Surfing the Web of Trust: Couchsurfing

On: September 27, 2010
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About Frank Molenaar
Born in 1986, Frank graduated from Stedelijk Gymnasium Arnhem in 2005. After a year off studying art history at the Vrije Universiteit decided to join the Media and Culture New Media department. For his bachelorproject he worked for Westergasfabriek to create a GPS game based in the Westerpark. Very sceptical and highly nostalgic, Frank is an avid doomsday specialist, conspiracy theorist and classic nintendo game collector. Also served in the salvation army as m60 machine gun operator. Enjoys: Orwell, Adams, Thompson, Vonnegut


Social networks come in a wide variety on the World Wide Web. There’s the generic social network focusing on sharing info and multimedia with your friends (like facebook), professional sites (LinkedIn), forums, collaborative blogs and so on. Most of these sites serve the purpose of staying in touch or getting in touch with people you met off-line and want to stay in touch with on the web.

An example of a social networking site does exactly the opposite of this is Couchsurfing. Through this service travelers can come into contact with people who live in the area they are visiting. The travelers can then request a place to spend the night or nights with one of  the local hosts. If he or she agrees to shelter the travelers they officially “surf their couch” – though beds and airmatresses count as well.

The only services I can think of using the same strategy of meeting one another are dating sites. In a sense couchsurfing is sort of a dating site when you think about it, except that the reason for establishing contact is not a romantic one. Researchers who looked into the motivations for helping one another finding a place to stay discovered a variety of different reasons behind it and they were not all purely altruistic: Some admit they use the service to boost their self esteem, or have joined because of the Generalized reciprocity (giving something away for free without expecting anything in return) the system uses.(1) This last bit always reminds me of the open source movement and its ideology. The people who are building Linux and OpenOffice or all those Wikipedia contributors spending a lot of time developing products everyone can use for free.

And if you look at it like that, in combination with the fact that couchsurfing has spread all over the world, it’s difficult not to think of it as a decentralised global network that combines an on-line social community with an off-line open source network! Think about hotels and hostels as Microsoft and Apple. Instead of buying these products you use the free service (couchsurfing) and by hosting people yourself you contribute to the project, and because there’s no need for programming skills AT ALL: everyone can do it!

This open source character has other benefits as well: You come into contact with people from all over the world who, obviously, all have different characters, beliefs and ideologies. In couchsurfing both guests and host can share their experiences which enriches their own knowledge better than any social network where you might find people you don’t know but that’s usualy because you have a similar interest already (or else you wouldn’t be at that specific site). In 1997 Eric S. Raymond wrote the following on open source programming which just as well suits the couchsurfing community’s ethics and ideologies about traveling:

“The next best thing to having good ideas is recognizing good ideas from your users. Sometimes the latter is better.” (2)

What is also interesting in this respect is the way people find eachother on Couchsurfing. Anyone can make a profile but just that will probably not sort in a lot of requests to surf your couch. The main way to get a good profile is by the comments others make on it. Former hosts or guests can leave reviews about their/your stay and say whether or not they had a positive or negative experience with you. This system of recommendations also reminds me of the open source movement where people will recommend your work if they like it and when they do your stuff will be at the top of the list.

As Caverlee, Lui and Webb notice in their studies of online grading systems of recomendation; a system like this qualiatative reviewing one constitutes a way better form of trust from one to the other than a quantitative one like Pagerank or Trustrank which just counts how many people (or bots) gave it a thumbs up(3). And trust is still what people allows this surfing of couches. Just as a user needs to trust software from a random developer they will need to build their trust on. As for me, I’m surfing on!


(1)D. Constant, L. Sproull, and S. Kiesler. “The kindness of strangers: The usefulness of electronic weak ties for technical advice,” Organization Science: 1996, pp. 119-135.

(2)Eric S. Raymond. The Cathedral & the Bazaar. O’Reilly, 1997. Retrieved on september 24th, 2010.

(3)J. Caverlee, L. Liu, and S. Webb. “SocialTrust: Tamper-resilient trust establishment in online communities”. ACM New York: 2008, pp. 104-114.

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