As a longtime CouchSurfer, I’m passionate about the spirit and community of this organization and wary of its future. Today I’d like to offer a different kind of post, an opinion piece, on the questionable new breed of CouchSurfers.
A spontaneous decision to take an early train to Amsterdam brought me directly to the best of the world of CouchSurfing in 2009. I had made no plans. I was traveling alone and I knew no one in Amsterdam.
Back then, CouchSurfing was a smaller community and still a non-profit organization. I signed up after I heard that a friend of mine in Berlin had had great experiences hosting international travelers. I wasn’t sure whether to trust the system, especially as a solo female traveler, but I wanted to try it and decide for myself.
That weekend of unplanned travel in Amsterdam found me in the company of Ramon Stoppelenburg, Dutch entrepreneur and the unofficial “Godfather of CouchSurfing”. At a CS meet-up in one of Amsterdam’s cozier brown bars, Ramon welcomed me as “CS City Ambassador” with a Stroopwafel, a hug and a smile.
After a few introductions, I found myself chatting with him and a group of young Swedes, who were pleasantly surprised to find an American girl traveling alone in Europe. They too had made no plans for their time in Amsterdam and were happy for the chance to spend a relaxing evening with other CouchSurfers, enjoying good conversation.
When the end of the evening, Ramon heard that I had no place to stay and offered me space on his floor. At that point, my mentality was in “why not?”-mode, and I accepted.
I spent a surprisingly comfortable night on an airbed at his apartment, while two Finnish CSers and Ramon’s cats lounged on the couches. In the morning, after I made American-style French toast for breakfast (my way of saying thank you for the free place to stay), I signed my name on Ramon’s CS “wall of fame”, packed my bag and with another hug, left my first CS experience with a huge smile on my face.
Four years later, I’m still surfing and hosting. I can honestly (honestly!) say that I’ve always had positive experiences while involved in either of these aspects of CouchSurfing, for the simple reason that I am selective about the people I surf with, and even more selective about the people whom I host in Frankfurt.
The only negative experiences I have had are due to certain trends I observe in my CouchSurfing inbox and on the new, newsfeed-inspired CouchSurfing.org dashboard.
In 2009, it was common to receive messages from men in far-flung places who didn’t quite understand the concept of CouchSurfing, invitations in broken English to come to their country and “surf their couch”. Easy to ignore and delete, these messages were more of a nuisance than anything else.
But the sorts of messages I have been receiving more and more throughout the past year are troubling. Young travelers flood the Frankfurt Area ‘wall’ with general requests to “hang out in the city!” or “grab a drink with internationals” or worse, write messages to an entire group, asking for personal tour guides for the day. This self-serving approach leads me to believe that the newcomers aren’t aware in the slightest that pioneer CouchSurfers would never go out of their way to respond to a spammy, come-one, come-all approach.
My negative experiences with CouchSurfing stem directly from the inundation of impersonal, Twitter-feed requests which lack the depth of kind-hearted, human connection I was lucky to experience while surfing in and hosting travelers from more than twenty countries.
What I loved most about CouchSurfing in Amsterdam was the interpersonal openness I encountered, both of the travelers at the meet-up and from Ramon in his generosity of spirit.
CouchSurfing today would do well to take note of its pioneer members, else that spirit gets lost amongst travelers simply taking advantage of yet another social network platform from which to spam the masses.