Hospitality Networks:
The Couchsurfing Concept

logo2 (CS) is a social network whose members host each other when travelling, show their visitors around, and organize various meetups and social events. One way to describe it is a free, community-oriented version of AirBnB, though CS came first.

Several years ago, the site went through a somewhat dodgy conversion from volunteer-built non-profit to for-profit startup, taking in $22 million in venture capital funding. It’s been a rocky road, and it’s spawned or rejuvenated a wave of smaller sites who are trying to replace it.

None of these has really achieved much scale yet, and despite its problems, CS still has over 90% of the active user base for this kind of network. But they also have at least 90% of the total payroll and overhead, so their lack of a revenue model is ominous. They’re already on their third CEO since the transition, and last year they fired almost half of their staff; if they burn through the rest of their cash and can’t raise more, it’s unclear what will happen to the site and its member database.

The alternative is to find a sustainable way to generate revenue from this kind of community without eroding its core values, and that’s mainly what I’ll be writing about here. But there are a few other basic problems with the “free hospitality network” concept that we also need to think about. Even if this is your first exposure to the idea, they may have already occurred to you:

1. More “surfers” than hosts: far more people are willing to accept a free place to stay than offer it.

2. Geographic imbalances: everyone wants to visit the same big cities and other tourist destinations. So even if every member was willing to host as much as they travel, there would still be far more surfers than hosts in these places.

3. Safety and trust: a network in which strangers stay in each other’s homes will be a magnet for thieves, sexual predators, con artists, and lower-grade creeps of all kinds.

These are fairly obvious points, and they’re all readily observable problems with CS, so it’s odd how many online commentators have tiptoed around them. The first two especially have received almost no attention, and as far as I can tell, CS has never done anything to address those imbalances. How much they’ve done to address the safety issue is a controversial subject, but it clearly hasn’t been enough.

So what we’re looking for is an operating model that addresses these issues while generating some revenue. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a for-profit business, of course — it could be a self-sustaining non-profit, like a club or membership organization. And even if it is a business, it may not be a venture capital-sized opportunity. There are lots of viable network or marketplace type services that just don’t work at that scale.

What’s the scale of CS today? Well, they’ve got ten million members worldwide, but many of those profiles are stale. From my recent correspondence with the company and a little sampling with their search filters, I’d estimate that their current active member count is between 500,000 and 2 million, depending on your definition of “active.”

The company tells me they counted 24 million hosted nights in 2014, and that’s probably about ten million “stays,” assuming an average length of 2-3 nights. Which suggests that the average active member is very active, hosting at least five times a year — and maybe more, given that some of them are “surfers” who don’t host at all.

At the other end of the spectrum you’ve got AirBnB, which was founded five years later and is currently running at a pace of 37 million nights booked annually  — not that different in scale, actually. But they raised their last round of financing at a $10 billion valuation, and are reportedly raising the next one at $20 billion less than a year later.

You already know the difference, of course: at AirBnB, those nights are financial transactions on which they take a commission. But why can’t CS do the same? On one level, you might think that a guest willing to pay $10 to AirBnB and another $90 to the host would rather pay $10 to CS and nothing to the host, right? But as social psychologists know, when you introduce a little bit of money into a transaction, you change the nature of it completely. The host starts to feel exploited and the guest starts to feel entitled. There’s still an element of generosity and mutual trust, but the context is very different.

The investors in CS, as well as the founders of the more startup-oriented competing projects, are trying to find a middle ground between the legacy CS model and the AirBnB model, one that can be a successful business without turning the hosting process into an overtly commercial transaction, and reach some demographics that AirBnB doesn’t.

Some of the others have no interest in a startup track or maximizing revenue and user count — they just want to create a sustainable community in a transparent, non-profit framework.

And some may be trying to have their cake and eat it too, combining the member goodwill and positive publicity of the second approach with the potential payoff of the first.

But on some level they’re all facing the same initial problem: how can you generate enough recurring revenue to at least keep the lights on? And ideally this would be done in a way that doesn’t just re-create the “old” CS, but actually improves on it by tackling some of those unresolved supply/demand imbalances and safety issues.

In the next post, I’ll walk through a dozen competing projects and try to estimate their current scale and progress toward these goals. After that, we can start to focus on what’s working, what isn’t, and what to try next — both for the existing networks and any potential new ones.


Wearable Tech: Design Doesn’t Matter


Wearable technology isn’t fashionable, and that problem can’t be solved with better design.

I don’t think the first half of that statement is controversial. Wearable tech may be somewhat cool among a certain narrow demographic, but even then it’s not exactly a fashion statement.

But why can’t design help? Because the problem isn’t what these devices look like, it’s what they do. The reasons people wear them — productivity, health, fitness, even connectivity — are just not compatible with the aesthetics of fashion.

I’m the furthest thing from a fashion expert, but I think this is obvious enough that it doesn’t take an expert to see it. Most of these goals are a form of self-improvement, and self-improvement is almost the opposite of fashion. The essence of fashion is to project confidence, self-assurance and natural beauty — to look like you don’t need to exercise, be more productive, monitor your standing/sitting time or posture or UV exposure, be notified of every like on your Facebook page, or anything else with even a whiff of ambition or insecurity.

Don’t believe me? How many designer clothing ads have you seen that feature models wearing a Bluetooth headset, or a Blackberry belt clip, or even a Fitbit wristband? If the technology isn’t part of what’s being promoted, it’s not an accessory that any photographer wants to add.

Even if it works with a certain outfit, no one who’s really fashion-conscious is going to wear the same accessory day after day with different outfits. It’s as simple as that. Dressing it up with different watch straps or colors just makes it even more obvious. And if you only wear your device on certain days, or only to the gym, it defeats the purpose of much of the long-term monitoring that was the reason you bought it in the first place, and makes it harder to justify the high cost.

If you really want people to wear your gadget all day, every day, your design focus should be to make it less visible and easier to hide. For the manufacturers, hope never dies that people will want to display their devices and provide free advertising, but somehow it never seems to work out that way. Take a look at one of the newest ones, the Lumo Lift posture tracker, which can either be clipped to a bra strap/undershirt, or secured magnetically with a visible metal square that comes in different colors. Any guesses which option more people will choose?

Actually, I predict one of the first popular third party accessories for the Apple Watch will be a clip or case that replaces the strap entirely and makes it easier to carry the device somewhere other than your wrist.

Fashion can embrace certain forms of technology, but it takes a long time, generally long enough for it to be charmingly obsolete. Watches are one example: mechanical watches are still classier than (far more accurate) quartz watches, almost a century after the quartz technology was invented. And they’re covered with marine pressure gauges and other extras that most wearers wouldn’t know how to read even if they needed to. Technology is stylish in inverse proportion to its utility.

Of course, there’s still a market for unfashionable wearable tech. There are millions of Bluetooth headsets sold every year. But they’ll never be as widespread as iPhones, and I think the adoption of the Apple Watch — along with Google Glass and every other visible wearable device — will hit the same ceiling. The first breakthrough wearable that becomes ubiquitous will be one that can be concealed.

More Bad News at Couchsurfing

Couchsurfing, the troubled nonprofit-turned-startup that I wrote about earlier this year, has now shed almost half of its employees, including the CEO:

The startup, backed by General Catalyst, Benchmark, Menlo Ventures, Point Nine and Omidyar Network, is now going to focus on mobile — and we have heard that this is where all new hires will happen. The company up to now had raised some $22.6 million, with the last $15 million in August 2012.

As for the layoffs … a spokesperson tells us that the full number is about 40% of staff, with now no more than 20 people working at the company…

A little more unconfirmed detail: part of the layoffs, apparently, have resulted in deep cuts to its engineering team, with the entire engineering team let go “except for a 3 person skeleton support crew,” according to a tipster.

Our tipster — again, this is unconfirmed — says that the reason for the layoffs and other changes is because the company has seen an $800,000 monthly burn rate. But we understand the company has a long cash runway at the moment to figure out ways to turn that around (staff cuts help, too).

This is sad news, and I don’t take any pleasure in having predicted it. I still hope there’s a going concern to be salvaged here. But it’s very difficult to imagine a business model that will provide a material return on that much investment, or even enough cash flow to keep the lights on when the existing money runs out.

Early on, in an attempt to quell user anger at the for-profit conversion, the company seems to have ruled out advertising, selling member data in any form, or charging any kind of fee for existing site functionality. That didn’t leave many options. One that they floated was to solicit donations to charity every time a “surfer” was hosted, and take a small cut of these donations. Cute but a little pushy, and it likely wouldn’t amount to more than pocket change. They also considered a “freemium” model, but there wasn’t much you could add to the basic services that would really be worth paying for:


Freemium models work best when the premium features are relatively independent of the basic features. If someone else pays for more space on Dropbox, you don’t get less space in your free account. In the case of CS, the main thing they can offer a premium member is various types of priority over non-premium members. You can dress that up however you want, but in the end you’re not really adding a new service, just pitting your existing users against each other: the premium service degrades the free one. If frequent flyers board the plane first, the rest of the passengers have to wait a bit longer. If premium CS members show up higher in searches, then free members show up lower.

In the meantime, they’ve brought back this “verification” gimmick — a way of aggressively hitting you up for a voluntary $25 donation when you join by arbitrarily attaching it to this “trust” marker whereby they send you a postcard to verify that you have a mailing address, and then you get a little check mark icon on your profile. I don’t know how much money that’s bringing in, but it can’t be very much. (And just think about it: if this process actually does have a material impact on member safety and trust, shouldn’t it be mandatory? Isn’t that the last thing you’d want to charge for if you have any regard for your members’ safety?)

So now they’re going to “focus on mobile”? To be honest, I’m not sure what that even means. They’ve already got mobile apps, which could certainly be better, but this is a network that relies on huge amounts of text-heavy user-generated content — forms, member-to-member references, discussion boards — exactly the kind of content that’s difficult to enter and consume on a tiny touchscreen. It’s about the farthest thing possible from apps like Instagram or Shazam that play to the strengths of a mobile platform. It seems more like OKCupid or Quora: it needs a good app, no question, but it also needs a fully-featured, well-functioning website — not the kind that can be run by a “skeleton support crew” while they redirect most of their budget to mobile development.

Anyway, maybe this “mobile” thing is just the latest round of buzzword bingo at a company that’s out of ideas, but I hope there’s something more substantive behind it. And it does suggest the glimmer of a revenue model, which is to simply charge for a mobile app while keeping the website free. That way they’re not technically charging for any functionality, just charging to make it easier from a phone.

I can imagine a lot of travellers setting up an account on the website, sending out some hosting requests, and somewhere in transit, frustrated with trying to load the full site on their crappy mobile browser just to find a host’s phone number or something, being willing to pony up $5 for the app.

(I can’t imagine many new members joining through an app and filling out a decent profile, because that’s just too much data entry for a small-screen environment. So again, they still need a usable website.)

Anyway, this paid mobile app strategy would be kind of sneaky, I guess, but at least it would bring in some additional revenue, and it’s the only thing I can think of that really would. What else is there?

What’s Driving the Quantified Self Movement?


I’m an organizer of the current Quantified Self meetup group in Berlin. I attended the global QS conference in Amsterdam earlier this month. And when people ask me what it’s all about, I still have trouble giving them a clear answer.

Judging from the group’s website, I’m not alone. Our slogan is “self knowledge through numbers,” and the About page calls us “an international collaboration of users and makers of self-tracking tools.” That’s already a bit confusing, because quantification and tracking are two different things. They often overlap, but they often don’t.

For example, stepping onto a scale, taking a written test, running a timed race, getting your DNA sequenced — all these things will give you “self knowledge through numbers,” even if you never repeat or track them. And on the other side, much of the discussion within QS centers around self-tracking practices that are not particularly quantitative, like photo lifelogging, mood tracking or even an online dream journal. One recent survey of QS practices even included Foursquare.

In a sense, I suppose every human activity is “quantifiable” with timestamps and map coordinates and subjective rating scales, and similarly you could argue that anything you quantify even once is being “tracked,” but in both cases that seems like a stretch. If we define QS practices so broadly as to include everything that ever produces structured data about human beings, we haven’t really defined them at all.

Maybe it’s the “self” part, as subject rather than object? It’s not just that your “self” is being quantified, it’s that you’re the one doing it, or the one controlling it, or the primary audience for the data. That’s a little better, but it’s still a pretty broad definition.

Even our critics seem confused about what we’re up to. In this article, Mike Elgan mocks QSers as frivolous gadget nerds, but in this recent post he gushes about “lifelogging” devices, which are a big part of QS.

So maybe there’s no good top-down description that separates “QSers” from the rest of the population. But our attendees are hardly a random sample of the cities where we meet — nor even a random sample of the tech scene, with which we overlap heavily. So we should be able to say something more about who they are.

What I want to do here is list some of the main trends that are driving interest in QS, without endorsing or criticizing any of them. They each have positive and negative aspects that are worth exploring further. But I haven’t seen anyone just lay them all out in one place, and I think that’s a good way to start.

1. Smartphones and Social Media

This is the most obvious category, right? Throw in digital photography too. Now that we’re capturing and saving huge amounts of data about our daily lives — data that advertisers and governments are keenly interested in — it’s natural that some of us would be paying more attention to that data ourselves.


2. Better (and sexier) technology

When competitive swimmers were tracking their practice lap times with a stopwatch, taking their pulse manually, and writing it all down on a clipboard, not many amateurs wanted to imitate that routine. Now that they’re building digital goggles with a heads-up display that shows their heart rate in real time, the gadget appeal for the average fitness swimmer is obviously a lot higher.

It doesn’t exactly take Don Draper to see that it’s easier to sell cyborg goggles than clipboards, but it’s also easy to see why serious athletes want to see their heart rate while training instead of afterwards. So this seems like a good example of a tool that works across the professional-amateur spectrum: it offers an edge in training for the most serious swimmers, and a motivational aid for the least serious, with many more falling somewhere in between.

The most visible example of this trend is the latest generation of pedometers, like the FitBit or Nike Fuelband, which are always on and upload your data to websites where you can view it in slick graphs and share it with other users.


3. The rise of behavioral psychology

Over the last fifty years, old-fashioned psychoanalysis — Freud, Jung, Adler, Lacan — has increasingly been replaced by behavioral techniques, particularly the “cognitive behavioral” methods developed by Aaron Beck (above) and Albert Ellis in the 1950s and ‘60s. These involve a more scientific approach than the old “lie down and tell me about your childhood” stereotype, and a lot more recurring measurement of “negative self-talk” and other symptoms. And most of this tracking and journaling is essentially assigned as homework for the patient to do on their own.

Whether and when these methods are more effective than psychoanalysis or psychopharmacology is a whole other debate. But whatever you think of them, behavioral methods have been taking over, and like so many concepts from psychoanalysis, they’re seeping into popular culture and awareness. Behaviorism is also deeply imbedded in the more recent positive psychology movement, whose influence is all over emotion-tracking tools and other QS products — and it’s been a major contributor to…

4. The systemization of self-help

We’re a long way from Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) or even Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People (1989). If you want to make it as a motivational, fitness, diet or productivity guru today — at least the kind that’s taken seriously by the young and tech-savvy — then you need to provide more than just collected advice. You need a system. Specifically, you need to define your audience’s problems in the context of a system that they can then optimize. And most of the time, this involves quite a bit of self-tracking.

I’m not sure what the tipping point was — maybe Getting Things Done (2002), or Crossfit (~2000)? — but at this point, systematized self-help is everywhere you look, from Tim Ferriss to Lifehacker. And it overlaps very heavily with QS. At our meetings in Berlin, I’d say Ferriss’s books are responsible for more new attendees than any other single cause.

5. Health care reform

The last few years of policy debate in the US have prompted a widespread recognition of the diminishing returns to medical research and treatment throughout the developed world. We’re spending more and more to achieve smaller and smaller gains. So a lot of attention (and money) has turned to “lifestyle” factors. If we can get people to drink less, smoke less, eat less, exercise more, take their maintenance medications, and so on — thereby keeping them out of the doctor’s office in the first place — we can obviously make much bigger gains in population health at a lower cost than by treating them once they’re already sick.

Easier said than done, of course. Some approaches involve top-down policies, like New York’s already-infamous beverage size regulations. But others involve getting people to track their behavior on an individual level. And if you can develop a good tool for doing this, it’ll be increasingly possible to get private and public insurance companies to reimburse it for their members, like they already do sometimes for gym memberships. And that makes entrepreneurs’ and venture capitalists’ ears perk up, because insurance reimbursement is a tidal wave of revenue that can be very sticky for any provider that captures a little bit of it.

6. Techno-futurism

This includes  singularitarians, transhumanists, “radical life extension” advocates, Bitcoin enthusiasts, and many more. They trace their roots to computer science, cognitive science, genetics, science fiction, libertarian philosophy, artificial intelligence research, the human potential movement of the ‘60s, and countless other sources.

I don’t mean to imply that these movements agree with each other about everything, and I don’t mean “techno-futurism” as a skeptical term necessarily; it’s just the only umbrella term I can think of. In any case, these groups are definitely overrepresented within QS compared to the population at large, probably even more than they’re overrepresented in tech. For some, self-tracking technology is just a means to an end, but for others it seems to have real ideological significance in itself. And the natural enemy of the techno-futurist is…

7. Humanist skepticism

These are the social scientists, philosophers and other academics who worry about the ethical and societal implications of self-tracking technology, and technological values replacing human ones:

Like the previous group, this one is hard to generalize about. They’re not all academics, of course; some are writers like Evgeny Morozov and technologists like Jaron Lanier. And some walk a pretty fine line between supporting the new technology and worrying about it — as Peter Kramer did in the ‘90s with antidepressants, for example.

The techno-futurists point out that these kinds of critics have surfaced around every new technical or scientific advance in the past — which is true, of course, but that doesn’t mean they’ve always been wrong. And this kind of critical evaluation of technology is an important part of QS. I don’t think we always do as good a job of integrating it as we could, but that’s a subject for another post.


I think that covers most of the relevant trends, but I’m sure I’ve missed a few. And some of the most interesting people I’ve met in QS are the ones who don’t quite fit into any of these buckets, and are pursuing their own idiosyncratic visions.

Anyway, I’m sure that some readers have bristled at my simplistic, unfair description of whatever subgroup or trend they identify with themselves. And I have been a little simplistic. It’s a lot of ground to cover, and I’m hardly an expert in any of these individual subjects. But hopefully this is a good starting point to give outsiders a better idea of what QS is all about.

Couchsurfing: The Meltdown Continues


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.


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.]

Couchsurfing: A Sad End to a Great Idea


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.


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.

A Better Version of Dope Wars


“I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.”
Mitch Hedberg

Dope Wars (or Drug Wars) is a text-based computer game that’s been around for about thirty years, rewritten countless times for every platform from DOS to graphing calculators to iPhones. You play an independent drug dealer in a big city (usually New York) who travels around buying and selling various illegal drugs. The market prices vary widely from day to day and from one neighborhood to the next, so you can make large trading profits if you watch them closely, but you have to keep an eye out for the police, muggers and other business risks.

It wouldn’t have been around this long if it wasn’t fun and addictive — in fact, it incorporates a lot of the elements from my “What Makes Games Addictive?” post — but there are some basic improvements to the gameplay that (as far as I know) have never been made. Instead, every major redesign has tried to change it into something that it’s not. Zynga’s short-lived version tried to turn it into a typically scammy “social” Zynga game, a kind of R-rated Farmville. No surprise that didn’t work. Others have tried to change the subject to something more innocuous than drugs. But none of the ones that I’ve seen have addressed the core gameplay.

If you’ve never played the game, the rest of this post won’t make much sense to you, so you should take a break and go try it out. Amazingly there doesn’t seem to be a decent web-based version anymore, but if you have an Android phone, this and this are both free and pretty good. For iOS, where the censors won’t allow the original merchandise, there’s this one (free) with prescription drugs, and this one ($1) with zombies.

OK, had a chance to try it out? Here are some of the problems I see, and how they could be fixed:

1. Too much randomness. Some randomness is always good, but too much gets frustrating. It’s realistic that muggings and police stings happen on a fairly random basis, but should you really have to wait for the right roll of the dice to buy a new coat with more pockets? Why not have a “shop” that sells equipment in a fixed location, just like the bank and the loan shark?

2. Too much spread in prices for different drugs. As your bankroll grows, it quickly makes sense to deal only in heroin and cocaine, which means that the prices and “events” for all the other drugs are irrelevant. I get that you can carry a lot more dollar value in cocaine than in Quaaludes, but this is a case where realism should be sacrificed for better gameplay.

3. Too easy to compound money. The bank is completely safe and pays extremely high interest rates, so very often the optimal strategy is to leave most of your money there, especially when you reach the point where you can only carry a small % of your net worth in merchandise anyway. The interest rate should be reduced or eliminated, and your account should occasionally be subject to “freezing” and confiscation. Meanwhile, there should be more ways to reinvest your money in the business. You can only have so many “pockets” I guess, but after that why not buy a car, or a van? Or recruit employees?

I think there’s a real opportunity for someone to make a slick, professional, updated version of Dope Wars for iOS and/or Android — one that tries to improve the core gameplay in ways like these, rather than slathering extra graphics and social features onto a game where they just get in the way. I’d pay for an app like that, and I bet a lot of others would too, and it wouldn’t be very hard to build.

And there are lessons here for anyone trying to implement “gamification” to increase engagement with their own app; the first thing you have to do is understand which game elements are engaging and why, and the best way to do that is to look at the simplest, most stripped-down “games” — like Dope Wars or the math game I described in that previous post — where those elements are most exposed. “Gamifying” often seems to mean just bubbly childlike graphics, arbitrary “achievements,” high scores lists and other “game-like” elements. This is a cargo cult approach to the process, and it’s not surprising that it doesn’t usually work.

UPDATE: Some follow-up comments here.

Couchsurfing: The Beginning of the End? (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.

I realize that most of my readers here are not CS members, so this may seem like an insidery post. But whether or not you have any personal interest in CS, what’s happened to it over the last year is a sad but instructive story about the “high cost of free” and the current state of the social web.

CS was run as a non-profit for most of its existence, free to join and funded by donations. The bulk of these donations came from a somewhat disingenuous “verification” system: if you “donated” at least $25, they’d send you a postcard with a code that you could enter to prove that your address was real. This process was promoted as a lot more important than it really was, and a lot of new members (myself included) got the impression that it was all but mandatory. This didn’t bother me that much, but I understand why some found it deceptive, and it was the first illustration of the difficult tightrope act of funding a site like this while keeping it completely free and non-commercial.

At any rate, several million dollars were raised this way, and the money seems to have been managed and spent in a pretty haphazard way. On top of this, it’s unclear whether the core mission of CS — helping people to find and host each other — is really a charitable cause. Along with the loose financial controls, this apparently (and understandably) caused some doubt at the IRS as to whether CS should qualify as a legitimate non-profit, raising the specter of a massive back tax bill and huge legal costs. In any case, the donations were not keeping up with the network’s rapid growth, and the website was becoming slower and buggier by the day. Something had to change.

In the end, CS abandoned its pursuit of non-profit accreditation, converted into a for-profit corporation and simultaneously accepted millions in venture capital. Virtually nothing was disclosed about the terms of this investment or the resulting ownership structure, but it seems highly likely that it made the founder of CS, Casey Fenton, into an overnight multimillionaire. His co-founder Daniel Hoffer was appointed CEO.

Since CS was largely a volunteer-built organization, many of the most active members were understandably furious that anyone would be making profits on the back of their time and effort. Others were concerned about their personal information being sold to advertisers and the other potential privacy consequences of CS becoming a business. And a few members have issues with corporations and/or capitalism in general, and felt betrayed by an organization that they thought was aligned with these views.

Personally, I don’t have an inherent problem with CS as a for-profit. I believe the founders when they say that non-profit status was unsustainable, and I don’t fault them for not setting up a better structure and funding approach at the beginning. They were smart guys who created a great organization, and it’s unfair to expect them to have been brilliant businessmen as well. I don’t even begrudge them the money — Fenton in particular has devoted a decade of his life to the site, it’s been a huge success, and why shouldn’t he get some compensation for that? All that said, I was obviously interested in the goals of the new investors and what direction the organization would take.

So at any rate, a lot of members were concerned, for a variety of reasons. And the company made a firm decision to respond to all of us, not with facts or honest disclosure, but with a firehose of patronizing bullshit.

Step #1 was to insist that they were not becoming a for-profit corporation at all, but rather a “benefit corporation” or B-Corp, which meant they could focus on things other than profits.

It’s hard to work out what this B-Corp designation means exactly, but as far as I can tell it’s a bit like those J.D. Power auto tests that seem to give every car a different trophy: a marketing tool masquerading as an independent rating agency. Your company writes a big check to this “B Lab” organization, they go through some kind of complicated “evaluation,” they declare you a “certified B-Corp” and then you slap it all over your website. It’s unclear whether any company has ever written the check and failed this evaluation; I emailed them a month ago to ask, and I still haven’t heard back. I’m not holding my breath.

To be fair, there does seem to be a legitimate legal movement behind all this, which is trying to legislate, state by state, a new kind of corporate structure in which the corporate board is not responsible solely to shareholders, but also to the environment, the company’s customers, members of the local community, and so on. That sounds like an admirable goal to me, and I wish them the best of luck. But I don’t see what it has to do with this “certified B-Corp” program that CS is participating in, which involves far fewer (if any) binding legal changes.

The State of California, where CS is based, has actually passed this B-Corp legislation, and the company could have reincorporated there under a B-Corp charter. They decided to stay incorporated in Delaware instead, a more business-friendly state where the B-Corp charter doesn’t exist, and go for just the “certification.” Of course, you won’t hear a word about this distinction in the way they promote their B-Corp status.

Step #2, of course, was to hire a public relations firm and tailor their “message” — you can read about it in this fawning article, which reads like a PR plant itself:

In July, CouchSurfing spent more than $10,000 to hire the San Francisco-based PR firm The OutCast Agency, whose clients include Zynga and Facebook. OutCast’s execs put Fenton and Hoffer through an intensive media-training program, spending hours grilling Fenton and Hoffer about their competitors and whether or not they were sacrificing their ideals. “They pointed out that it was important not to let the reporter frame the conversation,” Hoffer says.

After that came a creepy set of videos in which Fenton and Hoffer stared into the camera like Stepford Wives and delivered robot-like scripts that were obviously written and/or carefully edited by that same PR agency. And Fenton himself went on a global tour in which he met with local CS members in every city and asked for help in “brainstorming” ways for CS to support itself without donations.

But 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. As a host, well over half of the “couch requests” I receive now are from people with no references, no connections on the site, and little or no content in their profile. Many of them have joined within the last week for a particular trip, because they heard about CS as a way to find a free place to stay.

Now, I’ve been pretty harsh so far, but I still think that CS is a great organization and its employees are good people who are genuinely trying to make it better. It’s just that the only way anyone can think of to run a consumer tech company these days is to grow the membership count as fast as possible and deal with any collateral damage after the fact. If CS wants to follow that well-worn path and just become “Facebook for travellers,” then they will certainly keep growing on the metrics they care about, and they might even achieve a good financial result for their management and investors — but, as with Facebook itself, it will come at the cost of a worsening user experience and declining engagement.

If they want to buck that trend, they need to take some clear actions that show they care about their current users, even if it slows down the rate of growth. Here are just a few suggestions:

1. Focus on disclosure and transparency. Drop the B-Corp nonsense. For those members who are completely anti-corporate, it’s not enough to satisfy them, and for those of us who aren’t, it’s just a confusing distraction. In both cases it’s an insult to our intelligence. If you want to be a responsible corporation and not just be seen as one, the first step is to become far more transparent. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Tell us exactly the terms of the investments, exactly the current ownership of shares and options, and exactly what your current finances look like. Tell us how, if at all, the volunteer programmers and organizers who built the site have been compensated in the new structure, and how those decisions were made.

Start by disclosing everything you were required to disclose as a non-profit and everything you would be required to disclose as a listed public company, then treat that as a starting point and disclose even more. And don’t filter any of it through your PR flacks. I can’t think of anything that would increase my faith in the organization’s good intentions more than better disclosure, and I’m sure a lot of other members would feel the same way. And what could you possibly have to hide, anyway?

2. Allow hosts to filter who can send them requests. For example, my profile says I won’t host anyone without references (from other members who’ve met them) but most of the requests I get are from people who have no references. It’s not like these are bad people, they’re just new to the site and they didn’t read my profile carefully. But I’m not going to host them. So you’re wasting their time and mine by not giving me a setting where people with no references can’t send me requests. And as a result I have my couch “turned on” less often and host less often than I otherwise would, because I don’t always have time to respond to all these extra requests.

Of course, many people do host members with no references, and I admire them for it. They can leave the setting off. Everyone’s happy. What’s not to like?

3. Fix the $#@^$ website. 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. I just talked to an event organizer last night who had to set up and maintain the same event in two different parts of the site, resulting in different users signed up for it at each page, and she still had to constantly “bump” it within the local group thread just to make sure it stayed visible — and even then, she gets complaints from members who never saw it. And this wasn’t “come see my friend’s band” either, it was a popular meetup that regularly attracts 40-50 people.

Anything that made it easier or more attractive for non-members to sign up — Facebook logins, splash page, marketing videos — was dealt with right away at the time of the conversion. 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. Doesn’t that seem a little backwards? People like this organizer are the heart and soul of the CS network, volunteering their time to help bring others together. Why are we taking them for granted?

Anyway, this post is getting a little long, so I’ll stop at three. But I think you see my point. The core problem isn’t for-profit vs. non-profit, nor is it finding a way to sustain the site financially. There are ways to monetize the current membership without intrusive advertising or privacy violations (current rumors involve a referral arrangement with AirBnB) and even if they don’t take one of those options, I suspect that investors will be willing to keep funding the site for years anyway.

The real problems are these: when there’s a tension between growing your user count and looking after the users you already have, which do you choose? And when that core user base is losing faith in you, do you respond with insincere spin and endless “discussion” and “feedback” designed to pacify them in the short term, or with the kind of real disclosure and honesty and actions that would earn their long-term trust?

It’s common to talk about the conflicts of interest between the users of a free service like Facebook and the advertisers or other “real” customers that pay the bills. But even before you reach that point, there’s usually also this inherent conflict between existing users and new users, and I don’t think that conflict gets enough attention.

A healthy social network will grow at a fast rate organically just by taking good care of its existing users. If your network isn’t growing fast enough for you (or for your investors) then that’s the first place you should look to improve. If you’re pushing to increase the growth rate by other means, you’re probably doing it at the expense of the current user experience. And if you think you can address both at once, you’re probably kidding yourself.

Sadly, most successful consumer tech startups have had very little trouble choosing new users over current ones. Here’s hoping that CS spends a little more time considering it.

[Thanks to several experienced CS members who read this post in draft form and offered their feedback.]