Couchsurfing: A Sad End to a Great Idea

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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:

It quickly became obvious that the short-term goal of the new management was not finding a way to make money — which after all is the last thing you need to worry about in a tech bubble — but growing the user base at all costs. This started with a plan to make years of old discussion board posts accessible to search engines (which created such an outcry that they had to quickly reverse themselves) and has continued with “updates” to the privacy policy and terms of use, a muddled redesign of the website, and a massive spike in people signing up with no idea of what the organization is about.

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.

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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.

31 thoughts on “Couchsurfing: A Sad End to a Great Idea”

  1. If the goal of CSHQ is to decrease the value of the site so that its assets can be cheaply acquired by AirBnB (notice how the investors who took up CS have also invested in AirBnB, and the latter site is already making money for them), then their present course isn’t a sign of incompetence at all.

  2. I think so too – the constant employee turnover and the lack of people with any historical or practical knowledge of the CS system says to me, that they are trying to subtly drive the value of CS down so it can be cheaply acquired by AirBnB, the investors can take a write-off, and some nice golden parachutes and stock options will be issued.

    Let’s FINALLY assume they are as devious as their actions, not as calm as their words.

  3. It makes me sad to see CS end up this way. I unofficially quit CS a few years back due to personal reasons but it seems I was right on time. At least the irritations and frustrations, I read about from others, are something I don’t recognize because I have been out for too long. And it is not spoiling my fine memories of all the good times I had with hosting and surfing.

  4. wow – follow the money – a deliberate plan to drive down the market value so they can acquire it at a cheaper price ? I’ll be interested to see how this pans out.

  5. I find it funny they are repeating the same process that lead hospitality club (HC) to its own lost by 2006-07. When questions being asked from the community brought the most dissenting profiles to be deleted and many others severely restricted through close-up monitoring. Eventually the ‘war on hospex’ community website was temporarily won by CS.

  6. As someone who joined up just before the site redesign, I’m also dismayed at the general lack of comprehension for the site. I’m not an idiot: I’ve been involved and technology for a long time. But I can’t ever seem to find anything, can’t seem to get groups and other things working right and I can’t even change my home page from a place I no longer live. Add to this their lackadaisical attitude towards safety and security, and a general abandoning the original ethos of the site, and I’m afraid I can’t recommend it as an option for younger, less experienced travelers.

  7. Good post. Thanks! Just wanted to know a little more what the fuzz was all about. I can second a lot of that even if I’m just a casual surfer.

  8. Yeah it really sucks. CS is ruined. It’s laughable the requests I get now, people with no references from like Modesto California looking for a place to “crash”, not why I signed up. But I’m hoping this may just be what it’s like in the states, I think in other places like Argentina for example it still maintains that original couchsurfing spirit. I did open a bewelcome account but haven’t really used it yet.

  9. I find it quite pathetic to see this ‘happy CS’ group where everything is depicted as picture perfect while members who built this community see their profiles deleted for nothing more that voicing their concerns about the negative changes brought by the new management. It is obvious that the main objective of the management is to increase the number of members to be able to either sell advertising or to resell the website to make profit. The rise of new, poorly filled profiles has been exponential since the transition and the number of harassing messages coming into our inboxes every day is simply ridiculous. CS is being promoted as a community of freeloaders desperately looking for dates and this kind of promotion encourages the wrong people to join the website. However, all these points may be a point of discussion, but it seems like there is no room for discussion anymore. I can only wait to see how long it will take before my profile is deleted ‘for security reasons’. I am really sad that this is happening, I love CS, it has been part of my life for such a long time now and it breaks my heart to see it fall apart for greediness.

  10. Wow…I’ve heard rumblings and knew it would be a struggle for them to switch from non profit to for profit — but had no idea it was this bad. I’ve used the site in a few cities around the globe for the meetups, and it was always notoriously hard to use; guess not much has changed on that front.

  11. I feel like I joined Couchsurfing at exactly the wrong time. It was September 2012 when I furnished my guest bedroom and prepared to host. For about two months the site worked well and I was excited to host- and I had one great surfer- but over the last four or five months it’s been an absolute mess. A lot of the guys who send me couch requests today also end up sending me messages on a different online dating site- I use different photos over there so they don’t seem to realize it’s the same person. Once you start realizing how many new members are just trolling for females it becomes pretty gross, and it’s majorly compounded by how poorly the site works (for example, if I hit “Find a Surfer” to look for a non-pervy surfer, half of the time I get zero results despite there being 15+ people actually looking for a couch!).

  12. Hey anyone knows the est turnover of couchsurfing within the last years? I am about to make an presentation for my professor about international startups and their attempts to earn money. Any sourced or even unsourced number could help me.

    1. Christian, as a “startup” for the last two years I believe their turnover has been zero, since they aren’t doing the verification thing anymore.

      As a non-profit, they were required to publicly file their financials but I think they were often a year behind. I believe the numbers were something like $800k in 2008 and significantly higher in 2009 and 2010, maybe $2-3 million? I’m not sure though. I would contact the company and ask, it seems like a harmless enough request for data that’s already public.

  13. Hello everybody!!!!

    Here you will find the truth about Couch Surfing and their disgusting behaviour with blind people.
    Below you’ll find an article of my blind friend who had a lot of troubles with Couch Surfing and finally his profile was deleted by Couch Surfing.

    Hello,

    My name is Idji and I am blind. I am half French, half English in my education but I have a French passport.

    I am so sorry to be blind. On Couchsurfing it is even dirty and forbidden! Yes, I tried to open a profile on Couchsurfing and I have been deleted two times because I AM BLIND.

    The first time I have been deleted because I was asking my friend to write for me. I was dictating my text but she was writing and I specified in my profile that I was doing so. Then Couchsurfing deleted my profile, explaining that my girlfriend having already a profile it was a fake profile from my girlfriend because one is not allowed to write for somebody else!

    So the armless people, paralysed people, blind people you can forget Couchsurfing. Like in Germany in the past, the handicapped people are not welcome.

    As I don’t give up quickly I wrote a second profile… well… more exactly the same one, where I was specifying that I used “Jaws”, a system that allows blind people to write on the internet. This time I wasn’t going through somebody else to write my profile but as unfortunately I’m still blind it stayed dirty and I was deleted again so that Couchsurfing stays clean of handicapped people.

    And that is not all. There is a guy called Sam from Rome who behaved in an obsessed way with my girlfriend because he wants only sex . He went with my girlfriend on bike to visit Rome. They were supposed to go away for two hours. Of course I stayed in the house. How could I join? And it makes me happy to leave my friend visiting Rome in a different way. After two hours I started to worry and my friend was asking to go home to respect the time of two hours.

    And Sam said, yes, yes, we are on our way. But my friend was lost in the middle of Rome and Sam went on lying to my friend, wasting time. Finally after a lot of arguments, my friend came back to the house more than five hours later.

    During this time, of course, I worried more and more. In the house where I was, i.e. in the house of Sam, leave also two old women (his aunt and grandma, I think). As Sam has a mobile I said “Could you call your grandson to know if everything is fine?” and she answered “I call no one, you go back to your room and you say without moving”.

    As a blind person I was absolutely kidnapped. After more than four hours I could find the door out, which is not easy for a blind person, and I could escape the house. I was in the corridor, knocking on every door and asking to call the police. Some neighbours tried but it was always engaged. You know, that is Rome. After a long time in the corridor my friend arrived from her five hour tour and guided me back to Sam’s house.

    There my girlfriend and I we had a big argument against Sam to whom we said “Ok, we call the police”. He was there, afraid and very apologetic, and he said “Please stay home, I’m so sorry. I will do everything to be apologetic”. The next morning ,very early, we left.

    And when we try to leave a bad reference to Sam, each time I am deleted because in spite of the darkness of this man, I have something even more disgusting; I am blind!

    This Sam is on the two websites: Couchsurfing and BeWelcome. On BeWelcome we left a clear negative reference and everybody can know who this man is. But on Couchsurfing this man is highly protected.

    In spite of his protection he has quite a lot of bad references where a lot of girls are specifying that this man is obsessed about sex. So the girls can stay, but me as a blind person, despite this horrible story I am not allowed to write anything because I am worse than Sam, I AM BLIND!

    Here is what the leaders of Couchsurfing wrote to me:

    “ Idji’s profile was deleted because it directly breached our Terms of Use. Let me explain this in greater detail. Profiles in our system can only be created and used by the person they represent (in this case that would have to be Idji). I don’t say that Idji is not a real person, on the contrary! But members are not allowed to create or use a profile on behalf of somebody else. Since you were the one who created that profile for Idji, our Terms of Use were directly broken (even if you didn’t mean to)”

    Isn’t it disgusting? It reminds me the SS during the war.

    In France, which is a democratical country, the blind people are respected. There is a national association for the protection of blind people and when I am going to be in France I will go to this association to sue Couchsurfing for discrimination against handicapped people.

    On Couchsurfing and BeWelcome, when I travel I always try to be friend, but even more to help a lot. In Romania there is a guy, Costel, that I helped quite a lot and he did a film about me, spontaneously. I leave here the reference of this film on YouTube so that everybody can see how I behave when I travel on Couchsurfing or BeWelcome.

    Well… today it will be only BeWelcome. So that you can see through this little film that in spite of being blind I am not a stinking piece of shit that deserves only a couch in a concentration camp. I think that this story is absolutely incredible in darkness but it is really the truth.

    About Sam and my blindness we kept every dialogue we had with Couchsurfing that will be of course part of the file to sue them. I am ready to send it to anyone who wants the file that we have about this story.

    I am happy today to be on BeWelcome where it seems that the handicapped are welcome. Thank you to BeWelcome to exist because in spite of being blind I feel like going on to exist, to have friends, and to help other people.

    Thank you for your reading.

    Here is the link to my profile:

    http://www.bewelcome.org/members/IdjiUsmu

    Here are the links to Sems profiles on couchsurfing and on bewelcome:

    http://www.couchsurfing.org/people/s5m/ (in the meanwhile his profile is as well deleted)

    http://www.bewelcome.org/members/S5MROMA

  14. Since november 2007 I hosted more than 1.000 nights only to find out that as a mid age male I have no chance to get hosted.

    When traveling and posting in groups no or little response but the females traveling with me would get tons of response and offers also including sex.

    So genderism does exist.

    When asking my surfers to save water, close the window if the heating was on or similar they would simply put on an atitude towards me like : “Hej CS is free I do what I want when I want”

    _____

    I can’t stop laughing when ppl who post in the last minute whatevercity the word “In need” is stressed out.

    CS is a priviledge not a right.

  15. You’ve nailed it just about spot on. When I joined 8 years ago, it came across as more genuine. Not that the people in the community are not genuine because many of them still are, but you find more and more people with zero references and profiles suggesting douchebagery and not a desire to meet locals while travelling. You’ve got to be more choosy now, unfortunately. I liked the idea of being able to accept everyone before. I would blame this on the things you have mentioned above, as a direct result of the new management and “leadership.” (ha)

    I might have to start relying on people I meet the old-fashioned way when I travel now more often instead of using the internet. I’ve met some incredible people on Couchsurfing, both hosting and being hosted, but now it seems that there are more people using it as a hotel. It is annoying.

    There is going to have to be a site that replaces Couchsurfing now, so it has its’ original form. I guess the question that arises is is this the destiny of all ideas? Does everything sell out or make way for the masses in the end? Is that the way it ultimately has to go?

  16. Great post! I have seen the growth and eventual lack of direction of the CS website. I have seen numerous profiles of travel agents, hotels, guides, offering their services on the website. I do not know if they started deleting negative reviews, but well.. they might. But it is true that it has become a mess with most people not knowing the true purpose of the website. Some of my CS friends have shared their experiences of profiles that only hosts “hot girls” (not sure if it is true) with clear exchange of benefits stated. I hate to see that it has come to this level. Sometimes, I just want to change to a smaller community but there is no good alternative. So I just use caution. Usually, I do not accept couch requests if there is no a single review on the profile. I have taken a few risks in meeting people when they say they have recently joined and I can verify that. I ask for connecting on facebook so that I can have some idea about the person. But gone are the old days, when I would not make such kind of an effort.

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