Imagine waking up on a stranger’s couch. You’ve only just met him through the Internet the other day. He is in a country you’ve never been to before, and he barely manages to keep up with your English and yet, you are somehow able to make each other feel as though you’ve been friends for a long time.
As unlikely as this scenario might sound to many, more and more people from around the world are experiencing it regularly. A constantly growing number of mostly young people are attracted to couchsurfing.org, a hospitality site that specializes in providing adventurous travelers with an online platform through which to arrange “sleep-overs” with like-minded people in almost every country on earth.
With somewhere between five to twenty thousand new signups weekly, the CouchSurfing project, founded in 1999, has mushroomed into one of the fastest growing social experiences on the web, currently claiming about 2.2 million members.
According to the organization’s website which was launched in 2003, 15,167 new users registered with the social network in the last week of November alone – that’s an average of one and a half new users every minute. This number has grown exponentially from the site’s 875 new users that signed up in the last week of November 2005.
Out of the 245 countries represented within the community, 506,976 members are from the United States – the largest number of couch surfers in any country, and almost a quarter of all couch surfers worldwide. Germans follow, coming in second with 226,881 members, while France (207,819), Canada (108,059) and England (94,879) take third, fourth and fifth place under the top 10 couch surfer nations.
Natalye Childress, a 26-year-old journalism major from Santa Rosa, California said that she got into the couch surfing community with her roommate a couple of years ago out of boredom. “I was unemployed and she broke her leg and was off work, and so we wanted to meet new people. We decided to put our house up on [the couch surfing website],” Childress explained.
Yet initially, she and her roommate did not get the opportunity to host anyone who they weren’t friends with. According to her, this was a result of their place being in a “boring” town, “where nobody wanted to go to.” So instead they decided to use couch surfing a little differently.
“People in San Francisco would be like, ‘Hey, let’s get drinks’, so we usually met people at the bar and talked to them,” Childress said, looking back at her first experiences with other members of the site.
It wasn’t until she went on a trip through Europe with one of her best friends in the summer of 2010 that she got to do some “real couch surfing,” as in spending at least one night at a couch surfer’s place. They ended up staying with two guys who were in their “late 20s”; one in Belgium and one in Germany.
“That was awesome. I’m really good friends with the person [now], we still talk and we’re planning on meeting up next time I’m in Europe” Childress said, referring to her and her friend’s first host in Belgium. “It was cool. We met some cool people.”
In order to secure their couches, Childress and her friend started messaging people six months in advance. However, her first hosting experience was much more spontaneous.
“I’m more of a planner type of person, and I have that written down in there, I think,” Childress said, referring to her personal profile on the site. “I got this message from someone, and I was out of town at a wedding, and he was like, ‘I’m going on a motorcycle journey through the U.S., it’s my third day and I need a place to stay, can I stay there tonight? Here’s my phone number.’ I thought ‘what the hell,’ so I sent him a text message and said ‘Sure.’”
She met her guest later that night, took him to a bar for a drink and some talking, and then allowed him to spend the night at her place. “He spent the night, hung out the next day and was super cool,” Childress said of her first hosting experience.
Not all requests are rewarded by Childress with a positive reply, however: “I’ve gotten a few requests that I’ve just kind of ignore[d], because they are usually last minute, and I’m not able to do that.”
The average couch surfer is 28 years old, according to the organization’s statistics. The top ten of the most popular couch surfing destinations are (in that order): Paris, London, Berlin, Montreal, Istanbul, Vienna, Melbourne, New York, Barcelona and Buenos Aires.
Half of all members are male, 42.3 percent female, and 7 percent represent households shared by several people.
Couch surfing as a woman may sound risky to some, but Childress said she never had any issues and wasn’t worried at all. “The one [host] in Brussels [Belgium], he and I started communicating almost six to nine months before we were there. And so it felt like I knew him already when we stayed with him.”
The concept of couch surfing requires that members have a certain degree of trust in one another and in the platform itself, however there is more that members can rely on in order to make sure they don’t end up staying with the wrong people. Similar to the feedback system on eBay, members rate each other, choosing between a positive, neutral or negative grade. Members and the organization say that this is a system that quickly filters out the weirdoes, and anyone who signs up with ulterior motives.
Childress only surfs in countries that she feels safe being in: “I wouldn’t want to couch surf in Afghanistan, but I [also] wouldn’t want to visit Afghanistan,” she says, adding that Italy would be a place where she’d likely only surf on female members’ couches in order to avoid the “mentality” towards women that many Italian men are infamous for in her opinion.
Unfortunately there is no such thing as a guaranteed safety. A 29-year-old woman from Hong Kong was raped and threatened to be murdered by a 34-year-old Moroccan national in Leeds, U.K., according to published reports. The woman reportedly came into contact with Abdelali Nachet through the CouchSurfing Project. He was later convicted by a jury and found guilty on two counts of rape and one count of sexual assault.
Couch surfing is not a dating platform, however it’s also not an entirely unsubstantiated claim that more active members are somewhat likely to find a person through the site with whom they end up falling in love. Childress says that one of her friends from Berkeley hosted a German, and they ended up getting married. He recently moved to the U.S. and they have opened up a business together since.
Emmanuel Lemor, a 39-year-old IT consultant and entrepreneur living in San Francisco came into couch surfing “completely by accident”:
“I was staying at a motel here in town, not realizing that there were hostels, which is completely crazy, knowing that there are about 15 in the city. I was in a really – what looked like [a] nice place – until I opened my bed, and there were three colored hairs in my supposedly brand new bed. And they weren’t mine; and I was like ‘eww’, that’s not cool’ for a place I’m paying [for], you know.”
When Lemor went downstairs to tell the manager of his findings, the couldn’t-care-less reaction he got made him angrily head back to his room where he started punching “free rooms San Francisco” into a search engine, not expecting any good results. All the more was he surprised when he stumbled upon someone’s post in a forum mentioning couch surfing. Things took off from there.
“I created a profile, and I was thinking to myself ‘well, it can’t be worse than this’, you know, a motel room. And so I sent out 15-20 requests. Maybe eight people answered. Most people couldn’t. And one or two people said ‘yes, I can host you for one or two nights’,” Lemor said, looking back to April 2007. “That’s how I started, and since then I’ve been a non-stop host.”
Since he became a member over three years ago, Lemor claims to have hosted over 1400 people. He said usually the only time he doesn’t host someone is when a surfer cancels at the very last minute. “Right now I’m going through a slow period, by choice, where I’m only hosting one to four people per night. But in 2009 it could be as many as 11, but that was a one-time thing,” Lemor said.
Lemor said that seven to nine people was the average number of surfers he hosted per night in 2009. “After a while, it takes a toll on you,” he said. He eventually decided to cut back to just four surfers a night.
As a couch surfing city ambassador for San Francisco, Lemor’s role loosely translates to that of a “community manager.” His tasks include moderating the local group message boards, as well as attending and staging couch surfing events in the city, and even welcoming new members to the community.
“My ex-girlfriend that lived with me for 10 months, I met at a couch surfing dinner. We have events in the city all the time, from Underground, which is our weekly Wednesday meeting, to Thai food Thursdays, to walks on the bridge,” Lemor said. “In 2007 I went to one of those dinners, and there were like 15-20 people, and sitting two seats away from me was what I thought really interesting person. We started talking, and she realized I wasn’t a complete idiot. We started getting in touch, and then later we became a couple.”
Across the country in Philadelphia Rich Murray, a 37-year-old financial analyst says that he doesn’t have a real preference when asked about whether he rather surfs or hosts. “But hosting is better if you have the time for the guest.”
Murray said he has hosted 110 people and surfed a total of 58 times across the U.S., France, Switzerland and Germany.
“I’ve hosted more men. When women surf, they usually stay with other women, likely due to safety reasons,” Murray said. “There are references, vouches etc., but in the end you just need to be careful. And a woman traveling alone, staying at a man’s place on her own is not a good idea.”
Although Murray says he has not had a bad experience, he acknowledges that not every match goes smoothly, in which case it’s best to cut the visit short. ”Usually it’s when you aren’t on the same level with the people [you host]. For example, one time two girls were here. That was exactly a year ago, and they wanted to party the entire time, but I just didn’t have the time for that.”