Sleeping with Strangers
What if everyone you met online came to stay at your house? Peter Alsop investigates CouchSurfing.com, the latest iteration of social networking.
Wearing only boxer shorts and sandals, a tall man steps onto the landing of an apartment in the outer Plateau Mont-Royal, a working-class neighborhood in Montreal. It's an early August morning, the streets are just beginning to stir, and the young man-a traveler from Germany who arrived late last night-slips a hand-rolled cigarette between his lips, scratches his head, and surveys the traffic humming along the wide lanes of Rue St. Denis. It's his first glimpse of the city in daylight, and from where he stands, he can see row upon row of tidy brick apartment buildings with winding metal staircases that curve up two or three flights, tentacles of steel that gleam pink in the sun.Behind him, through the open door, backpacks crowd the hallway, empty beer cans litter the countertops, and in each bedroom, on almost every square inch of floor, are mattresses. He's staying with the "Collective," a loose-knit band of travelers, many of them computer programmers, who've gathered from around the world to sleep side-by-side in this small two-bedroom rental where they administer CouchSurfing-a website that connects travelers with a free place to stay. Here, their numbers differ from day to day, with as few as five and many as 20, and they come from all over: Poland, Mexico, New Jersey. A mathematics Ph.D. student from Belgium, an Iraq War vet from Arizona, a hairdresser from New York. As some leave, others arrive with plans to stay for a day or a week or a month.On this morning, one of the first to wake is a pretty 27-year-old Finnish woman who landed here a few days ago, having quit her job as a programmer in Helsinki. With her blonde hair pulled back in a loose bun and her cheeks flushed from sleep, she shuffles into the computer room and stations herself before a bank of flickering monitors. Others wander in every five or 10 minutes. A young man with disheveled hair drops into a sofa chair grumbling about the late-night exertions of a couple in the bunk above him. A woman in sweatpants walks into the room clutching a yogurt in one hand and a Monster energy drink in another. "Breakfast of Champions," she says, with a wan smile.She, too, is part of the Collective, the true believers within the CouchSurfing community-the converts, the hard-core fans of the wanderlust life who've used the site to travel to all corners of the globe. The programmers among them have come to Montreal to help expand the site, tweaking the design, adding features and new search methods. The roles of the others are less clear. Some are just passing through town (Montreal has 2,000 CouchSurfers, more than any other city in the world), others have come to help but lack programming skills, so they're the ones who run errands and field phone calls and carry out brainstorming sessions about the "future of human connection." And they cook. At one point in July, with 20 people crashing there, the kitchen was staffed around the clock.A rumor begins to circle among them: "The site's down." This seems at first like a mistake. How can the site be down? The Finn begins tapping on the keyboards of different computers, to no avail. The voices in the room grow increasingly anxious. "There must be a bug." "Can anyone get on?" The yogurt girl begins to pace nervously. The German strolls into the room, still in boxers. "There's definitely a bug." A question is ventured: Do we wake Casey? The question gathers urgency as a flood of emails descends on the apartment, emails from Paris, Tokyo, and Sydney, emails from distraught CouchSurfers who have suddenly been frozen from their world.Where is Casey? A search ensues, into the bedrooms, down to the front steps, back upstairs to knock on the door of the one bathroom. Casey cannot be found. After awhile it doesn't matter anyway-they find the glitch, the site is restored, the crisis averted. But all this time Casey was here. The leader of this band of vagabonds, 28-year-old Casey Fenton, is lying prostrate on a futon on the back porch wearing a black blindfold cinched tight to block out the sun. One arm falls across his freckled face and tussled red hair and the other dangles off the futon, his fingers inches from an ashtray. Despite the commotion, despite the blare of traffic in the distance, Fenton, with only a thin blanket to cover his bare shoulders, is sound asleep. Of all the places to crash-the mattresses, the bunk beds, the cushions tossed on the floor-Fenton, the creator of the CouchSurfing universe, has claimed the apartment's only couch.
The rise of online social networks is by now a familiar story, one that has so far been told in numbers-and the numbers are staggering. Five hundred thousand people create a profile on MySpace every week, an audience for which Rupert Murdoch was willing to pay $580 million in July of 2005. Company executives at Facebook are reportedly seeking $1 billion in acquisition talks. YouTube, purchased by Google in October for $1.65 billion, has over 13 million users. These numbers are not unique to the U.S. In Britain, the social network Bebo is now the sixth most popular website, with over 25 million users. In South Korea, the network CyWorld has, in five years, attracted nearly a third of the country to its site, and nearly 90 percent of the nation's teenagers.All this seems like a positive step toward the "great and gathering conversation" predicted a decade ago by internet sage John Perry Barlow. Social networks like CouchSurfing have suddenly enabled millions of people with common interests to find one another. But in the rhapsodizing over such sites, in all the talk about Web 2.0 and a new evolution of the internet, it's peculiar that comparatively little is being said about whom we're actually talking to online, and to what effect.To Danah Boyd, a graduate fellow at the USC Annenberg Center and social media researcher at Yahoo!, what transpires on popular networks like MySpace is less about joining a global conversation than it is about replicating the social network you already have. "This is not about meeting strangers," she says. "You go to MySpace to talk to your friends and to find out the gossip of the day." Profile pages on sites like MySpace and Facebook are filled with the kind of inside jokes and cliquish comments that might once have given you shivers of alienation in the middle-school cafeteria.What this suggests is that the utopian promise of internet networking-the ability to leap across the previously inviolable social boundaries of school or town or country or culture-is far from being met. With the exception of dating sites and the libidinous (and admittedly odd) "Casual Encounters" section of Craigslist, we're not really finding new people to connect with; we're talking to the people we already know. And so the conversation, though it may be growing, is still smaller than we might have imagined.Casey Fenton wants to change this. He founded CouchSurfing in 2004 to connect travelers with places to crash-not in hostels, but in people's homes, a notion that many no doubt find bizarre. Unlike other online networks, CouchSurfing allows its users to find one another online in order to meet and host each other offline. That alone is something of a radical concept (it's easy to imagine the collective panic of loved ones everywhere: "You're going to stay with strangers?"). But there is a deeper purpose behind the site, says Fenton. Fenton calls himself, only half in jest, a scientist of human connection. His mission is to transform people's lives. "We want to create memorable, intense experiences," he says, "to put the right people together in the right situation at the right time. This isn't just about a place to crash."
I met Fenton for the first time a year ago, when CouchSurfing was still in its relative infancy, with 20,000 members (it now has more than 125,000, and at its current rate of growth could reach a half million in a year). Word of the website was just beginning to spread, and about Fenton there was only rumor and conjecture. Fellow CouchSurfers seemed to revere him as a kind of furtive cult hero: a gypsy king of wanderers. Before our rendezvous at a side-street bar in San Francisco's Mission district, I imagined him as a bohemian savant, wild-eyed and bedraggled. But he arrived in a button-down shirt and blue jeans, clean-shaven, carrying a notebook with the word "Life" etched on the cover. From across the room, the bartender gave his youthful face a long, appraising look. Smiling, Fenton dipped his slight frame into a corner booth. It was late afternoon and the bar was quiet. Still, it was hard to hear him; he speaks in a surprisingly faint voice, but his gestures have an excitable energy. He shifts a lot. The story of CouchSurfing, he said, began six years ago.Fenton, then 22, was already harried, a software programmer in New Hampshire working 100-hour weeks for a headhunting dot-com he himself had founded. He was struggling to keep the company afloat, and spending endless hours staring into a monitor, programming code. Eager for a break, and with only a weekend to spare, he found a cheap last-minute ticket to Iceland. The flight left in four days. Fenton didn't know a soul in Reykjavik. "I tried to imagine myself there," he said. "What am I going to do in Iceland? I pictured myself walking down freezing streets, alone. I didn't want the empty feeling of staying in a hotel or hostel, but I was a shy person and I didn't know how to connect with people." So he did what any reasonably competent, ethically flexible programmer might do: he hacked into the University of Iceland student directory and spammed 1,500 students. "Basically I said, 'I'm coming on Friday. I want to see the real Iceland. Will you show me your country?'" He received more than 50 replies. Fenton spent one of the best weekends of his life gallivanting through Reykjavik, sleeping in someone's garage, staying up late into the half-light of the arctic night, and making friends that he has kept to this day.For a shy kid from the White Mountains of New Hampshire, raised by hippies in a cabin a mile from the nearest road, it was as if the world had, in three days, laid bare its secrets. "I got back on the plane on Monday morning and said to myself, 'I need to travel like this all the time.'" When the flight landed in Boston five hours later, Fenton had already begun to conceive of CouchSurfing. The next four years would take him to other jobs, and to Alaska, where he got involved in state politics-he managed internet strategy for Tony Knowles's unsuccessful 2004 senate campaign-but throughout that time he always held on to the idea of the site, programming lines of code while riding on campaign buses. Finally, in January of 2004, while Fenton was living in Juneau, CouchSurfing went live.
That same month, 3,500 miles to the south, Jim Stone, presently the world's foremost CouchSurfer, had an epiphany. He says this as we rumble down the boulevards of Montreal in his silver Nissan pickup. Stone, 29, an affable, broad-shouldered Texan, has been staying with the Collective for over a month, serving as a kind of right-hand man to Fenton (they became friends through the site). He's not a computer programmer but he helps with errands and makes money for himself on the side by taking on small Craigslist moving jobs with his truck. As he hunches over the steering wheel, searching street signs for a road that doesn't seem to exist, he describes the moment, two years ago, when his life changed.Stone was then living in Denton, a college town in north Texas, stuck in a sales job he hated. "All my friends had left," he says. "I was getting apathetic. I could see another five years going by just the same way. I remember checking my mail one day, and the postmark on the letters was the same day I had graduated two years earlier. Two years gone, just like that. And I freaked out."He quit his job, packed his belongings, and split town, staying first with his father in west Texas. When he discovered CouchSurfing a month later, he signed on as the 99th member. He has since become, by all accounts, its most well-traveled participant. In the two years since he left Texas he has stayed in over 120 homes throughout Europe, New Zealand, the east coast of Australia, and most of the United States. He has "CouchSurfed" with a former soap opera star in Paris and with a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in Denmark. He has lived for weeks with an Italian family in a villa outside of Naples. Like other members of the Collective, Stone seems to travel in bursts, stopping somewhere long enough to save a little money and then stretching it for as long as he can on the road. Four months in Europe cost him $3,000, a number he now shakes his head at. "I could do it for a lot less today," he says.Stone pulls the truck back onto the highway, having given up on finding the street he's looking for. He sighs and shoves his bangs away from his eyes, exasperated by the traffic. I ask him what he's learned in all of his wandering (his business card actually reads "Vagabond"), and we drive along in silence as he ponders an answer. "I let the people choose my destination," he says at last. "That's what I've learned. I'll travel to some small little town in Austria that I've never heard of if I find someone who sounds interesting living there." Stone says that the intimacy of staying with strangers has changed him.This narrative of transformation is common among CouchSurfers. I've heard variations on it from a dozen different people. It seems to go like this: Being welcomed into someone's home, perhaps the most private place in which to meet, creates instant, deep connection and lasting friendship. In having to tell our own story to others, over and over again, we come to realize certain truths about ourselves. If we are shy, we begin to talk more. If we are brash, we begin to listen. And by witnessing other lives, we open to possibilities that we were once blind to. Alex Goodman, 23, a member of the Collective who, as it happens, is also a sociologist studying the group, said this: "If I were 16 and in search of answers for how to live my life, I wouldn't go to a rabbi or a priest or a Buddhist monk. I'd try to find a way to systematically evaluate the experiences of everyone around me, to see what has worked and what hasn't, what makes for a good, happy, worthwhile life and what doesn't. Information technology and the emergence of social networks are making this possible."
The reach of CouchSurfing, after only two years of operation, is impressive. There are people, at this moment, offering their homes through the site in Iran and Turkey, in Malaysia and Venezuela and Nepal. The site has enabled a kind of spontaneous, footloose exploration of the world, and the numbers speak to this: 40,000 homes visited, 17,000 cities represented, 125,000 members participating, and several thousand more joining each week. It brings to mind the vision that Jack Kerouac heralded a half-century ago in Dharma Bums: "A great rucksack revolution, thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier."But as with any community, there are problems, and the problems facing CouchSurfing are of a serious sort. To begin with, how do you create trust between people who've never met? In this country, the very idea of opening your home to a stranger is anathema to most people-perhaps for good reason. Fenton, for his part, says we need to broaden the meaning of being someone's "friend" online. While most social networks are content with a single indicator of friendship-you're either a friend or you're not-CouchSurfing asks for much more information when someone seeks to be your friend on the site. Have you met in person? How would you rate your friendship? Have you stayed with one another? When did you meet? What was the quality of your experience? The site encourages members to be unsparingly honest in their evaluations, and the testimonies can't be edited or erased.Certainly, negative comments can be found ("He is a stickler for rules and seems to have an irrational fear of authority"), but for the most part testimonies tend to be of the unflaggingly positive sort. Jessica, for instance, a 22-year-old American, writes of Daniele, who hosted her in Rome: "He deserves some sort of award for hosting. My friend and I stayed with him a record of 40 days. We became a true family and I will never forget his kindness and generosity. CouchSurfing gave me the experience of a lifetime. It forever changed me!" Invariably, people would rather say nothing than say something negative, and that etiquette stands in the way of reliable feedback.There is a real sense, too, the bigger CouchSurfing gets and the less self-selecting it becomes, the greater the dangers that confront it. For anyone bent on doing harm, the site affords access to a world of trusting souls. The "axe murderer" scenario, however unlikely, is one Fenton ruefully acknowledges he can do little about. "This is a slice of the real world," he says. "So, yes, anything can happen. We ask people to use all the safety features of the site and to take every possible precaution. We've been fortunate that nothing bad has happened." These precautions-be careful when choosing a single male host, consider meeting for coffee first, be prepared to leave at the first sign of a problem-are certainly well-intentioned. But there are women traveling alone using CouchSurfing and some of them are young, in their late teens or early twenties, and whatever care they may exercise, the law of averages suggests that eventually something terrible will happen. It's an open question as to how the CouchSurfing community will react or how the experiment will survive the bad press sure to follow.There are other problems, too. From the beginning, CouchSurfing has operated as a nonprofit funded by donations. While that's created a sense of community ownership, it has also produced significant limitations, and the strains are beginning to show. By Fenton's own admission, he's trying to run the equivalent of a high-traffic multimillion-dollar website on an income that amounted to about $100,000 this year (most of it brought in by donation). Rather than a team of paid employees, he has a band of peripatetic volunteer programmers. The financial constraints came to a head last June when a perfect storm of system failures, brought on by cost-cutting, led to a complete server meltdown. At the time, Fenton thought everything was lost: two years worth of data, the profiles of 100,000 members. Despondent, he posted a letter to the web signaling the end of the project-"CouchSurfing as we know it doesn't exist anymore," he wrote. Predictably, howls of protest ensued, the community itself refused to be disbanded, and within a few weeks whatever data had not been recovered was created anew. But the fact of that failure still hovers over the community, a painful reminder of how ephemeral its endeavor really is.In June of 2006, just as MySpace neared 80 million users and Facebook approached 8 million, an article, "Social Isolation in America," appeared in the American Sociological Review. The work of sociologists at Duke and the University of Arizona, it examined two national surveys of the American public, one in 1985 and the other in 2004. Their research found that the average number of people with whom Americans discuss important issues has dropped by nearly a third, from about three to two. Even more startling is that one-quarter of Americans say they have no one with whom to discuss their most important matters-twice as many as in 1984. This would suggest that in the same 20 years that saw the rise and triumph of communication technologies-the proliferation of email, cell phones, BlackBerries, and MySpace-our circle of close friends and confidants has shrunk by a significant margin. We are somehow more connected than we once were, and more isolated than ever before.The role of the internet in this trend is the subject of considerable academic debate. Some sociologists argue that sites like MySpace might not promote strong ties between people, but they do greatly enable weak ones. And these connections lead to jobs, apartments, and partners (for some people, Craigslist alone has provided all three). A recent report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project says, "Research is showing that the internet is not destroying relationships [but rather] enabling people to maintain existing ties, often to strengthen them, and at times to forge new ties."Others are less sanguine, however. Lynn Smith-Lovin, one of the sociologists behind the Duke study, says of online social networks, "I don't think they're connecting us in a deeper or more complete way than before. But neither are they driving out close personal contact. They are another route for information, and they allow us to develop more specialized communities." But face-to-face encounters, she says, are the sine qua non of strong ties; a relationship can begin online but without in-person interaction it is unlikely to be sustained in any important way.CouchSurfing, for all its problems, might well be an example of an online social network that actually works. It brings about real conversation. It harnesses the tools of social networking software to create meaningful in-person encounters-Fenton's "right person in the right situation at the right time." And it has begun, however quietly, to pull down the curtains that separate us from one another. The evidence is there on the site itself, in the testimonies of friendship between people who were once strangers but who met, say, over a weekend in Prague and whose lives were changed utterly as a result. And it is not just young people who are being brought together. I spoke with a76-year-old grandmother from Petaluma, California, who had "CouchSurfed" her way through Greece for several weeks. As she put it, "Who wants to sit in a lonely hotel?"On my last day in Montreal, I sit with Fenton on the back porch of the Collective's apartment. The place is a hive of activity-people scurrying in and out of rooms, constant footsteps on the stairs, the shower running incessantly-but the porch is quiet. In the stillness of the morning, Fenton describes plans for a "CouchSurfing University," a layer within the network that will allow someone to design a trip not by destination but for the purpose of learning something new: a skill, a craft, or, more vaguely, "life wisdom." For Fenton, who couldn't afford college and dropped out after his freshman year, it's clearly an enticing idea, and as he talks about it, his words tumble out in an eager rush.There are constant interruptions. Fenton's cell phone rings or someone bursts through the door with pressing news: a friend needs to be picked up at the airport, a programming problem has arisen, so-and-so has been stopped at the border (Canadian customs officials seem to be weirdly paranoid about the Collective). Fenton himself seems tired, faint dark crescents hang beneath his eyes and his voice is laced with weariness, but he responds to each interruption with his full attention and with an unflappable calm. As he deals with one problem after another, it begins to dawn on me that he is both liberated and imprisoned by the social network he's fashioned. It has opened a world to him, bestowed friendship and adventure and purpose. But tens of thousands of people have come to depend on the site, and the site still depends almost entirely upon him.I ask Fenton whether he feels at all overwhelmed. He considers this, and shifts in his seat. Yes, he says, finally, but the good still outweighs the bad. "Years ago I was a kid sitting in a room by myself and the world was a big place," he says, looking out past the porch. "Now I can go anywhere in the world and I feel as if I'd have family there. I have a huge family now, and the world has become a small place." At this he smiles and runs a hand across his face. He seems momentarily appeased by this thought, by the knowledge that a shy person like himself could, in effect, conjure a family of friends.But soon enough the disruptions return, and Fenton is needed. He hauls himself up, says goodbye, and trudges back into the chaos and clamor of the apartment. The Collective swarms around him, a dozen people whirling in an orbit of industry and excitement, and Fenton slips among them, disappearing once more into the universe of his own creation.