For nearly two decades Couchsurfing.org has been synonymous with couchsurfing. But amidst growing disillusionment over its direction, Couchers.org is emerging as an alternative platform. To find out how its vision for the couchsurfing movement differs, we spoke with Co-Founder Itsi Weinstock.
Travellers crave authenticity, something real. And whatever that means in practice, most people who have couchsurfed seem to agree that being hosted by a stranger, for free, while visiting a place is conducive to authentic experiences. With no incentive for the host beyond being helpful and hanging out, to couchsurf is to make a genuine connection with somebody local.
For almost two decades, small-c couchsurfing has been synonymous with capital-C Couchsurfing. Launched in 2004, Couchsurfing had over 1 million users by 2009, and claims to have between 12 and 14 million today. For millions around the world, the platform has facilitated deeply meaningful relationships and travel experiences.
While debates about how to steward the movement aren’t new, dissatisfaction with the Couchsurfing model has been growing. The latest, and arguably most significant, alternative to grow from this dissatisfaction is Couchers. Is the couchsurfing movement at a crossroads?
'Travellers crave authenticity, something real. And whatever that means in practice, most people who have couchsurfed seem to agree that being hosted by a stranger, for free, while visiting a place is conducive to authentic experiences.'
In 2011 Couchsurfing became a for-profit company and took $7.6 million in venture funding from Benchmark Capital and Omidyar Network. Originally a bootstrapped, quasi-utopian project propelled by a committed collective of volunteers, Couchsurfing has since become a business seeking a return. As Andrew Fedorov’s piece in Input Mag recounts, the founders have been ousted, many more millions have been invested and, after a series of tribulations, guarded investor Patrick Dugan is at the helm.
This commercialisation has sowed discontent since it started, but most recently came to a head in May 2020, as Covid ground the travel industry to a halt. With a week’s notice, Couchsurfing responded by imposing a paywall - $2.39 per month, or $14.29 per year - for users to access their accounts. For some members this was the final straw. Though it’s impossible to say how many, because Couchsurfing doesn’t publish membership data, we can be sure this group contained Itsi Weinstock and Aapeli Vuorinen, who decided to launch an alternative.
“There seems to be this general consensus that the best time for Couchsurfing was between 2008 and 2011,” says Weinstock. “Part of me is like, ‘Okay, it's just rose-tinted glasses on this thing in the past as they were first getting into it … but at the same time I do think there is something to be said of it.” Couchers’ explanation for this decline is Couchsurfing’s move to a for-profit model. “The incentive structures they had changed, so that they needed to be extracting money from the community,” Weinstock says, “and they weren't able to do that in a way that didn't compromise.”
This compromise is partly principled. Many ‘core’, longtime couchsurfers, in particular, object to profiting from free peer-to-peer hospitality. While any couchsurfing platform needs to cover its costs, some think extracting shareholder profit undermines the founding couchsurfing ethic. A profit motive also risks polluting the hosting relationship. Despite promising in 2011 that surfing would forever be free, in 2016 Couchsurfing briefly experimented with small surfing fees. Though many surfers probably wouldn’t object to paying hosts a small fee, doing so would undeniably alter the relationship.
In any case, the for-profit compromise is mostly practical, as Couchers sees it. The team thinks the heightened pressure to make money - for shareholders, and to cover costs like a larger team, scaled technology and expensive offices - has influenced incentives in ways that undermine the quality and safety of the couchsurfing experience.
Before detailing Couchers’ analysis, it’s important to note that Couchsurfing rejects the idea that profit pressures are compromising its platform. In a blog published in the aftermath of the paywall controversy, Couchsurfing writes that since 2015 it has been a self-sustaining entity. 99% of the $22.6 million of venture funding raised in 2011 and 2012 was supposedly spent by 2015, used “to improve, scrap, and replace technology that was outdated and expensive to maintain.” The blog also explains that the company reduced its costs before 2020, in part by leaving its plush San Francisco office in 2018 and switching to remote working. Furthermore, the blog states, “the money we earn at Couchsurfing has always gone straight back into the product.” It attributes the paywall not to extracting shareholder profit or rising personnel costs, but to technological costs associated with scaling.
Without transparent accounts, it’s impossible to verify the source of Couchsurfing’s financial pressures. Either way, Couchers feels that efforts to solve them have backfired. The central example Weinstock gives is that, of the various revenue-raising mechanisms Couchsurfing has tested in recent years, income from verification fees - fees members can pay to verify their accounts - has emerged, alongside advertising, as the primary source. This, he argues, has necessitated a member recruitment drive and a significant increase in Couchsurfing members. Though the same Couchsurfing blog confirms membership has increased, it also claims that the company spent no money on marketing between 2016 and the paywall.
More members seems a good thing, but the verification model has created problems. For example, to incentivise verification, Couchsurfing limited the number of messages non-verified members can send to ten per week. This creates what Couchers calls a ‘superhost effect’ whereby surfers are incentivised, with limited messages, to contact the hosts most likely to respond - typically so-called superhosts with lots of references. This serves to centralise local couchsurfing communities, with fewer hosts welcoming more guests each, rather than surfers being dispersed more equally among hosts. To combat this, Couchers won’t limit messages, and will experiment with features like randomising the order in which hosts are displayed (while still allowing surfers to sort and filter) and listing any number of references above a certain amount, say 20, as simply 20+, just like LinkedIn’s ‘500+ connections’ feature.
More members also means more work stewarding local communities: making people feel welcome, integrating new demographics, spreading the community ethos, upholding values. Falling short on this stewarding work, Couchers argues, risks weakening community ties. For example, Weinstock says he increasingly hears couchsurfers complaining that new members are more likely to be seeking a free place to crash and less likely to want to really connect. Though desiring a community of engaged members with shared values is understandable, where does one draw the line? Such complaints can stray dangerously close to a prejudice against members not perceived as somehow authentic, and no doubt a form of couchsurfing gatekeeping exists.
Couchers isn’t interested in policing motivations, Weinstock says. But they do think a healthy couchsurfing platform requires a decentralised movement made of thriving local communities, with local community figures playing important roles. Empowering motivated local members to host events, build community, input into strategic decisions and otherwise engage with and guide the platform is the best way, as Couchers sees it, to foster strong community and a shared ethos, even as membership scales. These members are crucial in “setting the standard for what the culture is,” Weinstock says. They “really understand that it should be non-transactional, that you're not here for dating - that you have to be respectful and welcoming. People that run events are super inclusive people.”
Community leaders also hold the platform to account. “Being community led is making sure people that are in decision-making positions, and people who are important in creating and maintaining the platform, are drawn from the community,” Weinstock says. “We have to trust community leaders; they know what they’re doing.” Without members at the heart of decision-making, Couchers thinks decisions - especially those around increasing profit - are more likely to undermine the community. It’s certainly harder to imagine the sudden paywall, or the removal of groups, with meaningful community input.
The Couchers team feels Couchsurfing has lost sight of this. The for-profit move alienated some key community figures immediately. The volunteer safety team was disbanded shortly afterwards. Then, during a website redesign, city ‘groups’ - one of Couchsurfing’s central features, akin to Facebook groups - were deleted overnight. General decision-making has also become much more centralised. Though Couchsurfing has an Ambassador programme, Couchers doesn’t feel it gives ambassadors - i.e. local community leaders - enough agency.
In other words, Couchsurfing finds itself in need of strong local communities just as the people most likely to steward those communities - longtime couchsurfers, and members for whom couchsurfing represents a source of community beyond hosting - feel most alienated. It’s not that anybody working at Couchsurfing started caring less about community, Weinstock emphasises, but that different financial pressures have created different priorities.
'Being community led is making sure people that are in decision-making positions, and people who are important in creating and maintaining the platform, are drawn from the community.'
Couchers plans to put community leaders at the heart of its platform. From the start it has prioritised features that help ‘Community Builders’ grow local communities - things like event and group pages, moderation power, regular community consultation, public discussions and practical advice and support for members starting new communities. This helps populate the new platform, but also empowers members to shape strategy, moderate local activity and otherwise lead on establishing a welcoming couchsurfing culture.
But what’s the long-term model?
Unlike Couchsurfing, Couchers is a registered 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organisation. This means assets can only go to other nonprofits or the government, and Couchers can use volunteers. “Being a nonprofit doesn't make it less viable,” Weinstock says. “It just means we won’t take on investment. All the other channels are still open to us. It's just we’re not going to be extractive.” In terms of revenue, “the model we want to try and follow is one like Wikipedia,” he says. “They do have a core employed team that are driven by donations, but the bulk of the Wikipedia community is driven by volunteers. I think that's a realistic kind of business model.” Beyond donations, Couchers will look at grant funding. Because the platform is committed to remaining free forever, revenue from verification fees is unlikely, and not in the team’s plans. Any future conversation in this direction, Weinstock says, would need to proceed with community consultation and buy-in at every stage. Neither does he think advertising would work, because it would incentivise Couchers to keep eyes in the app and risk undermining user experience and losing goodwill.
'Being a nonprofit doesn't make it less viable,” Weinstock says. “It just means we won’t take on investment. All the other channels are still open to us. It's just we’re not going to be extractive.'
“If we use volunteers at every stage through the community, we can have local moderation where small things that come up can be dealt with locally and given to a central team that's qualified when necessary,” Weinstock says. The key is distributing responsibilities evenly and fairly enough to build enough trust, engagement and accountability to run a safe, thriving platform. But with the model relying so heavily on engaged members willing to volunteer time, what are the ethics around relying on volunteer labour? And how will Couchers maintain a reliable supply?
The key to both is making Couchers an excellent place to volunteer, Weinstock responds. Partly this means upholding core commitments to remaining not for profit, free to use and open source. In other words, upholding a vision volunteers believe in. But most of all it means being genuinely community-led: giving volunteers meaningful responsibilities and input into decisions that shape Couchers. It’s important that “people feel able to have an input into things and be taken seriously,” he says. “And it's really about making sure those channels are there, keeping them strong and creating new channels where possible to make sure that there is as much feedback as possible.” At minimum this means regular, transparent consultation through the forum. Beyond that, a formal governance structure - including who is paid (nobody, yet) - is a work in progress, though the team does envision a board of directors comprising passionate couchsurfers with experience building organisations.
The biggest test of this model is likely to be community safety, something that has plagued Couchsurfing. “It’s not uncommon for women to have used Couchsurfing exactly once,” Weinstock says. Indeed, over the last decade Couchsurfing has been beset by instances of sexual harrassment enabled by its platform. The problem ramped up in the aftermath of the member-recruitment drive of 2012 to 2013. Before that, Weinstock says, “the impression I get is that … people felt safer and people felt more included.”
There is no easy fix here. The Couchers team does think stronger communities, and listening closely to members, can help reduce negative behaviours. Accordingly, members will have power to moderate local activity, resolve issues (not without a central safety team), welcome new members and even verify new members in-person. “We believe better safety outcomes arise when consequences don't come from on-high but rather from the local community that you are accountable to,” Weinstock summarises.
'It’s not uncommon for women to have used Couchsurfing exactly once.'
Accounts will also be removed upon complaints of sexual harrassment - something not always followed by Couchsurfing. And Couchers will focus more on community standing. At the moment, as with reporting of sexual harrassment in other spheres, “it’s kind of dangerous to publicly call people out,” Weinstock says. To do so risks reliving trauma, public disbelief and retaliation. To incentivise honest feedback Couchers will allow anonymous reviews, specifically around the question of whether a host made a surfer feel uncomfortable. More honesty should help surfers more accurately determine risk thresholds and generally create more accountability, the logic goes.
This said, Couchers doesn’t think safety can be ensured through a few simple decisions. Safety is a complex problem, and these measures are part of a wider safety-improvement process rooted in close member consultation and, hopefully in the future, partnerships with expert organisations. Indeed, members can only shoulder so much responsibility, and there remains a question over the resources required to effectively ensure safety. In 2013, outgoing Couchsurfing CEO Tony Espinoza felt the company needed more human resources to address the problem. If he’s right, will Couchers’ community-led model prove more effective?
What does couchsurfing’s next chapter look like?
The threats to Couchsurfing shouldn’t be overstated. At least over the medium term it will certainly remain the dominant platform. Indeed, its paywall calculation explicitly assumed a drop off in membership. As it stands, BeWelcome, founded in 2007, claims to have 210,000 members and Trust Roots, founded in 2015, says it has 80,000.
Couchers has just 18,000 members, and is growing at a slower rate than either BeWelcome or Trust Roots did initially. On the face of it the numbers don’t look promising. But unlike BeWelcome or Trust Roots, Couchers is set up to become a dominant couchsurfing platform. It has a more formalised structure and more active and professional volunteer base. It’s also very early days.
These numbers reflect the fact that critiques of Couchsurfing are front of mind for only a specific subset of couchsurfers. But that subset is important. If the most active, influential couchsurfers begin migrating, and if Couchers successfully markets itself as a seamless, community-led couchsurfing experience, then reaching critical mass, or at least growing markedly, seems plausible.
The most likely scenario is a more pluralistic couchsurfing movement: the fiercely anti-profit options of BeWelcome and Trust Roots at one end, the for-profit giant that is Couchsurfing on the other and Couchers somewhere in the middle, no doubt with plenty of overlap. And in some ways Weinstock is keen to play down the differences. “We've had hundreds if not thousands of conversations with all kinds of people,” he says. “Everyone is 95% on the same page about what's needed. We want all the best features of Couchsurfing in a nonprofit model: making sure things are free, improving some safety aspects and giving power to local community leaders. These are really uncontroversial things, and we're very lucky to be working on a project that is so uncontroversial.”
But the financial model is important. While Couchers has many questions to answer and challenges to overcome, and while it may yet fail, a vision of community-led, non-profit organisations and movements is worth championing. The tendrils of capitalism have infiltrated most corners of the (adventure) world. To resist the profit motive by creating spaces unequivocally beyond its reach is to preserve something essential to the spirit of adventure.