Perhaps the biggest success of the early days of Couchsurfing™ was that it facilitated the interactions and formation of communities. 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, through travelers and hosts staying in touch with each other, through members who share their experiences and encourage others to join, and in the past through 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 a sense of belonging, with friends and with 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.
However, nothing about these communities is monetizable. You can't make a profit out of people being friends. You especially can't make a profit out of connecting people in a community whose central ethos is that not exchanging money is a key element of a fulfilling experience. We saw this play out through communities that were shunned in favor of the more monetizable elements. Forums were removed, with communities migrating onto places like Facebook and Reddit. Openness and transparency were gotten rid of, with the huge volunteer team collapsed to what is now a group of 25 employees. Hosting was solidified in cities and towns 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.
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. Two key concepts are used to give users confidence to trust each other: verification, which should prove that a user is who they say they are, and the references system, which help users discern if people are good members of the community. However, the reference system is broken in that it doesn't achieve that goal.
When Couchsurfing™ merged verification with its monetization method, it 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 around 95% of the users. This has, in effect, removed verification as a method of trust.
You need trust for the communities and the users, not for the profits. The site has been fine generating revenue (pre-corona) as it mostly relies on new signups. The profit incentives work to get people onto the site, but not 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.