Casey Fenton is the founder of CouchSurfing, a global movement that connects travelers with locals in over 230 countries and territories around the world. Here he talks with What's Mine Is Yours author Rachel Botsman about trust and reputation, community decision-making, social entrepreneurship, and the future of travel.

Rachel Botsman: One of the themes I explore in my forthcoming book is how collaborative communities quickly form "trust between strangers." How did you create trust from the outset within the CouchSurfing community?

Casey Fenton: Right from the beginning, we wanted people who had never met each other (and who lived far away) to be able to trust one another. The question we tackled was, “How can we can create that trust via the Internet?” — not a perfect translation from how we would create trust in the real life.

We were not exactly sure what would work, so we implemented different trust features on the site.

The first, and most important still today, are the prompts on our website to describe yourself and who you are. On most websites you have one box where you have to fill in a description. The majority of people are not able to describe themselves accurately; they are like a deer in headlights when they see this kind of question.

So we came up with a bunch of different open-ended questions that anyone could answer, but that would prompt people to share something deeper about themselves. Things that other people would read and get a sense of who that person really is — their "personal philosophy," so to speak. For example, “Where did you grow up?” or "What are some of the most interesting things you have seen or done in your life?"’ This is clearly working, as people always say that the best measure of a person is just reading their profile.

The second mechanism is "vouching." There are a core group people who are already vouched for, and they can bring more people into that network if they have met them. We also have verification system based on people’s credit cards or bank accounts. And references are another important measure; after someone meets someone they leave them a reference.

We basically implemented various features that get to different angles on trust. People pick and choose which ones they want to pay attention to and work for them. They all combine together to give a holistic view on trust, which is probably how it works in real life too where you combine different points to make decisions on who you trust and who you don’t.

Casey Fenton at work. Credit: Andrew Otto

RB: Is there is something that surprises you about the level of trust that forms within your community, between people who have never met?

CF: Well that is a hard one for me, as I am right in the middle of it, so I see it every day and it seems so natural. But it constantly surprises me how it surprises other people. Questions we get a lot are, “How can people trust one another?” or “How can people go into each other’s homes when they have never met?”

An easy way to give people an answer is to refer to eBay. There was a day when it would have seemed like a crazy idea to send your goods to people you had never met. But they implemented different trust systems and it worked really well. And when you say it like that, people realize we have overcome the trust barrier through the CouchSurfing system. In fact, we are in the businesses of helping people understand just how trustworthy someone they have never met is. It is not our mission, but it is core to why we exist.

RB: There is a growing dialogue around the notion of "reputation" as a growing form of social currency. What are your thoughts on the idea that reputation will become a form of capital that determines what we can access and do?

CF: I think it is really important. I have seen it, where it can really help someone out or hurt them.

References are a concrete, recorded form of a reputation. In a traditional, location-based community, reputation exists because many people know each other and share information with one another about what they've learned about each member of the community. All of this compounds into a generally accepted perception of a person.

Part of what makes a reputation is that people trust the second-hand information that they receive because they trust the person they hear it from ("Oh, well Jen is totally laid back, so if Becky really rubbed her the wrong way, you know she was completely out of line!"). CouchSurfing was faced with the challenge of how to recreate that trust-of-source between people who have not and probably will never meet — that is, reference leavers and future hosts/surfers.

Two things solve that:

  • Accountability. No references are anonymous; every person who leaves information is held accountable for what they say. Therefore, reading people's references, you hook into a web of trust. You can see exactly who said what about this person, and click through to their profiles and evaluate their trustworthiness/personality. In the case of a negative ref, it allows the person to decide whether they think that, because they are similar to the person leaving the negative ref, they will have the same reaction to the person, or, because they are not similar to the person leaving the negative ref, they will not.
  • Group consensus. Same as in a village, if one person said "that person's an upstanding father" and everyone else said "he's an abusive person," you would believe the majority. The public record aspect of the references allows people to evaluate whether a negative reference is a one-time disagreement or a pattern of behavior.

RB: Do you think people are conscious of their "reputation capital," or do they have to experience a loss to realize how important it is?

CF: I think the point you make about the loss is an important one. Once you experience not being to do something because of a bad interaction, you are far more careful in the future about your interactions with people.

Sometimes people are cavalier and don’t see the connection or ramification of their actions. Maybe in everyday life you might have had an altercation with somebody, such as a conversation that did not work out well, and you used to just go your separate ways. The worst that could happen is that person may speak badly about you, but it is not going to really going to affect your reputation in the long term. But in CouchSurfing somebody cannot just tell one person, but tell everybody about it. So the consequences are vastly different. It means you really have to go the extra mile in the way you interact with people.

RB: Most collaborative communities require a critical mass of users before they become valuable. How did you create this critical mass in at the very start of CouchSurfing?

CF: In the beginning what I felt we needed to do was seed the community with the “right kind of people.” I believed that the right kinds of people were "expressive," "colorful," and "curious," in the sense that they would want to look through profiles and think, “Wow, I want to meet that person!" Where we actually started was with and some of the Burning Man community. We literally announced, “Hey, there is new website called CouchSurfing, come check it out,” and 300 or 400 people signed-up in the first week. This group was all very expressive and bought into the values. Most importantly, they set the tone for the people who followed.

But now, CouchSurfing is for any kind of person.

RBWhat was the moment when you realized how big CouchSurfing could become?

CF: I knew this tool would valuable for myself, but it was hard to know if it would be valuable to other people. I spent nearly four years wanting to make this dream a reality, and then finally I promised myself that I would not let one more year pass without giving it a try.

I was living in Alaska at the time and would program every night after work and on the weekends. And then when it was first launched as a beta in January 2003, people started to sign-up and I started to realize, this is interesting to other people. After the first year, when over 10,000 people all over the world had signed up, I had proven to myself that this is useful platform. And then it just grew from there.

When the CouchSurfing system crashed in June 2006, and then was rapidly rebuilt by the community itself — that was a turning point in the organization.

RB: Can you talk a little about what this time meant for you personally?

CF: It was very emotional time trying to fix the data crash. I was really tired from getting this thing off the ground and it was just a mountain of work to bring all the data back. I thought, “This is it, I can’t keep going on like this. CouchSurfing can’t continue in this way; I really need help.” There was an outpouring of offers.

We had over 2,000 one to two page letters and emails explaining why they did not want to see CouchSurfing go away. I was amazed that so many people wrote in, basically saying, “Please don’t shut this down.” It re-inspired me to keep going, but I also realized a lot of valuable lessons.

RB: Please, can you share some of those lessons?

CF: There was no infrastructure built for collaboration, but we had a lot of people who wanted to offer their help and energy. So we basically said, "If think you know what to do just get in there and do it."  

We later realized that there were problems with this approach. Specifically, we were not providing a lot of direction, and people had drastically different ideas on how they would like to see CouchSurfing grow. I was sending out the message: “Possibilities are endless and up to you. Whatever you think it can be, it is.” Unfortunately, what this created was a lot of chaos; competing interests and constant disagreement around the direction CouchSurfing should be going.

It took a couple of years to finally work it out and say, this is what our mission and vision are. I would caution people from the outset to clearly articulate what it is they do and where they are going, so that people have a shared understanding upfront. Our community offers a lot of opportunities to explore and experiment, but it poses a lot of challenges as well.

The staff of CouchSurfing. Credit: Andrew Otto

RB: There is often a tension between decentralized democracy and yet providing a clear vision so people can follow a similar direction. How did you come up with the right mission that was focused, yet broad enough to appeal to a diverse group of people?

CF: That was a two-and-half-year process! It is particularly hard with CouchSurfing, because the community is so diverse.

We did not just go into a room and try and figure out what it was, but examined over 100,000 couchsurfers' "personal missions" around being a member — and we created a word cloud. From that we tried to extract out all of the different concepts that people were talking about, in terms of what CouchSurfing meant to them. For one person it was about “sharing space in their home,” but for another it was about "saving money" or “exploring." So how do you come up with a mission when it means different things to different people?

What we eventually figured out was that there were a few concepts people were repeating over and over. We were looking for the concept that is the most core to CouchSurfing — the "one" — but what we realized is they are all the one and they all relate to each other. That is, if we can remove the barriers to connections, the barriers that people have for explorations, more people will explore. If we can help people connect and form deep and diverse friendships, these friendships will exist across the world. Not just locally but globally. And when you can create a global community that appreciate other cultures and diversity, they are more likely to help each other out from afar.

Over time we were able combine all the different concepts into one larger thought, our vision:

We envision a world where everyone can explore and make meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter. We believe that relationships we build across continents and cultures can create a global community that values diversity and seeks understanding in times of disagreement.

I mean, a future like that is a better future.

And then we said, “How can couch surfing help create that better world?” By creating “inspiring experiences” between diverse people! We tested it with members and got a 90 percent approval rating. I never thought we would reach such consensus with such a diverse group of people.


Map of where current Surfers are registered. Credit: CouchSurfing

RB: You have mentioned that the first five years of CouchSurfing were about establishing the global network and the next five years are going to be about enabling people to engage in different cultures. Can you please share more details about this plan?

CF: The first five years were about making CouchSurfing happen in the most basic form. Right now, we have provided a search engine where people can find each other and stay with each other, and hopefully they will have experiences that are positive and where they learn something. We have done that and proven we can.

The next five years are focused really deep on achieving our mission enabling people to understand their differences. We are really getting into the science and mechanisms of making that happen. A search engine is being created that allows people to search on different interests and ideas, ideas that would be traditionally to be dividing or unifying. These are the points that give us difference and similarities across the world. This will enable you to assess how likely are you to get along with that person or have common things to talk about.

RB: What kinds of experiences do you hope people will have with CouchSurfing in the future?

CF: I think there are going to be three types of experiences people will have:

  • Going to stay with someone you have a lot of points of agreement with. That will remain useful and important for getting familiar with CouchSurfing and feeling like you can really do this. That is, go anywhere in the world and be taken care of by someone you have not met.
  • Find someone that has enough in common with you that you can build a base level of trust, but who also has a few things that are quite different to you or in opposition to what you believe. Go stay with them, and now you have some specific things to talk about and learn and grow on. We want to push people to take on that challenge and to see their differences and similarities with people. After the experience we will able to assess the impact, by asking questions such as, “Do you have more appreciation now for these topics?” We will also try to quantify how much understanding they reached on a particular topic.
  • On the third level, we will challenge our members to find people they don’t agree with, and to go and stay with that person. We will be able to find out how people go about building trust and overcoming differences in these circumstances. That will be posed as the ultimate challenge to the couchsurfer and we want to inspire millions of people to experience that process.

I don’t know a place in the world that gives everybody the opportunity to say, “I want to meet someone different from me and learn from it.” That is a better world right there.

RB: What advice would you give social entrepreneurs who have an idea that they want to make a reality?

CF: Do something you are passionate about and can see yourself loving for many years. And find a mentor who is an experienced business person with a great heart.

Rachel Botsman


Rachel Botsman

Rachel Botsman is the co-author of a book with Roo Rogers called What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption (Harper Collins 2010). Is it about how virtual