Couchsurfing.org: Rethinking Community Development Through a Virtual Travel Network

Introduction

In the mumble jumble of the Internet age, where people seem to be both more connected and more cut-off from reality, social network sites have flourished. These sites offer the ability to develop real-life relationships using the technology of the web. Facebook, MySpace and Haboo are the most popular social network sites. However, some make a distinction between these sites and true social networking sites on the grounds that “networking” sites emphasize relationship creation, while social network sites do not have the primary purpose of initiating relationships but rather of articulating one’s preexisting social networks (Boyd, Ellison, 2007).

Couchsurfing.org is an example of a social networking site. Specifically, it is a hospitality social networking site, or a virtual travel community. The premise is that members are travelers who stay at other members’ homes instead of at a hotel or hostel. The website claims as its mission: “To internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance and facilitate cultural understanding.” It goes on to say: “As a community we strive to do our individual and collective parts to make the world a better place, and we believe that the surfing of couches is a means to accomplish this goal.” A number of questions are immediately apparent: Who can participate in this network? How and why is it considered a community? How does it believe it can make the world a better place? There has been little academic research that has addressed these questions. A primary focus of the couchsurfing.org mission is developing community. This paper seeks to analyze how couchsurfing.org might fit into the cadre of community development initiatives. However, this research should not be considered community development research per se. Community development research is defined as “research into socioeconomic issues that affect communities negatively and require interventions for change” (Vlaenderen 136). Instead, this research attempts to explore how couchsurfing.org might itself be considered an intervention for change.

 

Methods

Qualitative research was undertaken in the form of a questionnaire that was devised and sent out to a selection of 50 members of couchsurfing.org. The questions were: Where are you from? What is/are your mother tongue(s)? When did you join couchsurfing.org? Why do you participate in couchsurfing.org? In your opinion and based on your own personal experience, how does couchsurfing.org foster community? How would you describe this community? How might couchsurfing.org be empowering?

The member participants were chosen based on their experience as hosts and guests; they each had a minimum of 20 references written by other members about them on their profiles. These criteria were important because not every member is “active.” The sample population represented most regions of the world.

In addition, the website freely displays member “testimonials,” in which member opinions on the project are given. This paper includes information obtained from a number of these testimonials. A quantitative analysis of statistics was also performed, as couchsurfing.org lists all the relevant website statistics on a separate page.

 

Observations

History

Couchsurfing.org is not the first social networking website. There have been other online hospitality services, such as Servas International and hospitalityclub.org. However, even though both are older than couchsurfing.org, which was created in January 2004 and re-launched in 2006 after a server crash, neither has yielded as many members, which is why couchsurfing.org is the focus of this research.

Couchsurfing.org is registered in the United States as a 501.c (3), a non-profit corporation. There are approximately 1,127,611 members of couchsurfing.org. There have been 1,294,155 “friendships created” (official online connections) and 2,080,036 “positive experiences” had (references left for members are “positive”). Couchsurfing.org members represent 231 countries, 2,678 states or provinces, 58,555 cities, and 1,266 languages. There are 559,703 members in Europe, 337,579 in North America, 62,736 in South America, 55,591 in Central Asia, 42,978 in Oceania, 19,226 in Africa, 15,155 in the Middle East, 5,689 in Central America and the Caribbean, and 57 in the Antarctic Region. One pitfall of these statistics is that the percentage of ex-patriot members is not available. The language most widely spoken among members is English with 932,950 speakers, followed by French, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Dutch, Mandarin Chinese, and Swedish. 73.3% of the members are between the ages of 18 and 29, 18% between 30 and 39, 6.9% between 40 and 59, and 0.8% between the ages of 60 and 89. 50.8% of couchsurfing.org members are male, 41.2% female, 6.7% are “several people,” and 1.2% are unspecified. At the time of this writing roughly 13,000 to 14,000 new members join couchsurfing.org each week.

 

Community

Defining community is a bane for many community development researchers. Indeed, “the practice of community development suffers from a lack of systematic theory and a clear understanding of what a community is and how it develops” (Theodori 662). Since couchsurfing.org is said to have both a virtual and real element of community, we must look at how virtual and real communities are defined. Instead of paying for a hotel, couchsurfing.org members contact other members to stay at their homes. Not only does this allow travelers to connect with the local communities they visit by staying with “CSers” who are members of the local communities, but it enables travelers and hosts to form a community in both the virtual and the real worlds.

Howard Rheingold popularized the term “virtual community” in 1993 in his book The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. As clarified by Sunny Jeong, virtual communities are defined as “cybernetworks that are a major source of social capital in cyberspace” (67). Social capital can be defined as “the capacity of individuals to accrue benefits by dint of their personal relationships and memberships in particular social networks and structures” (Warschaurer 154). Couchsurfing.org provides a source of social capital to its members in two ways. First, it allows members to create virtual “friendships” with other members that they have met in real life. Members write visible “references” on each others’ profiles, which provide their opinions of one another. The benefit is that it enables community members to communicate with each other about other members. If these references are “positive” as opposed to “negative” or “neutral,” your social reputation will increase which impresses potential hosts and your chances of finding a place to stay will increase. A second way that couchsurfing.org provides its members with opportunities to gain social capital is through the large network of “groups” that any member can join, ranging from “Hitchhikers” to “Showdancers.” Group membership allows members to exchange information and opinions in fields that interest them, and therefore serves to expand individuals’ knowledge bases. These features show us that couchsurfing.org is not only a virtual community, but also a real-life community.

Theodori states that any community has “a geographic dimension, human life dimension, and relatively complete organization” (662). Although members of couchsurfing.org are geographically dispersed over the entire globe, couchsurfing.org can still be considered a real community. There are two reasons for this. First, CSers are connected to one another both directly and through other members. The website offers a feature that shows a member’s four degrees of separation from another member through real-life connections. So even in this virtual organization, there is a real human element. Related to this is the fact that, even if members are not immediately benefited by using their own resources to host someone, there is a general feeling among hosts that reciprocity will occur within the community as a whole (Jeong 70). Secondly, members in any given city or town can join or create a “city group” on the site’s group pages. City groups are similar to to the groups discussed above, except that a city group’s prime objective is to foster real life encounters between group members. As one member of the Eugene city group put it, “there are local communities of travelers who have the experience of couchsurfing in common, and like any group who share a hobby, we all get together to talk.” Thus, the criteria of geographic dimension, human life dimension, and complete organization are met. In either case of community, whether virtual or real life, “the persistence of community ties is predicated on the ability of members of a community to come into contact with one another” (Wellman 214).

In the globalizing world, the definition of community is changing. Communities are no longer limited to a social organization of common economic base, language, history, culture, and susceptibility to hegemonic forces. Both virtual communities and multiple community membership are expanding. People are becoming multi-communal, and the Internet and faster transportation have allowed communication networks like couchsurfing.org to provide opportunities for people to gain membership and participate in multiple communities. Wellman suggests that “increase in spatial mobility and communications capabilities not only engenders the despatialization of communities, it facilitates the establishment and maintenance of communities focused around more narrowly-specialized interests” (219). In this sense, we might consider different definitions of community as based on levels of organization; home, school or work, and the third community, in this case couchsurfing.org.

 

Community Development

It was necessary to explore the idea of community in order to preface a discussion on how couchsurfing.org fits into a discourse on development, because development cannot be divorced from community. “Community development begins in the everyday lives of local people. This is the initial context for sustainable change. It is founded on a process of empowerment and participation” (Ledwith 1). The aspect of “local” is the most difficult to apply to couchsurfing.org, since it is made up of a collection of global localities. Increased mobility and global migration means that sometimes members are locals in their geographical communities, and sometimes they are outsiders. In any case, active members are participants in a “local” project that does offer a degree of empowerment. Empowerment is “the process whereby we develop the theory and practice of equality” (Ledwith 28). Couchsurfing.org is empowering in three ways: it allows women to feel safer traveling, it offers a tangible way for poorer people to travel and connect, and it creates knowledge streams between members.

A world that still suffers from male dominance can often be an unsafe place for women to travel alone. The virtual ties created through group membership in couchsurfing.org demonstrate a way for women to feel empowered. As one member from Lahore, Pakistan, wrote: “Groups such as independent women travelers allow women to contact each other and inform themselves of the environment and what to expect acting like a support group of sorts.” In addition, real life encounters facilitated through couchsurfing.org provide a sense of safety as well. A member living at McMurdo Station in Antarctica wrote: “As a solo women traveler I find it empowering to stay with community members (especially women) in their community who provide real safety tips for certain cities.” Community development is often concerned with the empowerment of women, and couchsurfing.org empowers women by offering channels for women to increase their mobility.

Although couchsurfing.org does not explicitly target poverty alleviation, the project does offer free services that empowers the less-economically fortunate to experience different cultures. A member from Kazakhstan wrote: “People who thought they would never be able to afford to go overseas can now actually travel abroad and make friends all around the world. Travel expands one’s global perspective, and people lose fear of getting out of the box.” For some people, travel is still too expensive. However, couchsurfing.org places equal emphasis on the act of hosting. One member described hosting as “travelling without moving,” where every guest offers cultural insight. Members are not supposed to ask for money from guests, but those who cannot afford to support a guest are encouraged to participate anyway by asking visitors for a small stipend to offset hosting costs. The only money officially involved in couchsurfing.org is an optional element of site security; members can choose to pay a certain amount of money, which is country-specific based on GDP, to get “verified.” In this process a letter is sent to the address you provide with a code that you enter into the site to get a small verification symbol on your profile. This is not required and indeed most members abstain from this process; however it is an option that is only accessible to those who can afford it.

Finally, couchsurfing.org is empowering in that it offers a tool to expand individuals’ knowledge bases. Couchsurfing.org claims as one of its main goals “to create educational exchanges,” and “to facilitate cultural understanding.” When members meet, it is often a meeting of two different cultures, or at the least a meeting of different perspectives. One member from Tehran Iran wrote: “When you have the chance to see life of the people from inside its give you more knowledge, and it will expand the real friendship around the world, and it shows even our planet is big but our world is small!” A prerequisite to community development is that people must question their own reality in order to realize their disadvantage (Ledwith, 2005). In many cases, couchsurfing.org has been a facilitator of self-reflection. One member explained: “Over time I got to learn more about my city and my country then I had living there through the eyes of a foreigner.” These testimonials suggest that meetings created through the website can effect change in the participant’s views of other people, cultures and ideas. On the website itself, the goal of knowledge swapping is manifested in one of the headings of a field that you must fill out on your profile: “teach, learn, share,” where members offer their own knowledge and what they seek to learn.

Finally, a discussion of participation is necessary. Through the lens of community development, sustainable change requires that the community be responsive based on affective involvement (Jeong, 2005). There are over 1 million members of couchsurfing.org, but not all are “active.” There are two ways to become active; first by hosting and “surfing,” and second by volunteering to become an “ambassador” of your city, or “nomadic ambassador” if you’re constantly traveling. Ambassadors are tasked to promote couchsurfing.org and to create meetings for their city groups. One German ambassador wrote: “It is great, I made so many friends, changed social habits, became active in my local CS community. It is kind of a social drug.” Responses to the questions from the questionnaire show that for many, the feeling is the same; they find couchsurfing.org, they try it for the first time, they fall in love with it, and then they become involved. When in 2006 the first version of couchsurfing.org crashed, the creator, Casey Fenton, was going to scrap the project. Due to the overwhelming response from the couchsurfing.org community, he decided to re-launch it.

 

Leadership

Couchsurfing.org is not a democratic corporation. It is run by a “leadership team” of volunteers. The site states: “We have defined a clear policy for the Leadership Team, which includes the requirements for membership, a consensus decision-making process, a policy for removal from the team, emergency provisions, public records and accountability.” The entire site runs on trust between members, and members equally trust the controllers of the site to maintain the tool. If the leaders “engage each other or other community members and/or organizations, it is legitimate to claim that working with those people will ensure community empowerment and sustainable development” (Jeong 30).

The leadership wields total power over the function of the site. However, this conception of power is that the wielder having both the capacity and right to act rests on the consent of those over whom the power is exercised, in this case the members of couchsurfing.org (Hindess 1). Although there is financial transparency, regular updates on the leadership team “collectives” (where they meet to work on the site), and ways to contact leaders, there is a noticeable disconnect between regular members and site leader volunteers. However, many members are content simply with the existence of the site, as one member put it: “they do what they have to do.”

 

Action

Why is couchsurfing.org seeking to make a peaceful world? What does it understand to be the problems we face? What needs to be changed? This paper has cited many academics using the term “sustainable development,” but what is the sustained development that couchsurfing.org seeks? Community development seeks to right a wrong. When we enter into the discourse on community development, we are acknowledging that there is a preexisting structure within that community that is corrupt or insufficient and that needs to be changed. With action, people recognize that they are not cut-off, but rather that they are a part of a whole (Ledwith, 2005). What does this entail for couchsurfers? Respondents to the questionnaire acknowledged that couchsurfing.org is a breath of fresh air in a polluted atmosphere, so to speak. The “problem,” or what needs to be changed, is the path civilization is taking. The world is a globalizing mess of impersonal transaction, which couchsurfing.org seeks to replace with personal interaction. One member from Germany put it this way: “CouchSurfing: Simply the best definition of the word ‘humanity’ that I have found so far.”

Couchsurfing.org, according to some members, “opens peoples’ minds.” In this respect, couchsurfing.org is a platform for change, whether in the form of community development or in the form of social shifts. In Ledwith’s discussion on social capital he claims that: “confidence grows as people begin to question their reality, and act together for change. Collective action grows in strength as individuals form groups, groups identify issues and develop projects, and projects form alliances that have the potential to become social movements” (2). Couchsurfing.org can be seen as a catalyst for change, where other community development initiatives can begin. We can think of couchsurfing.org as being in transition from a non-profit project to a full blown community development project.

 

Technological Gap

Regardless of the possibilities for couchsurfing.org to promote community action, the use of couchsurfing.org is limited to those with access to the Internet. Producing nations remain marginalized at the periphery of communication networks (Norris 6). The bias of technology represents unequal power relations between the global north and global south (Warschaurer 209). The pitfall of couchsurfing.org is that it is not accessible to all: it cannot reach the poorest of the poor. Nor does it allow the direct participation of anyone younger than 18 years. If we consider the 1948 UN definition of community development as “a process designed to create conditions of economic and social progress for the whole community with its active participation and the fullest possible reliance upon the community’s initiative” (Head 101), then couchsurfing.org may not qualify as a community development initiative since it does not directly foster economic progress for its members (but there are avenues for indirect fostering of economic change through group membership in groups such as “Jobs,” “Volunteering,” and “Entrepreneurs”). However, as a worldwide network directed as fostering understanding and cross-cultural travel, couchsurfing.org may in fact embody a new form of community development initiative.

 

Conclusion

Couchsurfing.org does not fit cleanly into the usual definition of community development initiatives, but it does exhibit some of their principle characteristics. Community development should be understood as being more than economic empowerment: it is the recognition of the solidarity of communities to act in order to better their circumstances, whether the communities are real or virtual, and whether their circumstances find them in the global north or the global south. A CSer perhaps put it best: “Couchsurfing helps to eliminate the “us” vs “them” in the world. It creates a world of “we”.” An overwhelming majority of respondents said that couchsurfing.org had “changed their lives.” It is no small coincidence that these are the words used to describe this virtual travel community. Couchsurfing.org is an intriguing project that could have important implications for the future of travel and cross-cultural exchange. It could also be a platform for other types of projects. To better understand this phenomenon there needs to be more research into its sociological processes, and more quantitative research of the active community.

 


 

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