Florian, a 44-year old German man, felt used and taken advantage of by the stranger in his house. For a week, the stranger came and went as if he owned the place, returning late at night and making no time at all for the distraught Florian. Hardly any dialogue or intimacy was shared between the two. Florian, deeply distressed, complained that he and the stranger had “almost no opportunity to eat together or really get to know each other.”
Such are not the ways of CouchSurfing.
The Internet has a history of providing safe havens for new social, economical, and scientific experiments, like Bitcoin or downloadable vaccines. But what happens when they get too big for their boots?
CouchSurfing may have played a role in kick starting a wave of sub-economies, but there is one crucial difference: money isn’t the currency by which it operates
Since its launch in 2004, the CouchSurfing community has prided itself on envisioning “a world made better by travel and travel made richer by connection.” CouchSurfing emerged as one of the first manifestations of the now-ubiquitous sharing economy. Some argue that it helped usher in companies such as Airbnb, Zipcar and TaskRabbit. CouchSurfing was also an early harbinger of pop-up culture. Both rely on social networking and social media technologies, and both bring diverse groups of people who wouldn’t normally meet into a brief but potentially meaningful encounter, says Jennie Germann Molz, a sociologist at the College of the Holy Cross, in Massachusetts.
“Couchsurfers share an intense experience and connection together, and then they disperse and go on their way,” she says. “It’s a new kind of sociality.”
“It’s not just about the furniture”
CouchSurfing may have played a role in kick starting a wave of sub-economies, but there is one crucial difference: money isn’t the currency by which it operates. That isn’t to say that CouchSurfing is free. From the outside, CouchSurfing may appear to be a platform for freeloading around the globe, but in reality surfers crash with hosts with the implicit understanding that both parties will gain some sort of social value from the exchange. This could take the form of sharing insights on other cultures; cooking, drinking or practicing language skills together; or simply forging a somewhat deep, if fleeting, connection with another human being. Some, too, use CouchSurfing to further a lifestyle of freeganism, where generosity and kindness stand in for money. As couchsurfers are fond of saying: “It’s not just about the furniture.”
“I see the network going through an identity crisis now”
At least, that’s how things went in the good old days. In 2011, CouchSurfing became a for-profit company, and swiftly closed a $15 million round of funding in 2012. The spirit of CouchSurfing, some members felt, was broken. Germann Molz, who has been conducting interviews with couchsurfers since around 2004, closely monitored this recent shift in the community. “I see the network going through an identity crisis now—though maybe ‘crisis’ is too strong of a word,” she says. The CouchSurfing community has now begun to debate whether “the site has gotten too big for it’s own good,” says Germann Molz.
“People just decided to trust people”
CouchSurfing, as a result, is becoming nothing more than a means for cheap travel among its newbie members, which leads to misunderstandings and hosting conflicts such as the one experienced by Florian.
The company’s moral economy, Germann Molz continues, is also undergoing an overhaul in the wake the website’s for-profit status. The site traditionally used several modes for promoting trust among members. First, like eBay, Airbnb and so many other e-commerce platforms, it features a review system in which members can vouch for one another by leaving feedback and ratings. Additionally, CouchSurfing offers to verify the addresses of members who provided a credit card. But in a way, these systems were just formalities. In the early years, couchsurfers simply assumed that anyone who found their way to the site was likely trustworthy by virtue of the spirit of travel, open-mindedness and hospitality. “Using a combination of those mechanisms, people got to the point where they would open their door,” Germann Molz says. “People just decided to trust people.”
four out of five male couchsurfers she stayed with in Europe implored her for sex
People trusting people? If the idea of trolling through profiles of foreign men to find your vacation home makes you feel more than a tad uneasy, you’re not alone–and there are a lot of men out there looking for more than just a few language tips in exchange for housing. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was the opening for another Taken movie.
While the ratings system still applies, CouchSurfing’s enormous growth—from 45,000 members in 2005 to 6 million today—rattles some members of the community. Some claim that it’s now nothing more than an international hook-up forum. For example, member Agness Walewinder recently complained in a blog that four out of five male couchsurfers she stayed with in Europe implored her for sex. CouchSurfing, she argues, should change its name to SexSurfing. Likewise, couchsurfer Nithin Coca publicly announced his resignation from the community after witnessing a feeding-frenzy of male couchsurfers seeking women surfers both on and offline, presumably for sex. On the flipside, an anonymous male member recently published a well-received and seemingly well-researched blog titled “How to Bang CouchSurfing Girls.” Apparently it’s all about location, location, location–so says the author, noting that you’ve got a better shot at success if you’re hosting a girl in a “party place like Rio, Barcelona or New York City.”
The CouchSurfing community has begun splintering. Some members have deleted their profiles, or simply stopped using the site. Veterans have founded new sites, like BeWelcome, which seek to reclaim the old ethos. While it’s hard to predict what future—if any—is in store for CouchSurfing, Germann Molz doesn’t think the site will disappear, and is even optimistic it might recover.
“I kind of see CouchSurfing as in flux,” Germann Molz says. “It has these bursts and then these lower moments, but it’s constantly growing and getting more and more dynamic.”