The bloom is off the rose for Couchsurfing.com, and has been for some time. What Andrew Fedorov, writing for Input, calls a "once-utopian accommodations site" has been walloped by a series of issues in recent years: the 2011 decision to ditch the non-profit dream and accept millions in funding. The ousting of its founders. The concerns over data access and a new paywall instituted in 2020 despite the site's long-running pledge to remain free. Alleged sex crimes committed by users. Fedorov details those, but to understand why the fall smarts so much, you have to understand the rise, and he paints a pretty clear picture. The site was the brainchild of Casey Fenton, who in the late '90s emailed all 1,500 University of Iceland students ahead of a trip to the country asking if he could crash with someone. More than 100 people responded, and it sparked the idea for Couchsurfing.com.
He recruited Harvard grad Dan Hoffer and designers Sebastien Le Tuan and Leonardo Bassani da Silveira to start the company with them. From the start, the site eschewed an Airbnb revenue model—that felt "too transactional" and would kill the vibe of "intercultural understanding" they were trying to create. With money in short supply, the company relied on volunteers in its early days and wooed them by renting places in attractive locations—Montreal, New Zealand, Thailand, Alaska—and all shacking up together. By mid-2009 the site had a million users, a more formal team, and "Base Camp," an apartment they rented in San Francisco to work out of. But "controversies came with every step Couchsurfing took toward becoming a more traditional company." (Read the full piece for much more on those controversies.)