I joined Couchsurfing in 2006 after learning about it at the beginning of my yearlong trip around the world. It was a twist on an age-old hospitality, allowing the internet to be the conduit between travelers and hosts. Facilitating this basic exchange were forums, events, and — in time — self-organized, organic gatherings in cities all around the world.
During that trip I hosted a dozen people in Spain and surfed with hosts in Germany, Hungary, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Thailand, Malaysia, and Japan. Every experience was positive. It fulfilled my desires as a traveler — to gain local cultural experiences; to learn from people in intimate, personal settings; and to share in genuine, human hospitality.
Couchsurfing changed not only my life, but how I traveled and saw the world. It was how I met several of my best friends.
Today it is a shadow of its self, full of abandoned profiles and spam-filled city pages. The journey of how Couchsurfing rose and fell is a tale of the power of organic community, and how growth can often be a facade.
The rise of Couchsurfing
Hospitality exchange began ages ago, when the first traveler knocked on a stranger’s door and was welcomed with open arms. What Couchsurfing did was leverage the power of the internet to enable and expand natural human warmth and openness.
Now people with similar worldviews could connect over vast distances. Knocking on a stranger’s door turned into sending a couch request. Seeking friendly locals on the streets turned into travelers coming to weekly potlucks or cafe gatherings. The positivity was incredible – in the first few years as an active Couchsurfer, I never heard a single negative experience.
Couchsurfing was globalization done right, sharing culture and ideas with no financial obligations. While access to the internet was a limitation in many countries, it was only a temporary barrier that could be overcome.
Uniting over the commonalities across cultures is what can change the world. In 2008 I organized my first event — a potluck in a San Francisco park — to be as inclusive as possible. I accepted every single request because it was the right thing to do, the ethos of true globalism.
We — the members — built Couchsurfing. Not management who, in those days, did little more than provide a basic, buggy, but functional website. We, who believed in the idea — the Couchsurfing spirit of sharing and openness –set up local groups, potlucks, events, and told our friends about this new, radical, powerful social network. It wasn’t perfect. Couchsurfing had its turf battles, conflicts, and, unfortunately, an elitism exhibited by long-time members, but despite that, it was revolutionizing travel. The sky seemed the limit.
“The coolest thing about the community is that it grew organically, just, on its own,” said Couchsurfing user Serafina Bear, who prefers to go by her username. “The environment was open and inclusive, and got stronger. It was a really cool thing to see.”
At its peak, San Francisco had events going on nearly every night of the week, and wherever I went in the world, I easily found hosts to stay with, local events, and meetups where I connected with other travelers to explore the city or travel with. The possibilities, then, seemed limitless.
Too big? Or too unprofitable?
There was a key component missing in all these amazing transactions: money. It was free to use Couchsurfing. Despite everything members did to emphasize the cultural sharing components of the site, many saw it strictly as a place to find free accommodations.
Growth began to pick up around 2009, after the site hit a million members. Mainstream media started writing about, followed by mentions in Lonely Planet. Piece by piece our attempts to keep the membership focused on values broke, and in rushed countless new members seeking free accommodation or easy hookups. We noticed them at events — the guys who entered as a group, and only spoke to girls, or the one-line requests flooding our inboxes, asking for a couch while they attended a conference or a music festival.
Things changed dramatically after that. During my first three years as a member, I never heard of a single bad Couchsurfing experience. Now, stories began to emerge of aggressive hosts, dirty places, and uncomfortable situations. Female Couchsurfers told me about how they would arrive in a city and get random messages from local males, often with suggestive, flirty content.
Then came the big shocker: In 2012, Couchsurfing transformed itself into a start-up, going private and opening a corporate office in San Francisco alongside AirBnb, TaskRabbit, and others in the prosperous sharing economy it hoped to join. The irony of an eight-year old “start-up” seemed lost on its new CEO and board of corporate, venture-capitalist advisors.
Couchsurfing was now a “service” and experimented with charging customers. The problem was that we, the members, were what management was trying to sell — the connections, networks, and communities we had built. They couldn’t profit off of our work, all around the world, because money was never a motivation.
Nevertheless they tried. The tools that ambassadors and active Couchsurfers had used around the world to self-organize local events, such as group pages, event invites, and a wiki, were all removed. Since then, more redesigns have simplified the interface even more.
The search for the next CS
Couchsurfing is not yet a true graveyard. There are still active profiles, events in some cities, and some surfers, but the trend is clear. All those Couchsurfing friends I made six, seven, eight years ago barely use the site anymore. Some stopped hosting due to bad experiences, others because the site no longer fits their lives as it once did. It strikes me as incredibly sad. How many of the eight million that Couchsurfing touts are disillusioned members? Judging from searches and how much the site’s traffic has fallen, a lot.
This sentiment is common among old-time users. “I use to say that being part of the Couchsurfing community it was something that can enrich you for a life, but unfortunately all this felt apart,” said Lucilla, who has not been active in years. “I used to live in Europe and explain to all my friends how proud I was for being part of this community. Nowadays, all of my (ex) CS friends don’t even login anymore.”
Drew Meyers, the founder of Horizon, believes that trust is tied to size. “Couchsurfing is ultimately too large of a network to trust.” Moreover, trust must be earned. “The short answer is that building community takes time; it took Couchsurfing 10 years to build the brand they have.” Horizon aims to build hospitality sharing within existing, trusted networks such as fraternity alumni, believing that this will solve both the size and trust problems that dogged Couchsurfing.
Meyers is a Couchsurfer who believes that the community is one of the greatest movements to emerge in his lifetime. Now, though, he thinks it is just too big.
“There is no community on the planet with 10 million people,” said says. “No way can a group that large be trusted.”
Prashant Lagisetti, founder of Localoids, believes that there is potential for someone to nail the “traveler meeting local” space, but that, thus far, no one has a model that works for the current web.
“Unlike other travel social networks, we’re trying to create a lot of value for the local,” said Lagisetti. “We want to build an exchange of value to both sides.” Localoids hopes to do this through shared experiences, language exchange, or the ability of guests to teach something to hosts.
Couchsurfing’s destiny seems certain. The site has burned through most of its VC money, fired the majority of its staff, and is no closer to monetization than when it went for-profit three years ago (though they have recently introduced advertising). In another time with different management, Couchsurfing could have brought online and offline hospitality together, bridging not just nationalities, but social classes as well across the world. It didn’t. Instead it chose to privatize and follow the path of Silicon Valley start-ups and venture capital.
With millions of users who rarely log on, the question is: Where will members go? Of the numerous start-up hospitality and travel networks, none of them have yet come even close to matching Couchsurfing or positioning themselves as a replacement. The travel social space is incredibly fluid; besides Localoids and Horizon, there is Tripping, BeWelcome, Trampolinn, TrustRoots, Nightswapping, Voyaj, and dozens more. All are facing the challenge of scale that Couchsurfing managed to overcome.
As for me, my profile is still there, 168 references, all positive. I haven’t yet joined a new network, but neither have I hosted nor surfed through Couchsurfing in the past two years. I may open my couch up again to guests soon. I wonder, though, is it worth it?