I have once or twice already stated that one of the pleasures of world travel is the joy of meeting people from many countries and experiencing their culture and customs firsthand.
That is why I have long sung the praises of Couchsurfing to anyone who would listen. The hospitality and social networking website allowed me for the past two years to connect with thousands of individuals from around the world. Through Couchsurfing, I hosted hundreds of travelers in Miami. And since I began this journey, many of them have returned the favor and hosted me in their countries. And I have met hundreds more that I now call friends. What an amazingly brilliant idea, Couchsurfing! Truly life-changing.
For those who have never heard of Couchsurfing, allow me this introduction: You go to http://www.couchsurfing.org, click sign up, fill out a profile, upload as many photos of yourself as you like, choose whether you want to host travelers in your home, just meet them in a social setting, or just give them tour information about your city or town. You also have the option to attend dozens of weekly activities or events and meetings organized by local or visiting couchsurfers or create activities yourself that others can join.
Plainly put, Couchsurfing is about intercultural exchange. You invite complete strangers to crash on your couch – or whatever space you have in your home – and you part as new friends. What you gain is knowledge of another person, his or her country and culture, and no money is exchanged. Yep, all free. You leave each other references on the site – sharing whether or not the experience was positive, neutral or negative. There are also other safety valves on the site. It works. Or should I say, it worked?
Money sometimes corrupts. It has a way of destroying beauty, derailing a good thing. Insert money in any positive situation and watch the negatives fly. In the past
year at Couchsurfing, the negatives have unfortunately outweighed the positives, with the site remaking itself from a nonprofit, member-run organization to a for profit company with salivating investors rubbing their hands as they try to come up with ways to turn a profit on the millions of dollars they’ve invested. And the members of Couchsurfing, who see themselves as a community of volunteers who helped build the site and make Couchsurfing the success story that it is today, are upset, confused, left feeling betrayed.
Couchsurfing – which was launched in 2004 by founder Casey Fenton – counts “ambassadors” among its most active volunteers. Couchsurfing ambassadors keep the community engaged, going to extra mile to help visitor and local alike. I am proud to say I became an ambassador after months of involvement with Couchsurfing, hosting, traveling and promoting activities. I was asked to be an ambassador (while traveling in Chile) and I gladly accepted the honor. But months later, Casey Fenton changed the legal status of Couchsurfing from a nonprofit to a for-profit corporation and sold the new company to outside investors. Fenton walked away with a hefty load of cash while the volunteers who were directly or indirectly responsible for building the site were left wondering what would become of them and the site. What followed was the hiring of a CEO and paid professional staff. Almost immediately, there were grumblings from members around the world that the staff was inexperienced and unfamiliar with Couchsurfing as a community. The person brought in to oversee the ambassadors – Bill Loundy – gave them fuel for the rising fire with a memo in which he said he would not communicate with them in a forum where ambassador gather on the site to discuss issues. Loundy made a series of other missteps and pronouncements that did not go over well and there were calls for his dismissal. One ambassador in from Australia left with a reference on his profile that called him “a turkey.” That reference was quickly erased. Other ambassadors came to his defense with the words “give him a chance”. But Loundy didn’t take that chance as he proceeded to ignore the ambassadors and their concerns for months at a time. His defenders pretty much grew silent.
Then as more investor money came, the staff of clueless 20-somethings hired to run the site grew. Most had not even been members of the Couchsurfing community until they were hired and it showed in every statement – or should I say misstatement – they made. And the man brought in to lead the team – CEO Tony Espinoza – proved to be no brainiac himself. How else to explain the incompetence that has since followed? So thus began the beginning of the end of a Couchsurfing, a once great travel and hospitality website. I say the beginning of the end even as I hold out hope that Espinoza and his reckless crew will wise up and not completely destroy Couchsurfing. At this writing, it’s only partially damaged, and the Clueless in San Francisco – that’s where Couchsurfing is headquartered – have already said they do not intend to fix some of the problems they’ve created with the changes of the site. It’s their way or the highway. With that attitude they will all soon be out of a job. But they don’t yet get that.
Well, hundreds, perhaps thousands of experienced couchsurfers around the world have taken that highway and abandoned Couchsurfing, many of them ambassadors, the very people you want to attract to a site such as Couchsurfing. Others have also quit and joined another hospitality website – BeWelcome – as still many more say they will wait to see what happens next. They – like me – have one foot out the door. My patience is long, but the utter disrespect I can’t take much more of it.
A great “migration” of Couchsurfers to BeWelcome is planned for February 14 – Valentine’s Day – presumably just so Couchsurfing leadership in San Francisco is made to feel the love? Date aside, many have not bothered to wait. They’ve already left the site, complaining that Couchsurfing management is only about quantity not quality – the number of couchsurfers has grown in the past year largely because of word of mouth, linkage to Facebook and other social media. The couchsurfers that have recently joined have done so lured and misled by the notion of a free place to stay while they are traveling, rather than by the idea of intercultural exchange espoused by more experienced couchsurfers. The “old timers” complain that the uninformed “newbies” have contributed to the deterioration in quality experiences on the site. They argue that the Couchsurfing management team only cares about growing the numbers to satisfy investors looking to sell the database with member information and get a big payday on their investment. The clash recently escalated and grew more heated when the website underwent a complete makeover without word or warning or consultation with the members through a beta test. The roll out of the new site was so bad and so mishandled and the changes so widely hated that thousands of couchsurfers around the world took to the site – once they were able to access it – to strongly log a global protest not seen on the site in recent memory. Couchsurfing headquarters was so beset with complaints that it set up a feedback forum to have members voice their concerns. The complaints persisted for weeks and the Couchsurfing leadership certainly got an earful. Some changes were made based on user suggestions, but the unprofessional behavior of Couchsurfing staffers only fanned the flames. In response to members concerns, some of the paid Couchsurfing professionals posted “funny” pictures of cats. Other staffers deleted posts they didn’t like, while others issued threats in response to tough questioning from users. The message was loud and clear: “Couchsurfing is not a democracy” – as one staffer wrote. That was a bitter pill for some longtime Couchsurfing members to swallow as they had grown accustomed to open discussions, no censorship.
The backlash that San Francisco got from the membership was so intense that CEO Espinoza and others were forced to admit that they handled the whole roll out poorly and to announce that any future changes to the site would involve the community. Espinoza and Loundy held a live webcast to address concerns but some still remained skeptical. They’ve been asking Espinoza and his team to roll back the changes to the site, something that Espinoza has said he won’t do.
And so people continue to leave the site while others wait and hope the site can be saved. Personally, I am giving Couchsurfing another month or two – beyond Valentine’s Day. But I – as others have already done – will create a BeWelcome account. My advise to friends who have asked my opinion on this matter is to do the same. It doesn’t hurt to have a Couchsurfing and a BeWelcome account. It’s smart.
You increase your chances of finding a host and meeting people. And should Couchsurfing turn out to no longer be your cup of tea, you will BeWelcome.
As for my journey, the changes at Couchsurfing have made it difficult to navigate the site. Any changes were supposed to improve, not make the site worse. And the Couchsurfing leadership team to its credit has made some changes after the outcries of members. And now they insist they are listening to members, but there’s still censorship – something that didn’t previously exist on Couchsurfing. Anything that smacks of bad-mouthing the changes or calling for defection to BeWelcome is deleted. Some members have even had their profiles deleted after criticizing Couchsurfing staff or changes. Because of all this and more, the mass worldwide mutiny has not been silenced and won’t be in the face of these changes and perceived attacks from management.
I now travel through workaway.info, choosing longer stays in certain places, and for shorter stays, through established contacts on Facebook. And while I still maintain friendships I’ve made on Couchsurfing, most of those friendships are on Facebook. I am hoping Couchsurfing will survive. I really am. But if the people in San Francisco continue down the path they’ve so far chosen – ignoring and outright dismissing the concerns of members and censoring posts and groups – I fear it is indeed the beginning of the end of Couchsurfing. At least it will be for me.
- 3 must-have qualities for Couchsurfers (couchsurfing.org)
- What is Couchsurfing? Should You Try It? (enterthedragans.com)
- Books that Will Inspire You to Couchsurf (couchsurfing.org)
- Rooming with strangers (toledoblade.com)
- Couchsurfing + markets. (jessicabethtravels.wordpress.com)
- Archived Couchsurfing Webcast Ready to Watch (couchsurfing.org)
- CouchSurfing: The Benefits Of Hosting (acouplestepsforward.com)
- CouchSurfing (philbradley.typepad.com)
- SandyCrashPads: Couchsurfing To Make The Hurricane’s Aftermath More Manageable (fastcoexist.com)
- Review: Rooming with strangers – a game of trust (seattlepi.com)