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Spotlight on the Sharing Economy: Q&A with Couchsurfing

| Friday March 1st, 2013 | 23 Comments

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couchsurfingMany of the companies that supported our Indiegogo campaign are active participants in the sharing economy and we wanted to hear more about their companies and perspective on the sharing economy. We’ve asked each company to answer the same questions and we’ll be rolling out the answers over the course of the series.

Please tell us your name, title and company.

Tammy Hagans, Media Team, Couchsurfing 

What does your company do?

Couchsurfing is a free service that connects a global community of more than 5.5 million members in 97,000 cities across the world. The community is made up of people who are eager to share their homes and their lives to promote tolerance, create new experiences and simply have fun together.

Couchsurfing represents a different way to travel for people who value trust, sharing and cultural exchange — regardless of regional, national or political boundaries. Couchsurfers have friends all over the world, even if they haven’t met each other yet.

When were you founded and how big are you?

Couchsurfing began in 2004 as a project built by and for a passionate community of travelers from around the world whose goal was to meet like-minded people in order to foster cultural exchange and share experiences.

How do you define the sharing economy?

A growing trend that advocates the sharing and exchange of goods, services and skills in order to extract additional productivity and value.

How does your company contribute to the rise of the sharing economy?

Couchsurfers not only share their homes but to also plan and share a wide variety of experiences – from simply sharing a beer to attending an art opening to hiking across Europe.

How do you build community?

The Couchsurfing community is built through word-of-mouth and member referrals. Members create local activities for others to attend, which leads to stronger connections and a wide variety of experiences between members.

For example, two Couchsurfing members who meet at a local meetup in San Francisco might discover that they have a common interest in hiking.  They may then choose to take a hiking trip through Europe together, at which point they could choose to meet other Couchsurfers at other local meetups in order to find other hikers to join them – or they may simply meet others to share a beer together. This interaction may in turn lead to the beginnings of multiple lifelong friendships taking shape as a result of these meetups.

How does your company reduce consumption and stimulate economic growth?

Couchsurfing members who stay with each other while traveling reduce the amount of resources consumed by traditional accommodations by simply staying in each other’s houses.

People who travel spend money, and those who couchsurf will theoretically have more money to spend while traveling since they’re saving on accommodations.

Can you share a recent milestone your company has achieved?

Couchsurfing recently raised a total of $22.6 million from investors including Benchmark, General Catalyst, Menlo Ventures and Omidyar.

What’s your biggest challenge?

One of our current challenges is the process of updating an outdated technology platform in order to accommodate the 5.5 million (and growing) number of members in the community.

What is your favorite thing to share?

Couchsurfing is all about sharing your life – from sharing your home to sharing day-to-day experiences around town to sharing a weeklong roadtrip together.


▼▼▼      23 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • worried Couchsurfer

    If Couchsurfing is all about sharing and promoting tolerance, why are members who ask critical questions and try to improve the website and member safety removed, forum posts censored or made “private”, and volunteers silenced under the thread of termination?

    • Michigan CSer

      I know I am not alone in fear that my profile will be removed without explanation for some reason (such as that I use a very valuable plug-in that restores some of the site’s previous functionality and that developed by someone whose profile was removed) or an unknowable other.

  • LaughingCat

    I wouldn’t recommend that anyone plan a hiking trip across Europe using couchsurfing. Their new ‘place pages’ so mangle the continent’s geography that two towns 14 hours journey – by boat! – apart are grouped together in the same location.

    Amateurs.

  • worried couchsurfer nr.2

    Behind the scenes with Tammy Hagans, Media Team, from 2012.

    http://www.couchsurfing.org/news/cs-organization/life-at-couchsurfing-meet-our-media-intern/

    “Do you surf and/or host?

    My place is being remodeled, so there is no hosting at the moment. I
    participate in meetups whenever I can. I have never surfed nor left the
    country — I hope to do that next year. I plan to start in the UK and
    travel 7-8 countries with my girlfriend. We will definitely surf and
    participate in local meetups.”

    This is so embarrassing, that can’t be true. Tammy. Tammy, what?

  • ConcernedCSMember

    A few months ago I would have promoted this post no end. CS has been a massive, wonderful, inspiring part of my life for over 6 years.

    Today, all I can say is they are on a crash course to destroying the community.
    Any member who dares ask hard questions or is deemed to be criticising is removed with vague references to safety and security and hiding behind the Safety Team.
    The new website has massive safety holes that the management refuse to comment on or fix.

    As a traveller and particularly females, unless you understand the risk, I would not recommend Couchsurfing as it stands now. The predators have already very quickly worked out what those holes are and how to use them to their advantage.

    The CS Management team are desperately trying to garner good publicity as they slide into a public relations nightmare.

  • http://twitter.com/CuriousNomad Curious Nomad

    Couchsurfing is a great way to meet friends all over the world especially if you are traveling solo. Just find activities that are going on in the cities you are visiting to meet others.

    • CSStaff

      I wonder why the German investor abandoned the project? Is it because CS refuses to abide by European privacy standards? Or is it because the European investors feared they would be held criminally libel for the theft, rape and other crime that CS management has encouraged and participated in.

  • Hipetyhiphop

    CS was great until recently. The recent changes to the website has resulted in the website being flooded by posts and requests from extremely sketchy characters. At the same time the people who have volunteered and built their local CS communities are having their profiles deleted without any explanation. I used to love to host but now even the requests I get are rude beyond belief. I wouldnt recommend CS to anyone. Its basically just frequented by people who are looking for hook-ups and/or a free place to crash without giving a flying fuck about the person they are staying with.

  • jack

    I switched like many to bewelcome.org after the terrible changes in cs..

  • http://twitter.com/velander Justin Holt

    On Tuesday, February 26th, my CouchSurfing (CS) membership was terminated without warning. My account was wholly scrubbed from the site; my profile, references, years of group posts and thousands of pieces of correspondence — ALL GONE. There is no way I can appeal the decision. I am told it is final.
    http://www.couchsurfing.org/people/velander

    If you truly want to understand how this came about, start here:
    http://kingsofcouchsurfing.blogspot.com/2012/12/boycott-place-pages.html

    Work your way up the posts in this blog to get an unabridged account of my conflict with CS HQ. For the record, they have still yet to divulge why my profile was removed, but are now claiming it is a “safety concern”.
    http://kingsofcouchsurfing.blogspot.com/2013/03/obfuscation.html

    Also, this week the Zendesk forum where for the past four months CS members posted numerous helpful suggestions and constructive feedback in response to the recent site changes has been completely obscured. Thousands upon thousands of threads — GONE!
    https://support.couchsurfing.org/entries/23212851-Feedback-Forums-closure-End-of-Feb-2013

    Additionally, on Friday, March 1st, the CS Ambassadors Public group — a CS policy group that was available for viewing by any CS member — was made private.
    https://www.couchsurfing.org/group.html?gid=2125

    Last but not least, you know that awesome new browser app that you’ve been utilizing this past month to navigate the site easier? That’s all the handiwork of Don Shine, de facto leader of CS Berlin. And on Friday, March 1st, his membership was terminated by CS HQ. Why? Well, this morning he posted a series of relevant questions submitted by others in the Ambassadors Public — sorry, Private — group. Unlike me, he was quite neutral about it, but I guess he had asked one question too many.
    http://www.couchsurfing.org/profile.html?id=3HMUIFP

    CouchSurfing began as a not-for-profit that respected the rights of free speech and accountability by way of personal references/vouches from fellow couchsurfers. If you committed behaved poorly to someone, that someone had the right — nay, obligation! — to post the details about their experience with you ON YOUR PROFILE as a warning to others. Same thing with anything you posted in the community forums: for years and years if you said something it could not be deleted by anyone; you were responsible for exactly what you said; thus, you chose your words quite carefully, which in turn inspired more civil discourse. When CouchSurfing became a corporation and received $20+ million from outside investors — without consulting its members first — CS HQ no longer respected philosophy the site was built on in the first place. The recent site upgrades instituted by CS HQ have disbanded our communities and have made the site more vulnerable to predators and spammers. (Did you know that you can make a new profile with a fake e-mail address?! Try it!) After three months of helpful suggestions and constructive criticisms requested by CS HQ from its members, who responded with thousands upon thousands lengthy, passionate and constructive comments, the “Community Managers” — the very people paid by the company to represent us — have now chosen to censure *and* censure us for finally speaking up.

    Why haven’t we spoken up sooner?

    1.) Because we truly believed that those who control the site had our best interests at heart when it came to making CouchSurfing a safe, dynamic, tight-knit and relevant social networking platform worthy of our continued VOLUNTARY support.

    2.) After 90 days, we have yet to see ANY improvement to the site or with relations between CS HQ with its members. After so much incompetence, we’re demanding better from those who own and invest in the company.

    To learn more about censorship on CouchSurfing, check out the links above as well as this Facebook event:
    http://www.facebook.com/events/147008412126669

  • SaddenedSurfer

    even the current staff aren’t happy with the changes happening and feel that things are heading quickly the wrong direction http://www.glassdoor.com/Reviews/CouchSurfing-Reviews-E568573.htm

  • SaddenedSurfer

    Also, as a little bitty single white girl I don’t feel surfing through them and have even had to stop attending local meetups due to two of my female friends being harassed by new and/or unregistered members

    • mary

      I also must say that Couchsurfing is not very safe for women. You have to be mentally prepared for harrassment and more (unless you are looking for it). Hardly anyone would leave such an experience on their profile in the internet – i.e. forever – and then being blamed for getting in the situation in the first place. You don’t even have to surf a couch, people let their guards down because everyone is “just friends”, drink some alcohol somewhere in a strange city… Having said that, I also had great experiences – but it is really not for everyone. You have to know what you are doing.

  • CS_memeber

    It was great before and I have met cool and very warm people, but now with changes in security CS no longer feel like a welcoming community. I would be more cautious to use CS now due to their REMOVAL of safety features.

  • Mandarava

    Taking a great member-created and volunteer-built community and slowly destroying through every community-negating effort is truly evil. Objectively, O investors, please note that your people have fired team after team as the site gets worse, ignored ridiculous numbers of complaints, destroyed or taken down extremely valuable sources of member-generated information such as wikis, guidelines, guides, FAQs, forums and groups. THIS WAS YOUR CAPITAL: MEMBER-INVOLVED CONTENT. Now you have stepped it up to censoring posts in the few places there are to post, and deleting leading volunteers who ask questions about missing tools, protocols, answers, or system guides. If you think this is the right way to run a member-based organization, you are crazy and have simply missed the point. It’s BARELY not too late: a heartfelt letter to the community asking for how you can raise money by creating a safe and happy CS would actually work! Otherwise be guaranteed we WILL go elsewhere – in fact we ARE. Check on FB.

  • KIlgoretrout

    It seems like Couchsurfing is changing really fast from a peacefull hippie commune into a totalitarian state driven by fear. For the people that remember Hospitality Club, the similarities are striking.

    After closing down all the feedback forums on zendesk, getting rid of all the guidelines on the new places page and terminating New Member Welcome, yesterday the public ambassador group was turned private. Now it seems it is people they are after in CSHQ.

    In just a week time the profiles of two people have been totally vanished from CS. Both of them were long time ambassadors who really cared for CS and have volunteered a lot of time for many years make CS a better place. I met one of them in Berlin years ago. Both haven’t given a warning or a decent explanation why their profile is suddenly gone but it looks like the sole reason is that they openly criticized all the recent changes on CS.

    If you’re interested about the story of one of them, check here:
    https://www.facebook.com/notes/justin-velander-holt/attention-couchsurfers-speak-the-fuck-up/10151266336305933
    and here:
    http://kingsofcouchsurfing.blogspot.nl/2013/02/couchsurfing-cares.html

    More info on Couchsurfing
    https://www.couchsurfing.org/n/threads/chicago-illinois-united-states-for-any-of-you-that-don-t-know-our-welcoming-and-inviting-chicago-ambassador-justin-holt-has-had-his-couchsurfing-membe
    https://www.couchsurfing.org/n/threads/berlin-berlin-germany-but-please-do-it-in-real-life-and-give-him-a-hug-from-me-don-just-had-his-profile-deleted-http-www-couchsurfing-org

    Appareantly CS also became a horror story for its employees:
    http://www.glassdoor.com/Reviews/CouchSurfing-Reviews-E568573.htm

    Please everybody, share these links within and outside CS, as much people as possible need to know what is happing right now within Couchsurfing.

    • Miriam Wansinck

      I totally agree with you about the comparison between Hospitality Club and Couchsurfing. I used to be a member of HC a long time ago, and was frustrated with the little sneaky tools they had to make your posts only visible to yourself. It looks like CS is doing the same thing, just try to post an honest critical view of their current “(un)safety measures and you will see what I mean

  • Nate S

    I have to add my voice to the chorus: Couchsurfing has failed to address serious privacy and security concerns, and chooses to delete accounts belonging to users that voice these issues rather than simply correcting them. Its a customer service nightmare.

    It is possible for a user to sign up multiple fake accounts to serve as references for a master fake account. This account then communicates with a prospective host/guest and would seem to be legitimate. Its a huge security gap. The unsuspecting user could be walking into a compromising situation, or worse.

    People using couchsurfing.org should always meet their hosts in a public place to feel them out before staying under the same roof, and have a plan B.

  • 6YearVeteranCSers

    I sadly have to add my voice to the growing crowd of dissent. I used to be a Couchsurfing evangelists. Friends and family would always hear about the great experiences I had through couch surfing. But it’s changing quickly and not for the better. It seems that after switching to a For-Profit instead of Not-For-Profit (I understand this wasn’t a choice in that the founders were making TOO much profit on couchsurfing) the site has switched focus. It used to be about connecting people. Now the focus seems to be only on growing the number of surfers. Every new change seems to be made in order to make it easier on the visiting surfers. In the process though the organization has distanced itself from the wonderful people who made the site great, the hosts and local community leaders. And on top of this that recent any local leader that speaks out against the changes can face a profile deletion as the ambassadors of Berlin and Chicago have recent been subject to. My hope is that Couchsurfing investors wake up and shake up the existing staff. Allow for user input before changes. Reinstate any users profile that was removed for dissent. Other wise I will have to watch as couchsurfing is driven into the ground as the it becomes 4 million surfers no hosts except predators.

  • Martin Farlow

    This article forgot to mention the massive civil war that is occurring within CS at the moment.

    On one side are the people who work at CS HQ, most of whom are not from the CS community. On the other side are the people who have been involved for many years, volunteered their time & money, and helped build CS into what it is today. At the moment, CS HQ are making some mistakes on the website, and their response to criticism has been to censor posts, close down feedback, close down or hide inconvenient groups, remove profiles without reason, and pretend that nothing is wrong.

    It’s not good.

  • TehJackal

    I have to jump in and add my discontent at the situation there. Almost all of the current employees at the CouchSurfing organization are not CouchSurfers whatsoever. They are merely people working a job. And that is exactly how they all treat it, as “work”. It’s not a community or a lifestyle, to them it’s a paycheck. 95% of the pre-investment staff has been in one way or another let go or forced-out, where the old staff not only worked for CouchSurfing, they LIVED CouchSurfing. The organization has a history of not really listening to their members even before the investors stepped in, but when they stepped in things took a even worse, the investors now also didn’t listen to the old staff, and merely want to guide it in whatever direction they see fit. A lot of the new technical team are largely incompetent at their jobs which they have worked “in the industry” for years. Even with the new team there has been repeated malicious activity internally including the repositioning of their privacy policy to allow them to get away with more things (including the potential sale of data) and they have begun to eliminate any concept of free speech on the entire website by simply deleting profiles and muting anyone who asks why things are so messed up. It’s a sad sad day, err, last 2 years. The creation and destruction of an amazing community that could truly change the world.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robin.vanderbilt.3 Robin Vanderbilt

    I am a quite active CS user, having hosted about 20 people and travelled with another 10 or so. Until one year ago I would have promoted CS without any problem…but I’m afraid the website is not the same anymore, and also the safety has gone down the drain. Because CS wants to have as many members as possible, they will accept just about anybody and it is easy to create fake profiles and give yourself fake references and vouches. The amount of spam and of non-personalized request, and the major mistake that was the “‘pages” (boy is that inventor going to be fired) make the website very difficult to use.
    I would suggest looking for other alternatives, there are a couple that come to mind…

  • ex-CS

    Everything that had to be said has been alraedy said in the comments below. I wonder when there is going to be an exhaustive article about how the new CS management ruined a perfectly working community. After 3 years of active hosting and surfing I cannot take anymore spam messages, ‘remodelling of the website’ and dating tools. Adios CS :'(