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Parrallels between CouchSurfing and Scientology

I’ve been reading a (one-sided) article on Scientology. It struck me that there are some similarities between the methods employed by L Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, and Casey Fenton, co-founder of CouchSurfing. This might sound a little far fetched. I’d urge you to read the article and consider the suggestion before making up your own mind.

Firstly, I don’t think CouchSurfing is nearly as dangerous / mind controlling / cultish as Scientology. I’m highlighting similarities, not suggesting they are the same.

For example, Jon Atack states that Scientology orders followers to “disconnect” from “Suppressive Persons”. Disconnect means to break all contact with a person. “Suppressive Persons” are anyone critical of Scientology or L Ron Hubbard. It seems like there is a similar practice going on at collectives. Members who speak publicly about CouchSurfing seem to go quiet very quickly.

Other similarities might include:

  • Very long working hours
  • Closely confined working conditions
  • Limited contact with the outside world
  • Attacking of anyone critical of the organisation or its “leader”

This ties into Thomas’s earlier post “Is the Couchsurfing collective a cult?”.

From Atack’s article, I then read about Deprogramming and Exit Counselling. It struck me that perhaps we could learn from these techniques in dealing with current CS “volunteers”. Just to be clear, I’m not proposing that we start kidnapping people!

I think it would be useful to learn from the practice of Exit Counselling. I think it would also be useful to learn about how to approach cult members to discuss their situation. I think these techniques could help greatly in dealing with core CouchSurfing “volunteers”.

This might sound like crazy talk. It seems logical to me, but I’d welcome any comments / criticism / feedback. I will do my best to ignore inflammatory comments or trolling.

30 Responses to “Parrallels between CouchSurfing and Scientology”

  • I think your comparison is valid. Coincidentally, I had just been thinking the same thing myself after reading some of the recent PR about the collectives. To say that it has a “spin” flavor is an understatement.

    Thomas wrote in another post that within a short time after arriving at the NZ Collective he sensed that something was wrong. I had the same reaction soon after arriving at the MTL Collective.

    But I felt, as you do, that in the bigger picture the degree of wrongness I sensed was not very serious, and correctable. Now I’m not so sure. What concerns me more than anything is not the lost potential of what CS could have been, but the negative effect that volunteering seems to have on well-meaning but unsuspecting volunteers who get drawn in by the PR.

    I’ve learned second-hand what can happen when people are drawn in to an isolated group under the control of a charismatic, unaccountable guru/prophet/visionary leader. A friend of mine was in such a group and had to be forcibly rescued and de-programmed. Years later she became a de-programmer herself. If you met her you might not believe that such a mature, well-adjusted person could have been vulnerable to such manipulation. Well, some people are desperate for a family to belong to, and want to believe that other people have the good intentions they claim to have and are not just looking to advance their own self-interest at the expense of others.

    The woman I described was turned against her family and friends and angrily defended her “savior” against any attempt to discredit or expose him. Secrecy was the rule in the cult. “Trust me to meet all of your needs and to protect you from OUR enemies” was the motto of the cult leader. “I have a special vision for the world and there are those who would try to destroy it. By supporting me, personally, you support the great vision I have.” (Think of the paranoia implicit in the NDA).

    What I’ve seen happen to some volunteers who have come under Casey’s influence is that basically good, well-meaning people turned into a Mr. Hyde version of themselves, or they become apologists, spinmeisters or even plagiarizers. I think there may be something serious going on in CS and it may be helpful to learn what warning signs to look for and how do deal with the fallout from the lessons of Scientology and other cults.

    With the Alaska collective we are seeing an increase in isolation, a return to the visionary leader’s “home turf”, where he developed his “vision”, a greater increase in the difficulty for foreigners to attend (visas, and Alaska is notoriously expensive, so, greater dependence on the Collective to provide for one’s needs). A greater shift toward selective recruitment of volunteers, even outside CS.

    The Alaska locale is being promoted as a reward, a compensation for “volunteer” work. Now, more than ever Casey has set himself up as the chooser of those who will receive the rewards he can bestow on those whom he favors.

    I was present at the birth of CS 2.0, when Casey was completely out of the picture, having abandoned the Community and taken the most expedient means of saving it with him. In the minds of most of the few of us who took the initiative to save CS, our top priority was that the resurrected CS should be about the Community, not about the one person under whose control CS nearly died. But very innocuously, Casey stepped back in, accepted the terms of the Community, then quietly reasserted his near total dominance while benefiting from the free labor of many who worked hard to realize CS 2.0.

  • I was wondering if either you or Thomas could describe your sense of unease at the collective, John…did you feel out of place? or just a weird feeling that generally accepted behavior was not the norm? In what way did you feel something was wrong? thanks.

    I’m thinking of times when I’ve felt a groupy weirdness that was strong enough to get people to act unnaturally…and make me (uncharacteristically…) recede.

  • Isn’t it that every organization tries to be (like) a sect? Some succeed and some don’t… CS does. And what?

  • @Margaret
    What I noticed immediately in the NZ collective:
    - There was a room with desks set up, but nobody really “worked” in it. Instead, at all times of the day and usually until late at night, you’d find people stuck behind their laptops everywhere (floor, couches, beds). Notice how in CS Thailand, the only inside picture you ever see is of some kind of office space? It feels fake to me, because it was never like that in NZ.
    - There wasn’t any kind of schedule (although there were some half-assed attempts at “workshop schedules”) and there were never any formal meetings.
    - Nobody really knew what they were doing there, what their task was. Most people defined themselves as part of some virtual team, but it was very hard to get a sense of their output.
    - I suspect 90% of all “work” done there was “communicating”: chatting, emailing, posting stuff.
    - There was a very strong anti-work ethic, with some people being basically proud of slacking around.
    - It was almost impossible to get enough sleep, because of the amount of people and the irregularity of everything.
    - No formal rules, no house responsible, no financial management to speak off (I personally funded food for a couple of days for the entire group because Casey had left with the credit card to a 4 day rave party).
    - Every problem I ran into seemed social: you needed to know people to be allowed to work on *anything*. Having an actual assignment almost seemed like a privilege.
    - There was no barrier between work and social life at all.
    - There was no follow up or gratitude towards anyone’s work. I personally watched at least 5 days of work by Kamel (on blogs) being ignored and basically tossed away. Lots of hugging however!
    - There were obviously all sorts of levels of secrecy and, depending on how cool you were, you would hear various gossip.
    - Everything and everyone referred to Casey, but when I finally got a chance to talk to him, it was like talking to a blank wall. Very friendly, but impossible to engage or get to talk directly, even in person. I actually gave him a bit of lecture on what I felt was wrong, but he just sat there and nodded. Eery.

    But, I think the major thing I noticed was how most people at the collective seemed… lost. Nobody (but me) had a job or an income to speak off (only a rare few were students). I heard a lot of people complain about personal financial issues. I only saw one real relationship to speak off (Kasper), the rest seemed to abhor commitment.

    The freedom that seemed to exist at the NZ collective seemed to me only skin deep. I can see how mesmerizing and seductive that kind of atmosphere can be and I flirted with it myself. However, I think most people that join these collectives are not “grounded” enough in themselves to be able to step out of it when necessary.

  • That is too simplistic..

    1) It all starts with scouting for die hard fans .
    2) Make the Ambassadors and make then feel important.
    3) Make them feel important spending hours and hours answering mails for the CUQ (the people sending the queries could not care less). A thankless job but as an ambassador and they will like say I answer CUQ!! I greet members!! (stijin is a good example).
    4) They are not ripe to defend any PR stuff put out by cs. They will nope call any ambassador rude and ask them to resign if they question any of the present problems.

    They will ignore their own countries ideology and root for an undemocratic system (its like america saying communism is cool).

    With many circles secret off site google groups ,ambassador private, LT private, mikky private the drones just toe the party line with all the deletions by rachel and her clique .

  • thanks Thomas

  • "suppressive persons"

    My favorite part is when you start with “[Scientology orders members] to “disconnect” from “Suppressive Persons”. Disconnect means to break all contact with a person. “Suppressive Persons” are anyone critical of Scientology or L Ron Hubbard” and then end with “I’d welcome any comments / criticism / feedback. I will do my best to ignore inflammatory comments”. So any “suppressive persons” or people critical of OCS you’ll “do your best” to ignore. Classic.

    Thanks for the laughs, Callum! I love that we can always count on you to say something foolish and half thought out.

    Btw, I won’t be back to read the comments that troll on, be critical of, or otherwise label me as a “suppressive person” with what I just said, but I don’t have to check to know that you’re going to do it anyway. Flame on!

  • why do dorks keep saying

    Btw, I won’t be back to read the comments that troll on, be critical of, or otherwise label me as a “suppressive person” with what I just said

    BUT they keep coming back.They know their BS days are numbered.All their fakeness is all open for everyone to see.

  • 4) They are ready defend any PR stuff put out by cs. They will call any ambassador rude and ask them to resign if they question any of the present problems.

    Anick-Marie Bouchard from Edinburgh, United Kingdom
    I often agreed with you but today, I feel your post was harsh. We are all trying to stay motivated while making the dream of thouands of people reality. Can this be acknowledged ?
    I can’t believe that this tone helped anyone in this group.
    I can’t believe Crystal didn’t really hope her post answered some questions. I even believe it did ! And if it was not enough, asking simply the relevant questions has more chances to be answered than being overall negative and agressive.
    I hope that Crystal (or other Collectivers) is still willing to enlighten us on the questions you ask. I also feel that Group Management is something important to be brought up, but is it relevant to this thread or yould it rather benefit another one ? Or maybe an email to the relevant people asking for dates ?

  • “suppressive persons” aka jim stone ?? :)

    Thanks for the laughs, Callum! I love that we can always count on you to say something foolish and half thought out.

    38 Become personal, insulting and rude as soon as you perceive that your opponent has the upper hand.
    In becoming personal you leave the subject altogether, and turn your attack on the person by remarks of an offensive and spiteful character.

    This is a very popular technique, because it takes so little skill to put it into effect.

  • another funny one

    Daz writes: ““suppressive persons” aka jim stone ??”

    and then “…as you perceive that your opponent has the upper hand.”

    i’m sure jim would be flattered that you think of him as having the upper hand, but i really hope he’s wasting his time by reading any OCS drivel.

    and “In becoming personal you leave the subject altogether, and turn your attack on the person by remarks of an offensive and spiteful character.”

    very true, and a very typical OCS “attack dogs” tactic. how about this for a OCS tagline: “OCS – shooting the messenger to ignore the issue, one distraction at a time.” it works well with you guys particularly because (as daz admits) “it takes so little skill to put it into effect.”

  • Looks like the GUILTY AS HELL = another funny one drunk PUNK :)

  • Ok lets count ONE extra huge bucket of ALCOHOL enough to wipe your mind !! + 200 ? Bottles of thai beer? :) Enough to keep the cult members behind the ULTIMATE dopehead leader.

  • @ “suppressive persons”: In my opinion, your comment has completely ignored the content of my post. If you have any argument as to why you believe my post was false, I’d be interested to hear it.

  • @the funny and non-suppressed one

    I would also appreciate you using your real name. It is quite obvious that the anonymity you are granted here encourages you to write like you do. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t have the guts to write what you write if your actual name was under it. What does that tell you?

  • > I suspect 90% of all “work” done there was “communicating”:
    > chatting, emailing, posting stuff.

    That’s true of almost all NGOs. Couchsurfing is not special in this respect.

    > There was no barrier between work and social life at all.

    Nor should there be. Couchsurfing is a network for international friendship where people can feel at ease in the company of other young (and young at heart) people of leisure. The management should reflect that. If you want a stuffy organization where there’s no fun at all, go join Servas and stop trying to make CS, a fairly new site with infinite possibilities, into something else that’s already been around for decades.

    > Nobody (but me) had a job or an income to speak off…

    Few can get a full-time job and yet have the freedom to work from anywhere and travel full-time. I admire people who can freely roam as they wish (I have to be back in university a few times a year for exams). They have a freedom most people could only dream of, so why do you want them to settle down and enter a 9 to 5 working life hell?

    I think CS has some problems. I would like to see a more truly democratic structure, and I agree having one man in charge is dangerous. However, I don’t understand why some of you want to change CS into something it’s not, ruining the aspects that the majority of serious users, guests and hosts alike, are here for.

  • I agree with you, Christopher, when you say there is something wonderful about the Couchsurfing org…that they’ve managed to capture that lightening-in-a-bottle feel of freedom in extended travel. It’s amazing and is exactly what keeps me interested… since I cannot go off traveling and leave my responsibilities right now. I think that no one wants this magic to wear off…nobody would like to kill it under the weight of the nightmarish, soul-suck traditional office job.

    The problem is that CS leaders are doing this on donated funds. They have an obligation to report how these funds are being used…and to transparently use this money responsibly…they do not do this.

    I don’t know how you are funding your own extended travel, but those of us without a stream of donated funding must work…or be profusely grateful and transparent to those who give us free money.

  • @Christopher
    Perhaps my comment wasn’t clear enough.

    Concerning the amount of output produced in NGO’s:
    My personal experience tells me otherwise. In most NGO’s I’ve been involved in, people will usually be working on actual documents (eg reports, request for subsidies, etc) instead of chatting online. In any case, there should be some kind of outcome after all these months of working together. There isn’t much evidence of that at all. Because of the highly unorganized and top-down nature of CS communication, people waste tons of time relaying even the smallest bit of information. It often feels like one big gossip network to me.

    Concerning the barrier between work and social life:
    I do not think it’s healthy to sleep with your colleagues, especially in a non-committal atmosphere. That’s the problem I was pointing out. At the NZ CS, it was secretly called the “Casey test”, but I bet you didn’t want to know that. A lot of my colleague’s are good friends as well, but if that becomes a requirement there’s a problem. And why do you have to be a party boy or girl? (They all are.) For the girls in the CS LT, the entire situation is just plain unhealthy. How come there are no older people involved or recruited? Do you really think this woman is eligible or even considered? Essentially they are recruiting people that remind them of themselves.

    As for the job problem:
    The underlying issue here (I’ve written about this before) is that people that join as a volunteer are slowly drained from their savings. This makes volunteering unsustainable and causes massive changes in the core volunteers every few months. For the people that are getting payed, it’s even worse: they have nothing to return to. So, what happens? They schedule the collectives back-to-back because these guys and girls essentially have nowhere to go. This creates a massive dependency on CS, with all the irrationality that follows. If push comes to shove, these people will pick their income and support above the integrity of the network every time.

  • Excellent clarification and elaboration, Thomas. I completely agree with every point you made. But also, I agree with some of Christopher’s concerns about preserving what Callum once termed the “Bohemian” spirit of CS, if I understand him right. I think many CS members appreciate this aspect of CS.

    I am reminded of the movie The Endless Summer (1966), about a few surfers whose ideal was an endless surfing holiday. They moved around the world, following the summer season, to find the best or most exotic places to surf. What a life! And the movie was great – I never forgot it. I was thrilled when the sequel The Endless Summer II appeared in 1994, 28 years later, also directed by Bruce Brown.

    The second movie had a different flavor. Not so much about the thrill of the big wave as about the richness of the experience, and a shift toward interacting with the local culture in a generous way. There was a maturity, a shift in orientation from self-gratification toward appreciation of the natural beauty in the world and the value of human connection, including intercultural connection. Bruce has lived out the positive potential of an unconventional, carpe diem approach to life.

    I am also reminded of the physicist surfer Garret Lisi, who forsook the usual career track to structure his life the way he wanted to: surf during the day, do physics at night, work at odd jobs to get by. He recently presented a revolutionary unification theory of energy, force and matter that has stunned much of the physics world.

    These stories go to show that a Bohemian-type lifestyle can be lived with integrity and produce much more than self-gratification. But anything can be corrupted and perverted when self-interest takes priority over integrity.

  • Do I remember correctly that CouchSurfing lost this man as a volunteer? Please forgive my coarsenes but…what a gaggle of fucking fools!

    I don’t mean to stay off-topic, MP, but it deeply saddens me to read such depth, and realise that I miss it so on CS…

  • I agree Greg…any reputable org would work crazily to retain volunteers of Matrixpoint’s caliber.

    Also thank you for the nice thoughts (endless summer…sounds good) and reminder that “bohemian” doesn’t necessarily equate with Fellini-style self-indulgence. So sorry to hear Thomas’ description of past collectives…that work-ethic collapsed under the decadence. Where were the grown-ups?

    Be reminded too that professionalism doesn’t necessarily equate with boredom and conformity. Some of the most boring people I’ve met in my life were trying hard to be faux hippies…and were as conformist as any IBM executive.

    I appreciate Matrixpoint’s mention of maturity in judging the lives of others. I guess it’s tempting when you’re younger and finding your way (she said condescendingly…) to apply shorthand and dismiss people who have led traditional lives or who haven’t had the advantages of broad travel experiences. I know I did it…to my own discredit. Now I really admire those lucky people who get along with anyone…in any situation….regardless of their lives’ circumstances.

  • In total I spent around 5 months at Collectives (Montreal, the mini-Collective, that wasn’t advertised, in Quincy CA and Nelson).
    And I think I would do it again. It was worth a try and many sides of living and working in a collective are very awesome. And I hope I will have (or create) an opportunity to participate in future collectives.

    @Thomas, some small corrections:

    • I wasn’t in a relationship on my own, amylin was equally important! :)
    • Two people beside you had a salary, Morgan from MySQL and Casey from CouchSurfing Inc.
    • AFAIK it was actually called the “Admin test”, not the “Casey test”.
  • I lived in a collective house when I was in rural Thailand in the late 1980′s. I was teaching chemistry and biology to adult refugees (high school teachers) in the camps on the Thai/Cambodian border and my husband was the doctor for a small, 5.000 person camp. Every 3 months we hosted medical students from Georgetown University who lived with us…and he taught them a course in tropical disease. We were the same age as the current CSC participants (I was 25) and to the med students who lived with us, but we didn’t really try to hang out with them or organize bonding experiences…we were their superiors because we spoke Thai, understood the political situation, had to evaluate them, keep them safe, and run the house. My husband and I did all of this together as a team. With the med students, we had parties now and then and invited our Thai co-workers and neighbors but it was pretty tame because we had to get up and work the next day. There were no drugs allowed…and to leave on a 4-day rave was never considered.

    I remember an email Donna sent me explaining that collectives are very stressful and the CSC participants had to party it up to let off steam. Excuse me, but we were being trucked into a war zone daily :) and the young med students with whom we lived were seeing it all alongside my husband (who was not yet 30): land mine injuries, delivering babies, cerebral malaria in Khmer Rouge POW’s, STD’s in prostitutes, cooking oil burns…and of course that specialty of refugee camps: skin diseases…all without air conditioning, electricity or running water…and with shells dropping throughout the day. We really didn’t party much because we were hot, dirty and tired. We had no A/C and no hot water in our house. We did travel occasionally with the students when we had time off…and hung out some with other aid workers from Medecins Sans Frontieres, ARC or UNHCR.

    It’s funny because my now-husband and I did all of the things the kids today think of as cool: hitchhike for months thro SE Asia after our jobs were over, ride our motorcycles through the Golden Triangle, sneak across closed borders to go to black markets…but we weren’t cool. Cellphones and the internet as we know it hadn’t been invented yet and we wrote our parents every week on the thin air mail paper…ha! I remember my husband gave a negative evaluation only once to a med student because she behaved inappropriately…parading around in her underwear for attention. He had her sent home. Contrast that to the “admin test”, the hugging, and general emotional bonding that is expected of CSC participants:) I didn’t hug the med students…we were there to get a job done.

    I think part of the difference is something Thomas brought up: we weren’t running away from adulthood by traveling to Thailand…we were already stable adults. We were there to offer our skills to people who needed them and to experience some of a different culture for ourselves.
    Sorry for the length guys…and for tolerating my extended trip down memory lane:)

  • Thanks for sharing your memories, Margaret. I appreciate them on many levels. Between the contrast you have provided, and Thomas’ direct observations, some of the major problems with CS collectives are much clearer, and reinforce the concern some of us have about similarities CS may have with unhealthy organizations such as Scientology.

    And thanks, Greg and Margaret, for the compliments. Each of you also, along with so many, many others has very much to offer. When I think of what could have been…. We were on the verge of tapping into all of that good will and talent… I hope that the call by Callum for a more productive channel for our energies leads to something.

  • why dont you call it “parallels between random organizations who are telling fairy tales and irrationalities while maintaining a strict and dictatorical structure and how couchsurfing fits”?
    after all, in the end, if an entity does not open itself to development , it ends up in the circle jerk of eternity around something that has been and that is being maintained by de facto dictators.
    it works like this on all levels and worked like this for thousands of years to control people, be it in disguise of a government or a religion, the differences are only semantics

  • Zak I didn’t want you to get forgotten at the bottom of the page. I guess that trusting and earnest people have forever been led to believe in idealistic visions which are actually disguised control-tactics. So sadly universal…I guess the solution is critical thought and self-sufficiency…and vigilance.

    I think one way to determine the sincerity of a group’s claims is to see if they do indeed change with the times…as you say: be open to development. I guess we should judge CS for ourselves, if they’re open to new ways of operating. I think in some ways they are…they are apparently far more tolerant of dissenting views now which is a nice positive step.

    I am having a hard time determining what is their preferred vision/mission for the org, or if that is changing. What is CS promoting?: Cultural understanding? Cheap travel? Boheme excess? wandering nomads? Corporate entity? Trustifarians on parade? Dating site? (no, not that one…definitely:)) But truthfully, when I joined CS my idea of what it is was different that I think I understood at the time. I think this confusion fuels people’s frustration…when they think the site is one thing…and it’s not…and makes people feel disillusioned. Am I off on a tangent here?

  • I totally agree with you here Margaret “they are apparently far more tolerant of dissenting views now which is a nice positive step.” This is what sets them apart from HC and BW where dissent is not tolerated.

    I believe cs is what you make it . If you just travel and meet people and never ever looks at ocs or the groups you will really live the cs spirit.This also does not need cs . I think you lived the true spirit in thailand ……

  • thank you Daz

    I agree that CS is what you make it, too…and the hosting is really the heart of it…that spirit of flexible generosity and openness; I love that.

    My 50-yr-old sister just emailed me with this link (just now, truly!), which I think explains a lot of my general confusion about how in the hell could anyone run a company like CS on such a fragile thread of professionalism (…be reminded that I’m 45 years old):

  • Margaret, “they are apparently far more tolerant of dissenting views now”. Not among those who have any decision power.

    Daz, why do you think dissent is not tolerated on BW? If you do stuff you have power, there is both (a healthy dose of) dissent among those who do stuff and among those who merely stand by and criticize. Both are very welcome as far as I know. Or did I miss something?

  • I am currently involved in a controversy with Couchsurfing, and I still don’t know whether to blame the moderators of one of the groups, or the whole organization. But I will take them to court for censoring me and/or defaming me (I was accused of anti-Semitism when posting something about the mass murders in Gaza).

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