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Tag Archive for 'volunteering'

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

“Run the show how you think you must…”

I might have used other words, and I definitely don’t have the skill to do (or bluff?) this sort of stuff, but I’m not unhappy to see that Pickwick is seriously kicking some butt:

It’s getting heart breaking in here. And cold. Icy cold. All the ‘open source’ and ‘charity’ debate left me disagreeing, but unhurt. This Thai project does me in.

First the cold, demanding, uppity language itself. Then what looks like a “suck ‘em dry & spit ‘em out” attitude of present and future ‘Volunteer Coordination’. Then the cynicism luring generous, well meaning people to commit crimes and risk jail for lying to immigration police in a post 9/11 world.…

Shame on you. Shame on those who do it. Shame on those who sit close by and watch in silent complicity. It’s time to hold Casey & Friends accountable, if not to members, then at least to the law.

The Royal Thai Government have received a formal query about the immigration requirements for the project. They know you are coming, so you better cut out the criminal part of your plan.

The charity question needs a decision. Casey opened his mouth in 2003, and he now either sings, or shuts it again. No more smoke screens. Run the show how you think you must, but run it well, and stop lying. A thoroughly documented formal query about possible Unlawful Charitable Solicitations will be placed before the Attorney General of New Hampshire “practically tomorrow”. My advice: hurry and be there first, with a genuine charity.

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)

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.


Follow the money

To anyone who is trying to sort out what is going on in CS and who to believe, I suggest you apply what many consider to be the “First Rule of Investigation”.

“Follow the Money”.

Something very significant happened to CS during the year since CS 2.0 was launched as a volunteer-centered community-based enterprise. The corporate income drastically increased from a level where there was barely enough to make ends meet, to a big surplus, with the reasonable expectation of much more to come.

It doesn’t take much imagination, knowing human nature, to construct various scenarios that would explain much of what has happened in CS. It’s a certain fact that Casey, at the very least, from early on, was leveraging his position in CS for his own personal profit.

“Site design by Casey Fenton Consulting”

used to appear at the bottom of all emails to members and (if I remember right) every page on the site, with a link to his personal business. Now, this, in itself, is not necessarily a problem. Whether it is or not has everything to do with with impressions given to and agreements made with people who signed on to do do full-time volunteer work for what they thought was a noble cause, for a community built specifically on the value of freely giving without expecting a financial reward, and who literally saved CS from termination.

Things are going well for a young rapidly growing volunteer enterprise, there is tremendous community spirit, creativity, new initiatives, large numbers of highly talented people wanting to get involved. And then suddenly, the rug is pulled out from under them. Some of the most active and committed volunteers are made to feel unappreciated and all but shown the door. Announcements come down about new paid positions for Casey’s close associates.

We are told paid employees are needed to do the necessary tasks that volunteers won’t do, because they tend to do things on a whim. I, myself, had spent 5 months doing nothing but things that needed to be done, fixing hundreds of bugs, postponing my “whim” project (which would have greatly benefited the community, I believe, but never happened). I did all this in spite of the LT, who for the most part, were unresponsive, non-participating, prone to arbitrary assertions of executive authority without understanding the situation, and even at times seriously undermining worthy, community-based projects.

We are told democracy can’t work in an organization like CS and that voting is impractical. Aside from any philosophical arguments, the plain fact is that democracy and voting are happing right now in, and very successfully, I might add.

These kind of statements defy logic and reality, so why would they be made? Just look at the result: concentration of power and money in the pockets of Casey and his hand-picked associates. A paid developer will be hired, who will do what he or she is told, to replace the 6 highly qualified computer professionals who used to work for CS but are now working for BW, where their individual creative ideas, personal ideologies and cultural diversity are welcome and valued.

We question all this and are branded “whiners” and “CS-haters”.

I would never have given a good part of a year of valuable service to CS if I had known where it was headed. When I started having concerns about what the Admins were up to in their secret meetings back in December, I wrote a long, detailed, thoroughly documented letter to them. It was entitled “Request for Information from the Admins” (approx.). It was posted in a CS group named “CS Core Volunteer Communication” (approx.) created specifically for the purpose of allowing for communication between volunteers and the Admins, who previously were unavailable for communication as a group, and could only be communicated with through a liason.

I specifically mentioned problems with responsiveness, participation and arbitrary assertions of power. I expressed concerns about accountability. I said I was in CS to work freely for the community, and was not willing to work for Casey and/or the Admins if they were not accountable to the community.

The only response I got from the Admins was, from one of them, “Your letter is too long, so I’m not going to read it.” (approx.) This is when I became very concerned.

I started paying more attention to the NDA issue, which was very troubling to me, and I had only accepted it provisionally with the assurances that “it is being worked on and will be fixed soon.” (approx.). It was already going on 6 months.

I wrote another letter to the Admins after about a month or two, reminding them I was still waiting for a response from my first letter, and amplifying my concerns, which continued to be validated.

There was no response from any of the Admins who were in power before the crash.

Now, in retrospect, knowing what they were working towards, I believe I may have been allowed to continue to work for free under false pretenses, while the LT was planning to use the increasing revenue which I and many other volunteers were helping to generate, to pay some of themselves, without my permission or the permission of the other volunteers.

If this is what really what happened, and the total absence of meaningful response to my two inquiries was not just sheer incompetence or negligence (and how can I know when so much is kept secret), it was an ethical breach and I and the other volunteers have every right to feel mislead and disrespected. We certainly have the right to challenge the LT without having our credibility and integrity questioned.

So, to you new investigators, I suggest, follow the money and judge for yourself.


The trouble with CS finances

No, is not in financial trouble… Yet.

On June 19th, I published a analysis of the CS finances (sheet) , predicting that CS (technically it’s actually just Casey) would be able to hire 3 to 5 extra “employees” by the end of this year. It happened a lot quicker than I thought however (Jim Stone and Mattthew Brauer got hired as well as a thus far unannounced and unnamed developer). This is the part where I say “See! i was right!” and continue speculating.

Let’s have a look at where this money comes from. As far as we know, there is only one source of income for Couchsurfing: donations. This is logical, since there are no banner ads, no paid subscriptions or anything and Couchsurfing has been unable to register as a 501(c)3 organisation in the US so far, which excludes the organisation (actually, just Casey and his friends, since there is no officially elected board) from US government money.

But! Surely people that (mostly) like to travel cheaply cannot afford to collectively donate over 150.000 $ a year (projected for 2007)?!? You’re right. They aren’t donating, they are “getting verified” at 25$ per person (or less if you can prove you live in a poor area of the world). Verification is essentially proving to CS that you are who you say you are and nothing talks like money. If it was just verification they were offering, money wouldn’t need to be involved. I’ve heard of CS meetings where you could bring a passport and 25$ to get verified by an admin. Why would you need to pay if you could just show your passport and be done with it? Because, of course, this verification/donation scam is the main revenue stream for CS. Yes, a scam. If CS was genuinly interested in getting people verified for “security reasons”, a showing of passports would be more than enough. However, I have thus far never met anybody who was able to get verified without paying cold hard cash. The administrative cost of sending you a “verification code” is also negligable, a 2$ “donation” would be much closer to the actual need since all the physical posting is done by volunteers anyway.

In and of itself, this verification/donation scam is mostly harmless, even if the “sliding scale verification” is pretty cynical if you really think about it. (We’re asking people to pay as much as they can affor, so they can “prove” their identities and get the same benefits as those who can afford it, how’s that for intercultural understanding.) I mean, even I fell for it and payed to get verified. Then why is it such a problem?

The trouble is that verification money scales directly with new subscriptions to CS. This in turn means that CS can only continue to afford paying people like Jim Stone if people keep registering (and verifying) at the current rate. This definitely explains why there is so much “verification spam” on CS (visible when you haven’t “verified/donated” yet). If at any point the amount of new users starts to slow down, verification/donation money will automatically slow down as well. If CS ever hits the peak of possible subscribers, income will fall, rapidly. Subsequently, Couchsurfing cannot afford it’s employees anymore and soon it will be in real trouble.

How likely is this? Well, Hospitality Club seems to have hit it’s high point already, with subscriptions slowing down significantly. We can only assume that it’s only a matter of a year or 2 (at the most) before the same thing happens to CS, since both organisations tap more or less the same userbase.

At that point – as they say – things will start falling apart. CS will be practically forced to work with volunteers again at the “top of the food chain”, which no doubt will cause enormous amounts of stress on the tightly formed group that is privately running CS right now. Note that Casey is not preparing “his” organisation for this. It doesn’t appear that any of the donation money is being saved (for instance by not hiring Jim and Mattthew but opening a savings account) and long-term thinking doesn’t appear to be a strength of the organisation anyway. Couchsurfing is technically running on “borrowed” time, on finances that will only last as long as new users keep coming in.

An organisation like CS almost has to run on volunteers, unless it drastically changes its business model. So, either we see banner ads, “payed subscriptions”, “golden accounts”, regular “donation drives” or whatever or we’re going to see a financial breakdown. When that happens, and it most likely will, we’ll be here to pick up the pieces.

From a BeWelcome volunteer

I was just reading the BeVolunteer forum and I was happy to read lemon-head’s post about the BW mission and objectives. Here’s a part of that. Of course I was especially pleased with the remark between brackets.

No interest in organisation politics?

It was said that the ordinary CouchSurfing or Hospitality Club member doesn’t care about the legal structure of the organisation behind.

I agree that most members will choose a hospex site mainly based on the chances to find a host etc. However, as soon as volunteering or donations are involved, at least some people will start thinking. For me this was the point where I started to become interested in the legal structure of couchsurfing and hospitalityclub. Later a talk with some CS people mentioned BeWelcome, and I felt pushed to read more about it and find information from external sources (opencouchsurfing, at first).

And here I go

I said I would continue to contribute if it does “more good than harm,” but I’ve decided to change my stance on an issue, and I’m resigning from the CS dev team & mailing lists.

Prior to working on couchsurfing, I decided that I only wanted to work on Open Source software. When I heard that Kasper was pushing for couch surfing to be open it sparked my interest.

Open source is important to me, because it represents a freedom of information and ideas. But for the record, it wasn’t the non-opensource thing that made me leave per-se; it’s the resistance & lack of communication to comment on, or work towards a New NDA.

Maybe I should hang on and wait, because something is right around the corner?
These issues are old, months old. Now I’m cynical enough to think a delay or a ‘not now’ is a politically correct way of saying ‘no’. So, I’m now changing my tactic; If they get addressed then I’ll rejoin.

There’s no reason we need a non-compete clause. I had contemplated signing a non-compete that still permits me to just work for MySQL; but now I’ve decided I’ll choose who I work for.

I had some good times at the Collective. My two most treasured memories include learning how to drink scotch and beer with Gardner (a first for me, and a lesson that will no doubt further me in life), and performance hacking with Joe & Kasper in a 3-way screen, sitting next to each other.

Walter: I’d like to still come and visit the Collective, but I’m withdrawing my request to participate. I enjoyed seeing your comments on MySQL optimization, and that you could also spot so many of the changes that needed doing. It’s unfortunate we didn’t really get the
change to work together.

I’ll still keep couchsurfing like everyone else, so keep making the site better!