Casey Fenton is cultivating trust and appreciation of difference through a global travel community that facilitates one-on-one interactions with strangers, orchestrated at mass scale.
The New Idea
Casey is reshaping the experience of travel and using it to essentially reset society’s default to trust, appreciation of difference, and inclusivity. Through CouchSurfing, travelers and hosts of all sorts and backgrounds find each other and arrange free home stays, averaging five nights. The matching is orchestrated via the Internet, and the community is reinforced off-line by lively weekly meet-ups of hosts and travelers in many major cities across the world. Open to anyone who can access the website, the community is anchored by guiding principles and various measures, such as rating features that ensure that as the community grows, it adds intelligence, self-regulates wisely, and supports personal safety for traveler and host. While the average participant age is 28, members hail from every age group, participating as single travelers, pairs, and even as families. If a participant cannot travel for whatever reason—financial hardship, disability, and so on—the experience comes to them through the active role of hosting a traveler in their home. Begun in 2004, CouchSurfing engages over 2 million participants from nearly every country, democratizes travel and encourages CouchSurfing-enabled experiences to foster empathy and advance global citizenship.
While our world is becoming ever more global, our growing interconnectedness does not necessarily foster tolerance or translate into increased trust among people. The events of 9/11 moved many Americans in the opposite direction, causing many to react with fear and encounter strangers—particularly strangers from different cultural backgrounds—with unease. Watch your bag. Suspect your fellow passenger. Be on alert. Add to this elevated mistrust-of-other the trend toward customization in many areas of life. Many tools, online and off-line, allow users to assert preferences—useful in many respects, but there’s a danger that people will tune out difference altogether and further insulate themselves from viewpoints and people they do not like, or in many cases, simply do not have occasion to understand. Travel can offer a profound experience of seeing and being inside another life, another place, another way of living. Direct contact, face-to-face conversation, and the experience of hosting or being hosted can result in more tolerance and acceptance than any media campaign could ever hope to effect. Yet the experience of travel has become so contrived and boxed in as to lose its transformative potential. Even those who can afford to travel are often limited by the ways and means of traditional tourism. Tourists drive to the next state or fly thousands of miles to visit exotic cultures only to stay in sterile hotel rooms and visit postcard-approved monuments. While most travelers want to have meaningful interactions with the people of the places they visit, the industry is set up to substantially shield the traveler from the experience and appreciation of difference.
Numerous cultural exchange programs have managed to break down the barriers, but these services tend to be expensive, focus on students, and facilitate singular experiences for a set period of time. Such efforts have important social impact, but most are exclusive to an elite group of people who can afford to participate. Even where institutions provide the experience to a disadvantaged population, they are limited by the time and money required to identify participants and homestay hosts and to facilitate the program. Importantly, the parameters of these programs, rather than the individual participants, drive the experience.
In the current digital age, the obvious next step in the evolution of exchange programs and fee-based hospitality services has been the migration to a vastly more scalable online infrastructure. A few of these services have made the transition and grown their membership to a degree, but their fundamentally closed nature has not changed and continues to limit their reach. Others have created a hospitality infrastructure but have lost the values-driven element to traditional exchange programs.
CouchSurfing is continuously developing new ways to encourage people into more and deeper interactions and experiences, and monitoring closely what is happening and what is working. Those who are interested in the CouchSurfing mission but not yet willing or able to surf or host overnight can start by offering to merely meet up for a conversation. Those who do not know of or care about the CouchSurfing mission and are merely looking for free accommodation are also welcome to join the community. In either case, CouchSurfing creates a fun environment that encourages people to explore within the community. The team has created a particular volunteer role, Ambassadors, for veteran couchsurfers who viscerally understand the CouchSurfing mission and serve as promoters of that mission wherever they are in the world. Among other things, Ambassadors organize local gatherings of couchsurfers, providing an opportunity for hosts and travelers to socialize as a group, and thus making possible interactions beyond that between one host and one traveler. Casey is tracking the types of experiences people are having in order to develop CouchSurfing into a learning institution in empathy-building and intercultural understanding.
Furthermore, CouchSurfing is planning new initiatives that build off of the host and surf platform. CouchSurfing Cares will use the platform to connect persons who are displaced from their homes by natural disasters with hosts who can take them in for an extended stay. CouchSurfing University will connect young people who want to experiment with different career tracks with hosts who they can shadow temporarily in different professions.
Casey launched and helps run CouchSurfing through an innovative, resourceful, and mission-aligned “collective” model, through which he attracts highly skilled staff. In its first few years, from 2006 to 2010, CouchSurfing did not have a permanent location or paid staff. They set up temporary collectives in different cities around the world for a few months at a time. These collectives were live-work environments, where volunteers were drawn by the opportunity to travel to a new place and have all their basic needs met in return for their time and skills. Once open to anyone who wanted to contribute, as the organization has grown, CouchSurfing has developed a highly competitive recruitment process and is establishing several permanent collectives in different parts of the world. Using its new virtual workplace model, the team continues to innovate tools to make CouchSurfing experiences as positive and high-impact as possible.
Due to his family’s financial situation, Casey did not get to travel much growing up, and when he left home for college on the other side of the country, he was filled with a sense of adventure and passion for life. Restless in his hometown (i.e. he grew up in small-town New Hampshire), he finished high school in three years so that he could get out on his own. While college was inspiring, he left to start an Internet company and see how people lived in other parts of the world. As he traveled, he sought opportunities to interact with different people, places, and perspectives, but he found that the travel infrastructure disallowed meaningful connections and authentic interactions.
On a trip to Iceland, he tried something different: He sent an email to 1,500 university students in Reykjavik introducing himself and sharing his interest in staying with a local for a week. Several students responded, inviting Casey into their home. He found in the experience a new and transformative way to connect with people living in a place very different from his home.
Wanting to positively shape the world, Casey then worked for legislators and candidates for political office in Alaska. But a core insight had evolved from his Iceland experience and he began to feel more powerfully drawn to creating a community designed to foster appreciation of difference, a quality he felt was especially needed at this moment. Casey pulled together a team of co-founders, and after experimenting with a closed network, they opened it up to the world, inviting everyone to be a CouchSurfer.