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…two months after resigning as a CS volunteer, in the form of responses to two calls for an egalitarian CS community in the CS Brainstorm group.

Hello Abrahim,

I appreciate your efforts to bring this issue to the attention of the community again. You obviously put a lot of thought into your post and recognize the critical importance of this to a community which shares the values that we do. I hope I’m proven wrong, but I feel certain that the kind of movement you are proposing would end up going nowhere in CS.

Just over a year ago, there was an excellent opportunity to redirect the course of the CS community away from being under the control of a small elite group, unaccountable and unanswerable to the community at large. This opportunity coincided with a major crash of the servers followed by Casey‘s termination of the CouchSurfing Project. For most of the last year since the community-led rebuilding effort, some volunteers worked towards an egalitarian community, which they thought was consistent with the stated CS 2.0 goal of decentralized participation, while the former administrators of the website redefined themselves in secret. A few months ago, the elite group re-emerged in the form of the “Leadership Team”. These self-appointed leaders are really rulers (if you consider CS as a community) or managers (if you consider CS as a corporation). Leaders generally lead by consent of the led. Rulers need no consent.

Since the Leadership Team members were each chosen (or at least endorsed) by Casey, the owner of the Corporation, and by extension felt entitled to govern the community that has formed around the web site as they saw fit, some of us who hoped for a different CS realized that our cause was lost and moved on, in some cases to alternative hospitality organizations which do have an egalitarian community.

The Leadership Team has clearly taken a stand against democracy. They have taken upon themselves the role of guardians of the CS mission, as they define it. Their “constitution” is as much about protecting their power as it is about protecting the mission. They don’t seem to be aware of the hazards of this stance. It is an easy mistake to make, since they are generally good people with good intentions and a noble mission. But the structure itself is inherently flawed and prone to abuse and corruption. This has happened countless times throughout human history whenever too much power is concentrated in the hands of too few people, even in organizations started by the best people with the best intentions.

As one example of how easy it is for a self-reinforcing group with no accountability to the people they claim to serve, consider the mission of intercultural understanding that they purport to promote and protect. The very essence of intercultural understanding is respect for diversity. Yet, the structure of the leadership team requires unanimous agreement among themselves to make important changes. The implication is that, knowing that one person could bring the effectiveness of the Leadership Team to a complete halt, extreme care will be used to select only those people that will not disrupt the consensus; in other words, people who will not create “divisiveness” or “conflict”, but conform to the established groupthink. This is perhaps the worst possible environment for promoting diversity of values, opinions and ideas, cultural or otherwise. Yet it seems they consider themselves to have a special insight and virtue which entitles them to be the guardians of the CS mission.

I have already seen cases where extremely valuable volunteers have been blacklisted because of what seems to me are mostly cultural or gender differences, or because they had an ideology not in sufficient conformity with the elite’s ideology.

Besides being inconsistent with the CS mission, the LT policies are inherently non-viable according to the lessons of nature, where diversity is the primary guarantee of adaptability and survivability in the face of changing environmental conditions and random events.

Another inconsistency: in a community which is as much about freely giving as anything, truly built upon the generosity of people willing to give without expecting a financial return, how is it that the owner, who should be exemplifying the spirit of the community, is the only one getting financial benefit for his contributions? If someone is to be granted an exception to the otherwise universal policy (so far) of voluntary work, voluntary donations and voluntary hosting, shouldn’t the community, who provides the money used to operate the infrastructure, have a say in this? I’ve heard all the counterarguments to this, but nevertheless I’m certain that CS could be run entirely by volunteers. The fact that it isn’t has not been a community decision.

Without going into details now, there is now doubt in my mind that the lack of participation and responsiveness of many of the so-called leaders in many areas at many times is a symptom of the structural problem (lack of accountability to the community) and the attitude it fosters. (For example: over a year and counting and still no acceptable NDA, something of such grave importance to several volunteers that they stopped volunteering because of this fiasco). Likewise, the chronic server problems and the slow response to member requests for bug fixes and feature enhancements are also traceable to the same problem.

The only possibility I see for CS to become an egalitarian community is for the community to obtain ownership of the Corporation. In other words, buy out Casey. But I don’t think this is realistic considering that perhaps 99% of the users of the CS website are reasonably happy with the free service that it provides. The number of members actively involved in the community (beyond hosting and surfing) are a small percentage of the total membership and of those, only small percentage of us are really concerned with such philosophical and political matters as we’re discussing. There are some other hospitality communities where self-government is considered as important an objective as intercultural understanding, and inextricably linked to it. For me, it is more efficient to start over with one of those communities. Indeed, I was given no choice. Casey himself stated that if we don’t like the way CS is run, then leave and come back later [after all the structural changes now being implemented are locked in - he has veto power over any proposed structural change in the future]. Don’t get me wrong, I like a strong, assertive leader, and even encouraged Casey that way, but any leader without accountability to those led is a dictator, even if a benevolent dictator.

I recommend you think of CS in terms of the Western culture notion of “corporate entity” and all the concepts of ownership and entitlement that go with that, rather than a diverse community of equals with shared values. That may save you a lot of heartache. For me, it is best to think of the new CS as a social website like Myspace combined with a travel website like Expedia. Then, Casey is just a entrepreneur carefully protecting his investment and his personal vision and getting his just reward financially. No problem with that if you’re a fan of Western corporate culture! (Just be clear about it to potential volunteers: your free work and ideas are welcome, but Casey is the only one who financially benefits from them, and you have no say in that.) We are all free to use what the CS Corporation offers and to go elsewhere if we object to the way it is managed. Thankfully. Just the mere fact that this post will not be censored is a credit to the LT — they ARE doing some things well!



Responding to David Lee Frazer’s commentary on the “Wolf Pack Psychology” of the LT in another thread:

Hi David:

The following is meant to be taken partly in jest.

I don’t think “Wolfpack” is the best analogy to descibe the LT, although it’s imaginative. I just don’t see Casey as the alpha male of the pack. Brute force is not his means of holding power.

“Monarchy” is a better analogy: King Casey and the Lords and Ladies of CouchSurfing. But most monarchies do not justify their entitlement to power as virtuous protectors of a noble mission. It is enough for them to claim hereditary entitlement, or royal blood, in many cases, or else “might makes right”.

“Religion” is an even better analogy. Pope Casey the First and the College of Cardinals. The Global Ambassadors would be the Bishops, from whom the Cardinals are chosen. The other ambassadors complete the priesthood, and the rest of us are the bleating flock, who are shepherded by the wise and learned Bishops. Very good description, actually. Can you imagine an election for the Pope by the flock ever happening?

Those of use who resigned as volunteers could be thought of as the Protestants and have gone on to find a more tolerant and open cultural milieu. Among other things, we didn’t like the idea of the CS Corporation claiming custody of our creative ideas like a Church claiming custody of our souls. We even had a heretic among us, who was shunned after enormous contributions (Kasper).

The Roman Church began with a noble mission but which over time, due to the inherent structure it shares with CS, erred in many ways. The leaders acquired an attitude of condescension and hubris, thinking themselves infallible, not needing checks and balances. They became enamored of their wealth and power, drifting far astray from the example of Jesus, who wanted neither. Protecting their power became more important than the original mission. Anyone who is ignorant of this danger of concentrated power, or thinks themselves immune to it, is surely vulnerable.

All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree. — James Madison

If I claim to be a wise man, it surely means that I don’t know. — Kansas

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant. — Mark 10:42-43


15 Responses to “Reflections…”

  • It makes me (still) a bit sad, but you are right John. Fighting for a change in CS is flogging a dead horse. It’s still a usable service (like Google, Flickr, …), but not much else. I guess, noone would fight for more participation in Google. You can use it, but to change it you must buy it.

    So it’s time to move on, looking for another place to spend my time, ideas and power. In a way it was an amazing and adventureous time and worth it. At least I’ve learned a lot.


  • I hear you John, and I generally share your concerns about rigidly organized (‘religious’) power structures. But I’m still in. I just haven’t seen the exodus sign with my own eyes. I will keep them open, but, not being a programmer, it is possible that I will never stumble upon a personal reason to resign. At the moment, I’m headed 180° off that direction. Translations is probably the only branch that already works on a very much self-organized team basis, with equal rights for all involved – and now that the tool is finally working again, I will work on facilitating an open and equally accessible info-flow ‘up, down and in between’, thus empowering the different groups to learn from each other and make their own decisions… Maybe it’s structure-inherent here that it will be so easy: 1) The task is clear and the same for every team, but some still breed out new ways now and then. 2) I could never really control the work of any group that speaks a language I don’t know 3) Kasper’s wonderful wiki can be used by the translators to maintain a growing reference source of consensus.
    As I said, I’m keeping my eyes open to see whether that’s enough or not.

    I haven’t made your experience, wasn’t even involved deeply enough. I did witness the frustration of several disconnected volunteers, though, along with my own. But it really looks like now it’s getting better.

    I’m not done with CS, although I see that the benevolent anarchy will not work out there. I’ve never seen it really, purely work out anywhere else before. Did you?

  • John, I was very glad to read your insightful post to Brainstorm and I was about to copy it onto this blog just to find out you already did it yourself! I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one to raise my voice now and then. Not to fight for change, but to create awareness.

    I’m slightly optimistic about BeWelcome. There are many volunteers, a lot of good vibes, and already the limited number of active normal members to make signing up worthwile. I already found places to stay, and hope and think it will attract exactly those people who want to do more than surf couches and host people.

    Your description of me as a heretic just made my day. Thanks!

  • Hi,

    Just one quick comment on John’s post. The difference between CS and a normal corporation is that CS is a nonprofit corporation. This means that legally, NO ONE owns CS. Therefore, your suggestion about ‘buying’ CS would not be feasible since no one owns it. In fact, CS is legally considered to be a ‘person’ (or legal entity).

    However, once CS does become a 501c3 nonprofit, IRS law stipulates that the ‘ceo’ (Casey) and any other ‘director’ (the leadership team) is supposed to somehow be elected by the board of directors. Also, the board of directors is supposed to have only a few directors on its board for the very reason of preventing a conflict of interest. For instance, the Leadership Team has no legal right to decide on their own salaries. It must be done by some other entity (such as a board of directors) which is not controlled by the LT.

    So, as far as I see it, there are two options left. (1) The possibility of taking CS to court over its lack of transparency and accountability or (2) moving onto a more democratic organization.

    I dont necessarily recommend the first option. I’m no lawyer so I dont know if it would work and I think its likely to be a waste of time. So I’m going for the second option and moving over my support to bewelcome. Hope other people do this as well. BY THE WAY, BeWelcome has ALREADY posted their financial information (all 400 or 500 Euros spent by its people! This is proof that CS was NOT trying hard to be financially transparent.

    - jared

  • I think your post points out nicely what I’ve been fearing for a loooong time now, Jared; that there’s a very obvious reason why acquiring the 501c3 status takes so long…

  • “Casey is just a entrepreneur carefully protecting his investment and his personal vision and getting his just reward financially.”

    So, let me make sure I understand your position about money-hungry Casey. You consider an experienced programmer/system architect who can easily pull in 6 figures anywhere else (for a fraction of the headache, no less) but chooses to work 60 hour weeks for CS to make only about $25k but is still getting his “just reward financially”? Really??

    CS tried the ad-hoc everyone-do-what-you-think-is-right-just-jump-in-and-volunteer thing and it failed miserably. The community did not self-organize and everything was chaos. Instead of people working together efforts were completely scattered and largely duplicated. Instead of fixing bugs (which are WAY down now, according to the bug tracker – did you even look at how many were resolved recently in Rotterdam before you blasted them for it?) volunteers built (and released) three new (very buggy) searches.

    Ok, self-organization didn’t work. I’m glad CS at least has some leaders that didn’t let the org crumble under a new system that obviously wasn’t working.

    I’m really interested in seeing if BW develops into the blessed utopia so many of you expect from it. It’s very idealistic and, seriously, I hope it works just as planned. It would be an amazing model for other networks to follow. The best thing that it has going for it is that it seems so well organized in it’s vision of what it should be in the very beginning. That’s very cool and something that CS originally lacked.

  • “So, let me make sure I understand your position about money-hungry Casey. You consider an experienced programmer/system architect who can easily pull in 6 figures anywhere else (for a fraction of the headache, no less) but chooses to work 60 hour weeks for CS to make only about $25k but is still getting his “just reward financially”? Really??”

    I don’t think you understood me.

    The context was comparing a self-organized volunteer model to a capitalistic corporate model. “just” referred not to full market value of Casey’s work but to the concept of “money earned for work done” which is not a volunteer concept.

    In the corporate world entrepreneurs expect to earn less early on with the hope of cashing in later. Casey is living a pretty good lifestyle already, and the corporation is just taking off with revenues and membership multiplying exponentially. It remains to be seen how much he will make down the road. There will be a potentially enormous revenue stream to tap into. We’ll see what he does, but this isn’t my point anyway.

    In contrast to Casey, many of the CS developers could command the same or higher salary than Casey could, and worked a comparable number of hours during the last year, but were paid nothing. Most didn’t want anything, some would have liked a modest stipend to get by. Does this make Casey money hungry? No, but it puts him in a very different class than the rest of the community, and raises questions about his motivations and philosophies as the “Visionary Leader” of CS.

    You are very misinformed if you judge that the self-organized model was a miserable failure. It was actually very successful. To the extent that we had manpower, we developed a very successful model.

    On the volunteer side of things, we set up lines of rapid communication and response between key active volunteer leaders like Donna and Mikky, who both raved about a kind of responsiveness they had never seen before in CS. Whole new volunteer support systems were brought online and others were brought up to speed to support the various CS 2.0 volunteer initiatives.

    There was support for the entire ambassador program, support for the Contact Us response team, support for the Groups team. The Volunteer Dashboard was added to the home page. When I say support, I mean that the necessary improvements were completed and effective.

    Meanwhile major structural (communication and procedural) improvements were made to the Tech Team, integrating the Bug Tracker, New Feature Playground, Cockroach Group and the Contact Us team. The concept of Page ownership was introduced to provide accountability and responsiveness to the community and avoid duplication of effort.

    Many bugs were fixed (100 documented bugs another 100 undocumented by me alone). I fixed the notorious password retrieval and intermittent login bugs.

    Speaking for myself, I had time to initiate major projects like the new poll system, the geographic database repair project and the couchsearch algorithm project, all of which involved close interaction with the community. All were completely successful.

    This model was highly successful, and was about to be implemented on other major areas of the site, like meetings and groups, now that Casey finally allowed us to recruit new developers without him meeting them.

    Yes there were several search variants, but what’s the problem experimenting with new things if the main search feature works? I got all the bugs out of the couchsearch page and added several enhancements (city search and google map integration).

    EVERY ONE OF THESE THINGS MENTIONED WAS DONE WITHOUT A MANAGER TELLING ME WHAT TO DO. A highly effective self-organized network had formed, and was only limited by manpower, and that was mostly due to Casey (including his NDA, which prevented several excellent developers from getting involved). Besides me, Anu worked very effectively in this mode, as most of the community knows very well.

    All we needed was a few more of us, and we were in the process of getting them, when the LT asserted their central control. Ironically, several of the LT have been nearly invisible in the community during the entire year I participated on an almost daily basis and others barely appeared or took multi-month leaves of absence, but they are with the in-crowd, and that’s all that seems to matter. There imposition of top-down control caused the rapid departure of many dedicated and valuable volunteers, 5 of whom are now working for BW.

    I can not speak for Joe and Kasper, who were more into infrastructure (and made huge contributions there, for example the wiki by Kasper and great system work by Joe (which is invisible to the average member)).

    So who are you, and how can you support your statement “failed miserably”?

    For the record, I made no mention of the Rotterdam Collective.

    So far, I’ve not heard anyone refer to BW as a utopia. It is just getting going, and has far to go, but the environment there is far better for a volunteer, from what I’ve seen. They seem to have learned the hard way what doesn’t work in a volunteer project from their painful experiences with HC. This might not be obvious to someone who hasn’t had a comparable painful experience like the one I had in CS.


  • Really? You mean $25k plus free holiday plus free lodging plus free food plus free transport plus the power plus the prospective of more than $25k

  • I wonder why ‘really?’ didn’t mention a name. I suspect the IP address probably resolves to somewhere in Rotterdam.

  • Oh really? (some identification would be nice, although I have my suspicions on the identity of the author of that statement)

    referring to this part: “The community did not self-organize and everything was chaos. Instead of people working together efforts were completely scattered and largely duplicated.”

    I can vouch for John doing amazing work, DESPITE the leadership team who remained largely silent to his many efforts to communicate with them – both him and me found the general members of the community far more approachable and useful in completing projects than most of the leadership team. Read the below, and judge for yourself if “nothing was accomplish and it was all chaotic”

    I would be happy to provide an objective overview of what has been accomplished since the Montreal Collective by the volunteers not part of the leadership team, based on observations I’ve had volunteering for CS almost on a daily basis for a year (exactly one year as of today actually). In the meantime, parts of this can be found amongst my contributions in the CS wiki (


  • I think a fairly formal review of what got done under adhocracy (or volunteer self-organization mode) would be very welcome. RIght now it continues to get painted as being ‘unsuccessful’ yet it ‘successfully’ ran things for close to a year.. and many of the problems associated with it came when ‘centralized’ communication (i.e. approval from leaders) was required.

    also i know that i was personally informed by older members that self-starting attempts that i was making would not be supported (e.g. ignored, resisted or trashed) by those who officially were in charge. LAter experience led me to agree. But this also means that a less centralized approach was ALWAYS hampered then and thus was not given a fair shot. Any critiques of the situation should not leave out this crucial fact!

    A formal review would, in my view, include the imapct people’s volunteering experiences had on them. Those could then be compared with later similar reporting by CS’ new organizational structure.

    For me, so many problems still center around communication channels.. and i haven’t seen these resolved anywhere yet!

    hugs to all and thanks to everyone who worked hard even if not thanked :)


  • Valerie,

    I would definitely welcome any attempt of a formal review and I would provide any support that is needed for that. It would be great to have an article published about what has happened within CouchSurfing.
    Are you interested in creating one, or have you been too much involved yourself?


  • i feel the need to stand up for john here, as he was the only real qualified developer CS ever had so far.

    working with john was awesome, enjoyable, efficient but most all successfull in all directions, this includes communication, planning, documenting, coding, improving AND INCLUDING the community.

    there might have been one or two others who would have had the theoretical programming skills as well to make it happen, but they simply failed, as developing is not about coding only.

    thank you John!



  • Mikky, this is generalizing quite a bit too far. Just because most developers have not been as patient with dealing with you as John was, does not make them any less competent.

    I know this was meant to offend me personally due to some recent events, but I have seen too much of the same from you already to take any further assaults seriously.

  • #Mikky: I agree with Anu. There were other developers involved, each with different styles, many of who contributed *a lot* of time and energy in a very successful way.

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