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The beginning of the end of CS 2.0

“It just feels bad to be asked for help and promised something in return by the captain after he set the boat on a riff and than when the ship is running being told: ‘What do you want here? This is the captains lounge. I’ve hired professional help now. You are just a stupid little member. Now stop whining, go down to where the swimming pools are and have fun.’ ” – Torsten (from the Brainstorm group).

As someone who was present in Montreal during the week of the crash, I can add some detail to the Captain’s behavior in those days.

We have been told that the particular combination of events leading to the crash (“The Triple Storm”) was highly unlikely, but even if accurate this excuse for the disaster obscures the fact that the organization’s extreme dependency on Casey in the technical area was a great vulnerability to the organization, and a disaster waiting to happen.

I believe this dependency was not due to the lack of willing, trustworthy and qualified members to spread the responsibility among (and thus provide redundancy and checks and balances), but to Casey’s intention to maintain control of the website and thus, in part, I strongly suspect, justify his privileged (and salaried) position. i.e., If others were doing all the work Casey was doing voluntarily, then it would be harder to justify being the only salaried member of the organization.

If the major crash was unavoidable (we’ll never know for sure), certainly many of the chronic server problems since then, that at times put members traveling in foreign countries at greater risk, were really a direct result of Casey’s policy.

A few days after the crash, Casey terminated the Couchsurfing Project. He did not discuss this with any of the members at Montreal that I talked with: people who had traveled from great distances at their own expense and on their vacation time to answer the call for community participation. It was as though in Casey’s mind, CS was the website and with the website gone (in his opinion) there was no CS.

But most of us there understood that CS was not a website but a community. The Community still existed and needed to come together for each other more than ever. Especially, there were members out on the road, traveling in foreign countries, using the website to make contacts with hosts as they went, many on a low budget who couldn’t afford to just start staying in hotels. It was the beginning of summer, and many others had made vacation plans based on CS. These people needed our help and support. Casey abandoned them.

I was stunned by Casey’s behavior. Not knowing him, I just assumed that there must be factors I did not know of, and gave him the benefit of doubt.

There was a leadership vacuum immediately following the termination, as Casey was absent for much of the time. Members were dazed and directionless, wondering if they should just go home. I organized some meetings, as did Heather. I proposed that the first order of business was to take care of the members. I suggested that we set up message boards on some free site so that members could at least communicate with each other. All agreed and we got to work right away.

Once we were set up, there was only one problem: how to let members know about the message boards? We knew that the home page of was still working. So all we needed was an announcement with a link to the message boards put on it. It took about a day to find Casey and get him to put the link in place. No one else could do it because Casey was the only one with the password to the servers.

The next order of business was to get the website back up. While Casey was still out of the picture, we made a group decision to bring back CS any way possible, however long it took. This was the true beginning of CS 2.0.

We knew that the software was not lost, only the data (i.e., members personal information and friendship links). So, the website could be restarted quickly, but members would have to re-register and re-establish their friendships. If this was the only obstacle, I could not understand why Casey would shut down the organization, unless perhaps, he was burnt out and just wanted to be done with it.

One thing very crucial here is that Casey did not offer the community access to the software. We could have quickly (in a matter of a couple weeks at most, which is how long it took anyway to restart the site with salvaged data) brought the site without the data. There was a tremendous, self-organized offering of support from programmers all over the world. They even formed themselves into teams and began extracting member data from Google’s caches. This was the community I was proud to belonged to and wanted to support.

It was clear that Casey considered the software to be his own property, not the property of the community, and he was not willing to just give it to us. The Captain had abandoned the ship and took the steering wheel with him, being willing to let the ship sink rather than give up control and let others save the ship.

In this crucial meeting, I personally committed to take the responsibility to rebuild the website myself, if necessary, but was sure many would help in the effort. I would have done it free of charge and claim no ownership of it. Also, I would have always been accountable to the community, and followed their guidance and stepped down if they asked me to. But I was a new member, and did not have a reputation within CS. Heather, who was an Admin, argued that “we have to get Casey back on board”. She held sway. I did not know at the time that she was romantically involved with Casey (or so I have been told), as this was kept discreet.

Over the next few days, pleas were made with Casey to come back, led by Heather, although, at least, the group insisted that the new CS must be different from the old, and that there should be much more emphasis on member participation. Casey agreed to this. In Heather’s word’s: “CS should not be about just one person”. Heather even expressed that the crash was a blessing in disguise, and urged that the recovery be delayed if necessary to ensure that fundamental changes were made and that CS did not just return to business as usual.

Casey tentatively agreed to explore the possibility of reviving CS, and when he began to have success recovering the data, resumed control over the project. I was relieved at the time, because Casey’s return meant that I could go on the vacation I had planned. But now I realized that those few days were the one chance for CS to become a truly community-based self-governing organization. The seeds of the demise of CS 2.0 were planted almost as soon as it began.


2 Responses to “The beginning of the end of CS 2.0”

  • Hey John,

    Thanks for giving us this background history. Seems like CouchSurfing has (inadvertently) turned out to be a social experiment in many ways.

    Hopefully with BeWelcome, we will be able to learn from the mistakes of CouchSurfing and Hospitality Club.

  • Hmm, somehow this made me think of the leaders’ reasons why CS isn’t open source. Claiming “open source is too insecure”[0,1] – but think of what would happen if a similar crash would ever happen again: Community would have no rights over the code, or even access to their own data, should the code owner, the CS corporation choose not to revive the servers on their own.

    Isn’t this total negligence of the community? If no other good came from the crash (CS 2.0 being all but buried now), it at least showed (me personally and probably quite a few others as well) the community IS there, and WANTS to be there, regardless of who runs the code.

    (I was observing the events of the week after the crash, and whoever I had contact with could not believe CS was gone, and would have done just about whatever it took to get it up and running again, even if it meant starting from scratch, and even without the code provided by Casey)

    One more thumbs up for open source…

    (the original)
    (the backup)

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