Couch surfing: A couch in every country

  • 2012-02-23
  • By Emi Pastor

RIDING THE WAVE: Couch surfing is becoming increasingly popular in the Baltic states.

RIGA - Peter, an Austrian who’s spent the past few months traveling through Russia, arrives at the Riga Railway Station on Monday morning with nothing but a backpack and the name of a contact jotted down on a slip of paper.
Damiano, a young student in his twenties living in Riga, is waiting at the Railway Station. He hopes to soon meet a fellow couch surfer who’s coming from Moscow. 

They haven’t met before. At least not personally – just a few pictures in an electronic profile to give them an idea about the person they’re waiting for. Despite this fact, they plan to spend the next two days together: Peter discovering the best places in the capital of Latvia, and Damiano giving the traveler a roof over his head and a little information about the town.

They are, respectively, the guest and the host, both part of the same online network. They have just a handful of things in common: youth, free time and, most of all, a membership in the social network ‘Couch Surfing’ (CS). Through this they have access to an inexpensive way to travel the world, and much more.

Couch Surfing is a relatively new term that means “to live from couch to couch”. In practice, CS is an international community where people lend their couch, or a spare bed, to fellow members for free. For travel lovers, it is the ‘network’ that made it possible to get a couch anywhere in the world.
Apart from this basic concept – the practical and useful part of this story – there is much more behind this simple idea, which was born in the USA a little more than a decade ago.

Couch Surfing International Inc. is a corporation based in San Francisco, California (United States), near Silicon Valley, which offers to its users the chance to exchange hospitality and social networking services. It has become incredibly popular with younger people the world over. Its Web site provides some notion about its importance.
The Web site has an Alexa Traffic Rank of 2,479, a feature that estimates couchsurfing’s popularity according to the average daily visitors online over the past 3 months.

Internet giants Google, Facebook and Youtube are in the three first places of the ranking, but other similar initiatives have a much lower rating than CS – take for example, a key competitor, which has a three-month global Alexa traffic rank of 114,828.

Couch Surfing has members located all over the globe, according to information on Wikipedia. CS has more than 3 million profiles and followers in 246 countries and territories.
The neologism “couchsurfing” refers to the practice of moving from one friend’s house to another, sleeping in whatever spare space available, staying a few days before moving on again. This is nothing new – it is common practice with friends, acquaintances and relatives everywhere in the world. But there is more to CS than just finding a place to stay for the night. In the words of one testimonial on the CS Web site: “Couchsurfing is a great concept. I think of it as a life philosophy”. With statements like this, what’s the secret of CS?

The CS Web site increases in popularity and size by thousands of new members per week. This is because it offers something appealing to their users in addition to the lowest possible accommodation cost (which would be reason enough on its own).

Peter said he uses Couch Surfing for more than just a free place to stay.
“No, absolutely [money] is not the main reason. You know that there are other possibilities to travel in a cheap way,” Peter told The Baltic Times. “With Couch Surfing there are other incentives. Before coming to Riga, I have been in Moscow and there I was all the  time with Russian people, speaking Russian, visiting places, the best part of the cities, conversations, meetings…”.

“It is true that at the beginning I was a little worried because I had to go to places with a stranger, but the experience has been so great, with so many funny guys and girls, and with their friends, that I have realized that this option is perfect when you are traveling alone. Someone is always waiting for you!”

Hosting Peter is also a gratifying experience for Damiano: “This giving and receiving is more than an exchange. You have the opportunity to meet a new person, with another language; with another culture…It is such a big network that the couch is an excuse to do something else in a good way,” he agrees.

Free hospitality and personal enrichment are the basis of CS. The rewards of being an active ‘surfer’ are not measured in economic terms. This is why the voluntary (no member is ever forced to host another couch surfer), not-for-profit network utilizes the preferences of users. In fact, CS is highly valued because of the social and cultural enrichment that it provides its members on top of the chance to travel without a big budget.

Hosts that take part in the social network often do more than give and receive hospitality –they might have some food, a walk in the city or a coffee, giving couch surfers the opportunity to make new friends wherever they may go.
CS started almost by accident at the end of the 90s, when a young guy conceived of the idea after finding a cheap plane ticket from Boston to Iceland. The father and co-founder of CS, Casey Fenton, then emailed over 1,500 Icelandic students in Reykjavik, asking them if he could crash on one of their couches.
The outpouring of responses to his request marked the beginning of CS – he quickly realized the value of what he had done. The huge number of answers from these students, who offered him “their particular Reykjavik”, revolutionized his plans and gave him an idea.

After that, Fenton registered his idea as a non-profit organization in 1999 with two other founders, Daniel Hoffer and Sebastien LeTuan, and they decided to establish their headquarters in San Francisco.
Last year they incorporated important changes to the company – CS changed its status and legal nature so that it could be certified a B Corporation. Additionally, the original founder, Fenton, decided to hand over responsibility to one of his closest colleges, Daniel Hoffer, who is currently the CEO.

Becoming a ‘B Corporation’ is more than just a corporate designation. According to Fenton and Hoffer, this allows them to be conveniently and legally registered in New Hampshire and not ‘a sort of NGO’ anymore.
With this ‘adaptation’, the company also injected around $7.6 million from their new investors, Benchmark and Omidyar Network. Despite the fact that it is now a ‘B Corporation’ – and “socially responsible” at that – it is inevitable that the ownders will start to think about how to profit in the future. After learning of these plans, a lot of members and users of CS expressed their concern about corrupting the value of the database of CS, or the possible inclusion of ads in the Web site.

Even the current CEO of CS hasn’t denied that the company has more ambitious plans: the shadow of an IPO looms over the CS community. Now many are questioning whether this new direction is contradictory to the foundational base of CS and the supposed ‘couch for free’ philosophy.

Recent business disputes aside, CS is still a viable option for less demanding customers in terms of luxury and comfort. The network allows a wide range of possibilities, from providing a place to sleep to just meeting in a new city for a drink and a chat. In no event is the host or the guest forced to accept suggestions that do not attract them.
According to statistics provided by CS, the largest numbers of CS members are in Europe, North America and South America. However, the community continues to reach more and more people – including Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and Russia. 

It is possible ‘to surf’ in the Baltics too, despite still struggling membership figures. By November 2011, Latvia had registered more than 17,000 “successful surfs”, involving 11,468 couch surfers and forging 16,222 friendships.
In Lithuania and Estonia the numbers are about the same (at 13,916 and 9,297 couch surfers, respectively).
The same statistics given by CS show that Riga (70 per cent), Vilnius (62 per cent) and Tallin (55,3 per cent) are the favorite destinations in the three countries.

People do admittedly sometimes have less-than-ideal experiences when riding ‘the waves’ of Couch Surfing. These are sometimes hidden under the “bad references” that members can write about each other. These references serve as recommendations or advice for future users, and are also a type a regulatory mechanism. No one doubts that even though bad experiences are not common, a negative comment on a profile decreases the probability that the person will receive more invitations in the future.

Even on the Couch Surfing Web site itself the organization recommends carefully checking the profiles and links to ensure that everyone feels safe and comfortable at the meetings. But it still happens – the most common complaints include a cold demeanor, unexcused absences, delays or long silences.

“If you do not have a good connection with your host or guest, your impression about the city or place where you stay changes” Kristine, a young Latvian girl and a member of CS, told The Baltic Times. She remembers her worst experience happened in Italy: “I usually carefully choose people I write messages to, but last year I was hitchhiking through Europe and it was very spontaneous. In Bologna (Italy) I had this guy who wrote to host us. We were two girls. At first he was nice, made dinner, we chatted, etc. Finally, we were sleeping in the same room, I and the other girl on a big sofa, he in his own bed. Next morning he wakes up and jumps into our bed between us and starts touching our hair (both of us) and says – mm, you two have such nice hair. We were a bit freaked out, but tried to stay calm. After such a situation it’s clear we wanted to run away,” she said. Her attitude toward the event was lighthearted and jesting.
When all was said and done she received a strange reference in her profile – “he didn’t understand that we just ran away because he acted too pushy,” she said. But even under these circumstances, “nothing was so bad that I will stop being a couch surfer, because I still like this project and idea,” she said.

In the end, in Couch Surfing, as with life in general, common sense is the best guide: “honest profiles lead to positive experiences” and “we empower people to make the most informed decisions possible” are two essential points in practice. Members’ profiles probably don’t contain information around the quality of the couch, the remoteness of the bathroom at night, or the decibels of your guest’s snoring, but it can help a lot in deciding between a positive candidate and a nightmare.