If you want to explore a country and culture in a different way, CouchSurfing may be a solution: Sleep on someone’s ‘couch’ and experience a new place under the guidance of your local couchsurf host. They can open the gates to a unique experience. You’ll meet people and enter places you may never have found with only your guidebook.
What began by launching a simple website with only 50 members, has grown into an organisation with more than two and a half million members, spanning 200 countries and 80 thousand cities. Ten years ago the concept was barely known; today CouchSurfing is a successful, and world renowned phenomenon.
According to Ezequiel Kampel, 34, who has been one of the two CouchSurfing ambassadors in Buenos Aires for the past five years: “This is of course a very good thing and impressive at the same time; that our members have been increased to an amount of almost two and a half million! On the other hand it makes CouchSurfing less ‘special’ or better stated, a broader concept, which results in the fact that some couchsurfers have totally different kind of views concerning CouchSurfing than the old ‘die-hard’ couchsurfer. I sometimes get the feeling that we are losing the ‘real idea’ of CouchSurfing a little bit. CouchSurfing is for example not just a free hostel-based idea or something, its way more than that!”
It all started in 1999, when 22-year-old Casey Fenton of Alaska was making plans to journey to Iceland. Arranging a cheap ticket was the first and fairly easy step, but his dream was still hampered by the fact that Casey knew no one in Iceland: It was not his intention to stay in a lonely hotel room all day long. Instead, Casey wanted to see, smell, touch and taste the ‘real’ Iceland.
Casey found a solution. Due to his background as a programmer, he had access to the email addresses of all the students in Reykjavik. He received more enthusiastic responses from these students than expected. They all would love to show him ‘their’ Reykjavik! Casey chose one of the students, who would show him all the ins and outs of the city. By the time Casey was back in Alaska, the idea for “Couch Surfing” was born.
The whole idea is powered by volunteers and guided by a special ‘Leadership Team’ under the direction of Casey himself. Because the concept of CouchSurfing is now huge, there is a big structured organisation behind the scenes. It consists of a special project management team, a department for operations and a department for technology and ten different volunteer teams.
Basically, CouchSurfing is a worldwide network making connections between travellers and the local communities they visit. It allows people to build up a worldwide network, while they are travelling. How? Very easily: You create an account and search for people who may offer you a place to sleep, or want to show you around ‘their’ city. However, unlike many other networking sites, with CouchSurfing the emphasis lies in a personal way of travelling. Backpacking comes close; travelling from hostel to hostel, sitting in a local bus, in a way you do understand the culture of a country a bit better. After all the backpacking hype, CouchSurfing has become hotter, and grows more popular everyday. It can be described as ‘backpacking-plus’. You’re still travelling a certain country, but this way you have a real chance to become personally acquainted with locals and learn about their culture.
Since you never know on which couch you will end up and which person will crash on yours; there are a few safeguards in place to help combat this uncertainty. Members can leave references about people who have ‘surfed’ on their couch or where they have ‘surfed’ themselves. You can also, as an added safety feature, verify addresses. This allows other members to see that you really are the person who you say you are.
CouchSurfing is not just an idea; it has evolved from idealistic considerations. With the increase of globalisation and individualisation, the founders saw the need to bring more people together on a ‘global’ scale. The ultimate goal was trying to give a ‘personal’ dimension to the growing concept of globalisation. Therefore, it’s not without reason that the mission statement of CouchSurfing reads: ‘Participate in a better world, one couch at a time’. A global community has to be a personal experience for people, rather than an individualistic one. The idea of CouchSurfing is that you actually meet people, experience a different culture and develop personally.
Although approximately 75% of the surfers are aged between 18 and 29, CouchSurfing claims not to focus on a particular age group. What you do notice is the fact that members often share the same interests: curiosity and a desire to explore the everyday life in other countries. Besides, you have to be somehow adventurous and have some guts. Ezequiel explained: “Anyone who wants to couchsurf can do it, however it’s certainly not for everyone.”
CouchSurfing is mainly a western-oriented concept, excluding a large group of people. If you want to ‘surf’, you need to have internet access and speaking English is also a prerequisite. Ezequiel added: “The average couchsurfer is a western or western oriented person, in their twenties with a university degree. For fun, you should have a look on the surfers’ profiles and then you will see that in 50% of the cases, people ranked ‘Amelie’ as their favourite movie and ‘On the road’ by Kerouac as their favourite book.”
The CouchSurfing statistics show that the US has by far the most surfers and Canada and Australia there are only two other non-European countries in the top ten CouchSurfing countries. Concerning cities, Paris is the most popular CouchSurfing city, followed by London and Berlin. Six of the ten cities are European, with Buenos Aires in 8th place. In 2009 Buenos Aires was actually the number one location.
Ezequiel added that “Referring to only the website, Buenos Aires is by far the world’s most active CouchSurfing city.” Argentina’s capital has almost 24 thousand members in the Buenos Aires Group. This group has around 30 subgroups, among which there are gastronomy groups, art and movie groups and a salsa group.
A Social Network Community
What started with just 50 members has grown into a tightly organised community. Local ‘CouchSurfing Communities’ have blossomed, and members not only get in touch with each other through the internet and travelling itself, but through real ‘CouchSurfing events’. These events are sometimes organised by the city ambassadors, but more often, members themselves propose their own initiatives.
Sarah Davis, 25, from England, who has been a couchsurfer since 2008, and is an active member of the Buenos Aires’ community. She started after a recommendation by a friend: “Word of mouth is basically the way CouchSurfing works. When I was living in Spain I introduced CouchSurfing to three of my friends, which resulted in them CouchSurfing throughout all of Europe.”
A few weeks ago Sarah organised a CouchSurfing event: a clothes-swap afternoon on her terrace. “I was just thinking about this idea, after I posted it on the CouchSurfing website, got many positive reactions and so it happened. It was a big success, lots of people showed up and I have a totally renewed wardrobe! So I am thinking of doing another one during winter.”
Sarah is one of the many couchsurfers who does not host people frequently, but is open to showing them around the city. On the website there is even a special status for this, under the name, ‘go for a coffee’. Sarah thinks this opportunity is a good thing, in a way it allows you to participate in a ‘local-meets-foreigner’ concept, without necessarily hosting people on your couch. As she said: “For me CouchSurfing is actually more of a social network, which I think is great! For example last January, all my friends were out of town, so I posted a message on the website to ask if anyone was in for a drink. I ended up having a great night with five people that I did not know before. Now, still two of them remain good friends of mine. Basically I use CouchSurfing to socialise.”
Ezequiel has sometimes his doubts about the community aspect and the way it grows so quickly. “CouchSurfing nowadays, is not just the ‘sleep-on-anyone’s couch-idea’ anymore, there is a complete CouchSurfing community and social network as part of it. Therefore it attracts a broader range of people with other ideas and intentions, of which I do not know I am to keen on.”
Sarah added: “The most important thing is that you keep the whole idea behind it running. CouchSurfing is not mentioned at all as a dating site or anything. Unfortunately there will always be people who are going to abuse this idea, no matter how many members it has”.
Ezequiel concluded that CouchSurfing is certainly a booming business and growing rapidly, but it will always be a non-profit organisation and a wonderful concept. He added: “I know almost all my friends through CouchSurfing and although they are spread all over the world; these are not just friends, but real friends; I can always knock on their door, which I think is very special!”