At the beginning of a year-long world trip back in 2006, I joined Couchsurfing, the first massive, web-based travel social network. It put a new twist on age-old hospitality by using the internet to connect travelers with local hosts. Supplementing this basic service were forums, events, and, in time, self-organized, organic gatherings in cities around the world.
Along the way I hosted a dozen people in Spain and surfed in Germany, Hungary, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Thailand, Malaysia, and Japan. Every experience was positive. It fulfilled my ideals as a traveler: to gain local cultural experiences; to learn from people in an intimate, personal setting; and to participate in genuine, human hospitality.
Couchsurfing changed not only my life but also how I traveled and saw the world.
It was the first online community I felt proud to be a part of. Today, nine years later, it's a shadow of itself, a ruin of abandoned profiles and spam-filled pages. The story of Couchsurfing's rise and fall is a tale of how growth can be an illusion, how travel and the web have evolved over the last decade, and how an apparently vibrant community can actually be remarkably fragile.
Couchsurfing rose long before buzzwords like ''the sharing economy.'' It was a completely different type of social network; really, it was an identity based on a willingness to let strangers into our homes. To be a Couchsurfer meant something.
Not everyone, of course, was worthy, so we would test travelers to see if they had the right values or mindset. In Bulgaria, I shared a train ride with a friendly Malaysian. I could tell he was an open, warm, giving person, so I told him about Couchsurfing and recommended he join. He did, and quickly became an active user, and later, an Ambassador — a title reserved for highly active members nominated by the community and approved by the site as people who ''embody the Couchsurfing values.''
''The coolest thing about the community is that it grew organically, on its own,'' says user Serafina Bear, who prefers to go by her username. ''The environment was open and inclusive and got stronger. It was a really cool thing to see.''
There were no referral codes, no pop-ups asking you share on Facebook, and absolutely no advertising. Yet somehow without marketing or a large budget, Couchsurfing kept growing and growing, just by word of mouth.
What emerged was a community organizer's dream. With little or no guidance from the then-volunteer-run headquarters of the quasi-nonprofit, active members all around the world took it upon themselves to organize. There were weekly gatherings in local bars, potlucks, and ''Couch Crash'' festivals. At the peak, San Francisco had events going on nearly every night of the week, and wherever I went in the world, I could not only easily find a host but also find an event or a local to join me in exploring a city. The possibilities, then, seemed limitless.
There was one element missing in all these amazing transactions. Money. We didn't pay Couchsurfing to use the site; we didn't pay one another, except with our time and attention. Despite everything members did to emphasize our ideal of cultural sharing, to many outsiders it just looked like a place to find a free host and save money.
Growth began to accelerate around 2009, after the site hit a million members. Couchsurfing began to be written about in mainstream media, followed by mentions in Lonely Planet. Perhaps inevitably, as the site grew, our attempts to focus on the site's intangible but essential values faltered; countless new members rushed in seeking free accommodation or easy hookups. We noticed them at events: the guys who entered as a pack and spoke only to girls, or the one-line requests flooding our inboxes, asking for a couch while they attended a conference or a music festival.
Things changed dramatically after that. During my first three years as a member, I never heard of a single bad Couchsurfing experience. Then stories began to emerge of aggressive hosts, dirty places, and uncomfortable situations. Female Couchsurfers told me that when they arrived in a city, they got random messages from local men, often with suggestive, flirty content.
Then came the big shocker. In 2011, Couchsurfing transformed itself into a startup, going private with an investment from VC Benchmark Capital and opening up a corporate office in San Francisco near Airbnb, TaskRabbit, and others in the promising sharing economy it hoped to join. The irony of an eight-year-old ''startup'' seemed lost on its new CEO and board of corporate, venture capitalist advisers. We, the now 3 million members, had no say and were dragged along, many quite unhappily.
Soon thereafter, to attract more members to make the network worth more, the website was redesigned.
''The new interface just didn't lend itself to interpersonal connection-making,'' Bear recalls.
The tools active Couchsurfers had used to self-organize — group pages, event invites, and a wiki — were all removed. Since then, more redesigns have simplified the interface, most notably turning city pages into a newsfeed.
''The site has become more of a Facebook clone and a place for people mostly looking for free places to stay and for socializing in,'' says Mike Gazbacho, who recently closed his account. ''It disappoints me that most members don't host at all.''