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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.

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My So-Called [Facebook] Friends

Author and poet Maya Angelou, no longer a friend

 

I got rid of more than 200 of my Facebook “friends” this week.

My methodical slash and burn took almost a full day to complete. But the end result? Facebook now feels right.

I had been thinking for months about purging my friends list. But when I started the process Tuesday and ended well after midnight Wednesday, I had no idea it would take as much time and effort. I also never imagined so many would meet my newly sharpened ax. I started with 520 friends on my list, cut 223 and as of this writing was left with 297 Facebook friends who, with just two exceptions, I personally know.

Over the years, I had approved friend requests from people I knew little or nothing about. These requests had come from friend of friends, fellow journalists, former colleagues, purported family members from every corner of the world, and plain strangers. By allowing all manner of individuals to join in my Facebook circle, my Facebook wall became a rather impersonal and even unsettling place of random comments, lewd postings and unnecessary swearing. The people occupying my private-public space on the Internet were a band of individuals I had never met, friends who hardly offered so much as a “hello, how are you?” in months and in some cases years, and people who I wouldn’t normally have anything to do with in real life. Crudity juxtaposed with nudity.

Of course not everyone I unfriended was a troglodyte. Among them, there are some of the coolest people and journalism professionals I have ever met. But I am already connected to most of them through LinkedIn, and that’s where I think our relationship belongs – on that site largely dedicated to professional networking. My plan is to make Facebook a place for family and longtime friends with a sprinkle of professional relationships. And above all, it will be composed of people I have actually met.
For far too long my Facebook page has been a band of either perennially silent types just taking up space or prolific posters plastering my wall with nonsense or requests to join them in the latest kill-time games. No matter, it was high time to scrub the wall clean and start anew.

So now when I log in to Facebook, I immediately see and feel there’s a difference. I instantly recognize names and faces and we have conversations and share thoughts and ideas and important information about each other’s lives. I’m not constantly asking “who is this?” I know who it is – all 297 of them are truly friends who would not allow a birthday to go by without a heartfelt “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!”, as happened this week. But the best part is that my real friends aren’t getting lost in the mess of people I hardly know or don’t know at all.
Going through my list of friends on Facebook to decide who should stay and who should go was not a simple process. First of all, Facebook doesn’t offer bulk removal of friends. It would have been nice if in one or two clicks, dozens of  “friends” could be instantly dropped from the list. Instead, removal has to be done one painstaking man or woman at a time. And of course, with just about every deletion I paused to consider if they warranted deletion. In the process I was surprised by just how many people I had approved who were just lurking in the shadows. Among them, sadly, I counted three friends – really good friends – who were long dead, which begs the question, does Facebook even know how many dead people make up part of its closing in on 1 billion subscribers? At least one of my dear friends has been dead for a three years. I never bothered to delete him from my list of friends. I thought his profile would be eventually removed by his family or Facebook itself. His page is still up, a sort of tribute to his memory.
My new criteria for approving Facebook friend request is simple: I must know you personally. That means we’ve met face to face, either recently or you are a blast from my past. Of course, family I know to be family gets an instant in. No longer will I accept a friend request solely on the basis that we have the same last name. Who would have thought that the surname Ottey would turn out to be so popular! I had so many Otteys on my Facebook friends roster, it might as well had been the more common Smith.
By the way, a word to those I unfriended: It’s not personal. You are actually in good company. With you, I let go some instantly recognizable names, meaning some folks of national and international stature. Among them, author and poet Maya Angelou. Nothing against Ms. Angelou, just that she and I are not friends in the truest sense of the word. Yes, I met her and interviewed her at least three times in my career as a journalist, and she was every bit inspiring. She’s one of my heroes, in fact. I admire her. But again, we’re not friends. She approved my Facebook friend request almost soon after I sent it to her, and a couple of times I dropped in on her page to post birthday wishes on her wall, but we did not communicate directly on Facebook at all. I added her to my Mike Tends To Travel Facebook group, and unlike some other so-called friends, she remained in the group and continues to be a part of the group to this day. For that I publicly thank her and hope she is enjoying my travel stories, photos and discussions in the group. But I had to treat Ms. Angelou and other celebs and pseudo-celebs I counted among my list of friends with the same even hand. I didn’t come to this decision lightly. She was the 223rd person I unfriended – the very last. I know, some of you all will label me crazy for unfriending Maya Angelou. But she won’t miss me – she has more than 4,000 friends on her list. And by the way, that’s her personal Facebook page, not a fan page that every Tom, Dick and Harry can join.
Yet, her Facebook page seems to have been hijacked by spammers. I noticed people slapping ads for resort vacations and other products on her Facebook wall, and no recent postings from her, which leads me to believe she has hardly spent any time recently on Facebook.
I expect my friends list to grow again, but it will grow at a much slower pace than previously as I travel the world, and only with people whom I’ve met. It will be really exciting to have an ever-increasing collection of friends from around the world on Facebook, in much the same way my couchsurfing.org page is composed entirely of people I’ve met. I look forward to my new harmonious Facebook. And as for the rest of you who still want to be a part of my journey via Facebook, there is Facebook’s new subscribe option. That’s available to all. And we don’t even really have to be personal friends 🙂
Categories: asides | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Love Letter To Ugly Americans

When traveling abroad, some things you just have to accept and learn to live without. My last grande soy vanilla latte, four months ago, in Piura, Peru. Haven't seen a Starbucks since then.

This is my love letter to you, my dear Ugly American. There are things I so love about you, that I’m willing to hang in there with you for the sake of our relationship, stick it out for the long haul, make our time spent together abroad work.

Oh, sure, you can be loud, arrogant and disrespectful of the customs and cultures of others, and there were times you made me cringe, but we share so much in common that I’m willing to forgive your overseas foibles – well most of them.

I still somehow can’t bring myself to forgive your decision to climb that fragile stone archway to that ancient sacred temple in Machu Picchu, despite posted signs not to do so. No, you didn’t care. All you cared about was snapping some “cool” photo to text to your Facebook friends. And when a group of stunned visitors – myself included – implored you to get down, your reaction was classic Ugly American, spitting out f-bombs and telling all to “mind your f’u****ng business!” Oh, you were brilliant that day.

And when you threw that large rock down an Inca well that has stood for centuries, simply to check if there was actually water at the bottom, remember how angry I got? Oh, and how could I ever forgive or forget the time you tossed your empty Coke can toward a trash can in Barcelona and missed? You didn’t even think to pick it up, did you? No way. That’s just not your style. But, you know what, I applaud your effort to at least put it in the trash bin.

I…Oh wait, remember that summer we spent in West Africa? You proceeded to offend every person with whom you came in contact. You snapped your fingers at waiters like they were dogs, complained about everything, demanded the comforts of home, and when you couldn’t find anyone who spoke English, well, that’s when you completely lost it.

I know you as an American expect -wait, demand! -that any given country you visit be like America in comfort, custom and language. In short, in every way. So you get incensed that nobody in Middle Of Nowhere, Boltusa, speaks a lick of English. Heavens to Betsy! The Boltusans speak only Boltusan! What gives?!

As we’ve traveled around the world, the one question you’ve never heard me ask on approach of a local person is “Excuse me, do you speak English? That question lobbed at locals in Not My Country irritates me to no end. Think about it. You are in Your Hometown, U.S.A., and you’re approached suddenly by some inappropriately dressed jughead with a camera that looks aimed at you who asks: ” ‘Scuse me, do you speak Boltusan?”

Of course, your response would be a quizzical no. And  would you expect the Boltusan to get angry that for the past five minutes he’s been striking out finding anyone in America who speaks his language?

Okay, I see you right about now scratching your head wondering where in God‘s name is Boltusa? You are notoriously geographically challenged, I know. And you are widely known as a monolingual species. So let me bring it back to reality. [Forget trying to Google Boltusa! It doesn’t exist. I made it up to make a point. Sheeez, you know so little about the world. ]

Okay, stay with me this time. Imagine the French, who are notoriously fixated on keeping France free of American culture – a losing battle that at times compels them to issue the most stupid declarations in the name of conserving French purity – visiting the United States and expecting every other American he or she encounters to speak French. Now do you get it?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You are breathing fire at this point and firing up your e-mail mailer to teach me a lesson. But I heard it all before. You will tell me that English is the world’s common language, and that it’s spoken everywhere, so it should be normal for you or anyone else to ask that question and expect an affirmative answer. I say to you and them check your attitude on the Ugly American scale. Where is it written, dearest one, that it is the responsibility of locals to learn your language for your convenience? And who came up with the rules that the good people of Boltusa – sorry – must have English at the ready and deliver it at your command? Worst yet, why do you grow so angry if  the lovely Boltusans only speak their native language?

Let me share with you this story.

I once met a man from Ohio on a train platform in Japan who walked over to me and asked “Are you American?” When I responded yes, he said: “Thank goodness, someone who speaks English! Can’t find anybody who speaks English in this God-forsaken country!” Really Mr. Ohio?

Not a fact that in Japan it’s hard to find people who speak English, but if that were the case, why be surprised? You are in Japan, my good man, where they speak Japanese!

If I am planning a trip to Japan or Boltusa -can’t let it go – the first thing I do is try to learn a few survival words and phrases in Japanese and Boltusan. If I make the attempt to speak Japanese and fail and the Japanese person responds to me in English out of the kindness of his heart, great! I at least didn’t insult him by expecting him to speak my native language. That’s what mainly drives the French nuts about Americans. I don’t believe it’s a French unwillingness to speak English. I believe the French rightly get incensed when Americans on first approach practically demand that the French person direct them to the Louvre but do it in English, please, and thank you for speaking the dominant language. Perhaps these Americans who didn’t take the time to learn a few simple phrases in whatever native language should have stayed home in the Good Ol’ U.S. of A., where everyone speaks English. Well, almost everyone.

I suggest a better approach is to first try to communicate with the person in their own language combined with the true international language: point, gesture, smile. Give the local person the respect and courtesy and allow them the switch to English, if they so desire. Nine times out of 10, people who speak English in addition to their native language will gladly speak to you in English if you are struggling with their language. And they appreciate your attempt to first try to communicate in their native tongue. But strutting around the street like a bull asking one person after the other the dreaded “Do you speak English” question labels you right off the bat as an Ugly American and some locals – some French are evil about this – will say they don’t speak English, even if they do, just to stick it to you. Why? Because you are the umpteenth American to ask that question.

Two "ugly Americans" of another sort left in the wild in Chile

Another story, dear one, if you please.

On my third trip to Paris I was with an American woman I met during a casual stroll on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Together we had reached the imposing bronze statue of Charles de Gaulle and we had questions.

“Excuse me, we need someone who speaks English to explain this statue,” she shouted to the first presumed Frenchman who walked by. His response, in English with a strong French accent: “You are in France. We speak French. You must try it.”

As the man kept walking, my very temporary travel companion blurted out “How rude!”

“How rude, indeed,” I said. “How rude of you!”

I spent the next 15 minutes trying to convince her that she was in the wrong. She never got it. We parted ways when we reached the statue of Winston Churchill, the one with the words “We Shall Never Surrender.” Can’t you just hear Churchill saying those words? I will never give up on you – surrender, if you will – dear Ugly American. The world is a different place and you must come around. So surrender those bad habits that make me, and I’m sure others, cringe.

In very few instances, say in a life or death situation, should you approach someone with the “Do you speak English” question. That’s different. There’s no problem there.

I love to be with you abroad, dearest compatriot American, though you know I’d rather spend time with local people. This notion that all Americans must flock together in a “we” versus “them” front is warped. Of course, I’ll hang out with one or two of my compatriots but you do know if they start to keep me from my mission of being with locals I bid them adieu. Ah, did you like my use of French there?

Not that I don’t find my traveling compatriots interesting – many of them are – it’s that I find the Boltusans far more fascinating.

Please, allow me one more travel tale.

I was in Beijing, China, for about a month some years ago and was doing just fine eating Chinese food. It was delicious and healthy! And I was even speaking enough Chinese to get around on my own. Then I met a group of prissy American girls who told me they, too, had been in China for a month and they were “sick of Chinese food.” They said they had spotted a Pizza Hut and invited me to join them. After I told them I found the food in China amazing, I nevertheless decided to join them at Pizza Hut, where, one of them pointed out, “the signs, even the menu is in English.” Umm, did she say her name was Ditz?

The first bite into a slice of the pizza I thought it had a weird taste. I took a second bite and still felt it didn’t taste quite like the pizza from home. At a slice and a half I quit eating. That day is etched in my mind as a pivotal moment in my travel history. I thought I was going to die in China of some uncharted form of food poisoning. The pizza made me so sick, I broke out in a cold sweat, spending countless hours on the toilet, then weak and bedridden for a week! Under the care of a Chinese doctor who gave me natural Chinese medicines, I was able to bounce back, but was so weak for days after I was barely able walk. Lesson learned: stick to local cuisine that is working for you and stay away from prissy Ugly American girls who look and sound like they’re from the California valley.

A final story, I promise.

This week I witnessed a culture clash between Americans and Chileans. And it was ugly. It ended badly. And it left individuals on both sides of the cultural divide with battered feelings. And it was all just a series of misconceptions that blew up into misunderstandings and produced casualties of a cultural war.

I am not suggesting that the teachers at the institute where I teach English are Ugly Americans. They very well  may be, but I don’t know them enough to say. I do know that some of them expect things to be the way they are in the United States, all nice and neat and orderly, and that isn’t always the case in many countries.

Complain and try as we might, Americans will never succeed in forcing others to conform to American ways and standards, especially in the workplace. This holds true for Chile. Chileans admit that they are a notoriously tardy people. They joke about it. Set a meeting for noon, you’re lucky if it happens a half-hour later. More likely than not, it happens an hour or more later or not at all. Or try to get Chileans to follow through on anything.  Or do what they say they will do “al tiro”, meaning right away. Doesn’t happen. This irritates the heck out of Americans for whom punctuality and keeping your word are important in a work environment. Chileans are irritated by Americans’ seeming lack of flexibility. But the way I see it, it’s not my country, I’m just a guest. So who am I to try to change the way people run their country? Mine has enough problems to be fixed. In six months, I will be in another country with different customs and ideals. Shall I try to change them, too?

I say as long as no one has a foot firmly planted on my bald head, I will work with what I have to work with, be it Chile, France, Japan or Boltusa. To get angry, throw adult tantrums or insist that things be a certain way in a country that is not your own is to be an Ugly American.

Want to speak English only. Stay in America or travel to English-speaking countries. Try Britain. You won’t understand half of what comes out of their mouth anyway. Want the comforts of home. Bring it with you or stay home. Hate Chinese food? Don’t go to China!

All this I say out of love, dear Ugly American. Because I know you will have a more pleasant experience traveling abroad if you let go of your ugly ways. And I won’t have to keep explaining YOU.

Categories: Rants and Raves | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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