What Couchsurfing Meant to Me

Part 1: The Good

Editor’s note: There has been a lot of talk lately about the state of Couchsurfing. BootsnAll has published two articles in the past few weeks, The End of a Dream: Couchsurfing’s Fall, and Re-Realizing the Dream: How to “Fix” Couchsurfing. Both articles have generated a lot of discussion, both good and bad. Brooke Allen, author of the article below, is a long time Couchsurfer who has studied what made an organization like Couchsurfing and an event like Burning Man work.

There will be four parts to this series:

1. The Good – What Couchsurfing meant to me (and so many others).
2. The Explanation – Why Couchsurfing was so magical.
3. The Bad – Couchsurfing’s changing nature.
4. The Future – Couchsurfing’s promise and how to realize it.

Couchsurfing Part 1 – THE GOOD

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Couchsurfing has improved my life immeasurably. It has renewed my faith in humanity, and it has given my life a new purpose.

I think I have been a good community member: a gracious host, an appreciative guest, and good company to fellow travelers. However, other than talking it up to everyone who will listen, and the $20 I sent to get verified in 2006, I have done nothing to help advance the cause.

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But now that Couchsurfing is in trouble, it is time for me to be of use.

I discovered CS in 2006, and more than just valuing it for its obvious benefits as a traveler, it sparked an abiding interest in:

  1. How each of us can become a better person, and
  2. What makes communities thrive.

My journey of discovery has brought me to many places and introduced me to some world-class experts in the social sciences, psychology, politics, and economics. I have developed some useful theories, and proved them in practice in my various business and social entrepreneurship ventures.

Although I have plenty of complaints about how CS has evolved recently, the tone of this series is optimistic. I hope you will find my comments insightful, my criticisms constructive, and my suggestions worth considering. Although the potential for Couchsurfing has never been greater, its success is in peril. I hope my ideas can change the tone and direction of the discussion, and have some influence over what happens next. I offer my services in whatever ways are appropriate.

Heaven on Earth

P1BookAndPlace

To understand what Couchsurfing means, you need to understand the feeling it engenders, and to do that you need to have an experience. My experience happened nearly 30 years ago. You may wonder how this experience relates, but bear with me – no skipping ahead!

I wanted to spend our honeymoon in the Galápagos during the last week of November, 1986. Why? Because Kurt Vonnegut’s 1985 book, Galápagos, tells a tale of a small band of people who take a cruise to the Galápagos Islands on that particular weekend. A disease breaks out that renders everyone else on the planet infertile, and a new and better breed of humans evolves from those few surviving tourists. How romantic would it be to have our honeymoon in that place and time?

I visited the Ecuadorian consulate in New York where their ambassador to the United Nations heard me ask his secretary for the special visas we would need to visit the islands. He yelped “Galápagos” and dragged me by the arm into his office. He’d just developed a huge stack of photos, taken on his own recent trip to the islands, and he described each scene with the hurried enthusiasm of a madman. All I could see in the snapshots were a few mountains here, some water there, a bit of brush, and a tree or two. After half an hour he was less than half-way through when he looked at his watch and said, “Oh my god; I’m late.”

He returned me to his secretary and said, “Get this man and his new bride visas for the Galápagos.”

A young woman sitting nearby shouted, “Galápagos! I love the Galápagos.”

The ambassador thrust the stack of photos at the young woman and said, “Explain it to him; he doesn’t get it.”

She stared at the topmost photograph for a very long time.

And then she burst into tears.

I said, “I don’t get it. It just looks like a bunch of rocks.”

“That’s exactly what I said when first I got there.” She sniffled, “This is nothing but a bunch of fucking rocks.”

It took her a while to compose herself before continuing. “The thing is, if you were sitting on one of those rocks then lizards would walk right up to you, birds would land on your shoulders, and animals will want to play with you.”

“So?” I knew that creatures had evolved to be friendly because there were no predators.

So… That is when you realize what life would be like if you did not know fear.”

And then she burst into tears again.

Despondency

Hedgestock

I was in London in June of 2006 to attend something called Hedgestock, which brought hedge fund managers, investors, and bankers together for a “Festival of Networking.” (Theme: Woodstock. Regalia: Plastic Love Beads. Motto: Peace, Love, and Higher Returns.) Entertainment was provided by The Who as a favor from Peter Townsend to his personal hedge fund manager. I was 16 when The Who played Woodstock, and I had never seen them in person. You would think I would be excited.

But I was despondent rather than excited. There was something wrong.

I am a member of the Woodstock Generation, and we had thought we could change the world. However, by 2006 it seemed we had turned on our ideals and implemented our worst debt-laden, superficial, selfish, and materialistic nightmare. Most hedge fund managers spend their days making rich people richer, and calling our gathering “Hedgestock” was just too much to bear. The more successful among us might give our children all manner of goods, but were we good people?

Then I discovered Couchsurfing, and everything changed.

As close to Heaven as you can get

Because I had been in London dozens of times before, this time I searched the web for a hint of a tourist experience I had not already had. When I stumbled upon Couchsurfing, I immediately signed up and invited 50 members to join me for dinner on the following Monday to explain this thing to me. Why 50? Because when I travel, I’ll often try to connect with LinkedIn contacts-of-contacts to meet casually, and if I write to 50, five will be polite enough to respond, three will say they will meet me, and one will show up.

Nearly every Couchsurfer responded immediately. Half of them could meet on the Monday, and so I booked a few banquet tables at a Chinese restaurant just north of Leicester Square. Everyone showed up, and for 3.5 hours I collected the most amazing stories of travel, adventure, and kindness.

At the end of the evening I asked, “So. Has anyone had any problems?”

Everyone shook their heads, “No.”

“But surely someone somewhere has had problems; a rape, a theft… something?”

“Nope.”

“How do you know?”

“Because there would have been an announcement.”

I was in shock; I had never heard of such a thing.

In the 1970’s I’d hitch-hiked over 25,000 miles to every state of the union (except for Alaska and Hawaii). Usually I would sleep on the side of the road, on a stranger’s couch, or on their floor. I’ve had my share of miserable nights standing in the snow or rain. I’ve been propositioned by many homosexual men (and a few females). Although uncomfortable, all but one was gracious when I turned them down. I only felt violated once when a convicted felon who had been playing the “confidence game” for years drove my girlfriend and me from North Dakota to Washington State as he regaled us with stories of his various cons. Then he took us for $11 just to show us how it is done.

Although nothing seriously bad ever happened, I was always vigilant.

But these Couchsurfers did not seem to know fear, not because courage overcame emotions, but because they had built a self-contained world like the Galápagos where they did not have to know fear.

In the early 1990’s we had lived in Japan, and I was impressed that five-year-old girls felt comfortable traveling anywhere in Tokyo by themselves, and their parents were happy to let them. This is because every person takes personal responsibility for children’s safety in Japan. When a parent is around, then the child can be less safe because then there are only one pair of eyes paying attention instead of many. This is as it should be; to know fear before adulthood steals your youth.

Children raised this way grow up and realize that everyone’s safety is a collective responsibility, and therefore they create a world safe for adults, too. Although in New York City we had three dead-bolts on our apartment’s steel door, but in Tokyo we soon got out of the habit of locking anything. I loved Japan in that regard, but I was always aware I was not one of them; I was a Gaijin – a curiosity – an other.

On the other hand, Couchsurfers had built a community unlike any other I had seen. I was immediately accepted as one of them, and I could step into their world anywhere on the planet, and at any time I wanted.

Home

A few years ago I was trying to convince an elderly relative to join Couchsurfing. My arguments weren’t convincing, so I roped in my friend Kent, who is a 70-year-old Vietnam War Vet and Couchsurfer who has been back to Vietnam many times building rural libraries. I said, in effect, “Explain it to him; he doesn’t get it.”

I think I can speak for a community of CSers that we consider our CS as a HOME.

Kent forwarded my request to his Couchsurfing buddies in Hanoi, and within minutes one of them responded with the following note:

Dears,

It warms my heart to read how magical CS site is by Brooke. I have been enjoying CS so much and as the person said, CS link people together without age difference nor language barrier. I joined CS in 2006 after hearing so many good thing about it. Be honest, CS has been changing my life in different ways since I’ve learn much from travelers.

CS brings me friendship, joys, chances. As a starter, I have a good pen-pal from Spain. Lots of conversation, culture exchange has made. From that on, I start to meet people all over the world and build up a close friendship that I can always be welcomed anywhere I go. And as a result, I had a CS community in Hue that often did voluntary at orphans.

So, CS is not really in its black meaning: finding a couch for homeless. Above that, it is where people share their love, hobbies in the community – where only greatest people exist – where no war happens – where the safety and laugh exist. CS saves people from uncertainty and loneliness. All from CS, we start to get to know friends of your beloved CSers. For me, beside laughs, CS has brought me love, dearest Uncles, best friends.

I think I can speak for a community of CSers that we consider our CS as a HOME.

Love,

Thao

I can see clearly now

In 2006 I was enthralled with Couchsurfing, but I could not tell you exactly why. My bumbling explanations included words like “karma” and phrases like “pay it forward.”

Then I began studying what made CS tick, and my explorations had me visit the collective in 2009, and the new corporate HQ in 2012. I’ve spent time with Casey Fenton and Dan Hoffer, and I’ve chatted long hours with many ambassadors and hundreds of members.

Couchsurfing led me to Burning Man and into the academic world. I’ve talked to dozens of scientists who research how we interact and learn to trust each other. I am now on the board of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies at Claremont Graduate University where they study how genetics and experience play a role in creating morality, civility, empathy, and trust.

Many people are upset with Couchsurfing – particularly members who joined more than a few years ago. Most of my old friends are inactive, and some have left completely, often sending angry emails to all of us explaining their reasons: the new terms of service, clueless management, the idea that someone would profit off their efforts, etc.

I have a complaint too, and it is very specific:

Today, when I step into the Couchsurfers’ world I no longer feel I can let down my guard, and I am not overwhelmed with the feeling that I have come home.


Please help this process by limiting your responses to this part of my analysis. Part 1 (The Good: What Couchsurfing Meant to Me) is intended to be inspirational more than completely factual. I know I am being flowery, idealistic, and naïve; please don’t burst that bubble just yet. That will happen in Part 3 (The Bad). The goal of this part is to motivate you to make Couchsurfing work, and the goal of the next part (Part 2: The Explanation) is to show you how it can work. Once armed with hope and tools we will be ready to deal with problems.

So for right now, I ask you please not to post criticisms of CS or negative stories; there will be plenty of time to get to that later.  Instead only give comments and tell tales about:

  1. Positive experiences and vision for CS
  2. Ideas of how to make it happen.

To read more from and about author Brooke Allen, check out his author bio page.

To read more about Couchsurfing, check out the following articles:

manifesto - make meaningful connections

Photo credits: Collage: By author and may not be used without permission. Galapagos book and place. Book: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Galapagos(Vonnegut).jpg, Pelican and ship: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalmaritimemuseum/5074437339

 

 

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Leave a Comment

  • Reilly Capps said at 2014-06-06T20:47:56+0000: did the other three articles get written? I don't see links and a search didn't turn it up. nice work on this one, would like to see the rest.
  • Frederic Morin-Bordeleau said at 2013-11-20T14:28:02+0000: Have anytbody though of buying the the company with crowdfunds and transforming it into a worldwide cooperative ?
  • Stephen Taylor said at 2013-06-02T06:29:38+0000: CS has greatly enriched my life, introducing me to people I can't imagine I would otherwise have met, and more importantly, to a world in which it is normal to trust strangers.
  • Daniel H. Wolf said at 2013-05-25T00:25:18+0000: As an experienced host I can confirm that there have been changes in the way I have experienced CS. I haven't had Brooke's range of experiences with CS - indeed, I have hosted well over a hundred people (including Brooke and his son), but have been hosted only once (this isn't CS's fault, it's mine - I haven't done a lot of traveling in the last few years). Living in San Diego, CA, I receive a LOT of requests. There have always been some requesters who seemed to think that it was a /good/ thing that they "would not be around much so we won't be any bother" - i.e., that all they wanted was a free bed and didn't care about getting to know their hosts. But I do think that as the CS membership has multiplied the frequency of my getting that feeling (I have no hard data) seems to have increased. In other words, the feeling of camaraderie and small-group solidarity /feels/ like it's decreased. Is that true? I don't know. But I have had the feeling far more often in the last year than the year before that I was getting tired of CS. Yet Brooke is right - that feeling of safety and friendliness that characterized CS is worth saving. After all, just because it's a /bigger/ community doesn't mean that the values, practices and sensitivities that characterized it when it was smaller can't grow with it. But it may mean that those who hold those values etc need to take a bigger role in making sure that the old CS culture coopts and colonizes the new entrants who don't know any better, and not the other way around.
  • Brooke Allen said at 2013-05-20T20:22:37+0000: I am so glad to hear this. I recently wrote an article recommending Couch Surfing as a way of renewing one's faith in humanity, but with all the negative chatter I was becoming afraid it didn't not work any longer, and I am glad to know it has worked for you.The article is here:http://qz.com/83354/hedge-funds-wont-restore-your-faith-in-humanity-but-couch-surfing-might/Brooke
  • Niall Kennedy said at 2013-05-21T01:04:31+0000: "“I am a capitalist who believes that ‘profitable’ is simply another word for ‘sustainable,".No, profitable is not merely another word for sustainable. Most capitalists know the difference.I struggle to see how you can expect us to take you seriously for four articles having given this as your opener.
  • Kai Jaeger said at 2013-05-21T07:36:21+0000: Niall Kennedy has a point; Brooke should have elaborated what exactly he means by that.However, knowing Brooke since 2003 when he changed my live to the better and being one of the 50 Couchsurfers Brooke mentions in his article I can testify that for me it's always been a good idea to hear him out.
  • Aga Gajownik said at 2013-07-02T16:39:18+0000: :) I haven't seen those pictures for years <3 CS <3.
  • said at 2013-06-14T15:13:52+0000: Brooke, we met through CS, and that for me is reason enough to like and appreciate the site. But thanks to CS I met many more amazing souls. People from other cultures, religions, beliefs. They opened doors that led to other. CS is nothing but a channel I guess. The amazing people are out there, and many of them are brought together by this channel of communication. When I receive a message from friends I made on CS, they are not regular messages, they are stories about them about their lives, about love and friendship. Unlike on facebook, I established friendship relationships that have lasted irrespective of time and distance. I have recently moved to Abu Dhabi, far from home, far from what I am used to, far from my comfort zone. I turned to CS right away, and I can see already that I will slowly create my community here, and meet new people. Look forward to the other parts of the series. CS can indeed improve, but again, I think of it as a tool. What makes it special or weakens it, are its members.Lots of love Brooke to you and you lovely family. Kamilah (who was blessed/lucky enough to attend one of those lunches arranged by Brooke in London in 2006. Since then we have met 2 more times and I met his beautiful and gentle wife Eve).
  • Jane Hertenstein said at 2013-06-06T18:53:27+0000: I first met Brooke thru Couchsurfing in 2007 when we met for dinner. Couchsurfing has been a tremendous way for he and I to stay in touch. Just recently met up AGAIN in NYC for dinner. His article(s) are about continuing the COMMUNITY of couchsurfing.
  • Madelon Guinazzo said at 2013-06-01T15:03:00+0000: We live in a culture in which we're taught that it is responsible and wise to be looking over our shoulders constantly and like doomsday boy scouts always be prepared for the worst. When I read this article I burst into tears at the woman's comment about what it would be like to feel safe. It makes me think of the "I Have A Dream" speech by Martin Luther King because my personal version of that dream is a world in which, as a woman, I could walk anywhere, any time of day, wearing anything I felt comfortable in and feel safe. And as a mother, I think that having that be a reality for my children must be what paradise means (Japan envy!). I got to taste this experience at the Rainbow Gathering in Washington state in 2011. I had taken my sons (9 & 12) into the wilderness, off the GPS, away from cell phone signals with more camping gear than we could carry an into a gathering of 30,000 "strangers". I was trusting that we would be safe, sheltered, fed, and respected. We were. I put strangers in quotes because what I met were essentially couch surfers. We were greeted with "welcome home!" and "loving you, sister!" by the random faces we passed on the path. All around people showed up to lend a hand, show us the ropes and pitch in. I burst into tears frequently the few days I was there just from the release of pent up stress and letting the acceptance in. Tony showed up. Toe-knee, as he pointed to the body parts that would help me remember his name, is a couch surfer from the Oregon coast who accepts requests when he will be traveling and asks them to check in on the goats and give loving attention to the cats and dogs while they're away. I left him with my boys and returned to find them enriched by the experience.Family is everywhere. Couchsurfing puts this bold statement to the test. It shows us the reality of it. That is a dream all of us benefit from living.Thanks for the article, Brooke! Thanks for being family, for staying with mine and welcoming mine with yours. I'm grateful.
  • Tom Cal said at 2013-05-28T18:26:47+0000: I recently couchsurfed while traveling in Alaska. I had a great experience, and was impressed with and thankful for the generosity and friendliness of my hosts. I'm 43-years old, am well-traveled, and enjoy activities that include skiing, hiking, running, among, reading, restaurants, music, travel and meeting new people.My first couch surfing host was a young married couple, that has met during their senior-year of high school and married a few years later one of them was serving in the military. They were eager to share stories about their life experiences, happy to offer me breakfast and dinner, and only reluctantly allowed me to finally take them out for dinner and drinks.My 2nd host was equally as gracious, and allowed me to cook up a Coconut Thai curry, one of a few dishes I have mastered (and, which I will brag, I can prepare equally well in a gourmet kitchen or while camping in the backcountry).I spent several days with both hosts, and has a fabulous experience, and look forward to staying in touch.My 3rd experience was in a different Alaska town. I didn't stay with the couchsurfing host, but did meet for coffee and later lunch, and enjoyed helping the host prepare a rustic cabin for a new renter that was in town for the summer rafting season (chopping wood, burning brush, moving stuff from one cabin to another, etc.). The host introduced my to several locals, and I feel I got a local experience and was in the middle of true local culture.For me, couchsurfing was a wonderful way to meet local residents, learn firsthand about present-day local culture and experiences, and perhaps make a few new friends. The ability to access lodging was secondary. I encourage anyone potentially interested in meeting local folks and experiencing local culture while traveling to consider giving couchsurfing a try, both "one-on-one", or through a scheduled couchsurfing "activity". I encourage couch-surfing guest to be gracious an appreciative. While not required, offers to cook, buy dinner or help out with errands or chores are a great way to show gratitude and appreciation to your hosts.http://www.couchsurfing.org/search/activity
  • Angela Nievera-Samson said at 2013-05-26T04:29:14+0000: When I was invited to meet regular Couch Surfers five years ago, I was impressed by Brooke's enthusiasm. Honestly though, I've never needed to use it because I made so many good friends abroad in 1998 while living in Chicago, and I'm still in close contact with them today. So back then I knew that CS was always an alternative, if I ever wanted to meet new people.Over the years I've met four guys who were members, two Americans directly through the CS site and two Canadians I met on the street (literally) while traveling in Spain or Germany. Because I haven't had much experience using CS (I do have a scary story to share in the next article segment), I can't actually speak about the benefits of CS.I work with high school exchange students from 10 countries worldwide in Las Vegas, and two of them told me they met CSers who are members (I think they're in their forties). These teenaged boys themselves expressed they would use CS over staying in hostels in their future travels. But all the people I've mentioned having a connection to CS are all male. I'm not sure what that says overall, but it's an observation.However, I have met countless decent people through various travels in 19 years, and I do believe that the humanity of others does exist. Sometimes you just have to pay attention and keep yourself open to strangers.
  • said at 2013-05-22T19:25:16+0000: Brooke introduced me to CS, though I only used it once (it was magical) because I host so many people already that I never get to host cs’ers who write to me. many of the people I meet/host are CS’ers, and each is a delightful human being. I find that if you treat people with honesty and respect, they behave accordingly. I've been in situations--by choice and accidentally--where people could have harmed me, but they did not. and I am convinced the only reason they did not harm me was because I treated them with an obvious expectation of good, and honesty on my part. openly expecting good from someone is different from being naive. and treating someone with honesty and respect is different from being superior or patronizing. there are always exceptions, but most people are much better than we expect them to be. and once they see you expect good from them, they tend to treat you well. I call it positive stereotyping. yes, I'm annoyed with cs's changing webpage and reputation. but I will pretend it is a person, not an organization, and give it another chance.i've had people stay with me, strangers I met once and invited to stay if they are in nyc, and friends of such strangers' (whom I hever met until they showed up on my doorstep or in my email account), who cooked, did MY laundry and dishes, resurfaced my windows, replenished my fridge and medicine cabinet, just because they felt grateful to me--for my floor space, or advice about what to see. I also had a guest who broke my mailbox while trying to leave me a key. and I had people who left no traces behind. some of them were great conversation partners and still send me beautiful poetry; others never exchanged a word--because our schedules did not overlap. all of this is a wonderful part of my life as a city dweller. it is like taking a walk through a forest if you live near it. except the forest comes to you. in the city, taking a nature stroll means meeting new people and sharing close space with them. it is part of the natural human wonder. you deserve to give it a try. and that broken mailbox? it just made me appreciate the inventiveness of other guests, who managed to leave me my key back without twisting metal. I left valuables and kept my house as is. and no one, not once, has taken anything, despite what "well-meaning" people warned me about.pema julia gutman, new york.
  • Melissa Pflug said at 2013-05-23T22:58:16+0000: Very well done. It was lovely to be reminded of the joy and unique experiences that CS has helped enable. I must admit, I am not completely aware of the changes that have been taking place over the last few years (I'm guessing about this number as it seems I've been hearing negatives remarks about CS for sometime). While the changes in layout, search models and other profile requirements have gradually been changing, I can say that I still have made several positive experiences over the last two years while living abroad in Germany and Spain. I am still using the site as I did when I first began some five years ago, and while I can concur with the sense of a loss of security and "home" feeling as Brooke mentioned, I can also vouch that whatever the issues are at the moment, there still is life and promise in this project. CS has drastically affected the way I travel, think and interact. It broke the inlaid barrier of fear and distrust (both of which are not to be simply discarded, but perhaps rather regulated and tucked away after consideration) in meeting strangers and sharing your stories (food, home, etc.) with them. Thank you for the article, Brooke. I look forward to the parts to follow.
  • said at 2013-05-20T19:16:12+0000: I'm relatively new to couchsurfing having joined in 2011. Those who know me would all say that out of all their friends and family, that I would be the least like to trust strangers. I had a philosophy that in order to be my friend, you had to earn it. It wasn't you’re my friend until you prove otherwise. I'm an introvert, very guarded, very careful, very cautious by nature. It's difficult for me to open up to people.After separating from my wife and reevaluating my life, I wanted a drastic change. The thing I wanted to change most was my faith in humanity, my faith in people. I've always loved travel and so what better way to combine the two than to join couchsurfing and start hosting. From the very first person I hosted, I gave them a key and my trust and in return I've had nothing but interesting, respectful and gracious visitors, who I now consider friends. It's added a new dimension to my life and I feel like I'm travelling even when in my own house from meeting people from all over the world-Finland, Korea, Japan, Germany, Taiwan, Singapore, Philippines, Slovenia, Canada, France, Spain, US, Belgium. I can talk to couchsurfers about things that I don't talk to my friends/family about. There is already a kindred spirit of travelling that we share, but travelers in general tend to think independently and tend to share the same music, books, movies that I do that non-travelers in general do not.As mentioned, I'm relatively new and not familiar with all the changes that have occurred over the years, but the greatest gift that couchsurfing has given me is a new found faith in humanity.
  • Jillian Phillips said at 2013-05-21T14:01:56+0000: My faith and trust in humanity has always been higher than most people's. When I signed up for couchsurfing three years ago, I didn't think twice about whether or not I would be safe - which may sound a little crazy to some. It's designed to hold surfers accountable if they aren't good hosts are guests. The rest depended on my good judgment. I didn't have any issues except a personality conflict or a flaky host - surely nothing that made me fearful or put me in harm's way. I am not up to speed on the recent changes to Couchsurfing. I look forward to hearing more on this from Brooke (one of my fave guests!).
  • said at 2013-05-23T15:44:23+0000: We share this planet with many others, so for myself CS is an alternative bridge to connect a genuinely nice stranger on the other end and experience the other side, something money can't buy.
  • Olena Chapovska said at 2013-05-23T21:21:32+0000: Nice article. Thank you.