I’ve happened upon several posts on WordPress that express negative narratives about Couchsurfing.org (CS). Every month or so, the exact same posting about creepy men in NYC’s CS community pops up from a graduate student who bemoans the structure CS has adopted. Another post declares that CS is in a downfall because of these changes in structure. When I responded to that post, explaining my experiences to the contrary, the author said he hadn’t been around before the shift in structure and supposed downfall. I’m not sure why these people post and re-post these messages. It doesn’t seem they are trying to create change within the community, and it doesn’t seem they fully understand the transition to B Corporation status that allowed CS to remain viable. These people show a great deal of emotion, often using insults to express their displeasure with CS and its evolving community and misrepresenting the motives of the organization. I fear people will read only their embittered posts and choose not to take part in surfing or hosting. That would be a tragedy to those of us who count on CS to bring the world to our doorstep and revel in world cultures. This post offers an alternative narrative to the fire and brimstone one that seems so prevalent. My aim is to make sure that the word is out that the people in the couchsurfing world continue to surf and host regardless of business structure and the community’s evolution.
Communities are living things, and they are complicated. When I joined CS in 2011, I attended some local meet-ups to get my first references and learn about the general feel of the community. I quickly concluded that the meet-ups weren’t for me. It’s true that there were many men there, and they seemed singularly bent on meeting traveling women (or any women, for that matter). The Americans were drunk and sloppy, the travelers were humoring the Americans, and this teetotaler didn’t have much in common with the drinking, meat-market vibe. For that reason, I stopped going to those events and continued hosting. I didn’t make a generalization about the entire community based on those meet-ups.
As I started to host surfers, my guests (mostly men at first) told me that many men ONLY host women in NYC, and many women don’t feel safe hosting men. That freezes men out of couches in a city that naturally poses surfing challenges. (Apartments are small, roommates often don’t appreciate paying ridiculous rent only to be cramped by people staying free and eating their Greek yogurt, and most rental agreements make hosting slightly on the illegal side. Don’t tell my landlord, please.) It is absolutely true that some people are in the community for couchf*$%ing and not couchsurfing. I have received couch requests accompanying promises of massages and “let’s see what develops.” I have also housed a few people who seemed platonic at first, but then made suggestions that made me less-than-comfortable for a moment or two. Again, I resist judgment on the entire community. After all, I have the ability to decline people who seem unsavory and the wherewithal to set boundaries. These two elements helped me shape my own experiences as a CS host.
In my three years hosting, I have housed musicians, politicians, teachers, tech-lovers, tech-haters, job-seekers, fun-seekers, artists, and lovers of cultures. I happily serve as host and personal concierge, sharing my Metropolitan Museum of Art membership and marking up subway maps with must-see spots that match surfers’ interests and priorities. My favorite surfers are the ones who enjoy recounting their experiences and debating politics over a glass of wine before bed. I join my guests whenever possible and when our interests coincide. I have even been known to go just a bit outside my comfort zone to explore new experiences for their benefit. Thankfully, I can choose surfers who seem inclined to have joyful times and fully interact with the city. As a result, I have made dozens of new friends, learned about new cultures, and grown to love my city even more.
I joined the community when the organization was seeking non-profit status. At that time, verification accompanied a small donation, and I made that donation with a clear conscience considering how much the hosting experience impacted my life. Soon after, I received an email explaining that the organization was not granted non-profit status after all, and the only option that seemed viable for the organizers was B Corporation status. This structure requires the organization to submit to frequent audits and prove that it is working toward its mission. I read the email, it seemed reasonable, and I filed it away. While people on the bulletin boards went wild with claims that CS was selling out the community for profit, I scratched my head. There was no change in the quality of surfers on my couch. No advertising appeared on my screen. Essentially, not much changed in terms of the couchsurfing experience. The only changes I could discern were new formatting (either as a normal matter of course or because of the change), an increase in the amount of couch requests, and the elimination of verification donations. I learned that the organization’s revenue came from venture capital raised by the organization. Everything about the website remains free.
I don’t love the changes in formatting and conventions for couch requests. I do, however, appreciate the advances in search algorithms that make it easier for surfers to find likeminded hosts. When I read the attack posts about Couchsurfing.org, I wonder what the complainants hope to gain from defaming CS and spreading rumors. I don’t see what positive end those posts might bring, but they may very well bring about negative consequences for the entire community. Creeps might learn of the potential to hunt in CS territory. Great hosts and couchsurfers may never enter the community, assuming that these labels are true of the majority. People who are bastions of the community (not because of meet-ups, but because they actually host and surf) might choose not to continue participating in the community because of the complaining. Essentially, the complaints about CS have more potential to hurt than to help.
I will continue hosting. My guests give me a pretext for running around the city, afford an opportunity for me to see my own environs through a different lens, and bring the entire world of politics, art, music, and culture to my own apartment. I hope some people will read this post and decide to engage in all the positive outcomes that Couchsurfing brings.
For more information on Couchsurfing.org and B Corporation status, please see: http://blog.couchsurfing.com/myths-and-facts-couchsurfings-conversion-to-a-b-corp/