CouchSurfing

From P2P Foundation
Jump to: navigation, search

= a site where travellers can find 'free couches' to sleep, offered by volunteer participants worldwide.

URL = http://www.couchsurfing.com/

CouchSurfing is a worldwide network for making connections between travelers and the local communities they visit.


Contents

Description

Dorris de Heij:

"The website was founded in 2004 by four guys interested in traveling and meeting new people and cultures. Nowadays the Couchsurfing community contains 725,731 members, of which 73.5 % is between 18 and 29 years old. The site represents couches in 231 countries.

Couchsurfing is a non profit organisation based primalrely on volunteers and donations. It is really a site for people who want to meet new people and travel cheap. The site only works because there are non oppurtunistic people on there, everybody hosts and travels. The mission of the project that is on the website is as follows: "CouchSurfing seeks to internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance and facilitate cultural understanding. As a community we strive to do our individual and collective parts to make the world a better place, and we believe that the surfing of couches is a means to accomplish this goal. CouchSurfing is not about the furniture, not just about finding free accommodations around the world; it's about making connections worldwide. We make the world a better place by opening our homes, our hearts, and our lives. We open our minds and welcome the knowledge that cultural exchange makes available. We create deep and meaningful connections that cross oceans, continents and cultures. CouchSurfing wants to change not only the way we travel, but how we relate to the world! "

One girl from Prague has multiple people over EACH day! She must be a filantropist because couchsurfing is not about moneymaking. It is helping out strangers, offer them your bed and show them your city. Reciprocity is very important in this lifestyle. If you host people you will get good reviews and those reviews help you to get a couch if you go travel yourself. The fact that this is a major issue assures you, I think, that only (or at least mostly) wellwilling, peaceloving world improvers will use this website. You can see most are caring for the environment, they have rules like: if you stay here you have to recycle.. And they have philosophies on their profile like: "Helping others is my pesonal choice, I cannot expect, that they will help me, but i always hope." This makes me very happy, to see all these warm, no worries, loving people together on one website. It is more than just a website to score a free bed when you're on holidays, it's a meeting place, a community for people with like minded points of view of this world." (http://dorrisnewmedia.blogspot.com/2008/09/analysis-of-couchsurfingcom.html)


Status

On Couchsurfing becoming a B Corporation

By Malcolm Harris:

"Let's imagine the standard start-up route and we'll see the kind of double-bind CouchSurfing is in. You start with a good idea, attract high-value employees cheap with equity offers and big investment cheques, you hit the Initial Public Offering (IPO) and everyone gets paid, then if you're lucky, a bigger company will try and buy you for even more money. CouchSurfing wants to attract the high-level programming talent and investment capital that comes with a good idea (and is necessary to realizing that idea), but they don't want to risk losing control of the organization's mission to shareholders. What's an ethical start-up to do?

What CouchSurfing did is register as a "B corporation." B (or Benefit) Corporations compose a new class of US corporations, dedicated to social as well as financial good. Five states have passed laws governing B corps, and a bill is moving in California now. Although there are other benefits, the biggest one seems to me described on the B Corp site: "As a B Corporation, founders and other mission-driven shareholders can hold directors accountable to consider the impact of operating and liquidity decisions not only on shareholders, but on all stakeholders." By building responsibility and accountability mechanisms into the founding of the corporation, the B Corp framework seems substantially different than the "corporate responsibility" cons.

As part of the B incorporation, CouchSurfing accepted $7.6 million in venture capital funding, something they never could have done previously as a non-profit. Combined with the site's already 3 million-large membership base, the site seems ready to take it to the next level. However, the directors maintain CouchSurfing will always be free for participants. Here's hoping the B Corporation framework helps them, and maybe provides a model for start-ups facing the same conundrum." (http://shareable.net/blog/the-rise-of-the-not-just-for-profit)


Community conflict over the new status

Robino:

"Couchsurfing as I see it has almost nothing to do with this what you call collaborative consumption Malcolm. It is about doing away with that model of production and consumption. It is hospitality. It is allowing a stranger to be your guest. It is l-i-f-e. It is sharing your life with someone for maybe a day, maybe a couple of days, and sometimes even longer. For many of these people, traveling is NOT a product, neither is hospitality, neither is sharing. It is how we live.

That's why there is no money involved, that's why they like non-profit, this is why many members inside the community are currently so upset. Because we want to do it the other way: without the profit, without the money. And because we know it can be done.

...

Couchsurfing though never wanted to make the step to transform the organization into a democratically run organization, or to make the source-code of the website available for people to hack on it. They said they wanted it to become a charity (for tax-purposes) but never got that up and running either, and after years of inaction and numerous expensive retreats, decided to go for a "sell-out", when their member-base was finally big enough.

Around 90% of CS-members probably don't really care about that. They just want to have a good website to find hosts and guests, but the others (the ones who speak up the most) do care about it. They are critical about their data that has just been sold to a new corporation. Their data, their profiles, their personal references, their personal information, their friends that they once provided to a non-profit association and not to a corporation with CEO's and investors.

Having said all this, we'll see where this goes, and how it will affect the networks. For one, the success of Couchsurfing really depends on people like me who are "active hosts" inside the big touristic cities. And with this enormous growing member-base of Couchsurfing that we've seen for the past years, it has become really hard for these hosts to keep up with the amount of requests they get. And this announcement of Couchsurfing turning into a profit-organization (why is that legally allowed anyway?) might be a final drop for quite a few of them." (http://shareable.net/blog/the-rise-of-the-not-just-for-profit)


Discussion

Couchsurfing vs. Open Couchsurfing volunteers conflict

According to a group of volunteer developers, in the beginning of 2007 Casey Fenton, the network's founder, put a strong hold on the transition towards a peer-to-peer model of functioning. Guaka and several other core people stopped volunteering for the organization. See also OpenCouchSurfing.

The incident is described in our entry on the Couchsurfing Conflict

For the full source material see the entry Couchsurfing is Dead]


Problems with the CouchSurfing organization

From the "All that is wrong with the world" blog, last updated May 2010:

"The CouchSurfing service is plagued by problems that most people are perhaps not aware of. These problems range from defrauding and scamming users, illegal behavior, gross violations of privacy, a complete lack of any real appeals or dispute resolution process and censorship. Many of the members were so frustrated that the OpenCouchSurfing was started as a result. A plea for an open and transparent organization without all of the secrecy and deception that plagues the current incarnation of CouchSurfing. Also interesting is a small list of people stating why they refuse to volunteer for CouchSurfing. Searching around the web will yield many stories of negatives experiences with CouchSurfing, not with bad hosts or guests but with CouchSurfing directly such as deleting peoples accounts for no reasons while silencing critics and illegal behavior. One interesting question to ask of those who advocate the CouchSurfing Spirit – do you think the following behaviors and actions of the organization what the community believes to be the spirit? Please keep that question in mind while reading ahead. There seems to be a very large gap between what the users know and understand and the organization itself. This has to stop.


Fraud and illegal behavior

CouchSurfing have engaged in much questionable behavior almost since their inception as an organization. The most obvious and perhaps controversial of these behaviors is their management of donation money, and the fact that they have referred to themselves as both a charity and as a non-profit organization in the past misleading many people. They state that being a non-profit is essential to their mission and guiding principles, and that they rely entirely on the voluntary donations of members. I have no issue with them being a non-profit, but for them to have received charity status is crap. CouchSurfing is not a charity, in any sense of the word except legally. They do not directly provide any services or do any charitable actions; they merely offer a service so people can offer charity to each other. They are the enabler for people to provide charitable services, they do not provide any charitable services themselves. CouchSurfing should have their charity status revoked after a full investigation of what the charitable services they actually provide is performed and they are shown to only offer a website, and use donation money to pay for rent and food of staff members.

A problem at the moment is that CouchSurfing is a currently registered charity organization and they may have obtained this status status on false grounds by misrepresenting the organizations role in the community, and that the organization is not compliant with the various reporting and disclosure requirements for charities. As per a message on a CouchSurfing mailing list, CouchSurfing was due to file a tax return in 2009 along with an independently conducted financial audit. This is required to be made public yet four months later nothing has been released. The problem with CouchSurfing not releasing the information as they are required to is it becomes difficult for people and organizations to verify that the donation money that people give in good faith is being used in a responsible way. Given that all of CouchSurfing’s behavior indicates they have something to hide and the fact that the organization can not be said to do any charitable work I think this is the most likely situation. In which case as above I think a full investigation should be conducted before the organization is allowed to continue soliciting donations. Later on in the same CouchSurfing thread I linked to above, a rough analysis of CouchSurfing’s legitimacy as a charity organization is performed by Margaret using the Charity Navigator methodology as a guide. According to Margaret’s calculations 69.87% of the donation money CouchSurfing receives allegedly goes to administrative costs involved with running the website (suuuure) which going by Charity Navigator’s guidelines would place CouchSurfing squarely in the runaway category.

It is also important to to mention that from 2003 – 2007 CouchSurfing’s structure as an organization was illegal. The reason for this is that Casey had himself listed as CEO as well as the chair of the Board of Directors. This arrangement is illegal under New Hampshire law and so any donations taken during this time and any contracts CouchSurfing entered into may not have been valid. If it turns out that charitable donations of time and money made to CouchSurfing when it did not exist in the correct form legal are invalid, then CouchSurfing should be made available for any loss suffered as a result. Based on the evidence I have seen and what is publicly available, it appears the only reason CouchSurfing is looking to be a charity/non-profit org is to get tax exempt status. That’s it. To keep living a certain lifestyle funded by a deceptive verification scheme without ever having to pay taxes. Casey Fenton (the founder and leader of CouchSurfing) has to either clear up these misconceptions or be held accountable.

Regardless of the credibility of CouchSurfing’s charity status it appears that the legal requirements have not always been met, and were even knowingly and willing broken. Quoted from a message by user Pickwick : “New Hampshire law does not allow the chairman/president of a charity to be an employee at the same time. So when Casey as chairman/president signed his own employment contract he violated that law, and for this reason alone the contract may be invalid.“. There is no question that Casey is an employee of CouchSurfing, receiving a salary of some $70k per year. Casey also seems to be without a doubt the leader and president of CouchSurfing. When Casey was on the Board of Directors and also an employee, then this was illegal. Not only was this a violation of law this would also be a case of Casey committing perjury. The implications of this are significant, as all employment contracts would be invalid, all contracts and legal agreements would be invalid, further laws would have been violated etc…

Of note are the application forms originally submitted by Casey to get nonprofit status. It is evident in the original filing (the first link) that Casey was listed as the President, Treasurer, Secretary and head of the Board of Directions in violation of NH law. I don’t believe that their have been any ramifications for CouchSurfing having an illegal structure for four years. The second link shows the reasons CouchSurfing used to obtain charity status. CouchSurfing is organized exclusively for charitable, religious, educational and scientific purposes? I think not. To internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance and facilitate cultural understanding? This is more acceptable, however out of those that are actually obtainable CouchSurfing is not the facilitator. They offer a website which enables others to organize such exchanges and offer charity without having any direct involvement themselves. Looking at the CouchSurfing Terms of Service, they state that “Many in-person meetings are held by groups of interested members and are not sponsored or organized by us.”. If RedCross ran a website that enabled volunteers to help those in need without doing charity work themselves or putting their donation money to good use, would people still support them and give donations so readily? Lastly the second form states that “No part of the net earnings of the organization shall inure to the benefit, of or be distributable to its members, trustees, officers, or other private persons…”. Well a quick look at CouchSurfing’s financial information shows that not being honored.

This really needs to be properly and thoroughly investigated. There are some very serious and obvious discrepancies that need to be sorted out. The financial statements and registration information made available through the organization and the website do not match those provided to the New Hampshire authorities. What exactly is going on? The most recent financial information has not been made available when it should have been and it is now almost a quarter later. At least some people before have been disillusioned, with CouchSurfing even being reported to the New Hampshire District Attorney in 2007. I am unclear what the outcome of this was, and suspect the investigation is ongoing.

Now, to examine the financial information. It is important to note here that despite a legal obligation to do so, the financial records for 2009 have not been released, so I will be going by the records for 2008. The net income for 2008 was $ 128,455.55. The total income was $788,297.70, with $783,977.23 coming from contributed donations. This can be read as the income from the verification process. Somehow, a not for profit organization that boasts about having a virtual office managed to spend the majority of this income, despite not paying to organize events(the members organize these out of pocket) and not having an office. Looking at the expense, the aside from salaries, the majority of the rest of the money goes towards travel, rent and food. Those four expenses account for more than a third of the total income, with nothing to show for it.

A not for profit organization or charity should not be using income to provide food and rent for its members, and doing so does not qualify them as a charity. Since CouchSurfing provides the food and rent expenses for members, their salaries should be adjusted accordingly to reflect they have no cost of living. There are numerous messages on the CouchSurfing mailing lists pointing out that the income has not been reported as is legally required, and that the income seems to be used for alcohol and drugs and not anything of actual value or related to work. Almost every way you look at it, it appears the contributed income is being used to perpetuate the lifestyle of Casey and friends rather than being put back into the organization. In fact at the moment Casey and his friends are all living in a sharehouse in Istanbul with the donation money paying for their food and travel. They don’t do any work, at least not that anyone has ever seen evidence off and get to lay around each do doing what they like. Clearly this is not how the people who donated money to CouchSurfing expected their donations to be used. There have been several allegations by volunteers and members that at collectives and CouchSurfing meetings there are dedicated “sex rooms”, something that was also mentioned in Bryan’s resignation letter. It is worth mentioning here the leaked minutes from a 2009 meeting of the CS staff. Nothing pertaining to CouchSurfing is discussed or how things could be improved. Instead ways to have more fun are discussed and given a priority. The suggestions for improvement include more pillow fights and to give each other more massages. The general managers only goal is to “find knobs to twiddle”. This is where people donation money is going. A search through the CourchSurfing mailing lists(as well as some of the discussions I have linked to) will show discussions on this point. Given how they conduct their meetings I don’t find that idea hard to believe, when in fact the notion should be absurd. To quote from the CouchSurfing About page: “CouchSurfing’s non-profit status legally mandates that all resources must be spent directly on achieving the mission”. This does not seem to be the case and I doubt that anyone who made a donation would approve of this.

Even so, the remaining net income does not seem to be being used in any meaningful way. Having it as an emergency fund is not good enough. There are problems that could be fixed, and this is where the money should be going. The rest of the expenses are dubious as well. The salaries for staff in 2008 more than doubled than the amount in 2007, despite the amount of staff not increasing. What did increase was the amount of contributed income which was also more than double than the amount in 2007. The greatly increased salaries for staff seem to correlate with this. Somehow the verification and postage expenses are more than $34,000. In 2007 the expense was only $10,000. Considering the user base has not tripled from 2007, and the costs of postcard production and mailing have not tripled, why have the expenses tripled? The cost for servers is some $50k, while hosting is a separate some $20k. Both of these expenses are not necessary…it does not cost $50k for servers where you would not have to pay for hosting, and it is doubtful the cost for hosting is $20k. Given how closely the expenses seem to use up the total income, I genuinely believe that these financials are doctored. I would expect expenses to increase somewhat with a user base, but not by the shown percentage when there has not been any additional work or staff intake. How can this not be considered suspicious?

Much of the material on the website appears to be written generically to satisfy authorities or investors without having any real relevant to how the organization actually works or what it is said to represent. No heart has gone into writing these texts and it is quite likely most people never read them. They have not been updated in a long time and no not reflect reality, but boy do they look good on paper.

The CouchSurfing Staff page(now mysteriously removed..) stated that “large salaries aren’t what it takes to find and retain talented team members. Instead, we’ve designed a system that gives our staff intangible rewards that can’t be found elsewhere”. Yet, the salaries are large, and they get salaries in addition to free rent, food and travel. There are numerous reports on the CS mailing lists that states that no works seems to be done at collectives. Nevertheless, this is the official development process of CouchSurfing, i.e. there isn’t one. Another point to consider is the treatment of volunteers. Again, there are many, many messages on the mailing lists with volunteers resigning because of the poor treatment they receive. CouchSurfing seems to recruit people with a genuine enthusiasm for the ideal, and secure in the knowledge that there seems to be a near infinite pool of volunteers to recruit from has no motivation to reward them or treat them with a basic level of respect. These are the people who mostly make CouchSurfing function, and they receive absolutely nothing for their work. Which is fine, it’s kind of what being a volunteer means, but they certainly should not have to put up with being dismissed and disrespected for all the hard work they put in. I have not talked about CouchSurfing’s treatment of volunteers in detail here but a cursory search will reveal many stories of woe which fit a recurring pattern. Another point that is quite interesting is that CouchSurfing was pretending to be a charitable organization, a 501(c)(3) back in 2004. 501(c)(3) status is important for many reasons. It is what all charity organizations should eventually seek and shows that the charity has been vetted by the IRS and has been audited. CouchSurfing has already been rejected in their application for 501(c)(3) status, if and they do not gain this status soon they will be unable to remain as a charity in North Hampshire. This means CouchSurfing will no longer be able to accept donations or sponsor volunteers as they current do. There is a good discussion of CouchSurfing’s 501(c)(3) status on the Brainstorm: Redefined group. CouchSurfing claiming to be a 501(c)(3) was originally pointed out on the OpenCouchSurfing website which linked to archive.org. Now, for some reason, CouchSurfing has denied archive.org to archive the contents of the CouchSurfing website. There is absolutely no sound reason for CouchSurfing to do this, as archive.org is a free service and actually benefits the internet community in many ways. The only reason to do this, is because they do not want people to see what they used to say on their site, before the project was more famous. We can just add this to the pile of actions taken by CouchSurfing showing them to be deceitful and untrustworthy.

CouchSurfing as a charity organization should be working to further its cause, and doing charitable things(of which feeding its employees does not count). As a charity they have certain legal obligations which have apparently thus far not been met and may have been willfully violated. More than this they have a duty to the tens of thousands of people who gave donations and became verified in good faith not to abuse their donations. The organization has a duty to responsibly disclose its financial information and to ensure that its organizational structure including the board of directors meets the legal requirements. This may mean Casey and friends have to sacrifice their lifestyle of no work and travel, but it is the ethical and legal thing to do. I genuinely hope that a lot of the accusations that have been made are wrong and that there are perfectly good explanations for everything. Personally I think this is unlikely, and I hope to see the Organization and Casey be made accountable for their illegal actions and failing the community.


The Verification Scam

The CouchSurfing verification system is a scam and nothing more. It is fraud – plain and simple, and CouchSurfing should be held accountable for this. Both BeWelcome and Hospitality Club provides verification of all user accounts for free, and actually verify that users are real people (although not that they are trustworthy, which is impossible). There have been many untrustworthy people on the site who use the faulty verification system to their advantage to pose as trustworthy individuals. One recent and extreme example of this is the rape incident that occurred via CouchSurfing. Now obviously this is a problem that could affect any of the sites. The difference here though is how the other sites would react to the problem and how CouchSurfing reacted to the problem. It seems that the victim reported the offender to CouchSurfing in March, who chose not to react and left the profile enabled for many months until August. That really is unacceptable, and at the least an investigation should have been conducted. I am aware that the offenders profile was not verified, however if CouchSurfing cannot bother to remove the offenders when people actually report issues then how can they be trusted to vet new members of the community? There is an interesting discussion with more links on the OpenCouchSurfing website.

The verification system is completely useless as all it does is process a credit card payment and send a postcard. There is absolutely nothing stopping me from staying at someone’s house and using a stolen credit card sent to my hosts address. Unless that $25 charge is reported as fraudulent I will have been considered verified. Otherwise I could legally use a prepaid credit card at an address I was staying at and be considered verified? The system verifies nothing and scams users, however since it makes money for CouchSurfing it is treated as a priority. To quote from a volunteer who felt he had to resign because of the dishonesty: “The push to hit up members within their first few hours of joining is an attempt to raise funds, not to make the system safer. Period. It’s for money.” Casey wrote a statement as a follow up to Bryan’s resignation letter, a copy of which and subsequent discussion can be read here. To then quote from the CouchSurfing Terms of Service : “Because user verification on the Internet is difficult, we cannot and do not confirm each user’s purported identity.”. That seems reasonable and may be fine, except for the fact that every new user is pressured after joining and logging in to pay for verification, and informed that “Getting verified means that CouchSurfing has checked your identity and confirmed your location. It allows members of the community to feel more confident hosting you or surfing with you.”. Quite different from the reality and very obviously false and misleading. This is obviously fraud, the only question is whether or not it is intentional.

This is clearly wrong as CouchSurfing is charging for this service they should actually have a responsibility to provide a service. I genuinely hope they get taken to court at some point. Their verification system is nothing more than a way to enforce a mandatory donation veiled hidden under a false sense of security to suck in new users who are excited by the idea of hospitality exchange. People who don’t know any better will assume the CouchSurfing staff have actually done some verification, when all they have done is successfully process a credit card payment. I think the vouching system CouchSurfing has is far superior to their verification system and should be expanded, rather than defrauding naive users out of their money. It costs nothing ans is far more reliable than the verification system they try to push on everyone. Unfortunately at the moment it is very limited given the amount of members CouchSurfing has. It is also interesting to note the the verification fee is charged on a sliding scale. Oddly enough this does seem to have good intentions behind it, with the only problem being it is treated exactly like a donation rather than the safety measure it purports to be. If verification is going to be charged on a sliding scale then it should be based on the incident rate of countries that would affect travelers, not the countries PPP which is meaningless to individuals.

It is also prevalent on CS that some younger people will only host people of the same sex. This can be quite frustrating when someone agrees to host you and then has to rescind that offer because their roommate won’t host people of the opposite gender. There is nothing open minded or inviting about such a backwards attitude and it has no doubt developed because of the people that try to use CouchSurfing just as a dating or sex site. If the verification or reference system were worth anything, this attitude would probably not have developed on CouchSurfing, going by the fact it seems almost non-existent on the other hospitality exchange sites.


Privacy Concerns

One of the most disappointing things about CouchSurfing is their privacy policy. Their terms of service are remarkably abusive, granting CouchSurfing complete control of all of your private messages, photos or any uploaded contents for any use whatsoever, for the rest of everyone’s lives. It is bad enough that CouchSurfing will take control of your data this way, but what’s worse is that there is absolutely no warning or notification at all. If I upload photos to any site, I expect to retain control over them unless that is an unreasonable expectation, depending on the site. For a site like CouchSurfing, it is not at all an unreasonable expectation, yet they have unreasonably defied it.

What is more is that you have no ability to remove content once it is uploaded. There is absolutely no way to permanently delete messages sent on the site. People may have every expectation of privacy, when sending private messages to other members, yet there is no way to delete these messages and ensure that they remain private. It may be acceptable to retain messages for a fixed amount of time for legal reasons, but there is no reason CouchSurfing needs to retain your messages from 5 years ago. I have to wonder with all the financial fraud going on with CouchSurfing, if data is being collected just so it can be sold at a decent price. I am aware of at least one instance where this became a problem. There was a user accused of stealing from a host who may or may not have done so. This user had a great many positive references and just this one negative reference. Despite no police report being filed, this user’s account was deleted. There was no right of appeal; the word of the user who made the claim was accepted regardless of any evidence. Now this user was left with his photo and name appearing in search engines accusing him of a crime, with no recourse to defend themselves. It was only by making legal threats under the DMCA and contacting CouchSurfing’s hosting provider that the damaging material was able to be removed.

If people have a problem with a user breaking the law they should go to the authorities, not sully their reputation with lies on a social networking site. I don’t blame CouchSurfing for the fact that some people will do this, however I do blame them for condoning and allowing this behavior. If CouchSurfing deletes a profile, then they should delete the profile in its entirety. Simply barring access to it and allowing for people to leave whatever references they likes is bad situation which basically amounts to slander. I have heard of many variations of this happening and it needs to stop.

The privacy page has obviously not been updated since it was originally written as it still refers to Netscape Navigator as a primary browser. Is this further evidence of money not being spent properly? Surely with the some $20k that goes toward legal expenses they could make sure to have an updated Privacy Policy? The Privacy policy states that “If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as your zip code), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavor to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us.”. This obviously contradicts the experiences of the people above, and more importantly contradicts the terms of service where information will be retained perpetually. If this a further example of fraud and misleading people, or just incompetence?

When a user on the site who does not know any better uses the site to send or delete a message, or upload a photo, they have a reasonable expectation that their message will be deleted or their photo will not be abused. I’m sure many people would be surprised and rightfully angered if they realized they had no way to delete messages, and that any photo they uploaded could be used any way CouchSurfing desired, against their wishes. At least a warning that you sacrifice all control when uploading a photo would be nice.


References and the lack of a dispute resolution process

Another large problem is the current referencing system. If it were left alone then it would be useful, as people would be able to judge a person based on the references left to them. As it stands however it is all but useless, as the ambassadors and volunteers will remove the negative references that any of their friends ask them to. Likewise if you are a new member with none or very few references and wish to leave a negative reference for an established member, it is almost a certainty that your reference will be removed while their negative reference will be allowed to remain. Despite all the talk of an open community this is the exact type of behavior that keeps it closed and untrustworthy.

There is a quite recent example of the problem I am describing here. In this situation a user with many positive references and an excellent track histories profile was deleted without any chance for appeal, and without bothering to hear both sides of the story. There is one idiot ambassador in New York, Rachel, who tends to delete profiles of anyone her friends ask her to, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she was at fault here as well. There is also a good example here as well as an interesting discussion about account deletions on CS. Basically the policy CS has in place is not to delete an account unless they have some notification from the police. To quote from the FAQ on member disputes: “If we receive a police report about another member, we are obligated to remove them from the community.”. This does not have to be a police report nor does there have to have been an actual investigation – all they require is that the authorities were contacted in some form. This policy shows all signs of being in place to protect CouchSurfing, not the members who invest time and money in the site. With the current policy anyone could go to the authority’s and file a complaint, true or not and this would be sufficient to have their account removed. There are a great many users who have almost all negative references and are a bane on the community, but people with many good refereces can be removed simply because someone made a nonsense complain to a police mediator? This is not acceptable – a community as large and dedicated as CouchSurfing’s deserves a proper dispute resolution process with a right of appeal.

Another good example of this is Thomas the Australian who was based in Edinburgh for a while who I am sure many people are familiar with. Thomas was verified and had many positive references. Thomas would tell anyone and everyone they could stay, because he was hoping to get many good references for an upcoming trip around Europe. When these people turned up and were turned away because he had nowhere for them to stay, or every girl got sick of him trying to have sex with them, they rightfully left a negative reference. However because Thomas was verified, and had positive references he managed to get these negative references removed. Here this faulty cash based verification has replaced the more natural and accurate personal reference validation system. If Thomas’ many, many negative references had rightfully remained then people would have stopped wanting to stay with him and having their trips ruined as a result. The cash verification system would have shown to be as useless as it is. This behavior is just unacceptable. How can anyone trust this site if all it takes is a convincing lie to get someone’s profile removed? How can anyone expect to take the site seriously without any kind of appeals or dispute resolution process? For a site with almost 2 million users that really is unacceptable, especially when many of them have probably paid something towards the site. The most recent example is from the 30th April. A female CouchSurfing member in Iceland had her profile deleted due to a misunderstanding, despite being verified and having a great many positive references and being vouched for. I contacted Sabrina who confirmed that she was not contacted or given any warning, and given no opportunity to give her side of the story and try to resolve any misunderstandings. To be so invested in a community to just be removed at a moments notice without any sort of due cause should not be acceptable. Sabrina’s account has actually been restored a few days later, in large part I believe because of the pressure my article has generated.

I also hate the hypocrisy of the current reference system that exists in part. Such a huge emphasis has been placed on the current reference system that people are encouraged to leave overly positive references for each other, even if they only talk for a few minutes. Collecting positive references has become some sort of obsession for a lot of users on the site. With positive references being handed out freely just for saying hello, and negative references removed as long as you know the right people how is the current system to be trusted at all?

There is no avenue of appeal. It is completely CouchSurfing’s right to run their website and community however they like. However simply kicking people out of the community for no other reason than because a high ranking member dislikes someone is just lame. This has happened in many instances, with accounts being instantly deleted without explanation, without any avenue for people to defend themselves or tell their side of the story. All it takes is one member to be friends with any of the volunteer admins and an account can be removed. Any community as large as CouchSurfing should have some sort of decision checking in place rather than simply allowing people to be kicked out for no reason. If I put time and effort into a community and get attached to some of the members of that community, I would like to think that my position is somewhat safe – which is reasonable.

Much of the community feels the same way and there have been calls for a long time now for a transparent and democratic organization. I don’t think that the organization has to be democratic to work but it certainly should be open and transparent, even more so if it is allegedly operating as a charity. A necessary part of having an open and transparent organization would be a trustworthy dispute resolution process. The current system of one person make an emotional opinion after hearing one side of the story isn’t sufficient, not for an organization approaching two million members. All parties must have the opportunity to present their case and the opportunity for appeal. However, CouchSurfing has consistently ignored the calls for these or similar measures to be implemented, which is another reason the alternative sites are so much more attractive.


Censorship

Recently in December 2009 one of the prominent CouchSurfing ambassadors decided to resign, citing many of the problems and dishonesty of the organization as reasons he felt he could not continue. In his original post he outlines many of the problems with the volunteer system, the abuse of funds, the useless verification system and the reference bias that exists.

This post above was basically deleted, with people being told it was moved to the Ambassadors Private section of the site while Ambassadors were unable to access the message. Only due to people’s outcry and the damage already done was the message restored. It is however a fantastic example of the organizations behavior. A great many more messages and people are removed if the organization does not like what they have to say, and all too often they get away with it." (http://allthatiswrong.wordpress.com/2010/01/24/a-criticism-of-couchsurfing-and-review-of-alternatives/)


The decline of the community due to for-profit pressures

Excerpted from Nithin Coca:

“, I no longer feel I can recommend a traveler to use Couchsurfing, and no longer plan to use it much myself. Here is why.


  • More Members, Less Community

The first meetup I organized was in back in April of 2008, a few months after moving to San Francisco, was a potluck at a park, open to anyone.

Nearly 50 people came, from all around the bay area, experienced surfers, newbies, recent high school grads and retired professors. Locals and travelers from all around the world intermixed, and there were even children, playing on the rare, beautiful San Francisco spring day. It was what I always imagined – an open community of all ages. We’d done a potluck to make it as open to as many people as possible, shared rides so that more people could come. Everyone brought what they could, and there was more than enough food to go around.

I still remember how amazing it felt, that day, to be around other like-minded, Couchsurfers, people mixing freely, nearly everyone having come on their own. Several of the people I met that day remain my friends, and two ended up getting married. We truly felt we were part of something.

Today, and I’ve tried, but events like those potlucks and meetups of 2008 and 2009 in San Francisco seem like the fading glory of the past.

There are still good people on Couchsurfing. Just as there are good people anywhere. But the sad part is, the community that was once so powerful, I believe has lost its focus. My new home, San Diego, tells that story as well as anyplace else.

Four years ago, there was a vibrant community, active, friendly, and with an incredible array of events taking place. Art gatherings, bonfires, a twice-weekly meetup at a bar, cafe gatherings, potlucks, mimicking and exceeding that of San Francisco.

Now, San Diego is quiet, a bi-weekly bar meetup the only regular activity, the message board sparse, my attempts to organize events getting little response. Any men who post on the boards get no responses, while any girl, not surprisingly, get plenty. In San Francisco, the weekly meetup I started has disappeared, the potlucks, which went on for nearly three years unabated, long forgotten. Despite millions more members, the community seems to have disappeared.


  • Gender and Couchsurfing

Since its early days, Couchsurfing has had a gender imbalance, with more male members then females one. But it was not really an issue then, and more a reflection on the fact that men, unfortunately, have more freedom to travel then women.

Despite that, my first host, back in 2006, when I was living with two other men in Granada, Spain, was a solo traveling female from Australia. Initially, I was shocked, why would a girl want to stay with three single men, with a brand new profile, and no references? So I asked her.

“Couchsurfing, to me, is safer than hostels. Even if you have no references, at least I know who you are through your profile, versus in a hostel, I could be sharing a room with mentally-insane strangers.”

It made perfect sense. The thought of taking advantage of a guest, male or female, was unthinkable. Just as I knew a guest would never take advantage of our trust and steal anything – which, to this day, has never happened. It is that trust that Couchsurfing is based on, and it was enlightening. The potential of humanity to share and grow. It fulfilled a need within me, to connect with people and share.

That was the point of travel.

Today, would anyone stay with three men who had an empty profile? The sad truth is, I would tell a girl never to do that, because it would be too risky.

Those first three years, I never heard of a single bad experience – everything was positive, evidence of humanity’s good. Then, it began to change. Slowly, more negative stories began to pop up – aggressive hosts, dirty places, uncomfortable situations. Now, its a 360 degree shift. Girls tell me about how when they arrive in a city, they often get random messages from local males, often with suggestive, flirty content. It is not uncommon to see hosts in major cities whose entire wall of references is only girls. According to an ambassador in New York City, girls posting on the message board in that city can get 50 message from males, most of whom have empty or near empty profiles.

It was those people I saw the so-called Couchsurfing meetup in New York. The girls they’d sent those messages too probably had been too scared to come.

The new open couch request feature demonstrates the problem clearly. It is a place where references matter little. I’ve been shocked to see men with 40+ references still seeking a host, while girls with no friends, no references, and bare-bones profiles getting 3+ invites.

Is that the Couchsurfing spirit?


  • For Profit Couchsurfing

Why has Couchsurfing become so gendered? Why is the community weak? I think the blame lies in an organization that has decided to focus on growth over building a community.

The site went for-profit last year, and now, following time-honored corporate practices, is focused solely on growth. Membership growth. Quantity over quality. The more members they have, the more valuable the site becomes to potential advertisers, or, as some rumors have it, to potential buyers.

Lost beneath this frenzy of numbers are the disappearing quality interactions, those which can’t be quantified. In my first four years of hosting surfers, I only once had a surfer flake on me. In the past two years, its happened several times. Just a few weeks ago, in Singapore, I had a host flake on me for the first time, the day I arrived, forcing me to stay in a hostel. Years ago, this would have shocked me. But now, it was almost expected. The trust on the site has diminished. A contradiction, more members, less community, less positive experiences.

I used to say that Couchsurfing was Globalization done right, where ideas and exchange mattered more than money or status. When you met someone who said they were a Couchsurfer, that it meant they had a different viewpoint on life, that they knew how to share, and were culturally open minded.

Among us back in the day, we used to test potential travelers to see if they were worthy of Couchsurfing, if they had the values or mindset to join. I remember meeting a friendly Malaysian in Bulgaria, and sharing a train ride with him. Couchsurfing was so new back then, that there were actually only a handful of hosts in Bulgaria, so Noel had never heard of it. But I felt an innate openness, and warmth, within him, so I told him about Couchsurfing. He joined, and quickly became an active user, and later, an Ambassador, in the site’s true early spirit. That seemed like natural, organic growth, spread through word of mouth, introduced by people who shared the same ideals. If you were meant to be a Couchsurfer, you would find it. If not, it would remain apart, a subculture in a world of diversity. With time, society would be ready.

Unfortunately, we live in a society obsessed with growth, and the Couchsurfing management team fell into the same trap. The millionth member joined in 2009. Now, there are five million users, mass media coverage, and even mentions in Lonely Planet. Was it inevitable? Probably. Could it have been done in a way that respected the values that spurred Couchsurfing’s initial organic growth. Definitely.

Several of the members I met four, five, or six years ago, as a surfer in Europe, or at my potlucks, barely use the site anymore. Some have stopped hosting due to bad experiences, others find the site no longer fits the values its once did. It strikes me as incredibly sad. Couchsurfing has lost its base, and is now dependent on only one thing, growth, new membership, at any cost.

There is no turning back once you make a deal with the financial devil.

I loved Couchsurfing because I felt it was a true social network that created positive interactions and make the world a better place. I still believe in that dream, that we can turn the internet into the amazing, transnational, cultural tool for social change. Unfortunately, Couchsurfing is no longer that platform, and may no longer even a good site for travelers anymore, especially women. Will another site, such as the open-source, community run BeWelcome? I hope so. The people who made Couchsurfing great are still there, waiting for the opportunity to transform travel and the world once again.” (http://nithincoca.com/2013/03/27/the-rise-and-fall-of-couchsurfing/)


The Failure of For-Profit Couchsurfing

By Nithin Coca:

"As a long-time Couchsurfer, I felt that once management put the values of venture capital funders over the organic, self-organized traveler base, and reorganized with a top-down, “start-up” mentality, the fall was inevitable.

When I logged onto Couchsurfing a few months ago in San Francisco, California, and put my hosting status as “available,” I expected, within days, to be bombarded. After all, that was how it was four years ago, when there were only a fraction of the members on the site as today. 7 million members, and, me, hosting in one of the most popular travel destinations in the world? I braced myself.

What happened shocked me. Days passed. Then a week. Not a single request, Despite 179 positive references and 42 vouches, no one wanted to stay with me. I asked my long-time Couchsurfing friends in the city and found it was the same for them. Sparse requests, and those that came, poorly-written, often from empty profiles. For others, guests who never showed up, messages that were never responded to. The site had changed. People were still attending meetups, but focused more on partying than sharing culture. The San Francisco group page was filled with travelers posting their plans, meeting to go sightseeing, but unlike before, nearly no locals.

I knew the situation was bad, but this was unexpected. The heart of Couchsurfing – hosting and surfing – was disappearing, and in the very same city where the site has its headquarters.


...


I was working for a non-profit in San Francisco, and, soon thereafter, Couchsurfing announced that it was opening a “basecamp” in the Bay Area, a place for volunteers to gather to help develop the site. The local community buzzed – this was a city had some of the brightest people in both technology and non-profit management. There was so much potential to work and build a stronger, better Couchsurfing that could, finally, meet its true potential.

That hope quickly faded, as basecamp became a metaphor for the disconnect between management and members. Tucked away in a house in posh Berkeley, basecamp showed little interest in either the local community, or San Francisco’s vast knowledge network. Techie friends of mine tried to contact basecamp, eager to help fix some glaring holes in code or database structure, but were rebuffed. Basecamp members turned out to be Casey Fenton’s (Couchsurfing founder) inner clique, and they were unaccountable, and often invisible. They almost never came to San Francisco events, rarely had the community over, and gave little inkling of what was happening inside. Even more shocking – they were getting free rent, a generous per-diem, and even had an in-house chef with a generous budget. My donation was going to fund their vacations in comfortable California digs.

This lack of transparency, sadly, continues to this day. I never donated to Couchsurfing again, and I know few others who did.

Despite the limited improvements to the site, members around the world kept organizing events, hosting surfers, and building the community. Then, out of nowhere, everything changed.

Couchsurfing announced they had failed to receive non-profit charity status and were going to reorganize as a B Corporation. In fact, they already had $7.6 million in funding from venture capitalists, and without any consultation with members, a new CEO, Tony Espinoza, had been hired.

It was a coup. The site we as members had built, the network we had organized, was suddenly under the control of a CEO who had never before used Couchsurfing, and investors who were interested more in the site’s monetary potential than its power to open minds and break barriers between cultures.

Immediately, with money flowing in, member input became irrelevant. The wiki was removed, group pages were transformed, statistics about the site became “private information,” and the Ambassador program was revamped. The site transformed from a network of like-minded travelers to a start-up focused solely on growth. Millions of new members created empty profiles, while thousands of older ones stopped logging in at all. The site no longer represented what it once did.

Couchsurfing was now a “service” and experimented 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. In 1 ½ years, Couchsurfing failed to monetize the site, leading to Espinoza’s resignation and the uncertainty the site finds itself in today.

That Couchsurfing was having problems was no secret. My article on Couchsurfing’s downfall last May struck a cord – getting nearly 7,000 Facebook likes and hundreds of comments. Couchsurfing responded as a corporation would – with boilerplate PR talking points, copied and pasted to forums all around the web. One staffer, however, sent me a personal message, expressing surprise at my opinions and wondering if we would talk more about my concerns. Was this Couchsurfing finally listening? Was there hope?

It was, like basecamp four years ago, a facade. We met at a cafe, and for nearly 45 minutes, I was subject to being talked at about all the great things going on at CSHQ, why my article was wrong, and how all the Couchsurfers she knew (later I saw her profile only had 14 references, almost all from fellow staffers) were happy about the changes. It wasn’t a meeting to understand the frustrations and anger of members, but to convince me that HQ was right, and that we should trust in their opaque vision.

I knew that anything I said wouldn’t be taken seriously. Couchsurfing didn’t have to go private. Members, like me, would have been willing to donate to the site if they could show, with full transparency, how money was being spent, and allow for greater participation in development. Instead, they rebuffed our attempts to help, ignored our concerns, and kept spending money in secret. So we never donated, and Couchsurfing was forced to seek unrestricted growth, and, eventually, private money.

Couchsurfing made a deal with the devil – venture capital money – and lost its base. It’s a lesson to any social network that aims to connect people in meaningful ways.

Empower your members, don’t disparage them. Be transparent and collaborative. As my experience in non-profit social activism has shown me, people want to be part of something big, to have ownership. Couchsurfing was built on that collaboration, and once that was taken away, everything we had built came crumbling down.

As any civil engineer knows, a building needs its foundation to stand strong. Likewise Couchsurfing needed its foundation – members – to survive. Let this be a lesson to all social networks built on trust and compassion." (http://www.bootsnall.com/articles/13-11/why-couchsurfing-is-failing.html)

More Information

Fruit-tree-bg.jpg

Read their about/faq pages for detailed info on how it works, at http://www.couchsurfing.com/help.html

Part of the Hospitality Exchange Networks and a P2P Exchange Infrastructure Projects

See also their Center of Adventure Economics

Crash At Mine has been set up as an open source alternative.

Another good alternative is BeWelcome, founded by former Hospitality Club volunteers.