The Death of Couchsurfing?

James Hopest
6 min readMay 17, 2020
Two hippie looking men on a couch, saluting in a funny way
Edited image courtesy: Matthew Hogan

Well folks, in these changed times it seems that the last artefacts of the old world have been firmly cemented in history, as Couchsurfing International Inc. decides to unilaterally charge its members, eroding away the last remnants of community spirit and hammering the final nail in the capitalist coffin it built for itself.

The fact Couchsurfing didn’t warn or consult the community it hosts that the company was switching to a paid service, effective immediately as of 14th May 2020, only underlines the already poor track record of the management. Just in case you weren’t sure how mainstream the service went, they’ve gone and removed all doubt.

In order to simply message old friends through the site, people who you warmly welcomed into your home, who kindly hosted you in a strange foreign land — or who perhaps changed your life — you must now pay a subscription fee. Users have essentially had their accounts frozen unless they pay the fee immediately.

It’s not the $15 annual fee people are angry about but the way they ask for it.

The bosses of Couchsurfing know how much these old connections mean to some members, so in one final hustle have blocked messaging and even referencing, forcing those who have no other communication links to sign up for at least a month to speak to their friends, and hoping for a little bonus before the gentrified party is over for good.

It also means those who use the site only for hosting, in other words, offer their homes to others for free, have to pay the fee too.

The move will probably kick out some of their strongest and oldest members. Leaving only noobs and those that want to save money when travelling to run the whole show. To be fair, $15 a year is not unreasonable. I’ve voluntarily paid a lot more, even to Couchsurfing itself, to keep a good thing going. Running platforms like this costs. But the way they asked shows everybody exactly where Couchsurfing stands.

If only they were as transparent about their finances as they are their morals.

It does raise the question, where exactly is your money going? Couchsurfing admits on its own blog that it makes thousands every month on advertising revenue and that 4% of its users have contributed to the platform before the recent announcement. Considering that at time of writing it has well over 15 million users, at 4% that’s at least $15 million dollars alone if everyone paid the verification fee only once (based on the only feasible way to contribute — the $25 verification fee per year). The management has probably worked out, while they sip lattes over Zoom, that even if there is a mass exodus and those without any principles at all remain, they will still miraculously break even.

In contrast, BeWelcome, a similar but much less popular platform, covered their finances with less than $10,000. BeWelcome is also completely transparent about their finances.

Everyone who has used Couchsurfing knows that policy has slowly — although not imperceptibly — changed over the years. The sole aim since it changed from .org to .com has been to increase its membership and with that the hope that its members will pay to be verified under the controversial pretext that this makes the community safer. As a host, I can say this “safer” mantra is nonsense. It’s the references I care about. It’s what the community, not the bank, say about you that I care about.

The recent move is in stark contrast to what Couchsurfing told the community back in 2011 when they changed to a B-Corp: “CouchSurfing will never make you pay to host and surf.”

A sad scene of a grey couch floating in a flooded room

Of course, Couchsurfing will never die for good. Its apparition will live on in the memories of original users, their profiles as tombstones representing an age — however brief — where three great things: the internet, travel and the human spirit combined to create an enviable community accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

Considering the incredible stories, the global relationships and shared interests of locals, there is little doubt that Couchsurfing changed the world. Just how many people turned a new era in their lives through a friendship which can be traced back to Couchsurfing?

For a while it flew in the face of the monetisation of simple travel, even as a for-profit company it triumphed as the lefty nemesis of Airbnb and the boutique hostel craze which swept the world; now rearranging its company structure to join them, having long replaced the wording of its most fundamental function from “community” to “profit”. Over the last years, the true community still struggled on, creating events and meet-ups and ignoring the new requests from creepy men with empty profiles, while in the background $22.6 million of private investments was quietly being squandered to turn Couchsurfing into the next trendy startup venture.

Now that the money is gone and the management has rotated more than the roulette wheels in Vegas, we can see how well that all worked out.

Many community organisations (wikipedia.org for example) which respect their user-base — indeed realise they are their user-basehave resorted to reaching out to their members in search of aid when times got tough, financial or otherwise. Even some newspapers, dammit, score morally higher by asking for donations rather than ransoms.

Despite the recent drama, it’s already clear from Couchsurfing’s Privacy Policy that other money making outlets besides the ones they mention do exist:

“We may engage a third party data provider who may collect web log data from you or place or recognize a unique cookie on your browser”

“We may also share aggregated or de-identified information, which cannot reasonably be used to identify you.”

They may not admit directly selling your data. But Couchsurfing allows other companies to collect it in exchange for advertising space, which is paid for. The key words here are “engage”, and “reasonably”, which means if you are a large company and have the means to to re-identify data, then ta-da! — those trackers which monitor clicks and people you interact with, many who are now linked to profiles on Facebook, combine to make a neat little profile for you, and the travel-themed adverts stack up higher than the empty iPhone boxes at the Couchsurfing headquarters, which is now closed from Covid19, by the way.

But that probably didn’t work out for them, which is why they are now allegedly scrapping the advertising plan. Returning instead in true business-means-business style to the community, which after being neglected for years, they have suddenly realised they depend on. And may also realise no longer exists.

But how can it be so bad? As of May 2020, it is one of the top 10,000 websites by Alexa rank, putting it in the top 0.001% of websites in the world — absolutely no mean feat. And certainly not in a position to be losing money. If Couchsurfing couldn’t make it work with that amount of traffic, and with multiple multi-million dollar investments, while simultaneously ignoring its community and deleting its oldest and most valued members, it deserves to die.

Nobody asked for all the fancy graphics and apps they made for us. People that are willing to sleep on a stranger’s mattress can live with a few, em, bugs. If community powered websites like Reddit can survive, Couchsurfing could have survived too.

Everyone that has used the site, even until very recently, will be grateful that it existed; its simple empowerment of people allowed everyone to get more of the best thing about it: the people we meet. If anything, it remains as a bleak lesson on the poisonous nature of replacing strength of community with financial capital.

Now it’s time to shift away from what is essentially a company run by faceless people whose sole community is those in Silicon Valley; the only question remaining is, where do we go?

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James Hopest

Writes on ethics, politics and environment. @jameshopest