By Nithin Coca—Last year I decided to take a break and attend a Couchsurfing meet-up in New York City. Though I’m an active traveler, Couchsurfing in Europe and Asia, hosting and organizing events in San Francisco and Kansas City, here, in New York City, my hectic graduate school schedule had kept me less involved the past year.
I am an old-timer, joining Couchsurfing.com back in 2006 after learning about it from a fellow traveler at the beginning of my yearlong trip around the world. It was a new twist on an age-old idea, using a new-design to allow the internet to be a conduit between travelers and those with extra space in their homes. Back then, it was a sparse community, a handful of hosts in each country, and a few surfers, like me.
Nevertheless, I hosted dozens of people in Spain and surfed with hosts in Germany, Hungary, Turkey, the UAE, Thailand, Malaysia, and Japan—all positive experiences. It fulfilled a huge desire of mine – to gain local, cultural experiences, to learn from people in intimate, personal setting. Couchsurfing changed not only my life, but how I traveled and saw the world.
During that trip, I met many people in hostels, guesthouses, or bars, but found that the people I kept in closest touch with were Couchsurfers. It is how I met most of my best friends. It was the epitome of what I love about travel—sharing, learning, and growing—the famous Couchsurfing spirit, the genuine generosity and warmth of someone willing to let a complete stranger into their homes, and more importantly, into their lives.
It was the first community I felt proud to be a part of.
Hoping to meet some like-minded people in a more intimate setting, I joined some others for a pre-event dinner. Immediately, I noticed this was unlike any other Couchsurfing meetup I’d ever been to. The organizer had never used the site as a guest or host, only to meet people to go drinking with. The others had barely traveled, weren’t interested in talking with me, and didn’t actively host in New York. None of them seemed like real Couchsurfers.
At the actual meet-up, it got even stranger. Upstairs in the dark, loud, and unfriendly bar was nearly two dozen guys, all American, and one girl, surrounded by guys. No one came up to welcome us, and the atmosphere felt stifling.
“Man, where are all the girls?” said one of my dinner mates.
I left only 20 minutes later. That didn’t feel like the Couchsurfing spirit. Over the next year, as I returned and explored the new Couchsurfing, I found that the site which had changed my life, had changed itself for the worse.
Change is inevitable, a central facet of Buddhist teaching, and Couchsurfing is no different. But today I no longer feel I can recommend independent travelers to use Couchsurfing, and I no longer plan to use it much myself. Here is why.
More members, less community
The first meet-up I organized was back in April of 2008, a few months after returning from my world trip and moving to San Francisco. A potluck at a park, open to everyone. Over 50 people came; experienced surfers, newbies, recent high school grads, and retired professors. Locals and travelers from all around the world intermixed, and there were even children, playing on the rare, sunny San Francisco spring day. It was what I imagined—an open community of all ages. Everyone brought what they could, and there was more than enough food to go around. I still remember how amazing it felt to be around other like-minded Couchsurfers mixing freely, most having come on their own. Several of the people I met that day remain my friends, and two ended up getting married.
We truly felt we were part of something special. Over the next year, I would organize numerous similar events, bringing people together and meeting other amazing travelers. Today, events like those are rare. My attempts to organize potlucks now get barely any response. In fact, it’s hard to find a Couchsurfing event in any city that is not a bar meet-up, in which only a narrow age-range can attend, the underage and elderly excluded.
That is not to say there are not still good people on Couchsurfing—there are—and not every location has lost its community, but in the larger cities, the places that were once the heart of Couchsurfing—San Francisco, Montreal, Paris, Berlin, London—the community that was once so powerful at connecting people, is now mostly gone.
Why did this happen? Where are those people who attended meet-ups five years ago? There are many reasons.
Gender and Couchsurfing
Couchsurfing has always had a gender imbalance, with more male members than female ones. But it was not really an issue in the past, as it was more a reflection of the fact that men, unfortunately, have more freedom to travel than women.
Despite that, my first guest, back in 2006, when I was living with two other men in Granada, Spain, was a solo traveling female from Australia. Initially, I was shocked. Why would a girl want to stay with three single men, with a brand new profile, and no references? So I asked her.
“Couchsurfing, to me, is safer than hostels. Even if you have no references, at least I know who you are through your profile, versus in a hostel, I could be sharing a room with mentally-insane strangers.”
It made perfect sense. The thought of taking advantage of a guest, male or female, was unthinkable. Just as I knew a guest would never take advantage of our trust and steal anything – which, to this day, has never happened. It is that trust that Couchsurfing is based on, and it was enlightening. The potential of humanity to share and grow.
Amazingly, during my first three years as a member, I never heard of a single bad Couchsurfing experience—everything was positive, evidence of humanity’s good. Then, it began to change. Slowly, more negative stories arose—aggressive hosts, dirty places, uncomfortable situations. Now, it’s a 180 degree shift.
Female Couchsurfers tell me about how when they arrive in a city, they often get random messages from local males, often with suggestive, flirty content. It is not uncommon to see hosts in major cities whose entire wall of references is only girls. According to an ambassador in New York City, females posting on the message board in that city can get 50 messages from men, most of whom have empty or near empty profiles.
It was those people I saw at the so-called Couchsurfing meet-up in New York. The females they’d sent those messages to probably had been too scared to come. Today, would anyone stay with three men who have an empty profile? The truth is, I would tell a girl never to do that, because it is too risky.
Is this the Couchsurfing spirit?
Why has Couchsurfing become so gendered? Why is the community weak?
I think the blame lies in its management. The site went for-profit last year, and now, following time-honored corporate practices, is focused solely on growth. Quantity over quality. The more members they have, the more valuable the site becomes to potential investors, or, as some rumors have it, to potential buyers. For-profit does not, in itself, mean that a network is bad—look at Bootsnall. But there is a huge difference.
Couchsurfing went private after spending years half-heartedly attempting to get non-profit status, then, without any warning, announcing that it has been unable to get the status and going for-profit as a B-corporation. All the donations they accepted until then vanished. A new CEO was hired from outside Couchsurfing, who does not even have a publicly viewable profile. More than $7 million was raised in private capital, including from people at Facebook. Changes to the site were made without any warning, wikis that longtime members had worked on for years were taken offline, all with vague promises that new features would make up for what was lost.
All this with no community engagement. Couchsurfing could learn from Bootsnall, a site that listens and engages with its members, and has proved resilient over the years, despite growing at a far slower pace than Couchsurfing. (Note—I’ve been a member there even longer than on Couchsurfing!)
Couchsurfing may have 5 million members and millions in private investment, but take one look at the Ambassador’s public group and it’s clear that the core membership is incredibly unhappy. That is not a positive direction forward. Lose your core, and the rest will soon follow.
The new leadership has also forced, without notification or community input, a redesigned, “Facebook-lite” site that no longer allows for meaningful interactions. Gone are the wikis members built over years and the popular city message boards, replaced with “location pages” with open, newsfeed like conversations of short comments. Gone is the ability for moderators to flag important threads, send mass-invites to local events, or foster deep discussions. Not surprisingly, spam now dominates. Trying to find quality information about local sites or the local community is nearly impossible, and quality interactions are harder to find. In San Francisco, the weekly meet-up I started is gone, the potlucks, which went on for nearly three years, now forgotten. Despite millions more members, the community seems to have disappeared.
The next, better Couchsurfing?
I used to say that Couchsurfing was globalization done right, where ideas and exchange mattered more than money or status. When you met someone who said they were a Couchsurfer, that it meant they had a different viewpoint on life, that they knew how to share, and were culturally open minded.
Back in the day, we would test travelers to see if they were worthy of Couchsurfing—if they had the values or mindset to join. Once, I met a friendly Malaysian in Bulgaria, with whom I shared a train ride with. Couchsurfing was so small back then that Noel had never heard of it. But I felt he was an open, warm, giving person, so I told him about Couchsurfing and recommended he join. He did and quickly became an active user, and later, an Ambassador.
That was natural, organic growth, a site which spread through word of mouth, introduced by people who shared the same ideals. If you were meant to be a Couchsurfer, you would find it. If not, it would remain apart, a subculture in a world of diversity. With time, we felt, the larger society would be ready.
Unfortunately, we live in a world obsessed with growth, and the Couchsurfing management has fallen into this corporate trap. Was it inevitable that the site would expand beyond word-of-mouth? Probably. Could it have been done in a way that respected the values and people that spurred Couchsurfing’s initial organic growth? Definitely.
All those friends I made four, five, or six years ago, as a surfer in Europe, or at my potlucks, today, most of them barely use the site anymore. Some stopped hosting due to bad experiences, others because the site no longer fits their lives as it once did. It strikes me as incredibly sad. How many of the five million that Couchsurfing regularly touts are disillusioned members?
Because Couchsurfing has lost its base, it is now dependent on only one thing: growth at any cost.
Couchsurfing was a social network that created positive interactions and make the world a better place. I still believe that we can turn the internet into the amazing, transnational, cultural tool for social change.
Unfortunately, Couchsurfing is no longer that platform, and may no longer even be a good site for travelers anymore, especially women. Will another site emerge? I hope so. We, the community who made Couchsurfing are still there, waiting for the opportunity to transform travel and the world.
This essay originally appeared on BootsnAll.com.