These days an era for me is coming to an end: the era of Couchsurfing. CS has wiping out the neatly collected information off the location pages that once were vibrant city or regional groups. For me it is the latest sign that Couchsurfing’s people in charge stopped listening to the community completely.
It was a rainy day in February of 2006 that I first heard about Couchsurfing. I came from Dresden by car and picked up a hitchhiker. He wanted to go to Kassel but I only went to Leipzig. It was about to get dark and he still wanted to come along. He said: „It’s no problem if I can’t make it.“ We talked throughout the drive and I found him to be a nice guy – so I offered him to stay at my place. He gladly accepted but he also replied: „If not I can find a Couchsurfer.“ Well, he stayed with me, I had a good time and signed up.
I got a new member welcome message from a Native American from Washington state and several others from all around the world – Guatemala or even from my own city. I was welcomed by a lot of people and all of them seemed happy that another member joined. I believed that this community was something I had been looking for in a long time. Driven by people who were like-minded. Driven by what they called the „Couchsurfing Spirit“. And although I hated the word spirit as I am not a spiritual person in any way, I wanted to believe that this community could create an intercultural understanding. Back then it was a phrase that I identified with: „Participate in creating a better world – one couch at a time“. And it made my belief stronger when I saw that people from nations that hated the guts out of each other started talking and became friends – through Couchsurfing.
Keep going on despite doubts
When CS crashed in 2006 and almost lost all data I was really sad, because I had only started. Many people volunteerly invested a lot of effort and actually got the site back up. When it started working again I was even happier and wanted to help the organisation. And it fueled my „spirit“ the more wonderful people I met. People which cultures I got to know by travelling and hopping from couch to couch. It also enriched a lot of days that I would have otherwise spent home alone or wherever. People brought their culture into my home and made me forget about my „Fernweh“.
But I started doubting when I first had heard of the OpenCouchsurfing community in 2007. I never joined them but I followed the discussions on the groups. I stayed with CS because I believed the project would still go towards the right direction. Although I saw some friends leave, I kept organising events and helped people get into CS. I travelled to meet other ambassadors and helped translate pages. I wrote on the CS wiki. All for the sake of travellers like me – because I saw others were doing the same.
And I stayed even when I heard Couchsurfings founder Casey Fenton talk about the new vision at the Vienna Calling in 2009. Even if at that time the mission had switched from my beloved phrase into „Creating inspiring experiences“. I thought it was the usual marketing talk and didn’t give it too much attention although my enthusiasm slowed down a lot. The Calling was also the time when I had heard the phrase of „We are trying as hard as possible to get the 501c3-Non-profit status“ a few times too often. But actually the event itself made me forget again about this, because CS still worked and I again made so many new friends that I am still in touch with today.
How CS lost the Couchsurfing spirit
But CS was undergoing changes and the biggest one so far came in the beginning of 2011. That was when Couchsurfing’s founder Casey declared on an ambassador group that CS might not get the non-profit status after all. Back then he wrote:
As you know, CouchSurfing is incorporated in the US as a non-profit, and has been trying for four years to be recognized by the government as a charity (known as 501c3 status). Like all charities, we want to change the world for the better. The thing is, we have a very innovative approach to this: we think we can make change by giving people the chance to have inspiring experiences. This approach is one that doesn’t fit into the categories our government traditionally uses.
As you can imagine, this news puts us in a difficult situation: if CouchSurfing can’t be a non-profit, what can we be? How do we make the best possible organization to support our members and our Vision?
And there it was: My believe got smashed. I felt used. And so did many others. A lot of people had volunteerly put so much effort to make this the best Non-profit ever. And now it was just another social network. I saw some more of the friends I had made, leave once again.
A few weeks later it was announced what I had known before. CS would be restarted as a „socially responsible B-Corporation„. Casey argued that it would serve the needs of CS’s users much more. I couldn’t agree less. He also said that they would be in line with other B-Corporations as the Wikimedia foundation. This referral also was a bit of a smoke screen. In difference to Couchsurfing, the Wikimedia foundation is a Non-Profit, despite being a B-Corp. This is the time I gave up hope that Couchsurfing would be this organisation that I wanted to be a part of. That could bring people together despite where they are from and what they were doing.
After this quickly some changes came that changed the way Couchsurfing saw members. We started having the activities instead of events. Suddenly it was not wanted that you could mass mail CS members in your area invite them for meet-ups. Instead people now could block the mails, although they had signed up for this idea before. The event messages were only partly delivered, because teh focus now was to develop a whole new site. Soon after this CS meetings began shrinking in numbers a lot. Before the changes it happened rarely that I was sitting somewhere alone to wait for members to arrive. Now it started to happen more often. Also in my opinion the quality of members sunk. Couchsurfings measure to gain more attention worked for the quantity. The quality dropped very quickly though. This is my opinion but many others have expressed this too.
Why Couchsurfing is not a SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE B-Corp
Socially Responsible B-Corporation it says. Well it is very social to fire almost all developers and community managers and tell them they are not needed (actually at the same time that they are already looking for new developers and managers). And it is very socially responsible to tell them they are meeting to talk about the Couchsurfing video contest. At the day the Couchsurfing Video Contest winners were selected, all the above people got fired. Congratulations winners! It’s a kind of an poisoned apple that CS is handing you. On the other hand: Rather these guys take it, then CS wastes it for new and more useless managers.
From the original members of the team 4 years ago at the Vienna Calling actually none are still really working for CS anymore. Or have you heard anything from Casey Fenton lately? Rumours are his own company booted him out. But well, what does is matter if you chop of the head of a chicken after you have cut off everything else?
Good night Couchsurfing. I will dream of something else tonight.