Mutiny aboard the good ship Couchsurfing
comment 11 Written by on September 2, 2011 – 12:21 am

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:

CSingverification.jpg

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.

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11 Responses to “Mutiny aboard the good ship Couchsurfing”

  1. > Today, some users noted that the sign-up page has changed, making a donation now seem an obligatory part of the process.

    That’s not true. Just tried it myself, just click on “Continue to Dashboard” and done. The text on the site itself says in big bold letters “Verification is optional”!

    The page itself is unchanged since I saw it the last time ~ 2 months ago.

    Please check the facts before getting them, especially when the source is either HospitalityClub / “Brainstorm” Group or “Opencouchsurfing” – they are widely known in the CS community for guerilla anti propaganda activities with populistic untrue statements. Like a group of modern Goebbels, trying to convince everyone to fight their war.

    By Kasper on Sep 2, 2011 | Reply
  2. Strictly speaking as a couchsurfer, I don’t mind them going for-profit as long as it doesn’t cost me more money. If they are monetizing through advertising and it means the user interface improves then I’m all for it.

  3. It is very difficult to get the facts straight because the CouchSurfing management are very talented at deception.

    But the verifiable facts are that CS long claimed to be a non-profit organization, but did not file papers until a member revolt finally went to the authorities five years ago. A declaration of non-profit creation was filed with the State of New Hampshire, but CS did not follow legal procedures, forgetting mandatory filings such as their tax returns. It can be observed on the site of the State of New Hampshire that at one time a single person was listed as president, secretary and treasurer of CS, and financial filings of CS show that this non-profit spent a considerable part of its income on maintaining the jetset lifestyle of its central clique.

    CS was denied charity status by the US IRS because its management structure did not respect the rules of disinterest and transparency necessary for a public charity, and because it had never respected legal procedures.

    The State of New Hampshire’s Attorney General office did not pursue criminal proceedings against CouchSurfing management, but did force it to pay very large fines – a very unusual action against a non-profit.

    There is no need for an anti-capitalistic agenda in order to be opposed to CS being permitted to ransack the property of a non-profit organization which would have never developed as it has if it had been a commercial venture. If the people now benefiting from the transfer of non-profit capital into their pockets had decided to start a business corporation in the first place, no one would be complaining. But instead they have absconded with property that is not theirs to take. CS is, according to their sales of shares to venture capital, valued at $76 million. Casey Fenton, the guru, has retained half of this for himself. In other words, sacked a non-profit to fill his pockets, while publicly saying “it’s not about the money”.

    What would people say if someone decided to privatize the RedCross to their personal benefit?

    By longtime CouchSurfer on Sep 12, 2011 | Reply
  4. It’s the ongoing, continuous deception and denial by CS ‘management’ that will bring down CS. They disrespect their members, dump their coders and volunteers when they ask for a reasonable discussion or even just communication, ignore the heads of their own volunteer departments (they recently lost their entire translation department) and just tell everyone what they want to hear.. then do the opposite, always to their own personal benefit over that of the network.

    Knowing what many of us do – the massive number of safety problems they sweep under the rug, the loss of hundreds of formerly trusting volunteers after being manipulated and lied to, and the financial fraud (both in donations’ misuse, and the over $600,000 in legal fees in 2009 alone out of a budget of roughly $2,000,000 – what?) – many are simply waiting for the implosion to occur.

    They want a B-corp – show us true transparency. Otherwise start your own disinfo company, Casey and Dan – it’s what you have been best at. And that makes us all very very sad. And yes, i want my ‘charity donation’ back. 🙁

    By BurningGirl on Sep 12, 2011 | Reply
  5. Its not as simple as the IRS refusing non-profit status, New Hampshire fining CS, and requiring venture capital to get out of New Hampshire, attain for profit status, hire new staff and improve the website. Casey and co. who have had no non-profit experience / leadership skills brought the membership down a cul-de-sac. We implored them years ago to become transparent, seek alternatives, involve the membership, publish financial details, respect volunteers and create a board of directors with non-profit experience. They refused/ ignored the membership warnings and advice. instead they spend 7 years and members fees on lawyers, travel, without making any strategic decisions. For poor/noneffective leadership alone, they should stand down. The move to for-profit was entirely avoidable. Never were the community involved in this decision.

    Instead, they take what others have built despite them, and $$$ it for their own benefit enriching a small clique. We have no idea who owns what in CS because they refuse to tell us. Because they have gone private, any transparentency is now gone. Trust has been broken, volunteers feel cheated. We will not offer hospitality so that it can be treated as an asset and monetarized for profit.

    By Michael on Sep 13, 2011 | Reply
  6. None of this should come as a suprise for those who have seen how volunteers have been used and abused for years by CouchSurfing, how safety measures such as credit card “verification” have been misrepresented, how management covered up repeated sexual misconduct with volunteers by one of its own or how rarely promises were kept. Reality could hardly be any further from the offical CouchSurfing claim to “create a better world”. Unless that “better world” only refers to that of the founder’s friends turned wealthy shareholders in a bizarre deal with the New Hampshire charity regulators which should be interesting to look into?

    Considering how bluntly CouchSurfing members and volunteers were betrayed it would be very surprising if this deal wasn’t challenged in some court and if the exodus of some of the most dedicated “CouchSurfers” wouldn’t come to hurt the new shareholders. For unless their plan is to turn CouchSurfing into yet another social network for barhopping and dating it is hard to see how the new members recruited via Facebook & Co. will be able to find enough of the free couches previously provided not by CouchSurfing, but by generous hosts in the belief they were doing so for the community

    Most will continue to offer their couch, just not for CouchSurfing International Inc. to resell it to travellers against verification payment or optional premium services, but in one of the other more democratic communities organised as non-profit organisations, such as BeWelcome.org or WarmShowers.

    By longtime host on Sep 13, 2011 | Reply
  7. “Like a group of modern Goebbels, trying to convince everyone to fight their war.”

    You seem to have a little of the Minister of Information yourself, there, “Kaspar”, obfuscating to cover… what, exactly?

    In the total absence of transparency that is maintained by the Couchsurfing management, people take the facts available, try to understand them ,dig for more, and make their own analysis which generally stands up to scrutiny far better than the “official” version.

    I’m surprised you didn’t provide the links so people can see for themselves. Afraid of a little too much fact checking, Kaspar?

    “Brainstorm ~ Redefined”
    http://www.couchsurfing.org/group.html?gid=7621

    Regards.

    By power host on Sep 15, 2011 | Reply
  8. “Strictly speaking as a couchsurfer, I don’t mind them going for-profit as long as it doesn’t cost me more money. If they are monetizing through advertising and it means the user interface improves then I’m all for it.”

    Casey Fenton knows members hate advertising and has said it won’t be done on Couchsurfing.

    The only revenue stream in the short to medium term by Casey’s own admission is verification payments. What that means in the face of Venture Capitalists preparing for a second round of investment to cash out big, is ramping up member recruitment. So there’ll be a whole lot more surfers like you (Free Travel!), “who don’t mind” but who may not hold up the hosting part of the gift economy equation, either….

    By power host on Sep 15, 2011 | Reply
  9. Thanks for the comments. It’s a decision that is sharply dividing CSers, and I noted a few angry people at the CSing conference in London on Sat. Did any of the people who have commented above manage to go to see Casey speak? He answered a few of my questions, but sadly I couldn’t get to the second session on Sun, which I think went into much more detail. I was impressed that he was willing to arrange one-on-one sessions with anyone who wanted one.
    Has anyone actually requested their donation back? (Actual donations, rather than verification fees.) Burning girl, have you?

  10. the whole procedure is a mess!

  11. Yep, looks like Couchsurfing.com will become home for those interested in one-way free accommodations, not in hospitality exchange.

    What I don’t understand is that if Couchsurfing.com was never granted non-profit status by the I.R.S., how was it able to legally accept donations? Weird. Sooo, if it wasn’t a non-profit, what legal status did it have as an enterprise?

    And, I keep on hearing that Couchsurfing.com has been “structured” as a B Corp. This is not quite accurate. The “B Corp” is not a legal status, and has no legal meaning: it’s a certifcation. “B Corp” is a label given by the B Lab organization to businesses that pass socially responsible certification criteria. Here’s a link to the B Lab’s website: http://bcorporation.net/

    Ostensibly, a company can be a “B Corp” and yet still be incorporated legally as a C corporation (yep, the full maximization of profit in order to enrich unaccountable shareholders), LLC, and even a sole proprietorship. In other words, a company can be certified as a B Corp without ever incorporating as a benefit corporation (a “benefit corporation” is the real deal: it’s a legal status awarded by the state. Only benefit corporations are legally required to follow the triple bottom line of shareholders, community/employees/environment)

    By Cynthia on Jun 18, 2012 | Reply

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