Two weeks ago I visited the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago to take some digital images for this class. I had written about Chicago’s second World’s Fair, “A Century of Progress” held in 1933-1934 in a previous class, and was curious to see what kinds of material related to the fair were held at the library.
Couch Surfing is a hospitality network that connects travelers with locals offering places to stay free of charge. “You have friends all over the world, you just haven’t me them yet” the site’s tagline reads. Initially founded as a non-profit in 2003, CouchSurfing has undergone some major changes since its inception that have caused controversy among its users, especially around issues of privacy and security, safety, and the ethics of for-profit businesses. Understanding the history of CouchSurfing is useful for public historians who want to understand how their institutions should and should not interact with their online users and visitors.
According to the site’s founder Casey Fenton, he came up with the idea for a site after finding a cheap plane ticket to Iceland, but not having anywhere to stay. He sent out a cold email to 1500 students at the University of Reykjavik asking for a place to crash – even on someone’s couch. Almost 50 students offered to let Fenton stay with them, and many personally showed him around the city. When Fenton returned to the US, the idea for CouchSurfing had solidified.
Originally founded as a 501(c)3 non-profit, the website went public in 2004. Initial growth was slow, but by the end of 2005 the site had over 45,000 members. In October 2011 the site had it’s highest membership, with over 3 million active and inactive members. Membership was free, though users could voluntarily pay for an identity verification service whose proceeds went to the site. Initially, the site was developed and improved by volunteer laborers, who came together in periodic “collectives” to work on and update the site. However, this changed in 2011 when CouchSurfing was privatized and became a for-profit corporation, as using volunteer labor to run a commercial enterprise is illegal in the United States. Since the 2011 incorporation, CouchSurfing has experienced some controversy among its members.
Many members objected strongly to CouchSurfing’s incorporation on ethical grounds. Users of the site saw their work as fundamentally community-based, and were immensely opposed to the idea of the site’s CEOs making money off of their donation-based work. The site had been previously financed and upkept through volunteer labor, as well as donations from members and revenue from the voluntary identity verification service. CouchSurfing International Inc., now a privately held corporation, does not publish any financial data, so it is impossible to know just how much the incorporation benefited its founders.
Changes made to the website after incorporation led to some issues with privacy and security. For example, private city forums became publicly accessible, and members’ information such as phone numbers became publicly searchable. Then, in 2014, a security breach resulted in a virus being sent to 1 million users’ e-mail accounts. CouchSurfing apparently censored some posts related to the breach and refused to explain how the breach occurred.
CouchSurfing claims to use a number of mechanisms to increase safety among its users. Since CouchSurfing is based on a hospitality model where strangers invite other strangers into private homes, safety is a definitely a concern for the corporation. Initially, a comment and reviewing system made negative references easy to find and view. However, changes to the system have resulted in the website no longer labeling references as negative, and a personal vouching system was discontinued in 2014. Several high-profile crimes, including theft, sexual assault, and rape have generated international coverage, including incidents in France, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
CouchSurfing has decreased in popularity and use since 2011, and there is currently a major issue with fake profiles in many geographical locations that boost user statistics. The decline of this particular social networking site I believe is a direct result of poor communication with users after incorporation. The history of CouchSurfing can help public history institutions who are questioning how best to interact with users, especially when major changes must be made. Transparency and open lines of communication seem to be the best policy, even if this means opening up to criticism.
This post was written using information from the CouchSurfing Wikipedia page.
During last week’s class we had the opportunity to critique the functionality of a public history institution’s digital resources. I found it quite easy to find fault with many of the Newberry Library’s online collections. Like Tori (over at GoldenHistory), I was frustrated when resources I wanted to view were only accessible through a subscription database on-site at the Newberry. Wasn’t the whole point of digital resources to make collections more accessible? What good did it do to put something online if you could still only view it at the physical library?
In high school I had a US History teacher who would use the word “twitterpated” to describe feelings of excitement – he used it a lot while showing our class the 1992 classic based on James Fennimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans starring Daniel Day-Lewis.
I couldn’t help but think of this word as I was benevolently forced to create a Twitter account for this class. I had avoided signing up for Twitter for years, as the short format did not appeal to me and I thought “tweeting” sounded stupid. However, after a few days I have found that the way Twitter allows user to aggregate information and updates from institutions and organizations to be extremely helpful.
In addition, the availability of free social media platforms, such as Twitter, has greatly changed the ways museums and other public history institutions are able to interact with their audiences. After browsing the feeds of several historians and public history institutions, it was apparent that while social media can be a powerful tool for public history institutions to reach a wider audience and further their mission, organizations must use these platforms intentionally in order to actually have the impact they want.