My Work: cultivating trust and appreciation of differences through a global travel community.
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.
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.