Last year, after finals, I decided to take a break and attend the weekly Couchsurfing meetup in New York City. Though I was an active traveler before, Couchsurfing in Europe and Asia and hosting and organizing events in San Francisco, here, in New York, school and roommates kept me less involved than before.

Before the event, I joined some surfers for dinner. Immediately, I noticed this was unlike any other Couchsurfing meetup I’d ever been to. One girl had never used the site as a guest or host, only to meet people to go drinking with. The guys 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 meetup, it got even more strange. Upstairs, in the dark, loud, and unfriendly room, was a group of nearly two dozen guys, all American, and a single 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, not at all. Little did I realize that site which had changed my life, had itself changed for the worse.

Couchsurfing trip to Sequoia National Park, 2008

Couchsurfing trip to Sequoia National Park, 2008

Couchsurfing has gone from a modest start as an attempt by a traveler to find a free place to stay in Iceland, to become the largest travel social network online. It now boasts five million members, and the growth shows no signs of stopping. For six years, I’ve been a member of Couchsurfing. I’ve met several of my best friends through the site, and found it to be an epitomization of the true spirit of traveling.

That things change is a central facet of Buddhist teaching. Couchsurfing is no different. With growth comes challenges. Natural spread through word of mouth has become media-driven growth.

With that, I no longer feel I can recommend a traveler to use Couchsurfing, and no longer plan to use it much myself. Here is why.

More Members, Less Community

The first meetup I organized was in back in April of 2008, a few months after moving to San Francisco. A potluck at a park.

Nearly 50 people came from all around the San Francisco Bay Area; 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, beautiful San Francisco spring day. It was what I always imagined – an open community of all ages. We’d done a potluck to make it as open to as many people as possible, even set up carpooling so that more people could come. Everyone brought what they could, and there was more than enough food to go around.

I still remember how amazing it felt that day, to be around other like-minded Couchsurfers, people mixing freely, nearly everyone 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.

Today, and I’ve tried, but events like those of 2008 and 2009 in San Francisco seem like the fading glory of the past.

There are still good people on Couchsurfing. Just as there are good people anywhere. But the sad part is, the community that was once so powerful has lost its focus. My new home, San Diego, tells that story as well as anyplace else.

Four years ago, there was a vibrant community, active, friendly, and with an incredible array of events taking place. Art gatherings, bonfires, a weekly meetup at a bar, cafe gatherings, potlucks, mimicking and exceeding that of San Francisco.

Now, San Diego is quiet, a weekly bar meetup the only regular activity, the message board sparse, my attempts to organize events getting little response. Any men who post on the boards get no responses, while any girl, not surprisingly, get plenty. In San Francisco, the weekly meetup I started has disappeared, the potlucks, which went on for nearly three years unabated, long forgotten. Despite millions more members, the community seems to have disappeared.

Gender and Couchsurfing

Since its early days, Couchsurfing has had a gender imbalance, with more male members then females one. But it was not really an issue then, and more a reflection on the fact that men, unfortunately, have more freedom to travel then women.

Despite that, my first host 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. It fulfilled a need within me, to connect with people and share.

That was the point of travel.

Today, would anyone stay with three men who had an empty profile? The sad truth is, I would tell a girl never to do that, because it would be too risky.

Those first three years, I never heard of a single bad experience – everything was positive, evidence of humanity’s good. Then, it began to change. Slowly, more negative stories began to pop up – aggressive hosts, dirty places, uncomfortable situations. Now, its a 180 degree shift. Girls 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, girls posting on the message board in that city can get 50 message from males, most of whom have empty or near empty profiles.

It was those people I saw the so-called Couchsurfing meetup in New York. The girls they’d sent those messages too probably had been too scared to come.

The new open couch request feature demonstrates the problem clearly. It is a place where references matter little. I’ve been shocked to see men with 40+ references still seeking a host, while girls with no friends, no references, and bare-bones profiles getting 3+ invites.

Is that the Couchsurfing spirit?

For Profit Couchsurfing

Why has Couchsurfing become so gendered? Why is the community weak? I think the blame lies in an organization that has decided to focus on growth over building a community.

The site went for-profit last year, and now, following time-honored corporate practices, is focused solely on growth. Membership growth. Quantity over quality. The more members they have, the more valuable the site becomes to potential advertisers, or, as some rumors have it, to potential buyers.

Lost beneath this frenzy of numbers are the disappearing quality interactions, those which can’t be quantified. In my first four years of hosting surfers, I only once had a surfer flake on me. In the past two years, its happened several times. Just a few weeks ago, in Singapore, I had a host flake on me for the first time, the day I arrived, forcing me to stay in a hostel. Years ago, this would have shocked me. But now, it was almost expected. The trust on the site has diminished. A contradiction; more members, less community, less positive experiences.

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, 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 used to test travelers to see if they were worthy of Couchsurfing. I remember meeting a friendly Malaysian in Bulgaria, and shared a train ride with him. Couchsurfing was so new back then, that there were actually only a handful of hosts in Bulgaria, so Noel had never heard of it. But I felt an innate openness, and warmth, within him, so I told him about Couchsurfing. He joined, and quickly became an active user, and later, an Ambassador, in the site’s true early spirit. That seemed like natural, organic growth, 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, society would be ready.

Unfortunately, we live in a society obsessed with growth, and the Couchsurfing management team fell into this same trap. The millionth member joined in 2009. Now, there are five million users, mass media coverage, and even mentions in Lonely Planet. Was it inevitable? Probably. Could it have been done in a way that respected the values that spurred Couchsurfing’s initial organic growth. Definitely.

Several of the members I met four, five, or six years ago, as a surfer in Europe or at my potlucks, barely use the site anymore. Some have stopped hosting due to bad experiences, others find the site no longer has the values its once did. It strikes me as incredibly sad. Couchsurfing has lost its base, and is now dependent on only one thing, growth, new membership, at any cost.

There is no turning back once you make a deal with the financial devil.

I loved Couchsurfing because I felt it was a true social network that created positive interactions and make the world a better place. I still believe in that dream, 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 a good site for travelers anymore, especially women. Will another site, such as the open-source, community run BeWelcome? I hope so. The people who made Couchsurfing great are still there, waiting for the opportunity to transform travel and the world once again.

Other Critiques

Mechanical Brain – A Sad end to a Good Idea

Quirky Travel Guy – Couchsurfing Backlash

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