Couchsurfing emerging as a case study in company-community foul up

I have no time at present to research this in-depth. But it transpires that Couchsurfing is emerging as a case study on how a company attempts to mobilize volunteers but then botches up the relation with the community, offering them no real power of participation, considering them merely as free labor; or at least, this is how it is perceived by a significant group of the volunteers that were involved.

This story of course also would need to be told from the point of view of the core staff of the CS project, but in any case; two conflicting and countervailing logics were at play, and they did not succeed in finding common ground.

Here are some details.

In the entry, Couchsurfing 2.0 is dead, we can read:

“An appropriate system for a hospitality exchange network will not rise from the ashes of CS 2.0: Today the Newsletter Wanderlust was published, announcing the expansion of hired manpower. I guess, it’s not wrong to call it CS 3.0, the short blossom of CS 2.0 and the chance to open the whole network is over.

We have to face the fact: CS is a company and simply can do what it does. We are only users of a (so far free) service offered by a company, not members of an open network. There is no such thing like participation in CS and in consequence the field How I Participate in CS on the profile pages should be ditched.”

User Maria chips in, in the comment field, expressing the comments of those who felt exploited:

“Why didn’t they say so from the beginning?

Why didn’t they introduce CS as a company to new members and Not as a community?
Why did they call for help all those volunteers to build up the site together, when all they wanted was free-workers?

(you don’t have the right to speak up and decide about cs- matters but your valuable time and effort are most welcome)

Why didn’t they say ok, the COMPANY is such and such, managed by those people, you are a CLIENT and to use this company’s service you have to pay 10 euros annually, and we’ll provide you the best service there is in hospitallity networks. If you face any problems with the servers- down, security issues or other possible hazards for you due to the use of our services you have every legal right to ask for a compensation or even to sue the company.

Commercial as it may seem, it’s very honest and the role of each participant is clear and fair.

– Do they think that cs would have evolved in such a great network if it wasn’t for the simple members/ volunteers contributions??

OK. One guy had this excellent idea, but who worked to make this a reality?

– Do they think that if people like us (humble members) weren’t willing to open their houses to the guests, this could actually work??

– Of course not! We (also) provide the product “hospitality” and giving it for free. We can do that anyway, with or without cs.

Anyway, I’ve made a profil on BeWelcome, as well.

And from now on, trust me, i’ll keep my ideas to myself or use them for my family’s/ dear friends projects who i know are going to make some good use of it.”

User Matrixpoint then explains that the conflict started after the refusal of the CS staff to put development work in an open source format, even requiring the signing of a non-disclosure agreement:

I decided to volunteer at

There are now 5 former CS developers volunteering for, among a total of 30 already. The website only went online in February. I look forward to working again with Kasper and my other former colleagues, as well as the others in BW who appear to really get the hospitality concept.

The catalyst that triggered our departure was primarily the NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement), but also other issues connected with the LT, like the decision not to make the CS code open source.

No one in BeWelcome will be making a buck off our work. It is a volunteer run organization. Period. Our work will be contributed in the spirit of generosity characteristic of the hospitality movement. It will be available free of charge to other organizations, because the BW volunteer developers decided that unanimously.

When we were working for CS, not only did Casey (and now Jim and Matthew) financially benefit from our generosity (and that of every other CS volunteer and host), but they also wanted exclusive rights to our work so that neither we, personally, nor any other organization could benefit from it.

Now, any work that we do can be used by CS or anyone else. If CS chooses to incorporate some of our code, they won’t be allowed to claim ownership of it, although Casey and the others will still be able to make a buck from it, to the extent that it makes CS a better site and brings in more revenue. Perhaps they would use the increased revenue to increase their salaries or to create more paid positions for the elite of CouchSurfing.

We don’t mind that someone can make a buck off our work. We give it freely anyway. What we minded was that that was not enough for Casey and the others. They didn’t want anyone outside of CS to get any benefit from our work, including us, other organizations or future employers of ours. I’m not only referring to the code itself, but to any creative ideas or innovative solutions to problems we might have had while writing the code.

How does their attitude square with the spirit of generosity that characterizes the hospitality movement? No wonder they don’t want elections in CS.”

There is a lot more in the comments field about what triggered the disappointment of the volunteers.

3 Comments Couchsurfing emerging as a case study in company-community foul up

  1. AvatarEx-volunteer

    There\’s another twist to this: Couchsurfing is not just another web company, but states the following on the footer of each page
    © 1999-2007 CouchSurfingSM International a Non-Profit Organization

    So me and others volunteered considerable amounts of time and effort for free under this assumption, and most of us – without speaking for the rest – probably would not have done so for a company such as (insert your favorite social web service here). The difference might not be a big deal for Americans, but is definitely and issue for anyone not from the US where capitalistic mindset is at least a bit less common. More information of the most recent events on the blog.

  2. AvatarPMgD

    Disclaimer: I’m not one of volunteers who’s programming or any of the other major volunteering tasks. I don’t know everything about every little detail but I have been following the “OpenCouchsurfing” movement.

    About them I would like to say that:
    1) they don’t represent such a big group of CS-members as you make it appear in the post.
    2) it was a discussion about making CS OpenSource or not indeed. OCS lost the discussion. Ever since then they have been ranting on CS. Out of this disagreement BeWelcome grew (which I believe is a good initiative) and it’s good to see it grow but I still want to see how it will be like when there are +300.000 members. The source code will probably still be open but will they still have their “open organisation structure”. We’ll have to wait and see and it’s too early to compare both CS and BW (which OCS tries to do).
    3) CS has applied has always been a “not-for-profit” corporation with the aim of becoming a “non-profit-organisation”. Again, I’m not an expert on these legal issues but as far as I understood it is easier to start a “not-for-profit” cooperation and change it to a non-profit then start a non-profit from the ground up. Anyhow, they have applied for the non-profit status. Just wanted to point that out too.
    4) I do understand that CS wants to protect their sourcecode. I do agree that an API or alike would be great and I do believe that the “OpenSource” movement is the best thing that happed to any kind of community. It’s a difficult discussion. If I design something (recumbent bike for example) it is something I’ll protect too (both in legal ways as in any other way). Not comparable? I believe it is. It’s both a product of hard work, inspiration and transpiration. It’s great people can open that all up for others but I don’t know if I would be able to do so myself.
    5) It’s not because you’re a “non-profit” organisation that you can’t get payment. Look at all the non-profit organisations around (Red Cross, Greenpeace,…). It’s great if you don’t need the money and can spend all of your time on free-volunteering but that’s not true for most of us.

    Anyhow, just a few of my own opinions.

  3. Pingback: Masters of Media, New Media MA Amsterdam » Surf around the world! An analysis of

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