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Trust issues

Let’s take a step back and look at what hospitality services like Couchsurfing are really about. It is pretty obvious that almost all of the real-life activity associated with CS (hosting, being a guest, organising and attending meetings, collectives, etc) all require one simple thing from all participants: mutual trust. The content of profiles and of course especially the references (and vouches) are very much designed towards determining trust. Perhaps actually more a trust network than a travel network?

Yesterday, I loaned two American girls a key to my house. I had met them about 30 minutes before that. They followed me home from the train station, happily handing over parts of their luggage to relieve their own back. None of us asked for passports, identification, or anything. They are 19 years old. If you would try to explain this to an average person, they’d probably declare us nuts, but they would be mistaken. It is pure and simple “trust by default” and an extremely refreshing feeling considering the world we live in.

Oddly enough, it appears that for the organisation of Couchsurfing, this basic principle of trusting each other has been completely turned on its head. Of course, the most obvious and glaring distrust is between people in the leadership team and anyone critical of them. We have come to the point that practically any statement critical of the leaders results in the commenter being filed under the “haters” category, which can only happen if CS leaders like Jim Stone or Matthew Brauer distrust any interested volunteers by default. Worse, they have taken actions in return that can only be interpreted as defensive (moving of threats on forums, taking away rights on the Wiki, etc etc).

If you look at the organisational structure of Couchsurfing, you will notice that “distrust by default” is present everywhere. You cannot become ambassador if the already established ambassadors don’t explicitly trust you and it is very obvious they have a very different standard for that than they would as CS hosts. Worse still, you can’t ever become an admin or a leader if Casey doesn’t trust you personally and his criteria are, to say the least, murky. What do Jim and Matthew have in common which makes them elligable for this top position?

  1. A long term relationship with Casey.
  2. Americans.
  3. A fondness for partying hard*. (Burning man, etc.)

*This is something we hardly ever talk about, but common knowledge for anyone who’s been to a collective. It’s one of those unspoken truths that everyone seems to avoid on OCS, because it can easily be interpreted as a personal attack. To be clear: I’m not making moral judgements here about how they spend their free time (hey, go nuts!), but it does worry me that the organisational top is held together by this. However juicy the rest of the gossip is, I’m happy it doesn’t appear here.

Perhaps, and this is speculation of course, this situation has to do with some fundamental aspect of Casey’s psyche. If anything, the structure of CS is a reflection of his personality. And aren’t Jim and Matthew merely “channeling” Casey’s fundamental distrust, while of course taking it a bit further than Casey ever did? The fact that Casey started a trust network doesn’t have to be a contradiction to this, it could easily be an overcompensation on his part.

I don’t expect Casey to suddenly see the light and invite “us” into his castle. This would require an almost superhuman effort. But, something will happen eventually. Maybe something or someone will “break” eventually. (Casey has quit the project before, he might do it again.) Maybe people will drift off in separate directions.

The only thing I can hope for is that – somewhere in the future – the Couchsurfing organisation will reflect the one thing that it’s members rely on every day: trust.

Have a great weekend. Thomas

12 Responses to “Trust issues”

  • Casey kept off the forums and never deleted and posts thats what got him respect and in a way trust.When the admins had not powers and there were no ambassadors the way casey ran the show made him a cult figure.

    His strategy of being silent (even though he ALWAYS checks the brainstorm group and also this site at times) has made him lose some of that trust.The new permanent staff and other admin have not being following the hands off policy casey started which has cause all the friction which was never there before as everyone was equal .

    The org structure devised by hoffer has not contributed to couchsurfing but has take it a step back .

    RESPECT like mikky says is the key for this project to go forward . (For once i agree with mikky )

    The only way forward is for casey to take charge.Show the members that they are respected like they were before. Will that happen? You will never know ….

  • I have thought a lot about the distrust/trust issues of Casey (and consequently the whole Leadership Team) and I am happy to see your great analysis of this topic, which probably lies at the core of all issues that anyone who supports OpenCS tries to resolve.

  • Thomas,

    Great analysis of the situation. Although I agree with the “party hardy” perception, I don’t have any facts that help back that up… it’s just a perception.

    In some discussions I’ve had with some unnamed higher lvl people, I think the “distrust” is not really “distrust”, but that they want stability in the system. This is something I can understand when limiting access to the core running system (production data, that is). And I can empathize with that position, even though I won’t sympathize with it.

    But, I don’t like the general vibe coming from the LT that anyone OCS related (or expressing OCS views) have an “Agenda”… I got the hint that some LT think that the OCS related “Agenda” is “anarchistic” and “far left”.

    In fact, everyone that participates has an agenda… agendas in the non-negative connotative way. I have an agenda that I want to use CS to grow social bonds. Is this bad? Others have an agenda to work towards a distributed free ideal of CS to protect against corruption that inevitably creeps into growing (large) organizations. Is this bad? Now, bad agendas are ones that are destructive… like destroying CS. This is bad. I don’t think that anyone with OCS views is aiming for that, so I don’t buy the “Agenda” argument.


  • I have heard that there are only two root emotions, Love and Fear. I think the trust CouchSurfers place in each other, almost by default, is based on letting go of fear. Yet, the behaviour of the leadership team is motivated entirely by fear.

  • You see what power is – holding someone else’s fear in your hand and showing it to them!

  • The problem of power is how to achieve its responsible use rather than its irresponsible and indulgent use – of how to get men of power to live for the public rather than off the public. – Robert F. Kennedy (1925 – 1968), ‘I Remember, I Believe,’ The Pursuit of Justice, 1964

  • I agree with Ben that it’s not distrust, but wanting to distribute power amongst the “most trusted” (as determined by the founders) and amongst “ideologically similar” individuals. There’s pros and cons to this.

    1. “Most trusted” in a trust-based system may sound like an oxymoron but the fact is human nature dictates that we trust some more than others. It does make sense to be protective over something you care so much about. As long as in the process you don’t become its antithesis.

    2. Selecting “ideologically similar” individuals sounds good in theory – less conflict, less bereaucracy, less deviation from the mission. However, diversity of opinion is important for gaining insight, paradigm shifts, challenging false truths and promoting inter-cultural understanding.

  • @azarethroy: I hold a different view. I think the LT’s behaviour is fundamentally drive by fear. Fear of people abusing the network, fear of people taking CS in new directions, fear of losing control. I think Thomas’s post sums it up nicely.

  • Aditya Sengupta from Vienna, Austria “this lack of censorship on CS until recently is something many of us cherish vis a vis other websites. ”

  • Bristle

    Cmon, If CS wasn’t there neither would these threads.

    Casey and the Org he leads can do what he wishes within the envelope of law. (and maybe more)

    Whats the upside of these jobs today ? Constant pressure and complaints. survival pay. Life as a near homeless person.

    In fairness, I believe a tiny small minority of CS community leadership or misunderstanding prompted these voices.

    I am sure this is only the first of contra sites and blogs.

    Everyone has a bone to pick sometimes as I may, but its more from frustration over silence and inaction over a long period of time.

    I don’t really feel so today, we are fortunate to have good people like Casey and Jim. They are learning like everyone else. Give them time and they will improve and strive to do so.

    They are human, they make mistakes, forget things. Choose to hide sometimes. Try to post how to make effective change, some will sink in.

  • quote: “Whats the upside of these jobs today ? Constant pressure and complaints. survival pay. Life as a near homeless person.”

    They don’t have to do these jobs, there are plenty of capable (and experienced) volunteers ready to pick up the work… for free. Casey, Jim and Matthew are not marters by a long shot, they have concentrated all of the power within the CS organisation around them. Plus, they have had plenty of time to learn, but haven’t been listening to the warnings for almost a year now.

    They are indeed human and are definitely entitled to make mistakes, sure. But if you don’t correct your actions, are they still mistakes?

  • “I don’t really feel so today, we are fortunate to have good people like Casey and Jim. They are learning like everyone else. Give them time and they will improve and strive to do so.”

    They have had ample time to listen and learn way before this campaign started which they had a reason to ignore for the “violent” measures taken – communications and transparency have been asked for at least for more than a year now, by various people and in much more softer way, but this has been largely ignored.

    So far, in my opinion, they have not shown many signs of a) wanting or b) being able to do either learning or striving. On the contrary, with every wish for openness the more cover they seem to seek. I guess it would be fair to say they are driven by fear (of what, I can’t understand – unless of course there’s something of gigantic proportions that needs to be hidden, which wouldn’t surprise me anymore after seeing the extreme measures taken to keep everyone in the dark)

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