How Couchsurfing™ neglected its communities


What are couch surfing communities?

Perhaps the biggest success of the early days of Couchsurfing™ was that it facilitated the formation of communities, which are a natural product of people couch surfing with each other.** People identify strongly with being couch surfers, and the shared experience brings groups of people together, often growing into the central community that people are part of and their main social group.** Many people have found lifelong friends and partners through these couch surfing communities—they have been extremely important parts of a lot of people’s lives.

Any word cloud of articles about Couchsurfing™ has "community" in huge letters at the center. People are usually referring to one of:

  • Local communities: collections of people in cities or towns, usually made of a mix of hosts, stationary/working travelers and some of their friends
  • The global community: everyone that has participated and subscribes to the core value and ideals of non-transactional experiences

The global community expresses itself through articles and forums, travelers and hosts staying in touch with each other, members who share their experiences and encourage others to join, and, in the past, the volunteer base that built the platform. The global community encapsulates the core philosophy, and so includes Couchsurfing™, its competitors, Facebook groups, and people who host and surf offline or without apps.

Local communities are made up of individuals who love organizing events and making travelers welcome. They provide their members with friends, a sense of belonging, and a ton of fun. As probably every couch surfer has experienced at some time or another, strong local communities are amazing to experience and be a part of.

The aim of an online service then becomes clear: serve and grow the global community, while creating and empowering local communities.

Neglect of Couchsurfing™ communities and the work of community organizers

Nothing about couch surfing communities is monetizable. You can't make a profit out of people being friends. What’s more, you can't make a profit out of connecting people, especially in a community where not exchanging money is a key element of a fulfilling experience. The profit incentives of Couchsurfing™ made it have to prioritize getting new users onto the platform instead of improving the experience for existing users and sustaining the health of its communities.

We saw this play out through communities that were shunned in favor of the more monetizable elements. Forums were removed, with communities migrating onto platforms like Facebook and Reddit. Openness and transparency were gotten rid of, with the huge volunteer team collapsed to around 25 employees. Hosts in cities and towns were solidified into a small group of super-hosts. The platform was flooded with new members in a rate and manner that changed the dynamics of trust within the community.

Community leaders and ambassadors were also shunned. Powers and responsibilities were slowly stripped away from them. Community leaders previously spent hours crafting community pages and moderating groups, only to have the pages removed, and the groups feature not carried over to mobile apps, rendering them useless to most users.

Without consultation, community organizers were further disempowered when linking from other platforms was banned, such as for events, then further as online events were banned from Couchsurfing™ during the middle of the pandemic. Many who had accidentally violated the rules were suspended, including many Ambassadors who were taken by surprise, not knowing about the updates.

The erosion of trust through monetized verification

Couchsurfing™ focused on making profits by getting new people onto the platform. They did this through merging verification with its monetization method, which altered the meaning of verification. Currently, if someone has a 'verified' tag next to their name, it just means they have paid for the upgraded version of Couchsurfing™ or earned it through hosting. Conversely, someone who doesn't pay cannot be verified, which is the vast majority of users. This has removed verification as a method of trust.

Verification should be a key way to build trust locally and globally. Couch surfing is an experience that requires a huge degree of trust. Whether you are a host or surfer, you are in a vulnerable position. One of the core personality traits that bind the global community is the ability to trust strangers. Verification provides a way for users to prove they are who they say they are. With the principle of verification tarnished through monetization, there is no provable way to do that on a global scale.

You need trust for the communities and users, not for the profits. The site has been fine generating revenue as it mostly relies on new signups. The profit incentives work to get people onto the site, but not to improve the experience once they're on it. The erosion of trust has been fine for Couchsurfing™ as a company, but not for the health and longevity of its communities.

Our plan to fix it: Community-first framework