Couchsurfing Conflict

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Case study of a conflict between a company and a community


It transpires that Couchsurfing is emerging as a case study on how a company attempts to mobilize volunteers but then botches up the relation with the community, offering them no real power of participation, considering them merely as free labor; or at least, this is how it is perceived by a significant group of the volunteers that were involved.

This story of course also would need to be told from the point of view of the core staff of the CS project, but in any case; two conflicting and countervailing logics were at play, and they did not succeed in finding common ground.

Here are some details from

In the entry, Couchsurfing 2.0 is dead, we can read:

“An appropriate system for a hospitality exchange network will not rise from the ashes of CS 2.0: Today the Newsletter Wanderlust was published, announcing the expansion of hired manpower. I guess, it’s not wrong to call it CS 3.0, the short blossom of CS 2.0 and the chance to open the whole network is over.

We have to face the fact: CS is a company and simply can do what it does. We are “only” users of a (so far free) service offered by a company, not members of an open network. There is no such thing like participation in CS and in consequence the field “How I Participate in CS2″ on the profile pages should be ditched.”

User Maria chips in, in the comment field, expressing the comments of those who felt exploited:

“Why didn’t they say so from the begginning?

Why didn’t they introduce CS as a company to new members and Not as a community? Why did they call for help all those volunteers to build up the site together, when all they wanted was free-workers?

(you don’t have the right to speak up and decide about cs- matters but your valuable time and efford are most welcome)

Why didn’t they say “ok, the COMPANY is such and such, managed by those people, you are a CLIENT and to use this company’s service you have to pay 10 euros annually, and we’ll provide you the best service there is in hospitallity networks. If you face any problems with the servers- down, security issues or other possible hazards for you due to the use of our services you have every legal right to ask for a compensation or even to sue the company.”

Commercial as it may seem, it’s very honest and the role of each participant is clear and fair.

- Do they think that cs would have evolved in such a great network if it wasn’t for the simple members/ volunteers contributions??

OK. One guy had this exellent idea, but who worked to make this a reality?

- Do they think that if people like us (humble members) weren’t willing to open their houses to the guests, this could actually work??

- Of course not! We (also) provide the product “hospitality” and giving it for free. We can do that anyway, with or without cs.

Anyway, I’ve made a profil on BeWelcome, as well.

And from now on, trust me, i’ll keep my ideas to myself or use them for my family’s/ dear friends projects who i know are going to make some good use of it.”

User Matrixpoint then explains that the conflict started after the refusal of the CS staff to put development work in an open source format, even requiring the signing of a non-disclosure agreement:

“I decided to volunteer at

There are now 5 former CS developers volunteering for, among a total of 30 already. The website only went online in February. I look forward to working again with Kasper and my other former colleagues, as well as the others in BW who appear to really get the hospitality concept.

The catalyst that triggered our departure was primarily the NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement), but also other issues connected with the LT, like the decision not to make the CS code open source.

No one in BeWelcome will be making a buck off our work. It is a volunteer run organization. Period. Our work will be contributed in the spirit of generosity characteristic of the hospitality movement. It will be available free of charge to other organizations, because the BW volunteer developers decided that unanimously.

When we were working for CS, not only did Casey (and now Jim and Matthew) financially benefit from our generosity (and that of every other CS volunteer and host), but they also wanted exclusive rights to our work so that neither we, personally, nor any other organization could benefit from it.

Now, any work that we do can be used by CS or anyone else. If CS chooses to incorporate some of our code, they won’t be allowed to claim ownership of it, although Casey and the others will still be able to make a buck from it, to the extent that it makes CS a better site and brings in more revenue. Perhaps they would use the increased revenue to increase their salaries or to create more paid positions for the elite of CouchSurfing.

We don’t mind that someone can make a buck off our work. We give it freely anyway. What we minded was that that was not enough for Casey and the others. They didn’t want anyone outside of CS to get any benefit from our work, including us, other organizations or future employers of ours. I’m not only referring to the code itself, but to any creative ideas or innovative solutions to problems we might have had while writing the code.

How does their attitude square with the spirit of generosity that characterizes the hospitality movement? No wonder they don’t want elections in CS.”

There is a lot more in the comments field about what triggered the disappointment of the volunteers." (

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