Making couch surfing friends virtually from the other side of the world

How one writer joined and developed a virtual community of avid couch surfers during the pandemic.

image of couchers on zoom

When I made the decision to go to New Zealand in March 2020, I never expected it to mean I’d be there for a full year. I entered on a tourist visa with zero intentions to stay more than three months, mainly because I find the pace of life there kind of slow, and not always a place where mildly extroverted people like me tend to thrive. Travelling there also meant being about 9,300 miles from most of my friends and family. Oh, and there was also a pandemic going on, so New Zealand customs basically shut the door behind me. I was one of the last tourists they let in.

If you’re wondering why I chose New Zealand—and you’re probably not, since it was arguably the best decision ever, all things considered—it was mainly because of my partner there, but even with five partners I still would have been starved for socialization. It can be lonely enough on an island, and it’s even worse when you feel like you can’t leave. Well, you could, but you wouldn’t be able to go back. Not a great option either, really.

Anyway, it goes without saying that I did tons of video calls over the past year from my self-imposed isolation at the edge of the world. Even if you put my experience of riding out the pandemic in New Zealand aside, I have mysteriously found myself in long-distance relationships over and over. I’ve probably been on video calls for about half of my life up until now. Not to mention I’ve been working remotely for nearly eight years.

The point is, video calls are a key part of life for many people. For me, they make up a huge chunk of my socializing, even when I am maintaining an active in-person social life, and there’s no pandemic in the way.

The early days of virtual events

Prior to the pandemic, I have to admit I wasn’t hanging out on video calls with people I’d never met in real life. Sure, I had a handful of job interviews over Skype, but it’s not like there’s ever much reason to talk to those people again, not least of all because they never seem to hire me. Random video chat apps are a thing, but those mainly end up being the creepiest experiences of all time and something that I’d rather not repeat. But somehow, when the time came to start trying to get to know a large number of people online, it was fairly second nature to me. It began when I agreed to join a video call with two probably Australian guys who said they were going to try and build a better version of Couchsurfing™. Before I even realized how much of a commitment I was making, I was joining dozens of calls with other people who were interested in the project. The volunteer community flourished, and with every new addition, we were sharing more and more great ideas. The sense of belonging was really palpable. I had found the very people I’d be searching for for a long time—people who sincerely wanted to build something that could fix a lot of the problems with Couchsurfing™ that I’d seen for the past decade.

Well, as far as encounters with random people online go, I also happen to love forum discussions. After some time bantering back and forth with various people who’d signed up for through our forum, I saw how many people were eager to jump into the debate about the future of hospitality exchange and couch surfing. I figured we could just as easily incorporate the everyday forum-goer into a big group call and get more people in the same room. In other words, I didn’t fully comprehend it then, but I was creating the first of a series of weekly online events.

Physically distant but virtually close

I expected people to turn up and ask questions about the project every week. What I did not expect was for volunteers and community members to come and socialize about whatever arbitrary subject they felt like talking about that day. Was I… making friends? Was this… actually like a weekly Couchsurfing™ meetup event? Was I actually having fun?

So what if we weren’t standing gregariously around at a bar or sitting at a restaurant table engaging in various side conversations that go down unforseen rabbit holes? There was a novel kind of appeal: people joining the call from their various and unpredictable environments. It could be during a hike through the forest, while cooking their lunch, struggling with a particularly intrusive pet, during their lunch break in a park, or with a friend/roommate/partner who drops in to say hi. It started to embody the trusting spirit we all bring to the table and our reason for loving couch surfing to begin with. You never know who, what, or where you’re going to get, but everyone feels welcome no matter what they happen to be doing at the time, or where they physically are.

But all this begs the question: will I still be virtually making friends after the pandemic subsides? Will there always be demand for hanging out on a video call if you can’t make it in person? As a future organizer, am I going to be setting up a way for people to join an in-person event virtually, and if I did that, would it even be fun for the attendees? What’s stopping me from having a hybrid online/in-person event with a video call projected up on the wall next time I have some people over? Would anyone even be into that?

Virtual events in the post-pandemic era

Years ago, a legendary Couchsurfing™ superhost in Wellington told me his ultimate dream was to have a livestream of his house’s common area available for any of his previous hundreds of surfers to tune into and see what was going on or participate whenever he had other surfers over. At the time, I thought he was probably a sociopath. Now, I feel like he might have been a visionary. Either way, he was probably onto (on?) something when he suggested that.

For the past 15 years, making friends on Couchsurfing™ has mainly been an in-person affair. But one of the silver linings of the pandemic is that a lot of the technology we have always had is being put to use in a lot of new ways. We’ve always been connected to other people virtually through Couchsurfing™, but we never really got to know other people in the community before meeting them in person. Now this is not only possible, but very likely that we’ll be making more and more friends around the world virtually—and to me, they are virtually becoming friends in real life.

Imagine in the future, if instead of waiting to get a feel for the local community you’re planning to visit, you could join that community’s regular virtual event and chat with people—some of whom could even be your future hosts—before you even decide your next destination. Imagine joining a couple weeks in a row to ask questions about what to see and do when you get there. How amazing would it be to get inside info on how to make the most of your experience, or better yet, make friends before you even arrive?

I never thought I’d make such an incredible set of friends all over the world last year, but I did. And the only drawback about being in New Zealand the whole time ended up being the fact that I had to wake up two hours early on Mondays for a while!

Written by Emily. Published on 2021/05/01.

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