Couchsurfing Faces Backlash From Some Members After Censorship Charges

new orleans surfers
Couchsurfing in New Orleans.

 

Is Couchsurfing.org trying to silence its members? The worldwide community where people can connect with others and offer couches to strangers as part of a cultural exchange has come under fire in the past week for what some members claim is an effort to censor its users, as well as ongoing concerns about communication and safety.

In recent days, longtime members Don Shine and Justin Velander Holt, who had served as officially-sanctioned Couchsurfing ambassadors (essentially unpaid volunteers who work to improve the CS experience for all) for two of the site’s most active communities, Berlin and Chicago, respectively, had their accounts permanently deleted from the site.

CS management says the two violated the site’s terms of service, but many members believe Shine and Holt were booted because they were relentlessly critical of the website’s recent redesign, which even CS staffers admit made the site more difficult to navigate, as well as its perceived safety loopholes and lack of useful feedback from management.

“I’m still in a state of shock. I’m heartbroken, more than anything,” Holt says, noting that he invested hundreds of hours in the CS community over the years, from hosting surfers to organizing local events. “To immediately delete my profile without warning is galling.”

Holt admits he was blunt and aggressive in questioning CS management about various issues but says that fell far short of a threshold that would merit his removal. He also notes that he has yet to receive an explanation from CS about exactly why he was forced out. “I’ve never done anything to warrant an extreme termination. They won’t give me an answer in terms of how I’ve violated safety guidelines to warrant immediate removal. Four days after I called CS management a failure, I was terminated.”

Shine reposted pages from the CS support forum elsewhere online when CS staff shut down the forum. Couchsurfing management hints that was grounds for his removal, though the CS Community Manager had instructed users to copy and save any forum conversations they wanted to preserve.

Shine wonders why he was deleted without any notice. “Based on my previous experiences, I would have expected some sort of interaction with the safety team,” he says via email. “Their normal protocol is to contact someone who violates the terms of use, issue a warning, explain where they have violated the terms of use, and if they repeat the offense it can lead to termination of the user’s account, depending on the seriousness of the violation.”

Couchsurfing CEO Tony Espinoza is aware of the level of unrest in some segments of the community but insists the recent profile deletions were for legitimate reasons. “We have never deleted anybody because they have strong opinions or different opinions,” he tells me. “That’s just not how we operate.”

He mentions three primary reasons why CS deletes members: For creating multiple or duplicate profiles, when credible evidence exists that a user is a safety threat, or when members’ privacy is threatened, by scraping data from the CS site and reposting it, for instance.

When asked why these members didn’t receive warnings in advance of their deletion, Espinoza says, “It really is a case-by-case basis. In all these cases, it was very clear what the issues were, and they weren’t issues that we could, on any level, actually tolerate. Those three reasons were the reasons that drove the decision. If we get feedback that someone is actually threatening other members or committing assault, we can’t have them. It doesn’t matter how much they’ve been involved with the service. If a member is taking users’ data down off the site and posting it on the internet, we can’t have that.

“Part of the issue here is that there’s very clear rules that we have to, as a community, support and enable. It’s ironic because people that have large profiles and have lots of references are some of the people that are held to a standard around their behavior that is critical. For the community to hold itself together, we can’t have that become an abuse.”

Is there any chance the terminated members could have their profiles reinstated? “No, because the whole point of reinforcing safety and privacy in the community has to come first. We have to be able to uphold those boundaries for the community’s sake. I think it’s critical. There’s nothing vague about those rules.”

A couchsurfing bed for the night in St. Louis.
A couchsurfing bed for the night in St. Louis.

 

Members say they have other reasons to believe CS management is attempting to censor them beyond just the profile deletions. Users report that some individual posts they have made on the site have been removed without explanation. They also point to what seemed like a confrontational post made by a CS staffer in the ambassadors forum last week that included a laundry list of things CS ambassadors could not do or say without risking the loss of their ambassador status.

After several members predictably responded to the directive unfavorably, Couchsurfing management switched the ambassadors forum from public to private, meaning that rank and file CSers could no longer view any of the discussions there. That forum remains private as of this writing.

While the majority of CS’s six million worldwide members are either unaware or unconcerned about the censorship allegations, the backlash includes many of the site’s most experienced and dedicated members, who claim the site is losing its original grass roots  spirit.

Nearly 500 surfers have joined a Facebook event called “Censorship on Couchsurfing” in protest of what they see as management’s attempt to squelch dissent. Holt blogged about his interactions with CS staff, and another member published a blog post titled “Couchsurfing: A Sad End to a Great Idea” (broken link removed.)

Other users have taken to Twitter and Reddit to make their voices heard, writing, “It is sad to see the Couchsurfing community is dying,” and, “Does anyone else find it interesting that the 3 of the 4 moderators of the ambassadors group have been couchsurfers less than a year and seem to have no experience Couchsurfing? Nothing but corporate desk jockeys running this site for their investors with no idea how the community actually works.”

Communication issues

Frustration has built up among members who say that when they reach out to CS headquarters with questions or concerns, they almost always receive generic replies that sound more like PR spin than an attempt to have a real dialogue.

One active CS member who wishes to remain anonymous calls the current staff “tone deaf,” pointing to a blog post (broken link removed) from CS’s Head of Safety regarding the profile deletion issues, followed by a similar post (broken link removed) from Espinoza on the same topic. “They were both full of corporate speak with no attempt to really speak to members or connect with us,” the user says. “That’s how all their communication is.”

The communication concerns, as well as lingering resentment in some circles over CS’s switch from a non-profit to a profit-making entity in 2011 and the fact that many members of the new management team had no experience with Couchsurfing prior to taking over the site, seem to have created an environment where a lot of users do not trust the current CS staff.

Asked what he can do to repair what some see as a damaged relationship between the two groups, Espinoza says, “The core of it is that people use Couchsurfing because it works and it connects them with people all over the world. I think our biggest responsibility is making sure that service continuously gets better and better, and as we grow, the highest quality people are connecting with the highest quality folks, that the experiences generated through Couchsurfing continue to thrive.

“Looking at what’s happening on the service, we have doubled in the last year and the service is growing great. And it’s not that the company is driving marketing or running advertising or getting traffic from Google or Facebook – we don’t. The traffic’s all coming directly to Couchsurfing.com. It’s organic, it’s word of mouth, it’s members begetting more members. I think that by delivering on the promise of Couchsurfing, by enabling the community to have the best experiences that they can, that’s what we have to do.”

chicago couchsurfers
Couchsurfers in Chicago during the Pitchfork Music Festival.

 

Safety concerns

Some members question how strongly CS prioritizes member safety. New users can create an account without any sort of identity verification or even a valid email address, and they can instantly begin messaging and interacting with other members.

Shine says, “I highlighted safety issues that I felt needed to be addressed and my post was removed. I kept raising issues that were important to the community, but these issues didn’t fit well with the business model they are trying to create. It is far easier to delete a few profiles than it is to change your business model.”

Espinoza points out that nothing has changed in terms of creating an account, that users in the past could always join the service without providing an email address. But one thing that has changed, Shine says, is that Couchsurfing posts are being indexed by Google, which means that users who have publicly posted their contact info on the site could find that information accessible by non-members.

“I think there is a lot of potential for the system to be abused by people with ill intent,” Shine adds. “Now it is possible to get a user’s personal information (email, phone number, home address, etc) by just typing a few words into a search engine and never even logging in to the site or creating an account.”

Espinoza says CS intends to remind users to be careful about posting their personal details. “This week we’re going to be rolling out some new filters to reaffirm for people that they’re sharing information in a public domain. Even if you do register and create a new account, you’re still sharing it with millions of people you don’t know – it’s a community of strangers. We promote openness and trust, but we do that by providing people with tools.”

He says that when it comes to safety, “The decisions and the approach and the responsibility really does reside with the member.”

Future of CS community

It remains to be seen what the future holds for members of the Couchsurfing community who are disgruntled about recent events. There’s no clear CS alternative, though some folks have begun embracing BeWelcome.org, a non-profit open source hospitality platform that is newer and has far fewer members than CS.

Regarding the possibility of CSers joining rival sites, Espinoza says, “There’s not a competitive attitude about it. We need to build the best Couchsurfing we possibly can, that works for as high quality a group of members as possible. It’s very much about building the best service that’s the most simple and successful, that really works for people. If people find other services that work better for them, I understand that.”

Some will never be convinced that management had legitimate reasons to remove Shine and Holt from the site. Holt says CS headquarters were just fed up with having to deal with user complaints over the past three months since the site redesign.

“They were tired of us, and Don and I were the most vocal. That’s what it comes down to.”

What do you think of the current state of Couchsurfing? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.

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