CouchSurfing is a corporation based in San Francisco that offer its users hospitality exchange and social networking services. It recently suffered significant criticism from thousands of users after becoming a for-profit corporation after having been been a non-profit for many years. Couchsurfing is a neologism referring to the practice of moving from one friend’s house to another, sleeping in whatever spare space is available, floor or couch, generally staying a few days before moving on to the next house.

The CouchSurfing project was conceived by Casey Fenton in 1999. According to Fenton’s account, the idea arose after finding an inexpensive flight from Boston to Iceland. Fenton randomly e-mailed 1,500 students from the University of Iceland asking if he could stay. He ultimately received more than 50 offers of accommodation. On the return flight to Boston, he began to develop the ideas that would underpin the CouchSurfing project.

Free to register, members have the option of providing information and pictures of themselves and of the sleeping accommodation they offer, if any. More information provided by a member, and other members, improves the chances that someone will find the member trustworthy enough to be his host or guest. Security is often measured in the reference established by networking. Volunteers may verify names and addresses. Members looking for accommodation can search for hosts using several parameters such as age, location, gender and activity level.

Homestays are consensual between the host and guest, and the duration, nature, and terms of the guest’s stay are generally worked out in advance. No monetary exchange takes place except for compensation of incurred expenses (e.g. food). CouchSurfing provides editable travel guides and forums where members may seek travel partners or advice. CouchSurfing’s main focus is ‘social networking’ and members organize activities such as camping trips, bar crawls, meetings, and sporting events.

There are three methods designed to increase security and trust, which are all visible on member profiles for potential hosts and surfers: Personal references, which hosts and surfers have the option to leave after having used the service. An optional credit card verification system, allowing members to ‘lock in’ their name and address by making a credit card payment and entering a code that CouchSurfing mails to an address of their choice. This also allows CouchSurfing to recoup some costs by requiring a fee for verification. For fairness, the verification fee is based on a sliding scale, taking into account the Purchasing Power Parity and Human Development Index of the country of residence. A personal vouching system, whereby a member that had been vouched for three times — originally starting with the founders of the site — might in turn vouch for any number of other members he knew or had met through CouchSurfing, and trusts.

Members who wished to volunteer for various tasks on the site and help spread the word about CouchSurfing in general are able to become ambassadors. Ambassadors must be role-models and actively promote the CouchSurfing spirit among members and to the public. In addition to promoting use of the site, they greet new members, help with questions and perform other administrative tasks, all on a volunteer basis.

Couchsurfers represents more than 80,000 unique towns in 245 states and territories. Around 20% of the couchsurfers registered their country as being the United States, with Germany, France, Canada and England also registering large numbers of participants. The city with the largest number of resident couchsurfers is Paris. English is spoken by nearly 74% of registered Couchsurfers, French (20%), Spanish (17%) and German (16%). The average age of participants is 28.

In 2006, the project experienced a number of computer problems resulting in much of the database being irrevocably lost. Due to the volume of critical data that had been lost, Casey Fenton was of the opinion that the project could not be resurrected. He sent an e-mail to all members: ‘It is with a heavy heart that I face the truth of this situation. CouchSurfing as we knew it doesn’t exist anymore.’ Fenton’s e-mail was met with vocal opposition to the termination of the project and considerable support for its recreation. A CouchSurfing Collective was underway in Montreal at the time and those in attendance committed to fully recreating the original site, with users to re-enter their profile data.

In 2009 in Leeds, UK, a man named Abdelali Nachet raped a woman from Hong Kong who stayed at his place through the CouchSurfing project. Nachet was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In 2011, CouchSurfing announced its certification as a for-profit corporation. A $7.6 million million dollar investment was raised by Benchmark Capital. The site had previously been financially operated using revenue from the voluntary identity verification service. The announcement that CouchSurfing had become a for-profit corporation created a backlash from core members and volunteers with the organization. A protest group within CouchSurfing of more than 1,400 members was formed entitled ‘We are against CS becoming a corporation.’ The protesters argue that CouchSurfing’s source code and user database is community created and should not be used for profits. In an interview with Spanish national daily newspaper ‘El País,’ CEO Dan Hoffer stated that there’s a plan to let the company grow much bigger and the final objective is to go public.

The mission statement of CouchSurfing is: ‘At CouchSurfing International, we envision a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter. Building meaningful connections across cultures enables us to respond to diversity with curiosity, appreciation and respect. The appreciation of diversity spreads tolerance and creates a global community.’


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