Monday, November 12, 2012

Couchsurfing New Yorker Article

According to the CouchSurfing Web site, the average age of members is
twenty-eight, with more than a third between the ages of eighteen and
twenty-four (seven hundred and ninety-three members are between eighty
and eighty-nine). Reasoning that these youngsters would never welcome
me as a house guest, fearing perhaps that they’d have to get out the
defibrillator, I subtracted nine years from my age on the profile.
However, when twenty-three-year-old Sydney Provence, a University of
Iowa physics grad student, picked me up in her Toyota Corolla at the
airport in Cedar Rapids—the first stop on my surfing odyssey—I
immediately confessed my misdeed. “To anyone in her twenties,” she
said, “forties, fifties, it’s all the same.” As we drove through
winter-browned fields and then, for my touristic benefit, meandered
through Iowa City, Provence called my attention to local sights. She
said that she first couch-surfed four years ago, as a broke college
student eager to see Austria but not without a companion. On that
trip, she spent Christmas in St. Valentin with a girl her age and the
girl’s mother, eating homemade holiday treats. Recently, Provence and
her younger brother couch-surfed in Costa Rica, where they stayed with
a tavern owner, a lucky break for her brother, who discovered that he
was of legal drinking age there.
We reached Provence’s house—a clapboard bungalow built in the early
nineteen-hundreds, which she acquired with some inherited money two
years ago. The house has a wooden kitchen floor convincingly painted
to look like a signed Matisse cutout, holographic art created by her
father, a little red panic-like button that has no purpose whatsoever,
and, best of all, a large downstairs with a daybed (and bathroom) for
me to share with her beer-brewing equipment. When I marvelled at how
grownup her house was, she observed, “You know you’re an adult when
you have separate toilet paper, paper towels, and napkins.” We had
dinner at a Japanese restaurant and then stayed up late, gabbing
about, oh, you know, molecular beam epitaxy, blackbody radiation, and
the Topless Tuesday Pancake Dinners she attended in her undergraduate
days, at the University of Virginia.
When I told friends that I would be sleeping in the company of
strangers, the second most frequent question they asked was “How do
you know you’re not going to be bludgeoned to death in the middle of
the night?” The most frequent question was “What about bedbugs?”
Regarding the latter, I have not come across a single mention on the
Web site of these pests, so, New Yorkers, get over your paranoia. As
for safety concerns, a twenty-nine-year-old woman from Hong Kong was
raped when she travelled to Leeds in 2009. There have been less dire
violations reported, too, such as burglaries and harassment, but
Daniel Hoffer, the company’s C.E.O. and co-founder, who is
thirty-four, says that, statistically speaking, couch surfing is
remarkably safe. “We have had over six million positive experiences,
with only a tiny fraction of one per cent negative,” he told me at the
groovy new CouchSurfing headquarters, in San Francisco, a double-level
aqua-and-orange-painted loft sheltering seventeen couches and two
swings suspended from a roof beam.
O.K., but what happens if Jack the Ripper signs up? There are three
protective measures, each indicated on a member’s profile. First, for
a credit-card payment of twenty-five dollars, the Web site will verify
your name and address (which means that a member can be certain she is
hosting the real Ripper, and not an impostor). Another feature, “the
vouch,” is a sort of seal of trustworthiness conferred upon a member,
say, Jack, by another member, say, Mrs. Ripper. Only members who have
been vouched for three times have the power to issue such an
endorsement. The most helpful security information, however, is the
references that hosts and guests are encouraged to write about each
other after every rendezvous. According to a 2010 study conducted by
researchers at the University of Michigan, the ratio of positive to
negative evaluations is twenty-five hundred to one. Still, an astute
reader can read between the lines in an assessment like “Jack has an
awesome collection of steak knives” or “He can put out a fire really
fast.” Given these safeguards, it is unlikely that anyone on
CouchSurfing could get away with murder more than once. How
My next hotelier, cicerone, and instant buddy in Iowa City, Deborah
Yarchun (age twenty-six), was neither verified nor vouched for, but
she had thirteen gushing references. A strawberry blonde dressed in
black who rides a unicycle and does micrography, making drawings
composed of tiny words, Yarchun is pursuing an M.F.A. at the Iowa
Playwrights Workshop. Over morning coffee at the Prairie Lights
bookstore, she explained that she joined CouchSurfing after she moved
to Iowa, in 2010, and missed having roommates. “The first time I lived
alone, I lasted three days before I bought a hamster,” she said.
“CouchSurfing is perfect, because I can share my space a day at a
She went off to her classes, lending me a set of keys to her
apartment, a one-bedroom appointed with furniture from the annual Iowa
City-sponsored garage sale and a black futon from Walmart that has
been transiently occupied by, for instance, a student from Lyons,
France, in town to work on a paper about Grant Wood; a motivational
speaker who visited after he and his fiancé parted ways (“His spiel
was about balance”); and, most recently, by me. That night, before
attending a tech rehearsal for her upcoming play, we had dinner at
Hamburg Inn, a diner famous for pie milkshakes and for being a
mandatory political stop for candidates during the Iowa caucuses.
For all this generosity, what did I offer in exchange? Many guests
cook a meal, clean the house, or walk the dog. I gave Yarchun—and
everyone I visited—a book, a box of chocolate cookies, and an
authentic hundred-trillion-dollar bill from Zimbabwe. If the bill had
been worth more than the pittance I paid for it on eBay, I would be
kicked off the Web site, as would Yarchun for accepting money. “It’s
about the exchange of stories, not cash,” Yarchun said, offering up a
hair-raising tale about being attacked by seven vicious dogs in
CouchSurfing is neither the first nor the only organized pajama party
on the block. Servas, generally regarded as the earliest hospitality
exchange, was founded, in 1949, as a means of promoting world harmony
(its original name was Peacebuilders). Servas is so archaic—or do I
mean utopian?—that not only is it recognized by the U.N. but its
members still communicate via postal letters and must be interviewed
before joining. (I talked to one couple who had applied for an
interview, were informed that it would take six months to be approved,
and were now, a couple of years later, still waiting.) Other networks
include Global Freeloaders, Be Welcome, Nomadbase, Tripping, Evergreen
Bed and Breakfast Club (for those over fifty), Pasporta Servo (for
speakers of Esperanto), and the Hospitality Club, which, with more
than three hundred thousand members, is a distant second to
CouchSurfing in terms of size.
CouchSurfing was the brainchild of Casey Fenton, who is thirty-four,
and who told me over the phone from San Francisco that, as a boy
growing up in Brownfield, Maine, he’d become fascinated by the concept
of free will, cherishing the hope that someday he would have the
existential wherewithal to escape his home town and explore the world.
Chalk one up for volition: Fenton graduated from high school early and
began travelling soon afterward. “I travelled randomly,” he said,
“buying tickets that would take me as far away as I could afford to
go.” In 2000, in preparation for a trip to Reykjavík, Iceland, he
spammed fifteen hundred university students, canvassing for free
accommodation. He received between fifty and a hundred invitations,
proceeding to bunk with a few of the respondents, and even the family
of one. “When else, I thought, would I have an opportunity to stay
with a socialite and a nationally known R. & B. star?” he said.
Fenton—by training a computer programmer—spent several years
developing his travel Web site. In 2004, with the help of Daniel
Hoffer and two others, who are no longer part of the team, he launched
CouchSurfing as a public company. Its mission was “to internationally
network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise
collective consciousness, spread tolerance, and facilitate cultural
understanding.” In those days, before CouchSurfing had an office,
idealistic volunteers, provided with room and board, worked together
out of group houses that were rented in It places like Turkey, New
Zealand, Costa Rica, and Alaska. The phrase “couch-surf” was in use at
the time, but, according to Fenton, it meant to watch TV on a friend’s
sofa, lazily flipping through the channels. “We popularized the term
and gave it an adventurous association,” Fenton said. “We changed the
context so there was a community aspect.”
A small segment of the community became angry when, last August,
CouchSurfing accepted $7.6 million in investment. Never mind that the
company has used some of the funding to hire computer engineers, or
that it converted from a traditional nonprofit to a B corporation, a
new type of company that is contractually required to be socially and
environmentally responsible. Certain diehards simply do not like doing
business with the Man, or even doing business. From their perspective,
CouchSurfing’s raising capital is the equivalent of the Salvation
Army’s developing nuclear weapons. The discussion group on the
CouchSurfing Web site that is entitled “We Are Against CS Becoming a
For-Profit Organization” has more than three thousand members. To put
this in context, the “Barefooters” group has eight hundred and
twenty-eight members; “Pirates!” has four hundred and three; “People
Who Like Singing in the Shower” has one hundred and sixty-eight; “Chin
Scar!” has fifty-five; “The Cute Guys Club” has eight hundred and
thirty-five; and the “Cute Guy Club of Florida” subgroup has one.
Speaking of moola, Bermuda is a swell place to couch-surf. I take it
you know more or less what this Manhattan-size archipelago looks like,
but, if not, picture a subtropical island, then doctor the picture so
that the blue water is bluer and the pink beaches are pinker. Don’t
forget the limestone houses painted in Necco Wafer colors, with white
ridged roofs designed to funnel rainwater into cisterns. True, you may
not find CouchSurfing digs chez Michael Bloomberg, Silvio Berlusconi,
Ross Perot, Michael Douglas, or any of the other folks who live in the
gated community of Tucker’s Town. If you are as discerning a reader of
profiles as I, however, you can be put up in houses that, were they
hotels, would receive five stars.
Night No. 1: Cris Valdes-Dapena and Ian Birch. This recently married
couple in their sixties—he’s an aspiring clockmaker and paraglider
from England, she’s a partly retired real-estate agent from
Pennsylvania—welcomed me early one evening to their semi-detached
condominium, a handsome white concrete house overlooking Hamilton
Harbor and the Great Sound, a panorama I could admire through the
sliding glass doors of my bedroom. (I had a marble bathroom to myself,
too.) Valdes-Dapena and Birch joined CouchSurfing last year, having
heard about it from Valdes-Dapena’s grandson. A few days before my
stay, they hosted a sixty-four-year-old former travel agent from
Victoria, Canada (“We reverse age-discriminate”), whose mission, as
stated on the CouchSurfing Web site, was “to feverishly explore the
world before I croak.” He’d been on a gruellingly circuitous journey
in order to accumulate frequent-flier miles, and showed up late,
conking out almost immediately on the sofa. I had taken a mere
two-hour flight, so that night, over an unhurried dinner of spaghetti
Bolognese and garlic bread, Valdes-Dapena and Birch gave me the
lowdown on Bermuda politics and economics and regaled me with tales of
their travels—they have places in Colorado, Mexico, and New York, and
have trekked along the Annapurna Circuit, in Nepal, and Camino de
Santiago, in Spain. Later this year, they will walk through New
Zealand for three months.
I, on the other hand, accepted a lift from Birch the next day to a
nearby bus stop. When, half an hour later, on the other side of the
island, I stepped off the pink-and-blue-painted No. 10, Andrea Wass, a
winning thirty-eight-year-old insurance underwriter, was there to
escort me down the steep driveway to her charming rented house. She
led me to a room that overlooked a landscaped lawn and, beyond that, a
private dock where she keeps a kayak. There were flowers on the
bedside table. “You have your own room,” she said. “I don’t include
that on my profile, because I’d be inundated with requests.” Wass was
transferred by her company to Bermuda six years ago, so by now the
visits from friends and family have ebbed. (She travels regularly to
the States.) Wass said that she misses having guests—and that, I
suppose, is where I came in. The night I arrived, we dined with four
delightful expat friends at a nice hotel restaurant, where I learned,
among other things, that in 1992 a construction crew working for Ross
Perot illegally blew up a coral reef so that he could moor his yacht,
the Chateau Margaux, at his doorstep. The next day, Wass and I visited
a cave, wandered around St. George’s (possibly the oldest continually
inhabited English town in the New World), and tooled around the island
on her Vespa, I, the terrified passenger, trying to fake blasé.
Wass has never officially couch-surfed herself, though when she was in
Rome recently she posted a listing on the local event page inviting
CouchSurfers to join her one night for dinner; twenty guests attended.
Nor has Jeremy Sommer, a fifty-four-year-old retired furniture
manufacturer, who is so seasoned a traveller that he has two
passports. Sommer wined and dined and housed me and a French
CouchSurfer in his large Victorian house in San Francisco (my room
could have been at the Four Seasons), yet said, “Why would I want to
stay with someone I don’t know?” Most members, however, have played
both roles. According to additional University of Michigan studies,
there appears to be a high correlation between the number of times a
member hosts and the number of times he surfs, though, significantly,
only between twelve and eighteen per cent of the stays are directly
reciprocated. In other words, CouchSurfing is a largely rhizomatous
affiliation of strangers intersecting with one another not only out of
self-interest but for the good of all. How can we explain this
pervasive and—some would say—unexpected coöperation? What is to
prevent an overabundance of freeloaders from bringing down the system?
Essentially, this is the question that George Zisiadis, a researcher
at CouchSurfing, who graduated from Harvard last year, with a degree
in sociology, asked in his senior thesis. After drawing a lot of
diagrams with arrows to show that the dynamic between members is not a
typical case of indirect reciprocity (A gives to B, B gives to C, C
gives to A), Zisiadis attributed the success of CouchSurfing to its
raison d’être—namely, to forge meaningful social connections. Whether
you make the sofa bed or sleep in the sofa bed, you will come out a
“I joined to save money,” Barry Hott, a genial twenty-five-year-old,
said. Hott lives with his family in Great Neck when he isn’t sleeping
on a couch in Eastern Europe or Asia. “But now I’d happily pay to meet
these people and have these experiences,” he went on. “CouchSurfing
has given me the chance to be charitable. This is where I volunteer my
time and energy. Helping strangers.” Hott, who works as the
social-media director for an online eyeglass company, is one of about
twenty-five hundred Ambassadors, an unpaid position that involves
answering questions from newcomers, organizing events in the
community, and being a cheerleader for the site. I’d e-mailed him when
I joined CouchSurfing, and he promptly offered to drive into Manhattan
and meet me at a coffee shop, where he’d brief me about the Web site.
Hott estimates that he’s met half his closest friends through
CouchSurfing. Several times a week, he attends one of the many
CouchSurfing activities in the city; there are potluck dinners, movie
nights, Argentinean tango lessons, karaoke parties, outings to
museums, concerts, and sporting events. When I asked about the regular
Thursday-night meet-ups at a bar in downtown Manhattan, he said,
“There’s nothing like them in terms of how open and friendly everyone
is. If you go to a party or even a wedding, you mostly talk to people
you know. Here you’re encouraged to join in the conversations of
strangers. You’ll find warmer smiles and hugs from people you don’t
know than from your friends.” Yeeks.
Another Ambassador, Gabriel Stempinski, from San Francisco, is so
zealous about his office that he holds monthly dinners for new
members, throws rooftop parties for up to two hundred guests,
accommodates as many as sixteen surfers a night at his loft (five on
the round bed, one on the massage table—you get the idea), and a few
weeks ago he asked his girlfriend to marry him at the company’s
headquarters (it’s on YouTube). What explains this unstinting
conviviality? “I’m not a fan of being alone,” Stempinski said, as we
toured San Francisco in his black BMW.
There’s always a multitude in Ithaka, a seventeen-person housing
coöperative situated in two adjacent wood-shingled residences on a
quiet street in Palo Alto, and the site of the final bed on my tour.
Here, in this community of Stanford students, awesome hugging is
commonplace; job assignments include granola maker, rag launderer, and
general entropy-reduction enforcer; and smoothies are processed
outside, on the bike blender, a kitchen blender mounted on the front
of a stationary bicycle and powered by pedalling. I arrived after the
communal dinner of bruschetta with caramelized onions, salad with
weeds from the garden, and custard with blood-orange syrup (“Meals are
vegetarian, even though most of us are carnivorous, but we want
everyone to be able to eat”), and was taken around the rambling main
house by a handful of occupants and their guests.
Come, let me show you around. This is Ellery’s room, but Ellery sleeps
on the porch. Here’s the lounge. Here’s a bathroom. One thing you need
to know about the bathroom: if yellow, let mellow. Here is Ben and
Andi’s room. Here’s Dan’s room. His girlfriend is Rachel; she doesn’t
live here anymore, but she’s staying here now. Last year, the two guys
who lived here slept outside. Bobby lives here, but his stuff is in
the car. He’s a digital nomad. Bobby believes that “the host-guest
relationship is one of imposition and annoyance, made pleasant only by
the novelty of the guest,” and that “neither of us is having a good
time if you have to ask me every time you want to use the shower,” and
that therefore, in the ideal world, call it post-couch-surfing, nobody
will be a host; rather, each party will host the other. We call this
room AbunDance. Mostly we dance here. We try to keep it as empty as
possible. See the hula hoop, the beanbag chairs, and the bearded
fellow smooching on the floor with the pretty, long-haired woman who’s
wearing a shawl? This is Jonas. He doesn’t live here. He lives in a
co-op in Berkeley called Fort Awesome. His sweetheart is Lena. She’s
been on the road for two years, but right now she’s camping in the
yard out back. Have you heard of Lena’s an unofficial
showerer. Here’s the puppet theatre. A lot of couch surfers stay
there. If you don’t want to sleep in the puppet theatre, you can have
Jan’s room and he’ll sleep with Tess.
Has our relation with machines made us feel so deprived of human
contact that we befriend anyone and shack up with whoever has a
mattress? Moreover, how profound can a social connection be if it is
arranged through paperwork and typically lasts only a day or two?
“It’s sad when they leave,” Sommer, one of my San Francisco hosts,
said. “But then you get another one.” People, it seems, are becoming
fungible, and, as in a game of pinball, you score points by bumping up
against as many of them as possible.
Does CouchSurfing represent something new, then, or is it simply an
Internet-enabled version of the age-old practice of crashing with the
friend of a friend of a neighbor of a third cousin of someone you sat
next to on a bus? When I was young, I hitchhiked through Europe,
staying with strangers I met along the way. I was just looking for a
place to crash; I did not expect to find soul mates or playdates.
Contrast this with the remarks of a cheesemonger in New York, who
wrote in his profile, “I’m in this for the relationship and the
person, NOT just the free place to sleep.” Or the
thirty-three-year-old real-estate agent in New York, who warns anyone
contemplating him as a host, “If you are not fun, social, cool, not
looking to go out and enjoy the nightlife of NYC, please request
elsewhere, I do not want someone that goes to bed at 10pm. Sorry.” On
a loftier plane, consider the official objectives of CouchSurfing:
“Our goal,” the company’s Web site says, “is nothing less than
changing the world.” I think it has.
My place? I’d love to have you, but we’re sanding the floors and the
fish has the flu.

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