Couchsurfing (and how to fix it)

I just hopped on the bandwagon (yea, a couple of years late) and it is a truly fascinating experiment. For those unfamiliar with it, the original premise was to allow travelers to stay with locals and get a more personalized experience when exploring the world. That was then. Recently, it has expanded rapidly with 6 million members, secured $15M in Series B funding, and has become the go-to couch-surfing service. A member can use it to host their couch or find places to crash around the world. They also have a (messy) stream that allows users to ask for tips and plan meetups. I signed up for it because I was bored. I want to meet more interesting people and share experiences with them. Plus, if I travel in the future, it’ll be awesome to know locals around the globe.

I registered for the site and completed my profile and couch details last Friday or Saturday. And then I kind of forgot about it. I was out at a bar with a buddy Saturday night when boom, I get my first request: dude from Hong Kong wants to crash this weekend. As my first request, I immediately clicked yes and told him to come by on Sunday. I get home and see a response at around midnight that he is coming over now! I just wanna go to bed! What ended up happening is he couldn’t get to my place (because transport closes down early) and ended up walking around till he came at 7 AM the next day. He basically did things on his own. I offered to take him to Greenwich and the O2, but our timings didn’t work out. Overall, nothing out of the ordinary. I also got 2 more requests the very next day and immediately clicked yes as well.

And this is when I realized I was over eager. Within 24 hours, I had got somewhere near 10 requests even though my couch wasn’t even listed as available yet! And its classic economics here, supply and demand. London is expensive and its very tough to get cheap short-term housing, so I get inundated with requests. I’ve learned that many city-dwellers have a similar problem and often leave the site because of this issue. The real difference is this: some people want the experience while some people want a free couch. So a personalized message highlighting why you want to know me, goes a lot further than the same general request for a place to stay. And I have already had some really good experiences with people who want to have a back and forth before they stay here.

This explains why a lot of the “original” members have various critiques of the CouchSurfing model. So far, I love it and I love the idea. But within 2 days, Nikhil Kumar and I had already discussed many flaws with the current model. Without going into all the details (read the links!), I will focus on two things that bothered me.

The website experience
I will first say, I haven’t used CS much yet except to respond to requests, so maybe I haven’t browsed the site enough. In which case, disregard my complaints. But compared to any other large networking website, CS is a mess to use. Some parts try to be clean and sophisticated, while other areas just look outdated. I shouldn’t get confused filling in my profile when I first sign up. And the back end constantly throws 502 Bad Gateway errors, which is unacceptable if you are relying on the website to meet someone in a new country. And from my limited use of the forums, I’ve found finding specific things is not that trivial either. But this isn’t a difficult problem to solve. If they invest more in the design and listen to users, it will naturally pay off.

The hosting experience
I mentioned already how people in expensive cities face an imbalance in the number of requests received. We’re happy to host but want a more personal experience. My solution is to use a credit system similar to Quora. Create an internal economy that can be regulated and work as any functional market should. So let’s say I’m a surfer and I have 10 credits. I can now ask for a couch by bidding a certain number of credits which are held as collateral until a response is given or a set amount of time has passed. I can spend 1 credit on 10 different hosts, and hope they like me. Or, I can spend 10 credits on one host who I feel I could really hit it off with. I could earn more credits, by answering questions (giving tips that locals would know), hosting people, or maybe even going to community events. As a host, I would get requests with various amounts but its not necessary to pick the highest – maybe someone else intrigues me more or someone with low credits sends a great personalized message. And, I could even have a threshold (though I feel not many people would use such a feature… or would they?) below which I don’t accept.

Furthermore, maybe with references, I can leave a tip. As a consistent host, I would have a large, and unnecessary, stockpile of credits. If a really cool surfer came by and we got along, I could leave them a good reference along with a credit tip (and maybe even return the whole amount). I can also give credits as a way of vouching for someone. Ideally, the credit value would be tied to experience more than value of housing.

So how to start this? Well it can start with no reduced functionality on CS as a beta test with these credits. They can be used as described above, but requests can still be made with 0 credits. Each member would start with say 10 credits and it would allow a good view of the CS economy as it runs. With optional credit functionality, the transfers could still be studied and it would expose members to this new feature.

Obviously, there are many other concerns. If there is a fixed number of credits, what prevents hoarding? Do we worry about deflation? Is this something that could ultimately be monetized (and is that a good or bad thing)? I believe as a whole it would help to help to foster the community more than hinder it because it encourages people to form genuine bonds. I would love to hear other thoughts that support or demolish this idea!

That’s my 2 cents on what I would do if I was at couchsurfing. But, I’m done with the critique. Like I said, I have quite a few surfers lined up and I’m super excited to meet some fantastic people! Hope to follow up with stories and pictures!

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