On Ciara O’Hare’s Couchsurfing profile, Alice Regnier’s reference pithily says “Ciara is the BEST!”. “I’ve met a friend for life” is Ciara’s response. In March 2011 Alice Regnier and her friend, Mélanie Thomassin, stayed with Ciara in her previous apartment in Rialto, Dublin 8, which Ciara shared with two musicians. The two French students were visiting Ireland for a week and used Couchsurfing.org to request that they stay with Ciara for a few days. Ciara readily accepted.
Couchsurfing is a social networking website, where people offer their “couches” to those travelling in their city or region. Those who participate in Couchsurfing are “surfers” – those who are travelling – and “hosts”, who offer to share their private accommodation for a period of time. The sleeping quarters offered isn’t confined to the couch in the living room. Many offer anything from inflatable mattresses to spare rooms. The host details the sleeping arrangements on their profile.
Ciara has hosted couchsurfers 20 times since joining the social networking site two years ago and is yet to have a bad experience. “I’ve had some really amazing times. When you are hosting someone, you really want to show off your city and, in some ways, you feel you have an obligation to make sure they have as good a time as possible. It brings out a positive side in you that you don’t use everyday”.
On the Couchsurfing website, people are invited to document their interests, so if you wish to surf or host someone, you can check their interests to see if you’ll be compatible first.
“When I first started hosting, I was a tiny bit nervous about how long it would take to ‘click’ with the person, but I’ve found people on Couchsurfing are very open-minded and friendly”, says Ciara.
Alice found her experience of Dublin was enhanced by staying with a local, rather than in a hostel or a hotel. “You see the ‘real’ place you’re visiting and not only the touristy sides of it. And [local] people, contrary to tourist guides, usually know the best places to go out”. Alice and Ciara have remained friends with Ciara surfing with Alice in her hometown of Dijon, France. “I’ve met so many really great friends on Couchsurfing and I’ve so many places to visit”, adds Ciara.
Of course the basic idea of letting strangers into your house or going into a stranger’s home frightens most people unfamiliar with the concept. Type in couchsurfing into Google and the second suggestion is “Couchsurfing horror stories”.
The “horror stories” are few and far between for the website, which boasts three million users, of which a million use regularly.The most notorious incident came in 2009, when a Moroccan national living in Leeds raped a woman from Hong Kong, who he had agreed to host through the website.
But instinctive fear of entering into a stranger’s home does not enter into the psyche of those who participate in Couchsurfing or, at least, it is quickly banished the more they use the site to interact.Patricia Palacios from Barcelona, who is currently a Spanish language assistant in a school in Foxrock, was hosted one month ago in Galway by a man “a little older than me”. Any fears? “No. For me, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a man or a woman, it’s all about the references”.
To make the site as safe as possible, both surfers and hosts can write references about those they have interacted with using the site. A “positive”, “neutral” or “negative” reference is written alongside a comment about the person. It is not possible for the owner of a profile to delete unwanted references left by others. 99.6% of references given are positive.
As well as that there is the possibility to “vouch” for people who you have hosted or surfed with, while several members are “verified members”, which means they have made a financial contribution using their credit card details. The credit card details then confirm the authenticity of the profile by matching off details, such as the name and address.
Hosting or surfing isn’t the only way people interact with the site. People can also only choose “coffee or drink”, rather than “host” as their way of participating in the site. This means they agree to meet up with people who are visiting their city and show them around the city, offer tips and company for the time they are travelling there, but stop short of allowing them into their homes.
The relative safety of Couchsurfing has seen the site grow into a full-blown community in cities, where hosts in individual cities meet up regularly for drinks, as well as promoting interests which those in the community have in common.
Patricia says Couchsurfing has changed her life. She has only surfed on two occasions and has never hosted, but has used the website for socialising more times than she can remember.
“Last night I went to a free comedy gig in the Stag’s Head, which I found out about through Couchsurfing”.
She goes to game nights, salsa nights and language exchanges organised by the site’s members and advertised on threads, while she uses it as a valuable tool to find out the best places to go in a city. “Next month, I’m going to Belfast, so I left a message on the Belfast group asking for advice about the city”.
The growth of the community has seen TG4 launch Ó Tholg go Tolg (From Couch to Couch) which focuses on travelling through Europe by using Couchsurfing. The show, which sees two Irish-speakers surfing, is returning for a second series in Autumn.
The site has courted controversy in recent months though. The site became a “Certified B Corporation”, rather than a “Non-profit Organisation” and this has seen the company take a $7.6 million offer from two venture capital companies. This has irked many members who would rather see Couchsurfing as more Wikipedia than Facebook – ie they don’t seek out profit. The changes now means new entrants to the website are immediately asked to make a financial contribution to the site and it’s awkward for new members to avoid the donation.
This doesn’t stop current users speaking of the site in glowing terms. “You always hear stories of the old days, when people visited people’s houses and told stories and sang songs. You don’t have that any more. Couchsurfing is a way of reintroducing that, except in a much more international way”, concludes Ciara.