3rd Jun, 2008

Oh yeah, I’m a surfer dude

Have you ever visited a city, stayed in a big hotel, eaten in the tourist restaurants, seen the top ten sights, taken the duck tour, and secretly wondered all the time what kinds of things a local would show you?

Imagine that when you went to a foreign city, you could just grab a resident, stay at their place, and have them show you their favorite local hangouts and things to do. Surely there are people who are friendly enough that they would do this for you. Imagine that there were a directory of such people, so that you could just call them whenever you wanted.

Guess what: There is.

Last year, I learned that there is an organization with the goofy name of CouchSurfing (www.couchsurfing.com), which is dedicated to the simple idea of putting travelers in touch with friendly locals. It sounds a bit dubious, at first, I’ll allow, but it’s actually a brilliant idea. Here’s how it works:

You sign up with the organization. It doesn’t cost anything, but if you make a contribution (it’s a non-profit organization, and thus heavily reliant on donations), you get certain benefits. Then you create a profile, which is entirely public. You say a bunch of things about yourself, and you say whether you might be willing to put somebody up at your house.

There are two ways to use the site (and it’s a very well-designed website, too). When you’re planning to travel to a town, you can do a search on members who live in that town (there are over half a million members worldwide), read their profiles, contact any who sound interesting to you, and ask if they would be willing to put you up. They read what you have to say, look at your profile, check their schedule, and say yes or no. If they say no, you contact someone else, and so on. If they say yes, you have a place to stay, for free.

What’s more: because CouchSurfing was conceived as a social networking site, etiquette requires that hosts actually spend some time with their guests, ideally showing them around and having a meal together. This means that the traveler not only gets a free place to stay, but gets a local’s perspective on the place, and potentially makes a new friend.

When you’re not traveling, you can simply announce that you are willing to consider putting up visitors to your town, and wait for people to contact you. Then you have the chance to show off your town and potentially make new friends.

I know what you’re probably thinking: How do you know the other person isn’t a total fiend? That’s where the references system comes in. When you stay with someone, you can write a review of them, and they can write a review of you. Both reviews become part of the other’s public profile, and you can’t change what someone has said about you. So, before you decide to sleep on someone’s couch, you read what other travelers have said about him or her. If you read one negative review, you can look elsewhere.

Of course, that means that somebody has to be the first victim, right? That brings us to your beliefs about human nature. What do you think are the odds that a person whose profile you have read and liked enough to want to stay with them is going to turn out to be an evildoer? It is possible? Sure. Is it also possible that when you get into an elevator with someone, they could strangle you? Yes. Does that stop you from taking elevators? Not in my case. At any rate, the number of negative experiences reported in CouchSurfing has been astonishingly low. Take the past week: 14,580 positive experiences reported and 26 negative. That’s a success rate of 99.8%.

I recently went to Switzerland to attend a conference. The conference was in the south of the country, in the Italian-speaking region known as Ticino. But to get there, I had to fly to Zürich and take a three-hour train ride. Because I also live far from civilization, it worked out best for me to spend two nights in Zürich, one before and one after the conference. Since the conference itself was fairly expensive, I decided to try out CouchSurfing. I looked to see if there were any surfers in Zürich: yes, in fact over 300 of them. Well. After tweaking the extensive search parameters (“prefers vodka martinis to gin martinis”—OK, it’s not quite like that, but almost), I managed to find one person to stay with on my way into town, and one to stay with on my way out of town.

As you may have surmised, both experiences were very positive. I met two very nice guys about my age with similar interests, and had some really interesting conversations and a few beers. It was fantastic to be able to ask any question I could think of about Zürich and Switzerland, and get at least an attempt at an answer. I can confidently say that I know a hell of a lot more about the city and the country than I would have known had I stayed at the Sheraton. And I had a lot more fun. One of the fellows took me, since it was a sunny day, to have a beer outside on the quai alongside the canal, where people were swimming in the unseasonably warm evening. Then we went out and had a real Swiss meal in a classic old restaurant I would have been unlikely to find on my own.

In sum, I think that CouchSurfing is an example of the Internet being put to very good use. When I think about all the traveling I did as a very young adult, I can see how much better (and cheaper) it could have been had such resources been around. And now that I’m, well, a not-quite-so-young adult, I still intend to take advantage of them. Sure, the system isn’t going to be perfect, but members claim to have formed over 34,000 close friendships through it. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it?


That sounds like a cool thing.

It reminds me a bit of an organization my mother used to belong to for Esperantists. We met some interesting folks from around the world that way when I was growing up, and stayed with some very nice people. The group would put out a little book-format directory periodically with Esperantists who would be willing to host visitors for short stays. I wonder if they’ve gone online…or gone defunct…

Do hosts have to stay true to what is presumably the original spirit of the concept and literally put you up on the couch in the lounge, or can they give you a proper bed? If the latter, I suppose it’s no more of a misnomer than hitchhiking, which generally involves little in the way of hiking, in my experience.

Talking of pleasant social networking (a slightly desperate segue, this one), did you see that Leopold Bros brew pub in Ann Arbor has recently closed down, with a developer proposing to build a 13 storey hotel on the site? Have to scratch that off our list of possible venues for a Dialectic reunion.

Alejna, I think it’s great that your mother belonged to the Esperantists, and I can’t help wondering in what ways that might have influenced your career inclinations, much as I wonder the same thing about my mother being a speech pathologist—not you, I mean, me. Anyway. Believe it or not, in our little town in northern Sweden, there is a small Esperato organization. His name is Arne. OK, it may be a bit bigger, but I have seen advertisements for their conversation hours and been tempted to go, but… Somehow I am both attracted and repelled by the thought of an artificially constructed language.

And that, I might add, is the difference between your mother’s Esperantist organization and CouchSurfing, since the only thing presupposed by the latter is that you sleep. Much easier to qualify than when you have to speak an invented language.

Hmmm. I wonder if the W3C has listed Esperanto as a possible language for browsers to request…

John, let me set your mind at rest, much as the couch surfing hosts would do for your body: people are free to offer a proper bed. In fact, in your profile you are encouraged to describe the object in your house to be slept upon, so that people may take that into consideration.

By the way, I’ve always wondered what the etymology of “hitchhiking” was. Is the idea that you hitch yourself to a vehicle instead of hiking?

And as for Leopold Bros.: What! That is a tragedy. That was one of my favorite hangouts in Ann Arbor. In fact, it is the place I ate my last supper there, and so sticks in my mind with special salience. I am disgusted at the thought of a 13-storey hotel (don’t they know about unlucky numbers?) replacing a locally owned, organic microbrewery. Especially the only one in the Midwest that produces pisco! Is there no justice?

And seriously, John, how in the world do you keep abreast of all these things? Do New Zealanders get some special bargain in making deals with Sauron, the all-seeing eye? Perhaps selling not quite your soul, but only your sense of cultural superiority?

Well I wouldn’t want to destroy the mystique of my encyclopedic knowledge completely, but in the case of Leopold Bros and other A2 developments, it’s a simple matter of clicking on http://www.mlive.com/annarbornews/ on a regular basis.

My God: newspapers! It’s brilliant! What will they think of next?

I will surf on your and Annelie’s couch one of these days.

It’s all for the one and might as changes to keep this far.

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