Big news came last week in the announcement that Couchsurfing.com had decided to abandon its non-profitmaking roots and accept £4.7m of venture capital.
I wrote about it for the Guardian here: Not-for-profit Couchsurfing becomes a company (with a conscience)
Some members are angry about the move and protest groups have already been formed on the site’s very own talkboards. Especially annoyed are those who gave their time as volunteers. Not long ago, Couchsurfing was advertising a whole host of volunteer posts, from IT support to being a gardener at their HQ. Now these people – and others who worked from home dealing with press queries and building forums – have been left questioning what exactly they have been working towards.
Some are even suggesting that their past donations should be returned.
Couchsurfing has been described as “the anti-capitalist AirBnB”, but members have long known the site was making money – predominately from charging an optional credit card fee, which verified user identity – and this has long been a cause of debate.
Today, some users noted that the sign-up page has changed, making a donation now seem an obligatory part of the process. See this screen grab:
It has been also noted that Couchsurfing has taken the opposite route to the Burning Man Festival, which is preparing to turn from profit-making to a non-profit (Growing pains for Burning Man Festival, NY Times).
But it’s not all bad. The ideas behind a “B Corporation”, which Couchsurfing will become, are explained in this TED talk . The concept seems to have great intentions, but the trouble is Couchsurfing.com is backtracking and moving from one thing to another, leaving a lot of people very confused.
Couchsurfing means a lot of different things to a lot of different people (over three million people at last count). Among the membership, there are also those who have hated to see it become mainstream, as people jumped on to the idea of “travelling for free” rather than wanting to forge intercultural relations.
And then there are the minority who want to forge relations of a different sort altogether. One sticking point arose when some members sought to close down an internal forum for people using the site to get laid. Some were disgusted; others said it was inevitable and best kept out in the open, so both hosts and guests knew were they stood.
As an interesting aside, the New York Times chose today to run a piece about naked Couchsurfing, which may or may not have given the site a boost.
One of the biggest shocks to come out of all this was seeing Hospitality Club founder’s Veit Kühne let out what looks like years of frustration in a public statement. It also provoked Hospitality Club’s first tweet in four years. Not only did he say Couchsurfing’s move was “the worst nightmares of many people who love the idea of hospitality exchange”, he also vowed “to release [a] new site this year” and “build the best hospitality exchange website this planet has ever seen”. These are high claims from one of the least innovative websites online today and one that has barely changed in ten years. “We were lazy,” admitted Veit in the statement.
Meanwhile, some CSing members are already jumping ship, with small-fish competitor BeWelcome.org reporting a sudden surge in sign-ups.
As I said in the Guardian piece, most users aren’t interested in the background politics, they just want to meet some friendly people and have a place to crash on their travels. This demand isn’t likely to go away and I’m sure the “aggressive hiring” that co-founder Daniel Hoffer has spoken about in recent days will do wonders for attracting attention and new members.
The only thing that seems sure right now is that there will be some interesting times ahead for an area that has been static and silent for too long.