Couchsurfing (CS) is a global network of people who host each other when travelling and organize various social events. Founded in 2003, it’s not the first or only such “reciprocal hosting” network, but it was the first one to tap into the younger backpacker demographic and reach a significant scale, with over 5 million current members.
That’s the beginning of a long post I wrote last year. Here’s the short version: in 2011, CS converted from a non-profit organization to a venture capital-backed startup company. Many members were worried that they would sell our personal data or otherwise exploit the current member base for profit. I focused on a different angle:
In other words, I thought they were trying to create a “Facebook for travellers,” minimizing the hosting elements and emphasizing the other social features so as to reach the widest possible member base. But they seemed to be having trouble executing:
The one way in which CS seems unable to copy other social networks is to make a functional website. They’re obviously aware of this problem, but progress has been way too slow. It’s been a year now since they started taking VC money and that’s plenty of time to have gotten it right. But instead they’ve been fooling around with the design and brainstorming endless new features, when the existing features don’t even work half the time…
Anything that made it easier or more attractive for new members to sign up — Facebook logins, splash page, marketing videos — was dealt with right away. But features that make it easier to actually do anything once you’re signed up are clearly a much lower priority. And things like group organizer tools that are used by the most experienced and dedicated members — well, those are the lowest priority of all.
Since then it’s only gotten worse, generating more and more backlash from long-term members. I barely visit the site anymore — not out of protest, just because it’s impossible to use. Some of the largest city groups are already re-forming on Facebook or elsewhere. And just recently, the company has begun to simply delete the accounts of the loudest dissenters, refusing to give any explanation.
I’m not one of the loudest dissenters, nor am I one of the oldest members. A lot of those people are angry, and many have a right to be angry. For me, the whole story is just sad. Because a great organization has gone into an ugly downward spiral, and it will be a while before there’s anything else that can fully replace it.
But if it wasn’t so sad, it would be hilarious. Because this company is like the villain in a slapstick cartoon, threatening the hero while holding the gun backwards: they’re trying to be evil, but they’re just not up to the task.
Think about how Facebook operates: they introduce some creepy new feature, wait out the backlash, and then most people wind up using it anyway, because they’ve made it so simple to use and so complex to avoid. But with CS, every change to the website generates a huge backlash, and then it’s so confusing and poorly designed that it barely works anyway. Instead of alienating a bunch of users and then winning most of them back, they’re alienating a bunch of users and then alienating even more users who just can’t figure the damn site out anymore.
To those existing members who believe there’s something at CS to salvage, and it’s still worthwhile trying to engage with them: I hope you’re right, but I disagree. After nearly two years of constant employee turnover, technical incompetence, and sleazy, misleading public statements, this business of deleting accounts and burying negative user reactions should be the last straw. And not because it’s the act of cruel corporate fascists who want to crush dissent, but rather because it’s one more panicky fumble by decent people who are simply in over their heads. You don’t have to demonize the company to decide that it’s just not worth any more of your time or attention.
I’m not saying you should quit CS if you’re still getting any use out of it (I’m not quitting, although we’ll see if they delete my account after this post), but there’s no reason to put any more time or energy into “feedback” or “dialogue.” The ball’s in their court. The most constructive thing we can do is start thinking about other options.
It’s hard to replace a site like this, where the large user base and history of member-to-member references create a massive network effect. But it’s not impossible, and there are already a lot of smart people trying to do it. (One example is BeWelcome, where many of us have already set up a secondary profile.) In my next post on this subject, I’ll stop complaining and try to make some constructive suggestions for how to speed up the growth of a new and usable CS alternative, whatever it turns out to be.