you'll touch upon my own frustrating experiences with CS HQ (http://kingsofcouchsurfing.blogspot.com/2012/12/boycott-place-pages.html -- start there and work up; you'll read about how my own membership was terminated with extreme prejudice) as well as the "Censorship on Couchsurfing" campaign initiated by ousted Ambassador Don Shine (https://www.facebook.com/events/147008412126669) that finally(!) spurred the removal of the previous inept and unprofessional "Community Managers" and prompted CS CEO Tony Espinoza to address the CS Ambassadors directly.I would also recommend the following articles as well. Why? Not only are they well-written, they touched upon the concerns addressed in Mr. Coca's article above MONTHS ago: http://quirkytravelguy.com/couchsurfing-censorship-community-backlash-tony-espinoza http://mechanicalbrain.wordpress.com/2012/11/15/couchsurfing-the-beginning-of-the-end http://mechanicalbrain.wordpress.com/2013/03/04/couchsurfing-a-sad-end-to-a-great-ideaOnce you've done that, I'd then recommend going straight to the Ambassadors (Public) group on CS and reading the full and unabridged threads initiated by CS CEO Tony Espinoza. Read for yourself how he explains, (half-heartedly) justifies, spins and/or outright evades all the points addressed in the article above as well as all the additional controversies detailed in the links I've just provided: Week 1: https://www.couchsurfing.org/group_read.html?gid=2125&post=14262863. Week 2: https://www.couchsurfing.org/group_read.html?gid=2125&post=14288458. Week 3: https://www.couchsurfing.org/group_read.html?gid=2125&post=14310719. Week 4: https://www.couchsurfing.org/group_read.html?gid=2125&post=14332087. Week 5: https://www.couchsurfing.org/group_read.html?gid=2125&post=14354817. Week 6: https://www.couchsurfing.org/group_read.html?gid=2125&post=14376392. Week 7: https://www.couchsurfing.org/group_read.html?gid=2125&post=14397683. Week 8: https://www.couchsurfing.org/group_read.html?gid=2125&post=14419594. Week 9: https://www.couchsurfing.org/group_read.html?gid=2125&post=14444302. Week 10: https://www.couchsurfing.org/group_read.html?gid=2125&post=14459624.Exhausting, isn't it? Sad but true. Still, if you want to take action, it's best that you be FULLY informed about just how ugly this mess has gotten -- and FULLY acknowledge how much time, energy and effort these hundreds of passionate and critical CS members have already put in to make sense of everything that's happened since CS became a full-blown corporation (NOT B-Corp).Best of luck with it.
  • William Notnamron said at 2013-05-20T12:34:42+0000: There is a solution to all this. The only real solution. Join a hospitality community that puts members before profits. I am a member there, and that place is www.bewelcome.org.
  • Michael O' Regan said at 2013-05-17T02:55:32+0000: Investment depends on profit – and profit depends on exploitation...there is no going back, unless CS members themselves buy out the investors / Fenton and Hoffer. A excellent write up as to how CS arrived at this sorry state was written here - http://the-magazine.org/14/loose-stuffing.
  • William Notnamron said at 2013-05-20T12:34:50+0000: Many core, dedicated, long-time members like myself have offered our thoughts on how to create a better couchsurfing in the future. We have struggled with the new, inexperienced and ignorant staff, who are positively stuck in their ways. We told them to understand CouchSurfing, they need to have used it to travel. They ignored us. New staff members with zero experience travelling with couchsurfing built the new place pages. Try talking to the staff, and you will find an incredibly headstrong bunch of people. They have a seething hatred with any old members who have something to say. As far as they are concerned, they have every right to their employment at couchsurfing, and without any humility. There seems to be no appreciation that couchsurfing was built on the kindness of members. They have no respect for us. We have become pawns, and the quicker they can write blogs and do everything possible to get new members on board, the quicker the voices of informed people can be drowned out, and that's what they want. There is a lot of dishonesty going around about how they care about couchsurfing members. They really care about 1 thing, and that's profit. We were Tibet, surviving in a capitalist world. But China has invaded.
  • Anthony St. Clair said at 2013-05-16T15:11:38+0000: It's easy to criticize, and it's harder to make recommendations to improve something. Thanks for taking that next step.Our family CS experiences in Japan recently were amazing, and has us in the process of putting our couch up (we've been swapping around some rooms in our house). This perspective is a good reminder of how deep the CS community and organization go.
  • Peter Richards said at 2013-05-21T14:36:40+0000: Great article - thanks for sharing this.
  • Terri Lynn Merritts said at 2013-05-16T18:45:33+0000: Now that the Couchsurfing people are in profit mode, they won't want to change. What is needed is a new organization that can put these good ideas into practice. Many would be willing to help if someone starts up such a group.
  • Turner Wright said at 2013-05-16T23:04:16+0000: What about the major cause mentioned in the original article? Making women feel uncomfortable even signing on to the site, let alone hosting?
  • Hayko Kunze said at 2013-05-17T01:38:38+0000: Thanks a lot, Nithin.