Advertisements

Goodbye Couchsurfing?

Have a couch for me?

Have a couch for me?

I have once or twice already stated that one of the pleasures of world travel is the joy of meeting people from many countries and experiencing their culture and customs firsthand.
That is why I have long sung the praises of Couchsurfing to anyone who would listen. The hospitality and social networking website allowed me for the past two years to connect with thousands of individuals from around the world. Through Couchsurfing, I hosted hundreds of travelers in Miami. And since I began this journey, many of them  have returned the favor and hosted me in their countries. And I have met hundreds more that I now call friends. What an amazingly brilliant idea, Couchsurfing! Truly life-changing.
For those who have never heard of Couchsurfing, allow me this introduction: You go to http://www.couchsurfing.org, click sign up, fill out a profile, upload as many photos of yourself as you like, choose whether you want to host travelers in your home, just meet them in a social setting, or just give them tour information about your city or town. You also have the option to attend dozens of weekly activities or events and meetings organized by local or visiting couchsurfers or create activities yourself that others can join.
Plainly put, Couchsurfing is about intercultural exchange. You invite complete strangers to crash on your couch – or whatever space you have in your home – and you part as new friends. What you gain is knowledge of another person, his or her country and culture, and no money is exchanged. Yep, all free. You leave each other references on the site – sharing whether or not the experience was positive, neutral or negative. There are also other safety valves on the site. It works. Or should I say, it worked?

Money sometimes corrupts. It has a way of destroying beauty, derailing a good thing. Insert money in any positive situation and watch the negatives fly. In the past

Lots of time spent in Miami hanging out with CouchSurfers. That's me on the right, front row, in the New York Yankees baseball cap. Respect!

Lots of time spent in Miami hanging out with CouchSurfers. That’s me on the right, front row, in the New York Yankees baseball cap. Respect!

year at Couchsurfing, the negatives have unfortunately outweighed the positives, with the site remaking itself from a nonprofit, member-run organization to a for profit company with salivating investors rubbing their hands as they try to come up with ways to turn a profit on the millions of dollars they’ve invested. And the members of Couchsurfing, who see themselves as a community of volunteers who helped build the site and make Couchsurfing the success story that it is today, are upset, confused, left feeling betrayed.
Couchsurfing – which was launched in 2004  by founder Casey Fenton – counts “ambassadors” among its most active volunteers. Couchsurfing ambassadors keep the community  engaged, going to extra mile to help visitor and local alike. I am proud to say I became an ambassador after months of involvement with Couchsurfing, hosting, traveling and promoting activities. I was asked to be an ambassador (while traveling in Chile) and I gladly accepted the honor. But months later, Casey Fenton  changed the legal status of Couchsurfing from a nonprofit to a for-profit corporation and sold the new company to outside investors. Fenton walked away with a hefty load of cash while the volunteers who were directly or indirectly responsible for building the site were left wondering what would become of them and the site. What followed was the hiring of a CEO and paid professional staff. Almost immediately, there were grumblings from members around the world that the staff was inexperienced and unfamiliar with Couchsurfing as a community. The person brought in to oversee the ambassadors – Bill Loundy – gave them fuel for the rising fire with a memo in which he said he would not communicate with them in a forum where ambassador gather on the site to discuss issues. Loundy made a series of other  missteps and pronouncements that did not go over well and there were calls for his dismissal. One ambassador in from Australia left with a reference on his profile that called him “a turkey.” That reference was quickly erased. Other ambassadors came to his defense with the words “give him a chance”. But Loundy didn’t take that chance as he proceeded to ignore the ambassadors and their concerns for months at a time. His defenders pretty much grew silent.

Then as more investor money came, the staff of clueless 20-somethings hired to run the site grew. Most had not even been members of the Couchsurfing community until they were hired and it showed in every statement – or should I say misstatement – they made. And the man brought in to lead the team – CEO Tony Espinoza – proved to be no brainiac himself. How else to explain the incompetence that has since followed? So thus began the beginning of the end of a Couchsurfing, a once great travel and hospitality website. I say the beginning of the end even as I  hold out hope that Espinoza and his reckless crew will wise up and not completely destroy Couchsurfing. At this writing, it’s only partially damaged, and the Clueless in San Francisco – that’s where Couchsurfing is headquartered – have already said they do not intend to fix some of the problems they’ve created with the changes of the site. It’s their way or the highway. With that attitude they will all soon be out of a job. But they don’t yet get that.

Well, hundreds, perhaps thousands of experienced couchsurfers around the world have taken that highway and abandoned Couchsurfing, many of them ambassadors, the very people you want to attract to a site such as Couchsurfing. Others have also quit and joined another hospitality website – BeWelcome – as still many more say they will wait to see what happens next. They – like me – have one foot out the door. My patience is long, but the utter disrespect I can’t take much more of it.

Traveling without Couchsurfing, but still on track

Traveling without Couchsurfing, but still on track

A great “migration” of Couchsurfers to BeWelcome is planned for February 14 – Valentine’s Day – presumably just so Couchsurfing leadership in San Francisco is made to feel the love? 🙂 Date aside, many have not bothered to wait. They’ve already left the site, complaining that Couchsurfing management is only about quantity not quality – the number of couchsurfers has grown in the past year largely because of word of mouth, linkage to Facebook and other social media. The couchsurfers that have recently joined have done so lured  and misled by the notion of a free place to stay while they are traveling, rather than by the idea of intercultural exchange espoused by more experienced couchsurfers. The “old timers” complain that the uninformed “newbies” have contributed to the deterioration in quality experiences on the site. They argue that the Couchsurfing management team only cares about growing the numbers to satisfy investors looking to sell the database with member information and get a big payday on their investment. The clash recently escalated and grew more heated when the website underwent a complete makeover without word or warning or consultation with the members through a beta test. The roll out of the new site was so bad and so mishandled and the changes so widely hated that thousands of couchsurfers around the world took to the site – once they were able to access it – to strongly log a global protest not seen on the site in recent memory.  Couchsurfing headquarters was so beset with complaints that it set up a feedback forum to have members voice their concerns. The complaints persisted for weeks and the Couchsurfing leadership certainly got an earful. Some changes were made based on user suggestions, but the unprofessional behavior of Couchsurfing staffers only fanned the flames. In response to members concerns, some of the paid Couchsurfing professionals posted “funny” pictures of cats. Other staffers deleted posts they didn’t like, while others issued threats in response to tough questioning from users. The message was loud and clear: “Couchsurfing is not a democracy” – as one staffer wrote. That was a bitter pill for some longtime Couchsurfing members to swallow as they had grown accustomed to open discussions, no censorship.
The backlash that San Francisco got from the membership was so intense that CEO Espinoza and others were forced to admit that they handled the whole roll out poorly and to announce that any future changes to the site would involve the community. Espinoza and Loundy held a live webcast to address concerns but some still remained skeptical. They’ve been asking Espinoza and his team to roll back the changes to the site, something that Espinoza has said he won’t do.
And so people continue to leave the site while others wait and hope the site can be saved. Personally, I am giving Couchsurfing another month or two – beyond Valentine’s Day. But I – as others have already done – will create a BeWelcome account. My advise to friends who have asked my opinion on this matter is to do the same. It doesn’t hurt to have a Couchsurfing and a BeWelcome account. It’s smart.

Couchsurfing isn't the only way to meet people while traveling, but it was/is the best. Here, friends I met through another site, www.workaway.info

Couchsurfing isn’t the only way to meet people while traveling, but it was/is the best. Here, friends I met through another site, http://www.workaway.info

You increase your chances of finding a host and meeting people. And should Couchsurfing turn out to no longer be your cup of tea, you will BeWelcome.
As for my journey, the changes at Couchsurfing have made it difficult to navigate the site. Any changes were supposed to improve, not make the site worse. And the Couchsurfing leadership team to its credit has made some changes after the outcries of members. And now they insist they are listening to members, but there’s still censorship – something that didn’t previously exist on Couchsurfing. Anything that smacks of bad-mouthing the changes or calling for defection to BeWelcome is deleted. Some members have even had their profiles deleted after criticizing Couchsurfing staff or changes. Because of all this and more, the mass worldwide mutiny has not been silenced and won’t be in the face of these changes and perceived attacks from management.
With all this, I’ve had to change my mode of traveling. I was primarily using Couchsurfing. But a travel website that is not user-friendly, censors, has implemented an outrageous terms of use policy (which also caused mass uproar), and is run by a bunch of inexperienced 20-somethings who don’t know anything about the site and behave like third-graders, would  have such an ill effect.
I now travel through workaway.info, choosing longer stays in certain places, and for shorter stays, through established contacts on Facebook. And while I still maintain friendships I’ve made on Couchsurfing, most of those friendships are on Facebook. I am hoping Couchsurfing will survive. I really am. But if the people in San Francisco continue down the path they’ve so far chosen – ignoring and outright dismissing the concerns of members and censoring posts and groups – I fear it is indeed the beginning of the end of Couchsurfing. At least it will be for me.

One of many social events around the world I organized as a Couchsurfing traveling ambassador. This one, attended by hundreds of couchsurfers, was in Krakow, Poland.

One of many social events around the world I organized as a Couchsurfing traveling ambassador. This one, attended by hundreds of local and traveling couchsurfers, was in Krakow, Poland.  Look at all those awesome people representing many countries! That’s me in front (legs on my shoulders). The Couchsurfing banner is the one I’ve been traveling with, but it soon became an “old banner” after Couchsurfing headquarters changed our logo for a puzzling loop that looks like a highway on ramp, or a weirdly shaped figure 8, or a hangman’s noose (oh, the irony) another random and unilateral decision that confused and angered couchsurfers around the world. I still have the banner and a bunch of the “old style” stickers, all relics.  Maybe they’ll become collectors’ items and tangible evidence in business schools on how not to ruin a successful website in one year without even trying? Carry on.

Advertisements
Categories: posts | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Post navigation

12 thoughts on “Goodbye Couchsurfing?

  1. Jason

    Mike,

    This is a very on-point assessment of how the couchsurfing website has changed (for the worse) since becoming a for profit company. I just came across what you wrote now with the terrible new interface that was implemented with the site going from .org to .com. I think couchsurfing in this newest form means CS is officially dead. I am a very active member also from Miami. I have seen your profile before simply because you have hosted and had a great deal of references. I think I too will now make a BeWelcome profile although just doing some random searches on their site about places im planning to go show no members where CS i can find several.

    Jason

    Like

  2. “introduction: You go to http://www.couch$urfing.org, click sign up, fill out a profile, upload as many photos of yourself as you like, choose whether you want to host travelers in your home, just meet them in a social setting, or just give them tour information about your city or town. You also have the option to attend dozens of weekly activities or events and meetings organized by local or visiting couchsurfers or create activities yourself that others can join.”

    That intro in your article is quite crazy, aren’t you afraid to send them new users ? (who could get scamed by the verification process…)

    Like

    • Not in the least. People are intelligent enough (I’d like to think) to make choices after being informed.

      Like

      • The problem is:
        Are you sure everybody is going to read your 2000 word article ?

        I wouldn’t link CS, and If I had been an ambassador; I would feel sorry for having (directly or indirectly) directed people to their verification scam. This would definitely be a concience problem for me.

        They paid laywers to steal the site from the community, with the community money… 🙂
        How cynical is that ?

        Like

  3. Hi Michael,

    I am a software engineer at Couchsurfing responding to this blog post completely on my own behalf.

    I can’t address every topic you’ve brought up in your post but you are basically right in that if we chose to ignore our community (the people we are building all this stuff for) we completely lose. You may or may not know how difficult building a web app that unanimously makes millions of people happy. CS had to be rebuilt (and still needs a lot of work), there was no other sane alternative. With the amount of growth the site was seeing the old codebase and infrastructure underneath it would have collapsed, the non-profit roots of CS meant that the code base was basically a big ass ball of duct tape, impossible to maintain into the future. What we are experiencing right now sucks, but we know it is part of the growing pains for getting the design right so that all the things you need to do are easy. We are not there yet.

    We are listening. We are also thinking about the future, what about all the awesome people out there who have never tried CS? This is an inclusive thing. Yes, there are problems, they annoy us too but we are working to get it right. Our new infrastructure we’ve been building actually makes it easier for us to push new features to the live site in response to issues members report. The way you have described us is very different than what I see and experience every day working here.

    I hope something I’ve said clicks with you but obviously I cannot do anything to change your impression of what is going on here.

    Thanks for sharing how you feel. Feel free to hit me up on CS if you’re ever in San Francisco, I’m “DYLANC”.

    Like

    • Thanks for writing. I appreciate how hard all the programmers at CS are working to bring us a site that is modern and that works. I remember days of not being able to access the site because it kept crashing under the old code. My quarrel is not with you. You answer to someone higher up the chain and we as ambassadors and members of CS have been dealing with some of them and the experience has not been good, not at all. It’s been shocking to me the level of unprofessional behavior, stunning really. I as person with management experience would have fired the whole lot of them. Heck, I wouldn’t have hired them in the first place. And the one person that was showing some level of understanding and professional behavior – Meredith – has suddenly vanished, “left the company” only months into her tenure. So I like many couchsurfers have lost faith and trust in the public faces of CS at CS headquarters. As I told Sam Houston (whom by the way, I respect for at least turning up to respond to our concerns), from here on out it will be deeds not words that will restore trust in the CS management team and whether CS dies like so many websites that have come before. I say to the powers that be at CS: Don’t underestimate the power of ambassadors and other seasoned couchsurfers to influence others into joining, staying or leaving CS. And just to be clear, I’m still with CS and will remain with CS for now. Whether or not I stay and tell my friends to leave will depend on CS leadership in San Francisco, not me! They can start with a change of attitude, mainly on the censorship question. If anything, that’s the one thing that will kill CS. Be thick skinned enough to take criticism.
      As for the programmers, one suggestion where improvements can be made is to separate the Open Couch Requests from the Conversations. Give the OCR its own separate column on the site. As it now stands, Conversations looks like and is an endless string of couch requests. Very annoying. In Miami and elsewhere, that’s the biggest complaint. It’s one that discourages locals from spending any time in the forum. I have many suggestions which I believe are solid and would help improve the site. But I’ve been left with the feeling nobody in San Francisco gives two hoots about anything I have to say and it’s just a waste of my precious time. I’m not alone.

      Michael

      Like

      • I’m glad I decided to respond to the post. I kinda debated whether or not to speak up but I’m glad we are communicating.

        I’d definitely like to hear your ideas for improvement. One of the biggest challenges right now is educating all the people new to CS how to conduct themselves in the least annoying way possible. You are right, seeing nothing but couch requests on Place page conversations is annoying and not why we designed that feature. Most of the OCRs are coming from people who have signed up in the last several months.

        You may or may not be aware of our flagging system that is in place now for conversation posts. You are able to flag posts as being off-topic or being blatant OCRs, we are putting in place more tools which will allow responsible members to moderate the content showing up on Places.

        We are in that difficult transition period (technically) where we still have parts of the system running off the old CS site and other new parts are running off the new one. Eventually all the features will be implemented on top of the new infrastructure and things will be much smoother. We are working at a rapid pace never before seen at CS. I am currently working on adding Activities to the new system and then new and improved People Search.

        If you don’t want to share ideas on the Feedback Forum (https://couchsurfing.zendesk.com/forums/21566438-ideas-suggestions) feel free to post any suggestions as a reply and I’ll do my best to get those to the right people.

        Like

      • Michael, You’ve been a member since November 27th, 2005 and you have 3 friends and 1 reference. I’m sure you’re a nice guy but your CS profile is indicative of CSHQ these days, people who control the site but don’t know what it’s like to live like a couchsurfer.

        (But well, I have to add that even before the conversion to a C corporation the community wasn’t really taken into account by people who did host and surf sometimes.)

        Like

        • Wrong name 🙂 I think your comments were directed at Dylan.

          Like

        • You are right! Everyone of us working at CS can do better. We should definitely use the site more ourselves and get out into the world more and not be building tools out from a purely theoretical realm.

          My own plan is to host more travelers this year and get more interaction with CSers outside of HQ. That’s not just some shit I’m saying to make anyone happy but what I feel is the right thing to do.

          Like

  4. Happy New Year! Love the pic on the couch.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: