Center for a Stateless Society
A Left Market Anarchist Think Tank & Media Center
Couchsurfing: Mutual Aid 2.0

Couchsurfing epitomizes a modern and hip mutual aid society.  Couchsurfing.org is an online network of just under two million users which connects hosts and travelers from around the world in order to facilitate cultural exchange, provide free hospitality through local hosts, and to make the world a better place “one couch at a time.”  As opposed to paying for a hotel, one can search through profiles and request to stay at a local’s home without payment for a specific amount of time.  This often results in travelers getting off of the tourist’s beaten path and being able to access a hidden world not privy to most wanderers.

It just so happens that Couchsurfing promotes anarchist values because:

  • It is a free and voluntary service, often done in the hopes of future reciprocation or indirect benefit.
  • It does not aggress against those outside of the Couchsurfing relationship.
  • Its problems are primarily solved through dispute resolution, incentives, and reputation gain/loss as opposed to aggression or coercion.

This project is largely ordered by a system in which users are ranked by trustworthiness, commitment to the project, and by any positive or negative feedback (or lack thereof), in the same vein as Ebay’s user-rating system.

Security Measures of the Network:

One creates a profile so people will surf or host them, or (hopefully) both.  In an effort to make people feel comfortable about interacting with them, one will voluntarily fill out their profile completely, add friends of theirs one know from other places to write references for them, and pay to become verified.

For a $25 donation to the website, CS will charge one’s credit card, making sure they are who they say they are, and will send a letter to the address provided to make sure one lives where they say they live.  While this does not necessarily guarantee safety, it does ensure that if any grounds for concern arose the authorities would know quite a bit of information about the surfer/host in question.  It also makes other network trust this user more, increasing the chances of a successful mutual connection.

If for any reason either participant does not feel comfortable once the relationship has commenced, the host can ask their guest to leave or the surfer can leave as soon as it is prudent to do so.

One of the stronger safety devices built into the network is a system of vouching.  This process originated through the website’s administrators giving some of the most successful and active Couchsurfers an ability to ‘vouch’ for other members on the network whom they trusted very much.  In order to gain the ability to vouch for others, one must be vouched for at least three times.  In vouching for a member, one is staking one’s personal reputation guaranteeing the legitimacy and credibility of the vouchee.

In an effort to avoid any unpleasantness, I usually only surf or accept requests to host people who share my interests, have made an effort to completely join the network, have not tipped off my instincts, and have made me feel safe about interacting with them through their participation in the security features.

The more of these safety measures a user has voluntarily utilized, the more likely they are to be trusted and welcomed.  There is more to be said about the security features, available here.

If some host or surfer put the other in danger or made them feel very uncomfortable, but not in a way that would warrant calling the police, the relationship could be immediately ended. The aggressor’s actions could be reported to the Couchsurfing administrators by the victim if it were serious enough, but the victim would first privately list the aggressor as an untrustworthy user and then write an honest public reference warning of the antics they experienced.  This would seriously jeopardize any attempt the violator would have at future participation in the network in a decentralized way, and is based upon information instead of force.  In other words, ostracism plays an enormous role in the network.

One of the main reasons Couchsurfing exists is because it has not been crowded out by the state’s intrusion.  For hospitality there are currently a few options:

  • Rent a room/bed at a bed & breakfast, hotel, hostel, etc.
  • Camp
  • Urban camp/squat
  • Stay with family/friends
  • Couchsurfing/other hospitality networks

Imagine for a moment that the government declared there to be a “hospitality shortage,” and that to make up for the ‘deficiency’ of markets, private institutions, and voluntary networks, all travelers would be guaranteed space at the destination.  The use of force to implement this dictum would eliminate the ability for Couchsurfing and the other private organizations to realistically compete.  Obviously, far fewer people would pay to stay at hotels, because one could easily become a mandated house guest without personal cost through the government.  The same would be true of Couchsurfing.  Why would one ask if they may please visit on these specific dates when one can legally tell their unwilling hosts, “like it or not, we’re coming!”

Couchsurfing is a great example of how free individuals voluntarily seek to help one another without the use of the state.  I have surfed in many places in the United States and have hosted people from all over the world, soaking up quite a bit of knowledge and remarkable memories in the process.  If Couchsurfing probably wouldn’t have come into existence if the government were ‘providing’ hospitality, one can only imagine what would spontaneously emerge to fill our needs if the government were not providing other services at the barrel of a gun.  We can only guess in the meantime, but I plan on finding out how a stateless society would look in my lifetime.