The idea was simple: Put up a stranger on my couch? Why not...
What is Couchsurfing?
“You could get off the plane practically anywhere in the world, and someone would want to meet you and take care of you, make sure you are safe, make sure that you have a roof over your head, some good food and know where all the cool places to visit are," explained Casey Fenton, who famously founded Couchsurfing in the early 2000s after booking a cheap flight to Iceland and hacking into the University of Iceland's student directory to ask for somewhere to stay.
All you had to do was create a profile introducing yourself to others, and you could connect with fellow couchsurfers in practically any city, town or village on the planet. You could stay with others and welcome people from different cultures into your home — all without money, expectations or the need to get anything in return.
For Alexandra Liss, director of documentary “One Couch at a Time,” Couchsurfing has always been “about gifting what’s in your heart, showing, exchanging, sharing what you have, just giving a little bit of goodness and spreading that.”
The idea caught on first with hundreds, then thousands and eventually millions. Few other services have spread as quickly beyond national and cultural borders as Couchsurfing. You could couchsurf in a luxury apartment in San Francisco, or if you managed to make it to Antarctica, there’d be a couch and a friendly face waiting there, too.
Digital dreamers versus profits
A good decade before the rise of digital nomad culture, Couchsurfing was built by young, digital dreamers in the early 2000s. Volunteering their time, they programmed the website during recurring international events called Couchsurfing Collectives, free-spirited parties that helped the service thrive.
But as Couchsurfing grew, so did its challenges. Keeping up with visa regulations, retaining skilled labor without proper salaries and ensuring legal compliance with the internal revenue service — it all became too much. So in 2011, to the great sadness of many members, Couchsurfing became a for-profit company.
“It changed the relationship with its users," explained travel blogger Sasha Davletshina. "We were no longer just members of a community. Now we were assets to a company."
More money, more marketing
With the new business structure, Couchsurfing attracted a number of investments and opened a headquarters in San Francisco, where the team that programmed its website, whose members used to travel constantly, set up permanent shop.
"Once Couchsurfing attracted its $22 million investment, unfortunately the ethos started to get confused," Liss recalled.
With much of the money being put into marketing, Couchsurfing attracted more and more users — a win for a company, but it also created problems.
"It meant growing the community faster than the understanding of the ethos could be spread," Liss said. "If not everyone there is about sharing, gifting and cultural exchange, then it muddies the experience. And that definitely happened."
Many new users lacked the passion for Couchsurfing's founding ideology, and many old users started to feel the connections they were making through the platform were less profound. Even the most impassioned couchsurfers became disillusioned.
Behind the scenes, the new business-minded Couchsurfing administration began to clash with the original founders and their vision, leading Fenton in 2015 to leave the organization.
New features, fewer couches
As a for-profit company, Couchsurfing's success relied on, well, profits. The service introduced ads and began to aggressively promote paid verification, a problematic shift for the community, according to Davletshina.
“[It] didn’t make the service any better," she said. "It made it more dangerous because any person could now just pay money for a little green verification badge, suggesting to [especially new] users that they are safe and reliable, even when such person has not been vetted by the community in any way.”
Soon after, the service started to limit the features available to those who hadn't paid to be verified, causing further dismay among users.
Around 2016, the Couchsurfing app launched with its flagship "Hangouts" feature.
“It was a way for users to post live what they were doing so that others nearby could spontaneously join them,” Juan Martinez, a Colombian blogger based in Berlin, explained. “It seemed like their model changed from a platform for people to find a place to stay with others to an app providing a way to meet people from your city and for events.”
While Hangouts were popular with newer Couchsurfing users, many still had concerns about the direction in which the community was headed.
“Yeah, sure, maybe they implemented some new apps and features, but none of those things were ever important to me," Davletshina said.
The final straw
In 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Couchsurfing went back on its early promise to never charge users for hosting and surfing, and implemented its most controversial change yet: a mandatory service fee.
“It was basically a betrayal of its users," Martinez recalled. "They argued they made this change because they were affected by the pandemic, but frankly I don’t see what changed as everyone was using the platform for free before. ... A lot of people were extremely disappointed by it, not because of the money but more about the ideals of the platform and how the change was implemented.”
Another troubling factor was the lack of transparency by Couchsurfing's administration. Long-time community members told NBCLX they now have no idea who runs the platform, where they're based or what happens to the money generated by user fees. The office at its listed address is permanently closed.
“They’re unusually mysterious, they’re not responsive, and I don’t really know what their goals are,” Liss said.
Couchsurfing did not respond to NBCLX's multiple requests for comment.
A rich legacy
While Fenton admits he could've done a better job explaining to his community members why the service became a for-profit company, he said the positive legacy of Couchsurfing lives on.
Just ask Teo Odena, a Filipino based in Anchorage, Alaska, who's hosted 270 travelers and has friends from nearly every part of the planet. Or Liss, who filmed a documentary in 21 countries with almost no budget thanks to Couchsurfing hosts. Or Ania Rzym, who traveled from Poland to Jerusalem and, after a few more trips together, ended up marrying her host, Alberto.
"Just the fact that people know about Couchsurfing, that millions of people have had hundreds of millions of trust exchanges over the network, it’s really created a different world," Fenton said. "It allowed people to see that they can trust people they don’t know. Everything that’s happened already has been a positive for the world, so anything else that continues to happen is a bonus."