Couchsurfing and the Trend Towards Decentralized Travel

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Written by
3 years ago
Topics: Travel, Social media

It used to be that when you wanted to travel, you had to contact a travel agent, a hotel, or a distant family member to inquire about a place to stay. Transportation itself changed, including the way we found and booked accommodations, particularly with the advent of travel sites that "cut out the middle-man". But the constant remained that you were always dealing with someone you knew, or at least someone who had a reputation to uphold. Long before Airbnb, there were still home stays and time shares and BnBs, but you'd find your vacation stay from word-of-mouth, an advertisement, tiny website, or via a forgotten business card in the Costanza wallet of someone you knew. You had to plan - not only because travel was expensive, but because we were still in an age where you couldn't just pull a phone from your pocket and navigate to the closest place on Google Maps.

Three years before the first iPhone, (in 2004), Couchsurfing opened their doors. People still relied on their desktop PCs to conduct business or browse, and the world was much less connected than it is today. Couchsurfing offered something new — For the first time, anyone could create a page and open their home to travelers for no money and almost no effort. Before the advent of low cost airlines, it was a breakthrough to allow people, mostly young and frugal, to extend their trip and experience authentic homestays in a new place. Couchsurfing was built around a community practicing "hospitality exchange" — basically a moneyless economy where hosts offered a place to stay and local knowledge, and backpackers offered stories, language exchange, food, and other value. If the host ever wanted to hit the road, they'd have built a reputation of paying it forward, and in return could also stay for free in millions of homes worldwide.

It was an awesome idea, and in 2009 I joined this great experiment. At the time, I was in college, living in a housing co-op. And while I wasn't based in a particularly high demand location, I, along with many of my half-dozen housemates, had profiles all pointing to our open couches, available for any wandering soul.

Over the course of my first few years on the platform, I probably only met about a dozen people that were traveling through. But the idea stuck. I could welcome someone into my home, and gather some greater meaning and satisfaction through this unique cultural exchange. I remember that my first guest, Pierre, was an older man from France and barely spoke English, but we bonded over food and I appreciated his visit just the same. "Today you, tomorrow me" was a great premise, and references on Couchsurfing offered the trust necessary to balance and sustain such a system.

In 2012, I moved to New York City, and I consider this the catalyst in my traveling career. I had just graduated college, and was moving there to start work. I knew almost no one, yet I found my first apartment on blind trust, from a Couchsurfing group offering rooms to rent. The head of house was a welcoming man, a well-established host, and an ambassador for the CS community in New York, who had amassed hundreds of positive references from guests around the world. I felt extremely welcome in joining this small home, later dubbed the "House of Many". Over the course of the next year, I had personally invited over 70 people to stay.

Not long after, in 2014, saw my first trip outside North America. I had amassed a small savings, some vacation time, and a strong desire to "get out". Contacting hosts on Couchsurfing and a friend / former guest, I was quickly able to arrange a week-long trip to Seoul, South Korea, only two weeks before my flight! While I don't recommend two long-haul flights over the course of 9 days, and suggest that you stay longer in a new country, and book sooner to save money, this moment awakened me to a wildly new culture, and secured my need to travel more.

Fast forward to 2016/17 when I again hit the road — quitting my job, cashing in my savings, and selling most of possessions, in order to see the world. People have been amazed when I told them that I traveled for 18 months, for a little less than $8000. How is that possible? Largely because of this network of travelers. Partly from connections through friends and hostel work/stays along the way. Partly from taking the chicken bus instead of the coach.

This method of travel is not without its sacrifices. I've gotten lost. I've slept on concrete floors. I've written detailed messages to prospective hosts and never heard back. You never 100% rely on this network for a place to sleep, and as I've always said, if you're using it just for a free bed, you're in it for the wrong reasons. Unfortunately, enough new people adopted this "Free Airbnb" mentality, and gradually the quality of "couch requests" diminished. With a surge in traffic to the site, Couchsurfing failed to develop a model which sustained support for its infrastructure without suffering its longtime loyal users. The adherence to a free hospitality exchange had been peeling away for years, and measures to limit communication, squeeze money from the community's biggest contributors, and eventually pay wall most users with no notice led to this longtime home of unfettered travel's demise.

For many, the sudden decision by Couchsurfing in May of 2020 to force people to pay in order to access their own profiles and contact longtime friends was a tragedy. Myself, I lost contacts, messages, and all the references I had amassed over 11 years. But this was also a lesson. We can't rely on one platform to connect us. We can't trust a poorly managed company to remain true to its mission statement forever. We can't bend over and pay ransom when years of poor decisions and misguided intentions lead to a convenient scapegoat in a horrible year.

There is nothing stopping hospitality exchange from continuing on. The concept and technology are not difficult to implement. You can argue that it's hard to replace such a behemoth, but this really just emphasizes that you should never put your faith in one platform.

Already, competing open source alternatives such as BeWelcome, Trustroots, and Warm Showers have seen an enormous increase in membership and support from donations. People have realized what they stand to lose, so these networks are being built back better. 2021 is going to be the year for decentralized social networks, media, and economies. We can evolve to not rely on central entities and restore robust resources and connections as the world reopens. The world becomes smaller as flights gets cheaper, connections get shorter, and development from capitalism offers opportunity, openness, and incentive to an entirely new class of traveler.

I hope this first post inspires you to think about future travel prospects, and consider how you might contribute to, and benefit from our growing world.

-The Nudge

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Avatar for nudge
Written by
3 years ago
Topics: Travel, Social media