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Casey attempts to sell Groups posts to Google, members protest en masse

If he was any more blatantly deceitful, we’d have to call him Zuckerberg! Step right up trusting travelers, and watch how Casey Fenton attempts to sell all your old (and current, and future) Groups posts for profit!

And if not for cash, then surely for the added marketing value (worth real money, and lots of it), to allow Google and every other web site and search engine to add what you thought you were sharing with only fellow CS-members, to their fully public, permanent record that is the global internet.

All the personal trip and traveler feedback you thought you were sharing only with other CS members? Sorry, surprise, now everything you posted on CS is part of the public record, forever. And, perfectly searchable.

I realize Casey’s announcement(s) have mostly to do with Groups posts, but isn’t he trying to put into place the exact same kind of exposure and sale of all your information, including your profile? Your profile picture? Isn’t he playing the exact same kind of despicable game that Zuckerberg plays?

Make no mistake about what Casey is attempting to do, exactly like Zuckerberg/Facebook – blatantly deceive you, to gain your trust and persuade you to add to his mountainous pile of traveler feedback, then once he has your trust (and your posts and personal information) he sells everyone’s posted information to enrich himself, personally.

This has been his goal since the inception of the entire CS project, he just didn’t have any buyers yet. Until now. Until Facebook became the story to copy. Until he invested considerable effort in building the largest list of users he could accumulate, to ensure the biggest pay-day he could arrange for himself.

I’ve noticed that despite several fundamental issues which members have complained about for literally years, that are never even acknowledged… in all this time, the most visible efforts seen from the inner circle and their hiring decisions, seemed to always be about PR (public relations), suppressing the publication of complaints, outright denial of reality, and spreading the gospel. To grow the list of users. To fatten the calf before the slaughter.

In classic Cult-of-Casey style, he sells you out without a warning or your consent, but when the backlash proves substantial and it turns out that people don’t want any part of what Casey’s selling, he tries to spin his scheme as something that he only intended in the best of ways, something to help you!

I don’t know which kind of people I despise more strongly – users, or liars. Let alone a career scam-artist highly skilled in both exploiting and lying to people. But the recent investors want the maximum return on their investment, so just as others have predicted… let the sale (of information you donated in good faith) begin!
Fresh email from HQ, just received, sent to all CS “members.” Stare into the face of pure exploitation and bald-faced lies:

“We’ve heard you: Change to plans regarding groups”
Dear CouchSurfers,

Last week, we sent an email in which we announced our plan to make CS groups available to search. We made this decision because the team had received member complaints that some newer members of the site didn’t seem to be joining for the right reasons. We thought that allowing people to see more of what CS is about before they join might help address this problem.

The members disagreed! We’ve heard from hundreds of people who are very opposed to this approach. I’m very sorry to have caused so much distress. It’s clear that this is something that members care deeply about, and I respect the need to approach it differently.

We have made two major changes to our plan:

Group posts created in the past will not be available to search. The only posts that will be visible to search engines will be those created after February 15, 2012. This will protect the privacy of any members who no longer use the site and may not be aware of the changes.

All members will have the option to keep all of their posts hidden from search and from non-members. Just as we currently allow you to keep your profile hidden from anyone who is not logged in, we are now building another privacy option that will allow you to easily specify that your group posts should not be visible to search engines or people who are not logged in. This privacy option will apply to all of your posts, both past and future.

These two factors combined mean that the only posts that will be visible to search will be those made in the future by people who choose not to make their participation in groups private.

I sincerely hope that this approach will protect the privacy needs of all CouchSurfing members while also giving people who are considering joining CS an accurate impression of who we are – a community, not a place to find a free place to crash.

If you still have concerns about this, I invite you to email me at and share your thoughts. The team makes all of its decisions with the intention of making CS better for its members. It seems that this time the change we wanted to make would actually have made it worse, and for that I’m sincerely sorry. I’m glad that you responded with your concerns: your reactions helped us see various sides of the issue that we had not considered. I know that CS groups are considered to be a safe and comfortable place to express yourself fully, and I would never want that to change.

Thank you for your patience and for your passion,

Casey Fenton
Co-Founder, CouchSurfing International

And so it goes down

This is where I say: told you so. I envy the person that will eventually write the history of how Couchsurfing came crashing down, for the story is filled with betrayal, success, horror, sex, drugs and money. No, seriously, “Social Network” is a Disney movie compared to the R-rated chronicles of Couchsurfing.

For those just tuning in, where are we in the scenario? We’ve seen a community founded on lofty ideals, grow, nay burst with activity and numbers, we’ve seen hubris take the form of work-as-permanent-vacation, we’ve seen scandals of every sort imaginable, we’ve seen the falling out of all the idealistic volunteers and – not so long ago – the original founder has gone into hiding. As predicted, the money-flow eventually became insufficient to full-fill the beast that was created. Worse yet, the beast had not been paying taxes because “the IRS didn’t understand the innovative commercial nature of our non-profit” and now must be fed even more:

“I think the best possible structure is the one we have. One of the challenges with nonprofits is it’s difficult to adapt quickly and easily from a business model perspective because you need clearance from the IRS. Now we get that flexibility and we’re still making a statement.” – Dan Hoffer (in Techcrunch)

What is amazing is that they have found VC money (a mere 7,6 million $, which is actually pretty abismal and probably indicative of the low expectancy of success) and have thus kept afloat even now. The CS inner crowd are survivors, you have to respect that at least. And they know how to lie to, judging by this bit:

“Indeed, one of the big reasons they decided to take funding and switch the company’s classification was to make it easier to recruit stock-option seeking engineers.” (same Techcrunch article)

Anyone who knows anything knows the switch in classification was forced unto CS, after years of fruitfully trying to obtain 501(c)3, but I guess it’s important to start rewriting history as soon as possible.

Here’s the problem though. How are they going to earn those VC’s their big bucks? You have to keep in mind that the expectation here is about 5-7 times (!) the investment in about 4-5 years and the clock has started ticking. It is easy to see that the current revenue stream just doesn’t work: verification fees are eventually going to dry up (most likely have hit their peak already). And donating to a for-profit? I just don’t see it happening. This means CS is going to have to find a steady income stream and – I would expect – even have already made indications to the VC’s of where they might get it. Now, I only see two options:

  1. They start making money off the “daily activity”, which would be hosting itself. Dan hints at “premier services”, but I don’t think that is going to fly for a two reasons. a) You can only run a verification scam once. b) It is insanely hard to convert non-paying volunteers into paying customers. c) There are still free alternatives out there, BeWelcoming everyone with open arms. (OK, that’s three reasons.) I honestly doubt they will go this route, but with Todor Tashev on board it might just happen. Todor Tashev is also on the board of Meetup, a company that successfully makes money from their volunteer-run activities.
  2. They go the Facebook route of leveraging the personal data that is embedded in the social network that Couchsurfing is to a large extent. The fact that Matt Cohler (heavy duty ex-Facebook guy) has joined the board as well makes this a very frightening possibility. On a practical level, this would mean letting companies access the enormous amount of personal information, so they can give you those personalized ads you’ve always wanted. The advantage is that this can be introduced in a nice and sneaky way, the disadvantage is that a large majority of couchsurfers are on there precisely because they don’t have cash to burn. I guess you can always try to schlepp airplane tickets or discount backpacks, but that is a rough business (travel is an industries with razor-thin margins, keeping afloat mainly on quantity).
Either way, holy shit, that is going to be difficult. Points to the VC guys for having so much self-confidence.
Here are the blind angles though, the things that are going to kick their asses all over their no doubt fancy San Fransisco offices :
  1. We may assume the code is still an unholy patchwork and they are going to throw some “stock-option seeking engineers” at it. Oh lord, this is going to be spectacular. And by spectacular, I mean a disaster.
  2. They are going to have to transform one of the most self-centered and non-standard organization into a well-oiled money making machine. And by non-standard, I mean bat-shit insane.
Wrestling the Couchsurfing culture to the ground is going to way more difficult than any of these guys can ever imagine. But hey, Digg succeeded in doing that right? No, wait, they got their asses handed to them by Reddit (the 5 years younger open-source alternative).
Here’s what I predict:
  • A spectacular series of technical failures as these stock-option seeking engineers break stuff that wasn’t meant to be touched – ever.
  • An incredible and ugly public fight with their own user-base. All these ambassadors that worked so hard to earn their badge for the wonderful non-profit, someone is bound to get angry, no? Not only that, but imagine the dirt that is lying around (on this site as well as various archives). I mean, seriously, did none of these investors do their homework?
  • Couchsurfing will never ever break-even.

some thoughts about positive action

I’ve been a couchsurfing volunteer for about 9 months, in which I started the couchsurfing wiki, did tons of work on the code, and much more. I was trying to open the organization in a radical way, pushing for a free software license of the code and creating a bit of chaos here and there.

The day I quit 3 other coders who had contributed considerable work to the CS code base quit as well. It was a sad day. However, we thought that would be able to put pressure on the organization to open up. We thought wrong, obviously.

Now and then I’ve seen people quit volunteering for CS, for reasons uncommon to most organization. Still, I thought couchsurfing would continue, and people would be reasonably happy to volunteer within the framework provided.

Currently, with so many long-term volunteers quitting in such a short time span I’m wondering: what can we do to really open up couchsurfing – even if just a tiny wee bit? (And I prefer to wonder openly.) And is it possible to do this all together? Apparently the people who were against opencouchsurfing in the past seem to be sharing several goals. Is there another way to peacefully make a positive difference?

All the long-term volunteers are or have been friends with members of the leadership team, can we do something with that?

Or can a consensus be found to start something new or revive BeWelcome?

(Feel free to contact me by email if you prefer, firstname dot lastname at gmail dot com – I’ll keep things private if you prefer so.) – the real background!

This blog is mostly run by BW-lovers with a clear agenda (make CS and HC look bad so their “oh-so-moral” alternative looks attractive). For all others, who still have a somewhat open mind and don’t fall so easily for Kasper & Co’s constant propaganda, here a link to our side of the story:

The real background about this “democratic, transparent, legal” (sic) network.

Trust decreasing among CouchSurfers?

Trust metrics are techniques for predicting how much a certain user can be trusted by the other users.CouchSurfing doesn’t really have a prediction mechanism, but trust values are registered for every friendship link.

I never thought the denominators for the trust value made a lot of sense for the friendship links on CS (especially when translated, I don’t really know how to best translate “I somewhat trust this person” into my mother tongue). Still, there seems to be a definite trend of linearly (in time) decreasing trust on the Quality of Service page. It would be interesting to compare this to values from before and do a deeper analysis. The “average quality” doesn’t seem to be changing significantly on the other hand, maybe slightly going up? Possibly because it’s actually visible to the receiver.

Joe Edelman wrote the QoS code, and wrote to me:

Wow, that *is* interesting!

So the avg trust is calculated among introductions added in the last
week that are reported as due to CS and in-person. So it’s not because
of virtual users, and it’s not because CS is accelerating and includes
less pre-existing friends.

The only confounding factor I can think of, is that it doesn’t take the
“date you met this person” field into account — a lot of people don’t
fill it out, or don’t fill it out correctly. So it includes
introductions that are finally being reported from the past, as well as
those that actually occurred that week.

We could be seeing an ever-greater percentage of weirdos from the past.
You know, those random people that blew through a collective, and much
later are friending everyone. And the people they are friending hardly
remember them and so don’t trust them. This would be a result of social
graph “fill-in”, perhaps as a kind of recoil from expansion last summer.

Or, perhaps it’s an accurate result, and as CS grows, people that meet
find they have less in common, since CS includes more demographics.

In that case, it could be interpretted as a *positive* result: perhaps
the ideal would be to take people who DON’T trust each other INITIALLY,
and give them POSITIVE EXPERIENCES such that later they DO trust each
other, or they start to trust other people from a new demographic MORE.

Let’s just hope this trend does not continue. If it would, the average trust would be zero by the end of 2010.

In the meanwhile, some active work can be done on designing and implementing a trust system from scratch on BeWelcome.

The data:

year   week introductions users  quality  trust

2008    16         6625   3890    1.526   0.370

2008    15        14238   7345    1.506   0.377

2008    14        14818   7591    1.490   0.379

2008    13        16520   8201    1.527   0.388

2008    12        13895   6952    1.500   0.387

2008    11        12252   6291    1.479   0.379

2008    10        12303   6490    1.493   0.392

2008    09        12796   6482    1.480   0.382

2008    08        11336   5875    1.483   0.376

2008    07        12484   6408    1.486   0.391

2008    06        11778   6215    1.469   0.409

2008    05        11201   5945    1.453   0.406

2008    04        10570   5998    1.479   0.415

2008    03        10757   5983    1.489   0.410

2008    02         9560   4872    1.503   0.410

2008    01        13972   6425    1.484   0.417

2007    52         7749   4279    1.476   0.414

2007    51         9332   5118    1.467   0.421

2007    50        10975   5500    1.480   0.422

2007    49        10309   5632    1.454   0.415

2007    48        10664   5500    1.454   0.413

2007    47        10335   5734    1.487   0.425

2007    46        10835   5762    1.492   0.429

“Happy” birthday.

Happy birthday.

Almost exactly a year ago, the OCS initiative was started. Initially, our hope was to entice the LT with concrete ideas and campaigns, to get them to address the various serious issues we had discovered at the heart of CS. Not much has changed however and most of the changes have not been for the better:

  • CS is legally still in very dubious water. Still no 501c3 status, after… 3 (or 4?) years of claiming it?
  • Casey still holds all the legal (and financial) strings and has decided to set up camp in Alaska next, which is essentially his home.
  • Transparancy is down, censorship is waaay up. (Search engines have been blocked and CS has a permanent censorship/security team now, almost like during the cold war!)
  • CSC Thailand can be declared a failure as well now, after the NZ meltdown. I haven’t seen anything positive come out of it, but we’re still waiting for the “memo”.
  • “Not talking to anyone” has become the official communication mode for the entire organisation.

And so, with a heavy heart, I’m renewing the domainname by 2 years. In all honesty, I had serious hopes that it wouldn’t be necessary to have this website for more than a year. I (personally) was perfectly willing to “bury the hatchet” if there was even some semblance of progress. Alas, it is not to be. CS still makes me angry, especially for the obligation I feel towards its wonderful community to speak up about its numerous failure, shortcomings and shady deals.

Maybe now is a good opportunity to start thinking about OCS “2.0″. The way I see it, the signal to noise ratio on the blog could be better and there have been some points of discussion we could re-raise at this point. Anonimity, re-posting and privacy concerns come to mind. More importantly, I believe OCS should refocus its efforts towards a clearly understandable and easy to navigate website. Right now, I can only imagine the confusion of a random surfer on OCS. I still heavily support our “open for all” attitude, even with all the negativity that comes with that, but I think it can be channeled better.

So, in the spirit of transparancy and cooperation: Who would be interested in helping “revamp” and organise OCS? We’ll need to digg through a lot of information and restructure quite a bit, but I also think there is room for new activism. Things on my mind:

  • An open call to ALL ambassadors for transparancy (and perhaps elections)?
  • A good Q&A section, where we try to answer what CS doesn’t answer.
  • Video?

I also wouldn’t mind separating this “public blog” from a better structured blog with some editorial control that we could move to the front page. We could “rewrite” a lot of the current knowledge into practical, well researched and well written articles that would be aimed at the general public (including new members and press) and not just people with CS background knowledge.

A simple way to undo censorship and thread deletions on CS

I think there are quite a number of people that will agree with me that the way threads and posts are deleted from various CS groups, security is not increased in any way and in fact: it may have the opposite effect.

Deleting posts from troublesome members or even about dangerous incidents is simply ridiciulous. It only creates an illusion of safety and this is especially dangerous for new members.

But, it is also easily undone. Here is what you do:

  • Create a fake profile with an new, untraceable email address. (Plenty of fake profiles anyway.)
  • Register for the groups that might be interesting and check “receive all mail”.
  • Register the email address on the CS-uncensored group.
  • Set up the email address so it forwards ALL mail to CS-uncensored.

Extra added bonus? A fully searchable, unlimited (in time) archive of all interesting CS group posts. It would be even funnier if we could get into Private Amb somehow.

Disclaimer: Of course, this post is just an idea that I wanted to float around. I can take no responsibility for anyone actually doing this. You might be breaking some CS rule, but I didn’t check that. ;-)

Modes of Governance

For me, the failure of CS to sustain any democratic principles, freedom of speech, or abiding to the law or ethics, equality was the breaking point. So realizing they were not, nor ever would become that kind of an organization I had to go before further hurting myself being involved with people who could never understand what I stood for, what made me tick, and originally made me want to volunteer for CS. I tried as long as I could and was in no way “politically active” as the new race of outcasts on CS now is called (I was present in a situation where new person for some site tasks was needed, and the ones in charge went through their groups posting history to see there was nothing whatsoever that could indicate this was a person with critical thinking of any kind, especially towards CS). It’s only after seeing quite a bit of behavior and attitudes that I could not align with, as well as quite a bit of undermining, bullying and ignoring those who had, despite their differences with the LT worked very hard for CS that finally destroyed my faith in the leaders.

As an interlude, there was a strong push (in earlier times also officially sanctioned by the CS elite) to act in a more ad-hoc way (term coined by Dani I believe as “do-ocracy”). For me, this provided a way to get things ahead when no leadership was around to deal with many real issues rising up from the “bottom”, the community, through various means: groups, contact us section on the site, personal connections, real-life meetings. But at some point it became clear that in absence of leadership of any kind, it was those only interested in their own goals and visions for which Couchsurfing was merely a supporting platform, who were going to be the ultimate winners of the do-ocracy model. So naturally the LT might have been scared, I know I was. The critical error the Admins aka Leadership Team did in regaining their power was however to not take the good coming out of do-ocracy model so far, and not learn ways to actively listen to and engage with their community, which could have made all the difference in creating a network truly in line with its (current or future) vision statement and the values of its members.

On BeVolunteer/BeWelcome on the other hand the statutes clearly state what the values are, so that anyone wanting to volunteer clearly knows where they stand since the start. I’ve seen & heard “democracy doesn’t work” quoted by some along with rather condescending wishes of good luck. Well, this might be true – it’s certainly not easy to handle multi-national organization just starting out where many of the active people haven’t even met (yet). But still I’d say there’s a far bigger chance of survival thanks to the explicitly stated democratic principles (so neither dictators nor lone gunmen with their own motives can thrive for very long) to produce a sustainable organization and gradually grow into a viable alternative for those seeking hospitality.

Right after the crash some people at the CouchSurfing Collective in Montreal had set up a Hyperboard. This appeared to be a huge success. (Unfortunately‘s web archive didn’t archive very deep. Please let us know if you happen to have some backups around.) A lot of people offered to help with rebuilding the site, with a slight slant towards a bit more transparency, decentralization and democracy. So this was probably a bit too overwhelming, since it was promptly closed by the current Volunteer Coordinator (2000 US$/month).

Another Hyperboard was opened by “Mentor” with whom I’ve been in touch through email and chat, without knowing his or her identity. Mentor had also set up, which was a huge collection of messages, and random information, with funny and sometimes harsh comments. In the beginning I think it was kind of silly, but I gradually started to appreciate the board. So I wasn’t happy when I saw it was closed a while ago.

Now Mentor is back with a new board:!

October 2nd Addition

Apparently the opencouchsurfing hyperboard, which is not accessible anymore now, was not started by Mentor of thecouchsurfingbuilding2 hyperboard. Also, as you can read in the comments on this posts, Mentor never took part in the public discussions that are OpenCS. Let’s discuss it on the mailinglist first if you think a public OpenCS forum is a good idea,

So long, and thanks for the fish

Also posted in: ambassador’s public

It’s finally time to let go of all my remaining ties to volunteering in CouchSurfing, a few words about the why, if you will…

It wasn’t a bad year (1) In fact, it was a very good year. How often do you get a chance to see the world, settle down a bit in places, work for the things you believe in and meet the people you’ve been craving to meet all your life?

I’m still coming to terms with my feelings of this year, and CS more specifically. There’s a strong component of unjust treatment, and many questions which are to date not answered. I could probably write a book about all this but this will have to wait until a later date (you might want to check here in the near future though ;) (2)

There’s definitely some anger: after all, I started doing CS work after already been burned once in a volunteering setting (3) and for this reason really did not want or need a second similar experience. However, I got one. What makes me angry is not the “wasted time” itself, it’s more the fact that had I known the fundamental attitudes (4, 5) of the leadership a year ago, I would probably not have started volunteering to such an extent – my anger is more directed towards concealing these attitudes (with lack of real communication there was no way of telling what the admins were thinking) rather than having them in the first place – for at least it would have offered an opportunity for me to choose if these were the kinds of people I’d like to work with (or as it seems, for). This by now almost feels like purposeful deception to lure in willing volunteers (6).

There’s also sadness: thinking of what might have been, the possibilities for creating real difference, all in vain. And not because people, the community didn’t want it, they were ready to take CS to the next level, to decentralize (7) along with the mission crafted up after the big crash of 2006 (7, 8 ) to create a better world, one couch at a time. No, it was the attitudes of the leaders, lack of any real communication by them, lack of meaningful, respectful dialogue with the community or even volunteers who are actively striving to make things better that stopped (sometimes even reversed) (9) the momentum of the community to decentralize itself. I also feel sad that this potential of the community was never recognized by those in power and that corporate structures, top-down management and weeding out all possibility to self-organize were seen as the only way to go forward – where’s the space for diversity, more bohemian attitudes towards life and independent thinking that are very present in the spirit of this community?

But there’s (always?) a silver lining: if it wasn’t through CS, it would have probably taken me years longer to find the people I connected and hope to continue working with (some, though by means not all ;) of them here: 10,11) to create a better world, one whatever (Line of code? Guest bed? Idea? Freedom?) at a time!

I’d like to thank all the great people I have worked with and met on my 21st century version of the”Grand Tour” (11). Regardless of my issues with the leaders at the moment, I believe the rest of you are still good people and deserve far more credit and appreciation than what you’re given now.

Finally, just a fair warning from someone who cares about all of you: please keep your eyes open before jumping in the deep end with CS or if you’re there already, and don’t stop asking the questions (13) in case there’s something worrying you…

Goodbye, and happy surfing,

9. (original) (backup)