A New Way To Travel: From Couch to Castle
These days it seems like staying in hotels when on vacation is an outdated practice, especially with the introduction sites such as couchsurfing.com and airbnb.com. What used to be considered a creepy Craigslist phenomenon has now been transformed into a million dollar business. Why stay in an expensive hotel when you can essentially stay with that long lost friend that lives in an exotic place? When you stay in someone else’s home, you get to experience the area in a completely different way. There is no way to put a price tag on these experiences where you can learn about a culture through the eyes of a native, practice a new language, and meet plenty of new people. The following will discuss the pros and cons of couchsurfing.com and compare it to the popular site, airbnb.com. I will also highlight how these two sites utilize the principles associate with bootstrapping a niche as well as the notion of gratitude.
Couchsurfing.com was founded in 2004 as a result of an e-mail sent by one of the founders, Casey Fenton, to some students in Iceland asking if he could stay with them after finding a cheap flight from Boston to Iceland (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CouchSurfing). The site, and mobile app, provides members access to “surf” on people’s couches, host guests, or attend parties. Today, the community is made up of over 10 million members, 200,000 cities, and 520,000 events. You can stay with someone in just about every country in the world. These communities are helping to make the world a smaller and friendlier place to travel (http://about.couchsurfing.com/about/).
The site was not an instant success from the start; the organization struggled initially as a non-profit. After some initial struggles, and a lot of support from dedicated users, couchsurfing.com re-emerged as a for-profit organization. The organization now charges members twenty dollars annually to be a part of the community (https://www.couchsurfing.com/get_verified?ctid=1). As Kraut and Resnick (2011) state in Design Claim 4, “Activities that bridge interests in different topics increase match value in spaces with mixed topic scope” (p. 236). In other words, what makes couchsurfing.com such a successful endeavor is its unique ability to bring various groups together to bond over one common interest.
Airbnb is a community similar to couchsurfing.com. The main difference is that it allows users the opportunity to book an entire property, or even a castle, as opposed to just a couch. The community offers short-term living quarters and the opportunity to network with other members. Airbnb is often considered the middle market between hotels and couchsurfing. From its start in 2008, Airbnb has grown to over 25,000,000 members, 34,000 cities, 190 countries and over 1,000,000 listings worldwide. The founders, Nathan Blecharczyk, Brian Chesky, and Joe Gebbia claim it is the, “easiest way for people to monetize their extra space and showcase it to an audience of millions” (https://www.airbnb.com/about/about-us).
I found that both of these sites did a good job of keeping users engaged through aesthetically pleasing layouts and interactive concepts. From my experiences on these sites, I feel as though Airbnb is a bit more informative and user friendly. When you go to the Airbnb site, the first thing that comes up is an extensive search bar that allows you to find available living accommodations. The couchsurfing.com site also has a search bar, however it is much smaller and gets somewhat lost in the sea of information on the dashboard. I also had a very difficult time locating the cost to become a member of couchsurfing.com. It was not until I signed up as a member that I was given the information about yearly cost. As far as the cost aspect, Airbnb has a more enticing strategy. Couchsurfing.com is a yearly membership for hosts. Even though twenty dollars seems like a small amount, it is only cost effective if you actively list your couch on a frequent basis. With Airbnb, members are charged a 3% fee on their listing price, only after the venue has been booked. There is no monetary penalty for listing your place and not booking any nights. This method gives users more flexibility and fewer obligations to maintain their frequency of listing. Overall, I think Airbnb.com does a better job engaging the user and making information easily accessible.
One feature that really stood out to me on couchsurfing.com is the section titled “values”. With these sites, it is crucial that they outline values and ethical guidelines, since the majority of users are staying in unfamiliar settings with unfamiliar hosts. The values listed on the site range from “share your life” and “create connections” to “leave it better than you found it”. Not only is it important to be a good host, but also it is equally as important to be a good guest. With both couchsurfing.com and airbnb, guests and hosts leave feedback on the experience. This brings me to the notion of gratitude. As Matias (2014) states, “expressions of gratitude can dramatically increase the recipient’s pro-social behaviour”. By encouraging members to bring a gift for their host and write an extensive review, they are creating a community in which members feel safe and more inclined to join.
There are also “community guidelines” which are aimed more towards individuals who host. These range from “Do respect others”, “Don’t charge for your couch, and “Don’t go looking for a date”. The reason couchsurfing.com has remained such a successful and worldwide enterprise is because its members are clearly abiding by these values and guidelines. There is a strong reputation to uphold as a member who provides the accommodations, as guests are required to post a review after their stay. The site provides an extensive list of safety guidelines as well as a link to report unsafe living conditions. The safety aspect is stressed heavily on couchsurfing.com in my opinion, since couch surfers are often staying in a home or apartment with individuals they do not know. The reason this concept has been so successful is a result of the emphasis placed on safety, ensuring members that they will have access to resources they may need in case of an emergency.
Airbnb also features a similar section on their site, but is not as effective in my opinion. The site features two sections, “Hospitality” and “Responsible Hosting”. I believe that the wording, and comical tone are what make the couchsurfing.com site so much more successful. Airbnb definitely provides valuable information on how to succeed, it just lacks in presentation. That being said, they do supersede couchsurfing.com in offering a “Neighbor Hotline” as well as an “Emergency Procedures” section. Just like safety procedures you might see at a hotel, Airbnb offers a hotline for potential neighbors of Airbnb hosts so that guests at these locations may have access to contact information in case something goes awry. Hosts are also instructed to leave emergency contact information for their guests as well as first aid kits and information regarding fire safety. It is possible couchsurfing.com does not provide this much extensive information as the majority of their guests are staying in their homes with them. With Airbnb, guests usually rent out the entire home or apartment so the host is not actually there with then during their stay. A final component to the Airbnb site that is not present on the couchsurfing.com site is guidelines for being good neighbors. Again, Airbnb members are usually unsupervised, so it is the responsibility of the host to provide them with the proper guidelines for the particular neighborhood and city.
Another feature that is exclusive to the couchsurfing.com community is the Ambassador Program. This is a program for members that “live and breathe couchsurfing” and “exemplify the core values in the way they live and share their lives” (http://about.couchsurfing.com/ambassadors/). Members can even nominate others to be featured as ambassadors. These are the members of the community that go above and beyond the basic guidelines. In learning about gratitude, it is apparent through Matias’s work that gratitude is necessary for success. Even though Airbnb has become a worldwide success, there is no reward for members who go above and beyond. There is really only so much a five star rating can do for a host’s motivation. Members of Airbnb who are given high ratings usually get their listings put at the top, but with couchsurfing.com, those who are recognized for their ability to go above and beyond are given special attention and admitted to this special ambassador program. Maybe Airbnb users would feel more inclined to go the extra mile if they were give some form of compensation or a reduction in listing fees.
After reviewing the two sites, I don’t believe that one is superior to the other, but both couchsurfing.com and airbnb.com have their own strengths that are tailored to the individual concepts and needs of the community. Both couchsurfing.com and airbnb provide a strong platform to building a successful online community by engaging members to keep their interest. From the start, they have created a niche by designing a unique selling proposition that attracts members to join the community. These sites have taken a large, and vastly growing community, and created a more intimate community that allows members to experience new cities in a way they would have never had by staying in a hotel. They emphasize the act of gratitude, which ultimately allows these communities to continue to grow and maintain loyal followers. Now it is just a matter of maintaining these components, which I believe both of these sites do a very good job at. Couchsurfing.com and Aribnb provide a unique member opportunity in a very successful and creative presentation.
Kraut, R., & Resnick, P. (2011). In Building successful online communities evidence-based social design. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Gratitude and its Dangers in Social Technologies | MIT Center for Civic Media. (2014, August 5). Retrieved April 15, 2015.