A CouchSurfing Ethnography: Traveling and Connection in a Commodified World

By CiCi Siyue Liu
2012, Vol. 4 No. 07 | pg. 2/3 |

The CouchSurfing Experience

It is helpful to first give a general overview of the mechanisms and functioning of CouchSurfing. To begin with, the request for a place to stay—which often manifests as an available couch, extra guest room, living room for sleeping bags, etc.—is initiated by the couchsurfer to his or her potential host by sending an online message through the CouchSurfing platform. If the potential host finds the message and surfers’ profile to be interesting and agreeable, and has space to host the surfer in his home for the requested number of days, he will confirm the couch request. Both parties will then determine a time and place to meet upon the traveler’s arrival in the host’s city, which could range from either meeting at a central train station, or the traveler going directly to the host’s home.

Online Profiles and Connections

Through navigating the online platform with access as a CouchSurfing member, I found that there were certain expectations and norms that govern members’ actions in both the online and offline sphere. In order to become an official member of the CouchSurfing community, one must start by creating an online profile on CouchSurfing.com. A profile offers the space for members to upload pictures of themselves, and write about their personal interests, philosophy on life, favorite music, movies, books, etc. Members can also choose to fill in information such as “Types of People I Enjoy,” “CouchSurfing Experience,” “One Amazing Thing I’ve Seen or Done,” and “Locations Traveled.” These profiles function as the essential platform from which members seek connections, find couch hosts, gain information about CouchSurfing social events, and write personal references for people they have surfed with or hosted.

Most CouchSurfers regard an empty or highly incomplete profile as taboo and something to be avoided. In fact, my couch hosts often relayed to me that they preferred to only host people who have complete profiles with information and photos. Saila1 is a 33-year old Finnish female CouchSurfer who currently works as a sign-language-interpreter. For Saila, the important thing is that “the profile page must be filled…it must be filled properly, because if you don’t get any kind of idea, image of the person, you are hosting a question mark, and stranger. You need to get a picture of the person, a feeling.” A similar logic applies to couch surfers as well—a couch surfer would also like to know that their potential couch host is someone who they can trust and feel comfortable living with for their stay. With the use of the online profile and personal reference system, couch hosts and surfers are able to gain a better idea of the person with whom they will be sharing living space and time, and no longer feel like they are hosting a total stranger.

Furthermore, Petya, a 28-year-old host who is ethnically Russian but currently lives and works in Germany, responded to my question about risk with the following statement: “So it’s risky…The life is risky, you know? Every time if you go outside it’s risky. Some idiot can drive with car on you, or some shit can fly from the sky on your head.” From the interviews, couch hosts communicated similar perceptions that it would be highly unlikely for someone to go through the trouble of creating a profile in order to steal possessions from one’s house; that there was not so much of value to steal either way; and that life is risky on many fronts, so why worry so much about it?

Roles and Expectations of CouchSurfing

As in any social relationship, CouchSurfing hosts and surfers must be aware and understanding of the norms and roles they each play within the CouchSurfing setting. Norms can be understood as social attitudes of approval and disapproval, and what is acceptable and what is not in a society or a group (Sunstein, 1996). There are norms about littering, dating, when to stand, when to sit, when, how, and with whom to express affection, how to speak to your boss, etc. The usefulness of a set of norms can be analyzed through their effectiveness, or lack of, in serving social functions. It is important to note that CouchSurfing norms are constructed through building relationships in one-on-one or one-one two interactions, rather than emerging from a formal group setting or community structure.

Primarily, CouchSurfing norms function to encourage dialogue, and the building of personal relationships between surfer and host. A fundamental expectation of both actors is that their relationship should be built upon a foundation of mutual respect, honest interactions, and the exchange of time, company, and dialogue. When asked what she thought makes a “good or bad couch surfer and host,” Saila replied: “I think that it’s mainly about sharing. We all get to have these nice conversations and share our experiences…I don’t want to feel like I’m used as a hostel or just some free place to store stuff. [When I accept a surfer], I need to do some adjustment of my life, and if I don’t get anything in return it feels like there is something missing, and it’s unequal.” We see that the feeling Saila describes is not mere disapproval for not following social conventions, but a deeper sense of discomfort at being “used” as a functional utility, rather than regarded as a person with whom one enters into mutual dialogue, understanding, and relationship.

Florian, a 44 year-old man from Germany, described a situation where he felt uncomfortable with a surfer who stayed a week at his place, but was always out of the house, returning late at night, causing them to have “almost no opportunity to eat together or really get to know each other.” In this situation, very little dialogue, personal time, and company was shared between these two parties, leading to feelings of dissatisfaction and discomfort caused by unmet expectations. In the situations mentioned above, the couch surfers had broken the social contract implicit within CouchSurfing. Specifically, they did not behave according to the social expectations of the CouchSurfing community, which regards with utmost importance the pursuit of dialogue, personal engagement, and the building of mutual relationship within CouchSurfing interactions.

Motivations and Benefits of CouchSurfing

It is important to note that CouchSurfing does not operate as a “freeloading” phenomenon in which the traveler obtains free accommodation and the host gains nothing in return. Instead, both parties are motivated by specific interests and values that drive them to participate in CouchSurfing, and to gain from the surfing or hosting experience. While not wholly discounting the fact that low-budget traveling and accommodation are appealing to travelers, we note that a fundamental characteristic of CouchSurfing relationships is the lack of monetary exchange between surfer and host. Consequently, the primary motivation for the CouchSurfing relationships no longer lies in a promise of financial gain or material consumption, but rather in the creation of social value and personal or emotional growth.

Maija, a 24-year old Finnish couch host and surfer, explained that from hosting travelers, she gains “interesting knowledge of different cultures…and practical knowledge such as baking and cooking different dishes. Also, often the surfers have visited other cultures and know about them, so then you can have this comparison between not just two cultures, but more.” Here Maija demonstrates her desire to learn from the people she hosts, and perceives that the benefit she gains from hosting lies in her increased knowledge of different cultures, people and culinary skills.

When asked why she hosts, Saila stated that “it’s my way to keep up the traveling spirit. Even though I’m not traveling myself, I can host people who are traveling in Finland, so we can share traveling experiences. And of course, I get to keep up my language skills. It’s nice to help people to have a cheap place to stay, but not only that…it is meeting the people and having the conversation that is my priority.” Again, we see that Saila´s primary gains in participating in CouchSurfing does not involve increased financial means, but instead in engaging dialogue, the opportunity to practice language skills, and meeting interesting people around the world.

Furthermore, people who choose to participate through CouchSurfing share a desire to travel outside conventional or commercial paths of tourism, such as those found through pre-made tour packages, cruise ships, or seaside resorts. When posed the question why he chooses to travel through CouchSurfing, Petya from Germany explained that “through [CouchSurfing], you get to know with the local people…the local people help you and show you the place. The real place, not like…well, you see the place with your eyes, and you get some new answers, [and] some specific points of view from the local people.” Here we see Petya’s desire to travel and get to know a place through the “locals’ eyes,” an experience which he perceives as more interesting and potentially fulfilling than traveling alone or living in a hostel. Many Couchsurfers, instead of pursuing high-cost accommodation or luxury services, share a desire to explore a land through a local’s eyes. They seek to make personal and authentic connections, as well as to build meaningful relationships with people they encounter through traveling. In the Couchsurfing realm, value is not gained by pursuing profit or commodity, but rather by the ability of people to make meaningful and reciprocal social connections.

In addition, when asked if she perceives a difference between the kind of traveling done through CouchSurfing and conventional tourism outlets, Saila confirmed that she did. Through a travel agency, Saila said, “you are lacking the actual connection to local people… you’ll have a dinner several dinners in local restaurants, but you won’t get to know local persons probably. Well, you can know some salesman or something like that, but not the person how they live” [sic]. Even more, Saila stated that she thinks “actually it’s a completely different type of person who does the travel agency traveling than the CouchSurfing traveling. Travel agency travelers probably don’t even miss…they are not missing anything; they don’t suffer about not having local connections as a couchsurfer or budget travelers. I think they really need to get connected. I think it’s about connections, yea.”

As we can see from the above statements, the kind of person who participates in CouchSurfing seeks alternatives to large-scale touristic experiences and enjoys experiencing culture from a ground-up local point of view. Moreover, he or she does not gain enough satisfaction from merely taking photos of architecture or frequenting popular tourist cafés; rather, she or he forms memories and emotional connections to a city through meaningful experiences with other people. The traveler ceases to solely pass by the surface of a town with photos and consumer products as markers of time; instead, he takes with him friendships and memories that emotionally connect him to the locale. For the CouchSurfer, it is not what ones buys or takes photos of, but rather who they meet, how they connect, and the emotional memories within conversations and interactions that meaningfully complete a traveling experience.

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