CouchSurfing

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Couchsurfing
Stationary envelopes.png
TypeC corporation [1][2]
Foundation dateJanuary 2003 (launch), May 3rd 2011 (Delaware C corporation), 2003 (non profit in New Hampshire)
HeadquartersSan Francisco, CA, United States
Area servedGlobal
CEOJennifer Billock[3]
Key peopleCasey Fenton, Matt Cohler, Dan Hoffer, Jonathan Teo, Todor Tashev
IndustryHospitality service, Hospitality exchange, international understanding, networking
Websitehttp://www.couchsurfing.org/
Alexa rank2,700
 
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Couchsurfing
Stationary envelopes.png
TypeC corporation [1][2]
Foundation dateJanuary 2003 (launch), May 3rd 2011 (Delaware C corporation), 2003 (non profit in New Hampshire)
HeadquartersSan Francisco, CA, United States
Area servedGlobal
CEOJennifer Billock[3]
Key peopleCasey Fenton, Matt Cohler, Dan Hoffer, Jonathan Teo, Todor Tashev
IndustryHospitality service, Hospitality exchange, international understanding, networking
Websitehttp://www.couchsurfing.org/
Alexa rank2,700

Couchsurfing International Inc. is B Corporation [4] based in San Francisco[5] that offers its users hospitality exchange and social networking services.

Couchsurfing was founded in 2004 and sold to the private for-profit corporation Better World Through Travel in 2011. The website provides a platform for members to "surf" on couches by staying as a guest at a host's home, host travelers, or join an event.

As of January 2012, the website had 3.6 million members.[6] In March 2013, the website had 6 million members in 100,000 cities worldwide.[7]

In August 2012, Couchsurfing closed $15 million in funding from lead investor General Catalyst Partners, with participation by Menlo Ventures and existing investors Benchmark Capital and Omidyar Network. The additional funding brings the company’s total funds raised to $22.6 million. [8]

Etymology[edit]

Couchsurfing is a neologism referring to the practice of moving from one friend's house to another, sleeping in whatever spare space is available, floor or couch, generally staying a few days before moving on to the next house. The term pre-existed the organization, "Couch Surfer" was the title of a Bran Van 3000 song written in the 90s.

The company, its website, and the culture of hospitality exchange it is meant to support are all commonly referred to as "Couchsurfing" by the website's userbase, though sometimes the "s" is capitalized.

People who use the Couchsurfing.org website frequently refer to themselves as "couchsurfers", "surfers," or "CSers" for short, demonstrating a mix of loyalty to both the website and the ideals it is thought to support.

Membership[edit]

Free to register. Members are encouraged to provide information and photos of themselves and of the accommodation they offer, if any. More information provided by a member, and other members, improves the chances that someone will find the member trustworthy enough to be their host or guest. Security is measured in a variety of ways, including member references, verification and the vouching system. Members looking for accommodation can search for hosts using several parameters such as age, location, gender and last login.

Homestays are consensual between the host and guest, and the duration, nature, and terms of the guest's stay are generally worked out in advance. No monetary exchange takes place except sometimes for compensation of incurred expenses (e.g. food). It is common practice for guests to seek non-monetary means to show their appreciation, such as bringing a gift, cooking a meal or teaching a skill.

Couchsurfing provides groups where members may seek travel partners or advice. Members organize activities such as camping trips, bar crawls, meetings, and sporting events.

The website features a searchable database of thousands of upcoming events organized by Couchsurfing members.

Establishing trust[edit]

There are three methods Couchsurfing that increase security and trust, which are all visible on member profiles for potential hosts and surfers:

  1. Personal references, which hosts and surfers have the option to leave after having used the service to comment on what their experience with person they are leaving a reference for was like. It is also possible to leave neutral or negative references if it is deemed appropriate and negative references are taken very seriously.[9] Negative references are sometimes removed by the site when they are deemed to have been done in a retaliatory or unfair manner.[10] Members tend to rely heavily on references when trying to determine whether another user is "safe" or not.
  2. An optional credit card verification system, allowing members to "lock in" their name and mailing address by making a credit card payment under any name and entering a code that Couchsurfing mails to an address of their choice. The verification program is the principal source of revenue for Couchsurfing. In an effort to increase economic fairness, the verification fee is based on a sliding scale, taking into account the Purchasing Power Parity and Human Development Index of the country of registration. The verification system is widely viewed as heavily flawed and often ignored, since in the end, it only verifies that there is a name attached to a credit card and mailing address. No background safety check is ever performed and information does not need to be updated when someone moves.
  3. A personal vouching system, whereby a member that had been vouched for three times — originally starting with the founders of the site — might in turn vouch for any number of other members he knew or had met through Couchsurfing, and trusts.

All members are responsible for their own safety and are strongly encouraged to visit the Couchsurfing Safety Center for tips.

Ambassadors[edit]

Active members who live and breathe Couchsurfing in their every day lives can nominate themselves to be appointed ambassadors. By nature, Ambassadors spread the word about Couchsurfing and are encouraged to be role-models, exemplifying the Couchsurfing Core Values. In addition to spreading the "Couchsurfing spirit" among members, they may choose to greet new members, help with questions, organize and promote events and are likely to be the first point of contact for members. Their status as an "ambassador" is indicated by an orange flag on their profile. While the ambassador program is laid out as an appreciation program, it is a status that many ambassadors value and strive to obtain.

Below is an excerpt of the Ambassador Guidelines in the Ambassador group on Couchsurfing:

"You’ve been chosen to participate in this program because of your dedication to Couchsurfing and its core values. Let’s make Couchsurfing the best, most life-changing experience possible for everyone. We value your feedback and will continue to find ways to make sure we get it in the most efficient way possible. We appreciate the ways in which you share your lives, your homes, your CS knowledge and experience with others.

As an Ambassador, you’re a visible member of the community who other members will trust to guide them in creating meaningful connections.

Ambassadors treat all members with civility, respect and consideration. They’re diplomatic and empathetic; they make informed decisions and use good judgment.

As an Ambassador, you may also be exposed to sensitive member issues. If a conflict, concern, or safety-related incident is brought to your attention, please encourage involved members to report directly and immediately to our Trust and Safety team.

Limit your own involvement. If you’re not sure what to do, please ask our Trust and Safety team.

We always appreciate that you uphold a positive, constructive environment for yourself, for us, and for the extended community.:

Demographics[edit]

Cities with over 4,000 registered Couchsurfing as of 3 January 2011
Countries with over 500 registered Couchsurfers as of 3 January 2011

As of January 2013, there were over 5.5 million registered profiles at Couchsurfing (all profiles ever created, including duplicate, dormant and deleted profiles).[11]

As of January 2013, Couchsurfing represented more than 97,000 unique towns in 250 states and territories. Around 20% of Couchsurfers had registered their country as being the United States, with Germany, France, Canada and England also registering large numbers of participants. The city with the largest number of registered Couchsurfers was Paris.[11]

English was spoken by 71% of registered Couchsurfers. French (18%), Spanish (17%) and German (15%) were also spoken.[11]

The average age of participants was 28 years of age.[11]

History[edit]

Conception[edit]

The Couchsurfing project was conceived by Casey Fenton in 1999,[12] according to Fenton's account. The idea arose after finding an inexpensive flight from Boston to Iceland. Fenton randomly e-mailed 1,500 students from the University of Iceland asking if he could stay. He ultimately received more than 50 offers of accommodation. On the return flight to Boston, he began to develop the ideas that would underpin the Couchsurfing project.

Fenton developed the code intermittently over the next few years.[12] The site was launched with the cooperation of Dan Hoffer, Sebastien Le Tuan, and Leonardo Silveira[12] as a beta in January 2003, although none of these except Fenton was a member of the original board of directors. The project became a public website in January 2004.

Initial growth of the site was slow. By the end of 2004 the site had just over 6,000 members. In 2005, growth accelerated and by the end of the year, membership stood at just under 45,000.[11] As of October 2011, Couchsurfing has over 3 million active and inactive members (Fenton states the number of active members is approximately one million) and is the most popular free accommodation site.[13] As of October 2011, the site has an Alexa Global Traffic Rank of 1,729.[14]

2006 database loss and relaunch[edit]

In June 2006, the project experienced a number of computer problems resulting in much of the database being irrevocably lost.[15] Due to the volume of critical data that had been lost, Casey Fenton was of the opinion that the project could not be resurrected. On 29 June 2006, he sent an e-mail to all members: "It is with a heavy heart that I face the truth of this situation. Couchsurfing as we knew it doesn't exist anymore."[16]

Fenton's e-mail was met with vocal opposition to the termination of the project and considerable support for its recreation. A Couchsurfing Collective was underway in Montreal at the time and those in attendance committed to fully recreating the original site, with users to re-enter their profile data. "Couchsurfing 2.0" was announced early in July 2006, with the intent to be operational within 10 days. The initial implementation of Couchsurfing 2.0 actually launched after only four days with the current Couchsurfing slogan "Participate in Creating a Better World, One Couch At A Time". Since the site relaunch, the project has received international media coverage.

Couchsurfing Collectives[edit]

From 2006 through 2011, development of the website was run in large part by Couchsurfing Collectives: events which may last days or weeks, bringing groups of Couchsurfers together in a chosen city, to develop and improve Couchsurfing. Previous Collectives took place in Montreal, Vienna, New Zealand, Rotterdam, Thailand, Alaska, Costa Rica and Istanbul.[17]

2009 Leeds Incident[edit]

On 5 March 2009 in Leeds, UK, a man raped a woman from Hong Kong who stayed at his place through the Couchsurfing project.[18] He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.[19]

Criticism[edit]

2011 incorporation[edit]

Couchsurfing International Inc. was formerly a non-profit corporation incorporated in the U.S. state of New Hampshire.[20][21]

In August 2011, Couchsurfing announced its change of status to a for-profit corporation.[22] A $7.6 million investment was raised by Benchmark Capital,[23][24][25] with the ambition to go public.[26] The site had previously been financially operated using donations from members and revenue from the voluntary identity verification service. Second and third rounds of investors contributed another $15 million.

The announcement that Couchsurfing had become a for-profit corporation created a backlash from the core members.[27][28] Even if not many, they were the most active members, who perceived the change of status as a betrayal. A protest group within Couchsurfing was formed entitled "We are against CS becoming a for-profit corporation" as a response.[29][30] The group members see Couchsurfing's source code and user database as community-created and say that they should not be used for profits.[30]

Terms of Use controversy[edit]

In September 2012 Couchsurfing updated its terms of use. These were criticized by many members of the community. The German Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, Peter Schaar, has publicly criticized the terms of use and informed the Federal Trade Commission about the serious shortcomings of the Terms of Use.[31] Schaar has stated that these terms would be inadmissible under German and European data protection law. "Under the new Terms of Use, by uploading contents such as news, photos and personal data, the members grant the company Couchsurfing a full and irrevocable license to a quasi unlimited use of those contents. Moreover, in the Privacy Policy, the company reserves the right to share data with third parties and to change the Terms of Use and the Privacy Policy at any time, without having to provide specific notice to the members about any changes."

The following is an excerpt from section 4 of the updated Terms of Use:

4.3 Member Content License. If you post Member Content to our Services, you hereby grant us a perpetual, worldwide, irrevocable, non-exclusive, royalty-free and fully sublicensable license to use, reproduce, display, perform, adapt, modify, create derivative works from, distribute, have distributed and promote such Member Content in any form, in all media now known or hereinafter created and for any purpose, including without limitation the right to use your name, likeness, voice or identity.[21]

Rollout of the Place Pages and Accusations of Censorship[edit]

In December 2012, major changes were made to the Couchsurfing website when the Place Pages system was instituted.[32] Individual cities pages were replaced with Place Pages. This was unpopular among many users. The Place Pages were felt to have many user security and safety issues, geographical and technical problems, be difficult to navigate, and to encourage misuse of the Couchsurfing website. Different city's Place Page message boards began to have posts violating community standards, like requests for dates, scams, spam, and open couch requests and this annoyed many people. At the same time, local user-generated city "wiki" info pages, were deleted without any consultation.[33]

People unhappy with the Place Pages voiced their concerns on group message boards and made attempts to speak with the company directly. In late February 2013 a prominent ambassador in Chicago was banned from the site by having his profile and posts deleted.[34][unreliable source?] In early March 2013, a well-known ambassador in Berlin was banned as well. The banning of the two ambassadors, in addition to a third person, was perceived by their supporters as being motivated by the company's desire to silence its internal critics and thus was the result of censorship. The company maintains that the two users violated the company's Terms of Use and that the deletions were not the result of censorship.[35][36][37]

On the Berlin, Chicago, and other message boards there was a loud outcry against the bannings and perceived censorship. Some users felt that Couchsurfing, as a for-profit company, would no longer uphold the open culture of hospitality exchange and decided to join BeWelcome, a non profit European website, either exclusively or in addition to being a member of Couchsurfing.

Tony Espinoza, the CEO of Couchsurfing has repeatedly and publicly stated that Couchsurfing ambassadors are not allowed to mention BeWelcome on their Couchsurfing profiles or during meetings,[38] as "BW’s utility is dubious. I really don’t believe anyone invested in promoting it is serving travelers." [39]

Tony Espinoza has stepped down as the chief executive of Couchsurfing in October 2013 [40]

See also[edit]

Other hospitality exchange networks[edit]

Related concepts[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "State of Delaware corporate entity search - enter "couchsurfing"". 
  2. ^ "Deep link to corporate records". 
  3. ^ http://techcrunch.com/2013/10/10/tony-espinoza-steps-down-as-ceo-of-couchsurfing-jen-billock-steps-up-as-interim-as-startup-lays-off-staff-doubles-down-on-mobile/
  4. ^ https://www.couchsurfing.org/n/terms
  5. ^ https://www.couchsurfing.org/n/terms
  6. ^ April 2013 "Wired Article". 
  7. ^ April 2013 "Couchsurfing About Page". 
  8. ^ April 2013 "TechCrunch Article". 
  9. ^ "References FAQ". Retrieved 19 March 2013. 
  10. ^ "One Couch at a Time". Couchsurfing. Retrieved 29 January 2011. 
  11. ^ a b c d e "Statistics". Couchsurfing. Retrieved 29 January 2011. 
  12. ^ a b c "Founders & Board of Directors". Couchsurfing. Retrieved 17 October 2011. 
  13. ^ Baker, Vicky (22 January 2011). "How to stay with a local". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 January 2011. 
  14. ^ "Couchsurfing.org Site Info". Alexa Internet. Retrieved 31 October 2011. 
  15. ^ Fenton, Casey (28 June 2006). "Help! - Innodb and MyISAM accidental DROP DATABASE - 112 tables gone forever?". forums.mysql.com. Retrieved 29 January 2011. 
  16. ^ Fenton, Casey. "The Perfect Storm". Couchsurfing. Retrieved 29 January 2011. 
  17. ^ "Couchsurfing Collectives". Couchsurfing. Retrieved 29 January 2011. 
  18. ^ "Man accused of raping woman he met on couchsurfing.com website". The Daily Telegraph. 11 August 2009. Retrieved 2 August 2010. 
  19. ^ "Leeds couchsurfing.com rapist jailed". Yorkshire Evening Post. 29 October 2009. Retrieved 2 August 2010. 
  20. ^ "Business Entity". New Hampshire Department of State. 25 August 2011. 
  21. ^ a b "Terms of Use". Couchsurfing. 13 July 2011. 
  22. ^ "Non-Profit CouchSurfing Raises Millions In Funding". Forbes. 24 August 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2011. 
  23. ^ "B Corporation". B Corporation. Retrieved 2012-02-22. 
  24. ^ Tweney, Dylan (24 August 2011). "Benchmark plops down $7.6M to make Couchsurfing into a for-profit". VentureBeat. Retrieved 11 September 2011. 
  25. ^ "Couchsurfing Moves from NGO to B-Corps: Bona fide or Bogus?". Triplepundit.com. 2011-09-28. Retrieved 2012-02-22. 
  26. ^ "El jefe de Couchsurfing asegura que su objetivo es salir a Bolsa". El País. 13 September 2011. 
  27. ^ "After going for-profit, CouchSurfing faces user revolt". GigaOm. 1 September 2011. Retrieved 17 November 2011. 
  28. ^ "We are against CS becoming a for-profit corporation". Retrieved 17 November 2011. 
  29. ^ "After going for-profit, Couchsurfing faces user revolt". gigaom. 1 September 2011. 
  30. ^ a b "Users Revolt After Hippie Couchsurfing Site Goes Corporate Users Revolt After Hippie Couchsurfing Site Goes Corporate". Gawker. 2 September 2011. 
  31. ^ "Couchsurfing without data protection". 
  32. ^ https://support.couchsurfing.org/entries/22546803-Place-Pages-come-to-Couchsurfing Retrieved 18 March 2013
  33. ^ http://couchsurfingcontroversies.wordpress.com/2013/03/15/cs-controversy-the-place-pages-and-banned-ambassadors/ Retrieved 18 March 2013
  34. ^ http://kingsofcouchsurfing.blogspot.com/2013/02/a-couchsurfer-no-more.html Retrieved 18 March 2013
  35. ^ http://www.couchsurfing.org/news/cs-organization/member-removal-is-couchsurfing-censoring-the-community-by-removing-outspoken-members/ Retrieved 18 March 2013
  36. ^ http://www.couchsurfing.org/news/cs-organization/member-removal-is-couchsurfing-censoring-the-community-by-removing-outspoken-members/ Retrieved 27 March 2013
  37. ^ http://couchwiki.org/en/Couchsurfing_censorship Retrieved 18 March 2013
  38. ^ Couchsurfing ambassadors group: Tony Espinoza (CEO) Discussion - Week 2
  39. ^ Couchsurfing ambassadors group: Tony Espinoza (CEO) Discussion - Week 3
  40. ^ http://techcrunch.com/2013/10/10/tony-espinoza-steps-down-as-ceo-of-couchsurfing-jen-billock-steps-up-as-interim-as-startup-lays-off-staff-doubles-down-on-mobile/

External links[edit]