Post updated on August 06, 2020
May 2020. While most borders are still closed and travelers still quarantined, the world alternative traveler community has been shaken by terrible news: Couchsurfing hospitality network is forcing its registered members from “developed countries” to pay to access their profiles – without consultation, nor notification. A decision that led us to question the future of this network…
Couchsurfing is a social network that connects travelers and locals who want to meet and host each other for free (see “about us” section on the website). Since its creation, this social network has become so popular among travelers that the word “couch-surfing” has become part of everyday language. According to the “about us” page, the site has no less than 12 million members around the world!
At the beginning, a volunteers network
Couchsurfing was created in 2004, based on an idea of a young American traveler, Casey Fenton. With the help of three other entrepreneurs, Casey coded the hospitality website – which quickly became a success, with almost 90,000 registered members two years later, in 2006. On the technical side, accumulation of bugs (due to the website popularity) led to a wave of solidarity, with several thousand volunteers around the world coming to help with coding, securing data, translating, developing the website – but also to make it known locally, through events and word-of-mouth. Costs and Casey Fenton’s salary were then covered by donations… Until 2011, when the organization became a for-profit company. This transformation allowed investors to put several million dollars into what they describe as a serious alternative to AirBnB, to hire staff, to open offices. To generate more money, the site has introduced a system of “verified accounts” (paying accounts), and banner ads for free accounts. Despite several scandals (complaint of sexual assault by a member of the management team on two volunteers, suspicion of funds misappropriation, profiles of active members deleted without summons for making criticisms or mentioning other hospitality networks, etc.) and departure of Casey Fenton, the business continued to grow. As for the thousands of volunteers who participated for free in the development of the site in its early stages, most of them left, blaming the managers for making a profit from a site that could not have existed without their contribution…
Criticisms and unconvincing official explanations
Today, to access our profile (and all associated data), the website requires us to pay a financial contribution – set at $2.39/month or $14.29/year in the United States, €2.39/month or €14.29/year in France. An unethical method, which raised a lot of questions…
And obviously, we weren’t the only ones to be outraged: to face the general outcry, the company published a press release entitled “We hear you” (to read on the website blog). However, many of the points raised did not convince us at all:
2) Less than 4% of our active members financially contributed
What do they mean by active members? Do they mean all registered members – or only active members? Because the difference is significant: in 2018, only 400,000 of the 15 million members were active hosts. While 4% of 15 million is indeed very negligible, 4% of 400,000 is much less… This ex-Couchsurfer has even come up with numbers: if we consider that there were as many surfers as active hosts in 2018, that would amount to about 32,000 verified accounts. And at $30 the average contribution, that would amount to a gain of at least $960,000 per year… And that’s without counting the advertising revenue from ads displayed on free profiles!
8) Couchsurfing was NEVER a 501(c)(3) non-profit
In the United States, a non-profit organization may qualify under 501(c)(3) status in order to receive a tax exemption. 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations are public charities or private foundations. While it’s true that the organization never obtained this status (despite a vain attempt), the presence of thousands of volunteers, donations and a .org domain name attest to the “non-profit” nature of the network before 2011. The organization could have obtained 501(c)(7) status according to the US tax authorities (see page 139 of this online document); instead, leaders choose to turn the organization into a for-profit company.
17) If you purchased Verification we are not asking you to contribute for one full year from now
What should be understood here is that members who have paid for a verified profile over one year (or lifetime) have free access to their profile until May 2021 – which means that after this date, they will have to pay again.
CouchSurfing will never make you pay to host and surf. It’s against our vision […] and that’s not going to change just because our methods of generating revenue dohttps://blog.couchsurfing.com/a-new-era-for-couchsurfing/
It didn’t take them a decade to change their minds, obviously!
Couchsurfing members are taking action
A member of NOMADS community, and alternative traveler Maxime created a Facebook forum “Save Couchsurfing” and a petition in order to obtain more transparency on the CouchSurfing organization and company’s finances (no data available regarding revenues, current manager, etc). Former volunteers, new and long-time members joined together to try to open the discussion, helped with some Couchsurfing employees. But at the end, this project failed because the company’s management refused to discuss further with the community.
Since then, active members of the NOMADS Facebook group created a cross-promoting platform for free/non-profit hospitality networks, in order to gather, in the form of a directory-kind, the potential hosts and guests profiles from all free hosting platforms. Feel free to join this group!
Regarding the situation, we made a decision to say ‘goodbye’ to Couchsurfing. Saying goodbye means that we’re not closing the door for good: maybe we’ll come back to it, if “Save Couchsurfing” project leads to the company being bought out to form a co-op, or if Couchsurfing becomes a free and open organization, running on donations – on the same model as Wikipedia, for example.
To those who say:
- It’s an honest price, it allows employees to live…
- I don’t understand why everyone’s bitching about less than €3/month…
- You can afford to pay
- You’re so disrepectful, you forget all the great experiences you’ve had with Couchsurfing?
We would like to emphasize that the problem is not the amount of money requested; rather it’s the method used to force members to pay, the total lack of transparency and lack of recognition for the volunteers and the entire community that allowed Couchsurfing to exist. Everyone must not forget that the principle of Couchsurfing is based on a free, non-monetary cultural exchange…
As for us, we are looking forward to other alternative platforms such as Trustroots or BeWelcome (official platforms), NOMADS Hospitality Networks or Host a Sister (facebook forums) – all free and open platforms, which got our full trust!
More about alternative accommodation
* Post written according to our personal thoughts and experience *