The Rise and Fall of Couchsurfing
Tl;dr: An increase of popularity and a transformation of the platform into a company which led Couchsurfing to its downfall.
Couchsurfing is a concept derived from the platform couchsurfing.com whereas travelers can request to spend the night on locals’ couch or surf on their couch.
The idea was to favor and stimulate cultural exchange between foreign travelers and local communities.
The website was created in 2004 and quickly became popular among backpackers and other adventurers.
As time went by, major business outlets started reporting the story of “travelers hosting other travelers for free” and the number of users exponentially grew.
An increase of users translated to a decrease of quality, trust, and involvement, and so the small community that was once vibrant lost its shine and appeal.
The increase of users ironically sounded the death knell of Couchsurfing.
Initially, Couchsurfing Was Great
Most of the articles narrating the rise and fall of Couchsurfing did so in 2015. Having joined in 2013, I realize I’m late to the party.
I started using Couchsurfing in Australia in 2013 to make friends since I didn’t know anyone.
The “event” feature was what I enjoyed the most because I was looking for friends.
I remember my first meeting in a bar called “Frisk” in Perth. I stood outside the venue for 10 minutes because I was too shy to enter and say hi to people.
When I finally gathered the courage to physically make a move, the members engaged with me and made me feel welcome instantly.
I subsequently returned often to the meetings and ended up joining Couchsurfing events in all of the other cities I have visited then.
I even celebrated NYE with Couchsurfing twice, once in Amsterdam, and once in Paris.
As the years went by though, things started to change. Meetings emptied out. The gender balance (which already tilted towards male presence) worsened.
The website got a complete makeover, with many members-generated content disappearing.
Simpler and neater, the new platform introduced categories to rate hosts and guests (like Airbnb), ads, and locked-in content that could be freed in exchange for money.
I have never known the 2004-2011 money-free Couchsurfing because I was under 18.
Yet when I joined in 2013, money could be donated to the site by those that could afford it and wanted to support the system.
As the community grew to 10 million accounts (among which 90% are inactive), more money had to be spent to maintain the site which encouraged the founder to transform the platform from a community-based website to a corporation.
The Downfall of Couchsurfing
Most bloggers and travelers identify 2011-2013 as the moment when Couchsurfing lost its appeal.
From a small, trusted community-based website, it transformed into a Tinder meeting filled with frat-guys looking for girls.
Quality, trust, and spirit decreased or got lost. However, the complete crash had still yet to come.
I started hosting people in 2016 and was pleased to receive kind, dedicated, and personal requests from surfers.
However, these accounted for maybe 7/10 messages, the remaining requests coming from people that had no reference or that had obviously copy-pasted their introduction.
And so I started hosting. While testimonials from early 2006 users were overwhelmingly positive, I estimate that 75% of guest experiences were positive.
I’ll never forget these three Italians that got into my place without being able to speak English nor saying hello, sat down, rolled a joint, and got high the entire night…without even sharing the weed.
As the years went by, it got worse.
I was told that the meetings in Palma were nearly empty. Active users deserted their accounts. As for me, two months living in Brugge hasn’t brought a single request where users read my profile.
One guy even insulted me when I turned him down.
It is obvious that as the network grew and registering became easier, the spirit which existed when I joined eventually died out entirely.
From experience, the few girls still using Couchsurfing are looking to sleep for free while guys are looking to hook up.
What was once a place where both hosts and travelers gave each other time and presence transformed into an amenities-exchanged platform where hosts and guests take from each other.
The fatal blow came with the pandemic. As traveling stopped, Couchsurfing stopped.
In April 2020, I received an email from the platform asking me to donate as they were running out of money, even though they had fired almost everyone working for them.
Destiny is cruel.
Originally donation-based, a corporation had to resort to people’s generosity to survive.
I found it ironic.
To make sure I wasn’t just getting old and cranky, I sent 20 of my Couchsurfing contacts a message and asked them three questions.
1. Why and when did you join Couchsurfing originally? What was your first impression?
2. Did you stop using Couchsurfing? Why/why not?
3. What are the three main problems you can think of and how would you fix them?
Here’s what they said.
3 boys and 3 girls answered my messages. One of them registered a long time ago, in 2007, while the others registered after 2012.
Out of the 6 people that answered, two admitted that Couchsurfing was practical money-wise.
Nonetheless, everybody highlighted the fact that they registered to gain access to new friends, as they were traveling solo.
I believe indeed that meeting other like-minded people is the primary reason why people used Couchsurfing at first.
After all, traveling can be lonely. Seeing these results, several questions arise.
Are users long-term travelers looking for friends as they will eventually inhabit the city, or are they backpackers looking for social contacts?
And quid of hostels? Can’t they fulfill the social needs? These would be interesting to answer in a later post.
While none of my contacts admitted having “stopped using Couchsurfing”, 4 out 6 have stopped using it regularly.
Among the reasons cited mainly stands a change of lifestyle. Once users stopped traveling, got a job, or simply grew older, their habits, wishes, priorities, and overall opportunities to use Couchsurfing decreased.
Why would you sleep on a zonked out sofa if you have the financial means to stay at the Radisson?
Why would you go meet strangers when you have a loved-one traveling with you?
The two friends that still use the platform have not changed their lifestyle since they first registered on it.
Regarding issues experienced, three main problems surfaced. The three girls cited the fact that an abnormal number of users use the platform to (try) to get laid, which causes concerns of safety.
While I don’t think that the Couchsurfing of 2013 was particularly dangerous to women, it definitely changed from 2016 onward.
One day just for fun, I operated a search for people sharing “the same surface to sleep on” in Paris.
An astonishing number of guys came out of the search.
This does not need more comment.
Unsurprisingly, the second most cited problem concerns the experience of Couchsurfing itself.
I think it’s difficult to explain what Couchsurfing is to someone that doesn’t directly get it.
Couchsurfing is not sleeping at your friend’s, uncle’s mum’s, neighbor’s, or in an Airbnb.
Couchsurfing is there to bring two people that weren’t supposed to meet together.
While some of my respondents complained about hosts having high demands as if they were trying to get something out of their guests, others complained about guests behaving as if they were in a hotel or some sort of hippie Airbnb, to quote my friend.
When I sent a request to a guy in Rabbat, he said yes directly, then asked me for money.
Needless to say, I chose Airbnb.
The last problem concerns practicalities: the financing, the app, and the website don’t work or at least don’t work for the fulfillment of the original intended purpose, as we discuss below.
Overall, these results seem to correspond with the ressentiment of the community as its whole.
To answer the questions myself, I joined Couchsurfing in 2013 to meet people because I was feeling lonely.
My first impression was very positive, although my first and only stay at a host ended up being a disaster.
Yes, I’m still using Couchsurfing although I find it hard to encounter quality people to host (or that at least read my profile).
The three main problems I can think of are creeps in the community and the impossibility to remove them; the financing of the platform that doesn’t work; the lack of commitment and comprehension from users, mainly inexperienced people looking to crash for free.
PENAV and the Fall of Couchsurfing
The fall of Couchsurfing finds its roots in a social issue that I call PENAV: the Public Expansion Negative Added-Value.
When I was a kid, I didn’t like school-organized activities because most of the time, they entailed the coming of other students from other classrooms.
I thought the more people, the less valuable the experience felt like.
I liked being with just my friends and no one else.
In fact, I have never really departed from this principle, pushing it so far that I rarely end up meeting more than one friend at a time.
Big settings simply don’t allow good high-quality conversations.
Quality and the number of people are inversely correlated.
This is why people are lonelier in a 20 million people city than in a 200 people village.
I believe this principle to be at the heart of the downfall of Couchsurfing, so let me express my theory.
When Couchsurfing became widely known, a bunch of guys looking for girls signed up and hosted exclusively girls, hoping to get laid easily.
There were harassment and alcohol and reputation, feeling, and vibe quickly degraded.
As girls deserted the platform, the next generation (post-2012) saw it as a way to crash for free and save up money, which annoyed hosts that felt being taken advantage of.
As no one looked to give anymore but only to take, users deserted the website.
The Bottom Line
I wouldn’t like being in the shoes of Couchsurfing founders, as their “invention” has later been overwhelmingly well exploited by a company called Airbnb, though with the addition of one critical component: money.
The world doesn’t seem fair when you think that while Couchsurfing is sending emails asking for finance, Airbnb founders became billionaires after 5 or 6 years.
To me, Couchsurfing, or at least its principles, aren’t dead and can be revived.
The first step is to establish barriers of entry to filter out criminals and creepy people. These can whether be financial, or through commitment.
For example, members would only become authorized to host/surf once they’d have at least 10 references given out by verified users.
That way, members would first have to invest themselves in Couchsurfing events. This would give the community the power to control by itself who is worthy to join it and who isn’t.
Second, the website needs to make money. I think donation was a good idea and I also think that a yearly membership contribution could be interesting, with discounts for students for example.
I didn’t mind having ads on the website.
And that’s about it!
The beauty of Couchsurfing was its community, and it doesn’t take much to build communities so long you exclude people that shouldn’t be part of them.
It is not something nice to say, but that’s the principle of a community: it’s not for everyone and not anyone should be allowed to join it.
Having too many members does not help the community. It weakens it.
The success of niche platforms such as Warm Showers is telling.
Maybe it’s time for Couchsurfing to reform and become what it originally was: a platform for travelers and locals.
Not a mainstream Tinder app.