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.