Couchsurfing: The Meltdown Continues

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This is my third post about problems at Couchsurfing, a site where I’m not even an especially active member. Why do I find this story interesting? And why should you?

First, because the way this tiny social network is breaking down may hint at problems for larger social sites in the future. And second, because it’s a case study in terrible public relations that offers useful lessons for all consumer-facing startups.

In this post I’ll focus on the second reason, because it’s more entertaining. Our story so far: CS is a social network for travellers with about five million members. For the last two years, they’ve been in a bizarre and escalating conflict with their own core user base. (More details in my last two posts.) This conflict exploded onto the rest of the internet earlier this month after the company unexpectedly deleted the accounts of several dissenting members. I didn’t know the full extent of it when I wrote my last post, but it was part of a huge and continuing wave of criticism on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, travel blogs, and even Youtube.

How did it start? Well, the company had a support forum (run by Zendesk) where it encouraged users to post their feedback on site features and policies. The level of anger and negative comments on this forum was becoming embarrassing, and they decided to simply delete the whole thing at the end of February, with very little notice or explanation. Instead, they asked that members email them feedback directly, participate in a private “Beta group,” or use other channels that would be out of the public eye.

In this announcement (and I’ve also taken a screenshot for you, because embarrassing material on the CS site has a way of disappearing), the company said “If you do not wish to lose this content, please screenshot or backup the content that you wish to save.” Don Shine, one of the volunteer moderators here in Berlin, took this advice to heart and backed up the entire forum, reposting it elsewhere so it would still be available to members.

In reaction, the company not only deleted his profile and banned him from the site — along with several other moderators who had been loudly critical of the management — they sent his web host a DMCA takedown notice (!) claiming ownership of all the content in the forums and demanding its removal.

Now, Don was obviously being deliberately provocative, but the fact that the company took the bait is astonishing. I’m no expert, but I feel confident in giving you my First Law of PR: If you find yourself sending out a DMCA takedown notice on your own customer support forums, you’ve probably made a wrong turn somewhere.

And the only thing dumber than the decision to effectively publicize their action by attacking Don was the decision to take down the forums in the first place. Half the point of a ZenDesk-type forum is to corral angry users so they won’t complain about your site all over the rest of the internet. What on Earth did they expect to happen when they took it down?

Another basic principle of delivering bad news is to get it all over with quickly and try to put it behind you. But CS has dribbled this news out bit by bit, in a way that seems designed to maximize its impact. First, they wouldn’t comment on the member removals at all. Then, as the blowback grew, they posted a comically vague notice (screenshot) discussing all the reasons they might delete a profile, without even acknowledging the particular deletions that people were upset about. But they denied that they would remove a user just for criticizing the company — “that would be silly” (no, really) — and added helpfully “It’s important to remember that members sometimes remove their own profiles.”

This patronizing pat on the head only made people angrier, of course, so it was soon followed by a slightly stronger denial from the CEO (screenshot), referencing a “rumor” about member deletions and hinting even more strongly that it may have been about “safety” or “member privacy,” while still refusing to comment on any specifics.

Like most CS members in Berlin I’ve met Don multiple times, and he’s the last person you could imagine as a risk to member safety, so that post wasn’t very convincing either. But apparently there’s no real principle behind this “no comment” policy, because just a few days later they were willing to address Don’s case more directly for this travel writer:

Shine reposted pages from the CS support forum elsewhere online when CS staff shut down the forum. Couchsurfing management hints that was grounds for his removal…

How delightfully coy! The “hinting” gets stronger on this thread that the CEO has opened up with moderators:

We’ve had very few cases of Privacy violations (e.g., scraping our site and posting elsewhere on the Internet) and in those cases we will continue to remove members without appeal. I’ve emailed Don and he has not replied. I will now consider the case closed.

Gosh, what kind of content was being “scraped” exactly, and why? Imagine if the company’s first post had just said “We took down the forums because they were getting too negative and it didn’t seem like a constructive tool anymore. We removed Don for reposting them. We know a lot of members won’t like these decisions, but we stand by them.”

That would have generated some anger, but it would have blown over. As it is, they seem determined not to make a clear statement like that until the whole thing’s on the front page of the New York Times.

Don and others have continued to raise troubling concerns about real risks to member privacy and safety, but last I checked on that single open feedback thread, the CEO was busy “hinting” at another policy of deleting references to BeWelcome, an even tinier competing travel network, which is a bit like Facebook deleting references to Twitter in your status updates — or actually, given the relative size of the two networks, more like Facebook deleting references to Diaspora. Clearly they’re focused on the big issues.

In my last post I compared this company to a bumbling cartoon villain. In the first draft it was the Washington Generals, the exhibition basketball team with a 40-year losing streak against the Harlem Globetrotters.

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I decided that was too US-centric, but the point of both examples is that they’re not just screwing up, they’re doing so in a way that seems calculated to make their opponents look good. Their emerging defense against Don — “we didn’t ban him for dissent, we banned him because he kept us from censoring your dissent!” — also reminds me of this skit about the song I Shot the Sheriff: “I’m not sure why he’s defending himself on murder by confessing to a completely different murder.”

But I think the broader lesson here for other web companies is not to try to cover up negative user feedback in the first place — or that if you do try, you’d better be damn good at it. The internet at large is so hostile to any kind of censorship that you could easily wind up making it much worse.

[UPDATE: Thanks to TechCrunch for the link, see here for some thoughts on the latest announcement.]

14 thoughts on “Couchsurfing: The Meltdown Continues”

  1. Peter, thank you for the excellent post and for including screenshots. You are absolutely correct when you say “… I’ve also taken a screenshot for you, because embarrassing material on the CS site has a way of disappearing…”. I definitely agree that CS is terrible at public relations and has done a horrible job of trying to contain negative feedback to just the CS website. Without the deletions, I doubt people would’ve turned to posting about CS on Facebook, Reddit, and creating their own blog posts. While the website changes and the institution of the Place Pages were extremely unpopular and CS was deemed as not responding adequately to the numerous problems, it was the deletions and perception of censorship that caused people to be especially outraged. It’s never a good idea to tell someone on the Internet to “shut up” and to try to censor them, especially if they’re web savvy. ;-)

  2. “the point of both examples is that they’re not just screwing up, they’re doing so in a way that seems calculated to make their opponents look good.”

    What appears to be buffoonery may actually be a very cleverly disguised systematic destruction of the community. More than profit seekers not understanding their user-base or corporate actions to benefit a competing business (AirBnB, Hostels, or hospitality industry), but the intentional dismantling of a cultural movement.

    After all, America is extremely skilled in neutralizing threats before they become ‘noticeable’ to the public.

  3. “After all, America is extremely skilled in neutralizing threats before they become ‘noticeable’ to the public” – in common cases yes. but in the hospex-world people meet each other in real life. and that means – if you screw the important 5% (ultra-active travellers, volunteers, party/camp-organizers, etc. – the multiplier-people who care in some way) sooner or later there will be an immense impact. so simple…

    hc went down that way and cs will follow (sure slowlier).
    [Last sentence redacted. Please keep it civil. –peter]

  4. dear peter, you are right about keeping it civil. but compared to the money/time/spirit i put in one community and the results i think i expressed myselfe quite gentle. plus – i still have got my profile.
    anyway – looking forward to you next postings about that topic…

  5. Good post. I’m truly surprised at the amateur approach to member management. So much for bringing in the experts…

    I have to hand it to the previous CS Management, they were much better at “not feeding the trolls”, at least in comparison. History is just repeating itself. Hospitality Club alienated it own member base only a few years ago.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if my CS profile was one day vindictively deleted too by the Thought Police. Good thing I alone control the content on my blog.

    Clearly, management doesn’t realize that Couchsurfing is almost like a religion for some members. Deleting their profiles won’t make them go away. It will turn them into martyrs.

  6. this is a story of a friend of mine. i wanted his voice to be heard since CS tries to make him not exist by deleting not only his profile, but also later censoring his complaints) so, yes! and now that we realize how fascistic this organization is, what can we do about it?! i just make it a personal mission to post on Every forum stating injustices against the org. it makes me SICK, especially as a woman, to feel like the only reason i am being hosted is to be a potential f@$k buddy…OR to be censored about my opinions on MY page! or whatever the case may be! the fact that there is no investigation into what happened, no questions, just a pulled plug! i am OUTRAGED! it’s disgusting and i will NOT stand for it! and i encourage ANYBODY with similar experiences to speak up, and let our voices be heard!

    “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.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch? v=sMVdEGI8MMg

    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.”

  7. Sue those incompetent morons at CS and the so-called Safety Team! Sue them at the federal level and report them to the ACLU!!! Can’t believe no one’s done this yet. Deleted members need to teach these idiots a lesson they’ll NEVER forget: don’t mess with John Doe.

  8. They do not respect privacy! The CS representative Florian told me that he’d been reading my private messages in their system.

    Then he ordered me to remove a link from my profile, or my profile would be disabled. I made this video (below) about it, and then I removed the link. Two days later my account was disabled. That’s what happens when you speak out about Couchsurfing’s censorship, spying, and cyberbullying.

    Couchsurfing cyberbullies:

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