The gift economy is alive and global among an improbable network of "Couchsurfers" who stay in strangers’ homes when traveling. The idea got its start when Casey Fenton impulsively booked a flight to Iceland because of a cheap online airfare, and then realized that he didn’t know anyone there and had no idea what to do there.
So he found a list of email addresses for students at the University of Iceland in Rejkevik, and sent out emails asking if he could crash with them on their couches. He got lots of invitations and had a fantastic weekend with utter strangers.
When he got home, Fenton and three friends created a website to try to systematize the idea. The result was "Couchsurfing," a new way of meeting people while traveling while enjoying free lodging. People register online and provide some information about themselves, and then either offer a place for other registered Couchsurfers to stay, or explore available couches in selected cities. The site does not charge anyone for helping arrange the connections. In fact, it expressly forbids hosts from charging their guests (upon penalty of expulsion from the site’s registry).
Call it semi-organized gift exchange. It’s a Web-assisted gift economy for travelers that thrives simply because people are basically good and enjoy meeting strangers from other places. Couchsurfers understand that they are not just getting a free bed; there is an implied social contract that they will spend some time eating or drinking or touring the city with the host. Some hosts take visitors to parties or tourist sites, others just meet them for coffee.
To help visits go well, the Couchsurfing site has all sorts of tips for guests and hosts, suggesting ways that people can have a happy, safe visit. Both hosts and guests are rated by their counterparts, which helps to identify bad actors and reliable, generous CouchSurfers.
Interestingly, Couchsurfing doesn’t demand a tit-for-tat reciprocity. There is no direct exchange of hosting for surfing. People are free to host or Couchsurf without any quid pro quos or elaborate calculations of "points." The idea is simply to help people meet interesting strangers while traveling, and share with them.
Since its launch in 2003, Couchsurfing has become an international phenomenon. The site has attracted 1,930,000 million registered Couchsurfers from around the world, and it has facilitated 2,086,778 "successful surf or host experiences." (The site keeps elaborate statistics of number of Couchsurfers, languages spoken, etc.) Couches are offered in 230 countries and 73,339 cities. There are 154,682 registered Couchsurfers in the United States, 20,823 in Australia, 230 in Tanzania and 28 in Antarctica.
Originally a volunteer project, Couchsurfing has evolved into a virtual nonprofit that operates with no physical office; its staff interconnect through the Internet. The project is unabashedly positive in outlook and even idealistic. Its "vision statement" declares: "We envision a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places we encounter. Building meaningful connections across cultures enables us to respond to diversity with curiosity, appreciation and respect. The appreciation of diversity spreads tolerance and creates a global community."
If it all sounds a little corny, the testimonials from Couchsurfers are generally glowing. One Couchsurfer wrote, "We had a great experience couchsurfing in Asheville, North Carolina. We connected with an awesome couple who let us stay with them, even offering us a bed in their roommate’s room and feeding us a yummy home cooked meal. There is no money exchanged, and people only bring gifts or offerings if they so desire. We bought the ingredients for the meal we shared and left them a nice note."
Others rave, "Couchsurfing has totally changed my way of traveling and of living. I have learned how to trust people, how to appreciate their stories and diversity." Another called the Couchsurfing scene "a conglomerate of well-intentioned people, of good karma, and you just have to jump in to enjoy it."
Couchsurfing has become so popular in some locations that there are local groups who host visiting Couchsurfers. The connections often persist over time, and grow into a new sort of international network of friendship, pleasure and trust. What’s amazing about Couchsurfing is how quickly it has scaled and how durable and trustworthy it generally is. It just goes to show that a gift economy can grow to international scale, thanks to the Web, and be every bit as satisfying as the Holiday Inn, and cheaper.