The Ethos Couchsurfing.com: How an Idea is Promoted, Perceived, & Practiced
Don't send me a couchrequest/mail without reading (Profile) page completely please. Btw, my name is [RK*], states one Couchsurfing.com member. His profile page reads more like an instruction manual than a biography. “Don't let me waste my time to read your meaningless silly stupid copy and paste request … Do not try to send me couchrequest if you find you'll break my condition … Do not eat the thing of the refrigerator without permission … Do not mess with my white dog … Do not [be] late for the meeting time.” If that is not enough to indicate that he is serious about these requests, please note, the opening line is not actually an instruction, so to speak. It is his official Couchsurfing name. Despite these strict set of rules for contacting him, as a member since 2014, RK has collected well over 300 references and nearly 500 Couchsurfing friends, indicating his popularity within the Couchsurfing community. To understand how one might feel so compelled make such severe guidelines and yet still have so many connections, we must look at what is Couchsurfing.com, how does it work, what are its values, and how are they promoted.
Couchsurfing.com is a free, membership only, online to offline social networking site, which consists of three elements: the ability to make a profile, a database of profiles, and the ability for members to view other member’s profiles (Tan, 2012, p. 30). Couchsurfing.com aims to connect members online for real offline relations. The most common connection that Couchsurfing.com provides is for hospitality purposes, through a host and guest arrangement. Traveling members, known as surfers, may request to stay with other members in the area they travel to. Hosts agree to surfers sleeping on their couch or extra bed, typically no more than one to three days, based on an individualized arrangement that is made through a “Request to Stay,” sometimes referred to a couch request, and an ability to send messages back and forth to communicate location and other agreements. There is usually an exchange involved and surfers are encouraged to do something for the hosts in return. This can include cooking, cleaning, or giving a gift (Couchsurfing Help Centre, 2017).
Originally a non-profit, Couchsurfing.com is a for-profit B Corporation with over 14 million members worldwide (Tan, 2012, p. 134; Couchsurfing, About Us, 2017). Anyone can be a host or a surfer, though often members are not balanced between the two and some may end up hosting more than surfing, while others may end up surfing more than hosting. Motivations vary, but many hosts claim that “personal growth” and connections and experience are a large reason for agreeing to allow strangers into their homes (Tan, 2012, p. 66). Some surfers use Couchsurfing.com only for the purposes of saving money on accommodation, while others also aim to gain a better travel experience than they would have otherwise (Tan, 2012, p. 67). The latter is a push towards the peer-to-peer economy through a moral economy. This means a non-commercial or monetary exchange of goods and services through peers “without the involvement of shops, banks, agencies and other intermediaries,” based on “cooperation and generosity, shared goods and services, [and] mutual help” (Dredge & Gyimóthy, 2015, p. 291). It is a push away from commercial or mass tourism and towards alternative tourism, giving more meaningful “authentic, individualized, and intimate embodied experiences with the people and places they visit” (Molz, 2013, p. 213).
Despite it being a free service, there is a payment option called verification. This is where members may pay a yearly fee verify their phone number and address with the idea that it increases their credibility, promising that surfers find hosts twice as fast (Couchsurfing, Get Verified, 2017). Although this service is optional and Couchsurfing.com claim that it supports them (Emma, 2017), many members are skeptical of monetizing a system of “free exchange” and “goodwill” (Molz, 2013, p. 225) that they believe Couchsurfing should be.
Couchsurfing.com promotes goodwill through certain values, which reflects a particular ethos. The website promotes five core values: share your life, including one’s experiences and their home; create connection, in order to “strengthen our faith in each other;” offer kindness, and respect each other’s differences; stay curious, and become a “better global citizen;” and leave it better than you found it, including the host’s home (Couchsurfing, Our Values, 2017). These values are central to the ethos that Couchsurfing.com attempts to project into the Couchsurfing community through its features. However, how members perceive and use them varies.
In order to understand how this ethos is played out within the Couchsurfing.com community, the concept of affordances is useful, because it compels us to investigate how aspects of the website are both beneficial and harmful in constructing its ethos. Affordance is a term that highlights the options available for an observer in a particular environment or situation. Philosopher and cognitive scientist, Anthony Chemero (2013) describes affordances as the “relations between the abilities of an animal and some feature of a situation” (p. 191), and when the observer has the ability “to perceive and take advantage of them” (p. 190). This means that affordances are a set of possibilities that may arise at the intersection of an observer and an environment and how one reacts to it. In the context of Couchsurfing.com, the observer is the Couchsurfing.com member, and an environment is the online platform of Couchsurfing.com and the offline platform of a host’s home. Chemero’s (2013) discussion of affordances leave open for changes in the environment (p. 192), leaving opportunities for the developers of Couchsurfing.com to make changes to the website based on the members’ use, as well as the member’s ability to perceive the online platform and take advantage of the free service, whether or not they believe in the ethos. In the following, I will argue that the affordances of Couchsurfing.com create particular relationships, those between the developers and members, and both meaningful and convenient relationships between members. By looking at the structures of the website and the relations between its features and the members, we are able to see how the ethos of Couchsurfing is constructed, and reproduced, and sometimes denied.
This ethnography explores various aspects in, and relating to Couchsurfing.com. This means the infrastructure of the website, in particular the profile, references, and introductions, is explored and analyzed. Various members’ individual profiles are examined in order to identify how they are being used, and how they may indicate their views.
Two interviews were conducted with Couchsurfing.com members. Mark, a member since 2009, lives in the United States, and the interview was conducted over Skype. Annie, a member since 2010, is from Canada and the interview was conducted in person. Both have surfing experiences but they mainly are hosts, in that they have hosted more than they surfed using Couchsurfing.com. Since Couchsurfing profiles are available for members only, participants’ names have been changed for the sake of anonymity.
Finally, testimonies are also gathered from the official Couchsurfing blog and the unofficial sub-Reddit forum, the latter referred to as /r/CouchSurfing. The reason to include /r/CouchSurfing is two-fold. First, it is a platform for members to be able to discuss issues they perceive within the use of Couchsurfing.com. It is a great resource for members’ opinions on the ethos and various topics and aspects that are specifically relating to Couchsurfing.com, and examining them in detail. Secondly, although Couchsurfing.com does maintain a Facebook and Twitter page, the communications on those platforms appear to be used more for sharing positive encounters and praising Couchsurfing. This is not to say that those messages are not important. However, the very existence of /r/CouchSurfing may indicate something lacking on Couchsurfing.com, in comparing both, communicating over official social media platforms does not appear to represent a full account of issues that members appear to experience. Whether this is because the social media channels are monitored and edited by the developers, or whether members only see these particular platforms for specific reasons, is unknown.
For the sake of clarification, ‘Couchsurfing.com’ will refer to site itself, which includes the features and the developers that run it. ‘Couchsurfing’ will refer the act of either hosting or surfing that was arranged through Couchsurfing.com.
Results & Discussion
There are three elements to the relations of affordances: the abilities of the observer, the features of the environment, and the actual behavior as a result (Chemero, 2013, p. 189). A typical Couchsurfing host/surfer relationship, there are two observers: the host and the surfer; and two environments: online and offline. In the online environment, as a minimum both host and surfer require membership and a profile. The profile gives the ability to present oneself with some guidelines. This will be discussed in more detail in a later section. In the offline environment, the host requires certain environmental features, such as a place for a surfer to sleep, be it a couch or an extra bed. The ability of the host includes availability and the desire to host, which is generally coupled with a desire to connect with others, as can be seen in Annie’s profile, under the section under “Why I’m on Couchsurfing,” where she writes, “I hope to continue to receive couch surfing guests into my home. As well, when I decide to plan my own adventures, I hope to use this network to find a couch to surf upon along with making interesting new connections. … I have had only positive experiences all around and have made some really great connections along the way” (see Figure 1).
The kind of surfer that sees their only requirement to use the website for free accommodation is known as a “freeloader” (Tan, 2012). In this paper, I will refer to a broader type of surfer, which I will call the unwanted guest. This type of surfer may also violate several of Couchsurfing.com’s other values, such as disrespecting the host’s or their home by being untidy, or not respecting another’s differences. These types of surfers cause an anxiety in members that use Couchsurfing.com for the means of connection with others and gaining experiences, since it violates many of the Couchsurfing principles that is the backbone of the ethos.
Relations between developers and members
The relationship between developers and members is important to point out because the developers behind Couchsurfing.com are the ones that set the parameters for how the ethos is spread. They are able to both explicitly encourage behaviors that foster the ideology and prevent behaviors that suppress it, and at the same time implicitly allowing for other behaviors that are deemed inappropriate. They are continually shifting and changing in response to how members use the site. Molz (2013) introduces the idea of moral affordances, which examines “the role of technology ... in realizing or constraining possibilities for moral exchanges” (p. 219). In the following sections I will point out ways that Couchsurfing.com attempts to encourage the ethos, while at times downplaying the issues that prevent unwanted guests to continue their use on Couchsurfing.com. These attempts are best seen through the relationships of its members.
Meaningful relationship between members
When I met up with Annie for afternoon tea, she was exhausted from a lack of sleep, but she knew I wanted to talk about Couchsurfing, and proving claims on her profile, “I'd like to think that my friends would say that I am kind, generous, thoughtful and forgiving” (see Figure 1), she welcomed me with a smile despite her disposition. Unfortunately, on top of being tired, she was feeling dispirited from a recent surfer that had left the morning before. Annie has a high tolerance for what she finds is less than ideal for surfers. She’s had surfers that have tried to kiss her (though respectful when she refused to comply), and surfers with whom she has had absolutely nothing in common. She never held these things against anyone. This latest surfer was the first time she’s had a Couchsurfing experience that seemed to violate many of the principles she feels is important to using the website, something she was unable to predict using the features of the site.
Couchsurfing.com claims to connect “travelers with a global network of people willing to share in profound and meaningful ways,” (Couchsurfing, About Us, 2017). They do this through a number of features, such as profiles, request to stay, and references. Molz (2013) argues that profile contributes to the moral economy by helping members find others that are “like-minded” (p. 220), and that they operate on a “global digital divide, as well as by a generational divide,” producing some connections while denying others (p. 221). She also argues that references encourage members to “informally surveil one another’s actions within a community” (Molz, 2013, p. 222). However, my focus will be on how the ethos is spread though the website and through members that lead to anxieties when connections do not live up to expectations.
The profile is one of the main ways that members can communicate their beliefs of Couchsurfing with each other. The profile is the “virtual public face” (Tan, 2012, p. 13) that allows members to introduce themselves before any messages are exchanged. It asks for basic demographic information and contains a number of sections that aim to get members to tell each other more about themselves. For example, “About Me,” and “My Interests,” as well as how they can contribute to the couchsurfing community, for example, “Why I’m on Couchsurfing,” “Teach, Learn, Share,” and “What I Can Share with Hosts.” [See Figure 1: Annie’s Profile for a breakdown of the profile.]
The profile is where many members take the opportunity to express their Couchsurfing principles. Couchsurfing host, GA* claims on his profile,
I am on couchsurfing for the experience and really appreciate when my guests try to get involved, share their cultures, cook meals etc... I will not require anything from any surfers but any involvement is better than no involvement at all. You have to keep in mind that I receive over 90 people every year... Therefore it's always better to have people who want to have a great experience rather than people who just want to save money. So, if you are sending me a request just because you need a place to stay but don't want to share anything. I think it would be better to ask somebody else.
Here his addressing a number of anxieties. He explains why he is on Couchsurfing.com and, as a host, what he enjoys receiving from his guests. He does not want to claim that he expects something back from guests but he does want to take others who believe in the ethos. He expresses an overwhelming number of requests he receives as a host and is forced to come up with a system of acceptance and rejection. Finally, he makes explicit that if others do not plan on living up to these requests, they should not contact him in the first place.
HW*, another Couchsurfing host, has similar ways of attempting to control those that send him requests. His profile states, “As a courtesy, view some photos or simply read a reference or 2, to at least show that you have taken the time to look at something on my profile." These hosts want to make it clear that they do not want people who do not follow the ethos as they do. Unlike the section of “What I Can Share with Hosts,” there is no section for what one would expect from a surfer, still the affordance of the profile allows members to express this sentiment. These address a way of preventing unwanted guests. It becomes significantly more difficult to address these anxieties after an unwanted guest leaves.
According to Couchsurfing.com, “References are a powerful snapshot of Couchsurfing experiences … People write references to express gratitude or provide helpful feedback, and they read references to learn more about people they haven’t met yet” (Vince, 2016). References help spread the ethos between members by explaining their encounters and whether or not the other member has met their expectations. However, the system is challenged when experiences are less than ideal. Recall Annie expressing her issues with a recent unwanted guest from earlier.
She explained, “He was just unpleasant to be around. He made me feel very uncomfortable. He was saying incredibly inappropriate things about people of colour, gay people, fat people, people born out of wedlock,” she explained. This surfer made her feel unsafe in her own home. She was nervous about going to bed and would wait until the lights were off in the living room and she could hear him snoring before she could sleep herself. Not only being an unpleasant person to Annie, he was also an unpleasant guest. In the two days that he had been there, he had taken several showers and used her entire stock of towels. The morning he left, she had a hard exit time for him to leave so that she could attend an appointment. He overstayed this exit time approximately 20 minutes and might have stayed longer had she not sternly asked him to leave. She told me, “It’s the first time I felt like I wanted to leave a negative reference and I’m trying to figure out what to do.” Annie’s hesitation is powered by a fear that by leaving a negative reference, this unwanted guest will retaliate with a negative reference. “I also do worry about negative references on my profile. I have a very impressive profile. I’ve got many, many positive references. I don’t want it marred by somebody being upset because I talked sternly to him about using towels. Like, I have no idea what’s going on in this person’s head … I tried to be as balanced as I could, but I know I was very impatient with him in the end.” Not only are fears of retaliation experienced, but references can be easily misplaced.
Until recently, writing references were based on separating experiences into positive, negative or neutral. The evidence of this is still built into profiles for members that have received any of these designations. Members struggled with situating mixed experiences into specific slots that may not capture the overall feelings at a glance. Annie explains her principles on writing a reference, “some people will leave negative references easily because they don’t like the person’s politics … they didn’t feel like that they were engaged enough with the family. In my opinion, that’s not the stuff that I would leave references on. That to me is not the expectation of Couchsurfing.”
Mark believes that “everybody is going to have different opinions” in guests, therefore he writes his references by itemizing all the activities that he and his guests have done together. “We went out for ice cream is better than ‘we had a nice time’” and will “let the people determine what is acceptable.” This means that how one writes a reference is personalized, especially since an arrangement where members do not have common beliefs, does not mean that members are not following the ethos of Couchsurfing.
A perceived contention with slotting references between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ was addressed by Couchsurfing.com in late 2016. They stated that “because people have mixed and varied experiences, we removed the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ designations going forward. Instead, your reference highlights when you say you would stay with or host someone again” (Vince, 2016). [See Figure 2: Annie’s Reference to see the layout for references from surfers.]
Since the change, members have to choose from the categories of would stay/host/recommend or would not stay/host/recommend from surfers, from hosts, and personal references, respectively. However, this, too, comes with its own set of issues. Since negative and positive references are still built into the system, they are grouped with ‘would not recommend’ giving the appearance that they are also negative. /r/CouchSurfing user, justlikebuddyholly experienced this exact issue. A surfer he hosted was unable to stay with him for the entire length of stay they originally agreed upon simply due to the mattress that she was to sleep on bothered her back. According to him her reference read, “Justlikebuddyholly is actually a great host, he is bright, has a bubbly personality and is so genuine … Thanks justlikebuddyholly for your hospitality, I hope to see you in the future!” (justlikebuddyholly, 2016). However, because she was unable to stay with him, she categorized her reference ‘would not stay.’ His argument is that “Even though it was a great experience, now people will wisk over my profile when they see the ‘1 negative reference’” (justlikebuddyholly, 2016), making him appear less reputable than he believes he deserves.
Although references are a suitable method to “build a reputation” (Molz, 2013, p. 222), the ways they are structured conflicts with the way members perceive them, whether it is because they fear retaliation, or because a less than positive reference will be marked as negative. In any case, references do not always seem to indicate the proper representation of encounters.
Convenient relationship between members
“There are two things [in Requests to Stay] that would guarantee to be rejected [by me],” claims Mark. “One, not mention anything about me, and two saying … ‘it’s only one night’ or ‘I can’t afford a hotel.” Like Annie, Mark is on Couchsurfing.com for connecting with others. He enjoys hosting and gets excited when he has good surfers. He sees it as creating relationships. When members do not acknowledge the host when requesting to stay, or frame it in such a way that indicates they are not contacting him to connect with him, to Mark, those members do not understand the purpose of Couchsurfing and do not deserve to be hosted.
As a response to hosts being “overwhelmed by impersonal requests from new community members” and surfers that do not take the time to add meaning to the messages and requests they send, Couchsurfing.com created a feature of limited “Introductions” (Couchsurfing, 2017). Members who are not verified may only send ten Requests to Stay or messages per week to members they have not yet had previous contact with. [See Figure 3: Request to Stay with limited Introductions.] Couchsurfing.com has removed the ability of messaging and requesting to stay as many times as they wish or, perhaps more importantly as much as they need. This regulation leaves surfers with having to make more careful choices on who they contact, which may lead to less choice or having to pay to verify their account, which is already a contested issue.
This has come with mixed results from members. Some think this is a good idea. One /r/CouchSurfing user claims, “It does stop people from sending silly spam and forces them to be selective while encouraging them to host. I personally don't have a problem with this policy” (sleepand, 2017). Another user claims it will stop “the copy-paste freeloaders who blast out 50 messages wanting a place to stay. Too bad for them, now they will be stopped dead in their tracks” (stevenmbe, 2017).
However, a majority of the reactions, many from hosts themselves, seem to come from those who believe a move like this takes away from the ethos of Couchsurfing. On the blog entry that introduces this feature, oneperson comments that Couchsurfing.com is “choking the community & members with excessive control, features & wrong monetisation policies” (Deo, 2017). He continues by addressing to the developers, “You say Hosts form the backbone of community : You got it all wrong, being a host for many people I can say that being a traveller and being open for a human exchange makes one a backbone of community … You[‘re] payment system is leeching out money of their pockets just because they want to be part of community but can’t due to personal / other reasons” (Deo, 2017). Another from /r/CouchSurfing user comments on the loophole. “If you pay, you can spam? Just doesn't compute for me” (y-c-c, 2017).
To some, this limitation on sending messages promotes the ethos by forcing members to choose carefully and send more meaningful messages. To others, it causes more problems for those who are unable to or disagree with the verification system. On the other hand, members that do not write carefully are able to verify and continue misunderstand the ethos. Couchsurfing.com still gives opportunities for people to misuse the intended purpose of the service despite its efforts to prevent it.
Couchsurfing.com affords members many ways to express their beliefs in the ethos of Couchsurfing.com, mitigate anxieties, reduce the number of unwanted guests, and increase the number of meetings with other members that have similar beliefs. I have argued this by showing how members use the profile to share their beliefs and expectations, how the conflicts in the structure of the references arise, and the mixed debates around the limited introductions. The structure of these features is inconsistent with the way members perceive them, at times denying the ideals of connections and making the spread of ethos more ambiguous.
By looking at the relations between the features available through Couchsurfing.com and its members, we can better understand the relations and contentions between how one is expected to behave and how one actually behaves, and navigate through the ideals of the Couchsurfing ethos in a setting that is both encourages and downplays it. After all, these affordances open possibilities for them to do certain things, but what they actually do with it is another matter.
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Couchsurfing. (2016, January 19). “Product Update: Maps, Praise, and References on your Profile.” Couchsurfing Blog. Retrieved from https://blog.couchsurfing.com/product-update-maps-praise-and-references/
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sleepand. (2017). “Limited introductions - including messages?” [Online forum]. Retrieved from https://www.reddit.com/r/couchsurfing/comments/5yhu0h/limited_introductions_including_messages/
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y-c-c. (2017). “Limited introductions - including messages?” [Online forum]. Retrieved from https://www.reddit.com/r/couchsurfing/comments/5yhu0h/limited_introductions_including_messages/
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* Names have been shortened to protect identity.