I’d selected Fielding and my other hosts after scrolling through hundreds of profiles, winnowing out those whose narratives included “party,” “vegan,” and “free spirit,” and the phrases “I believe in the journey,” “Never stop learning, never stop loving,” and “Burning Man.” Among those to whom I did not write “couch requests” were a “travelling magician and professional fool” from New Mexico; a sixty-three-year-old gay semi-retired handyman in Pahoa, Hawaii, whose mission is “looking for more nudists”… another Hawaiian, this one describing himself as “just a guy who has three acres of land, living in a shipping container house”; a woman in Bozeman, Montana, who declared that her “home is oppression-free. Yay!” and also contains high-speed Wi-Fi…
So begins the endless cataloging of one woman’s No-Go list in her search for a couch surfing host. The self-descriptions within this community, just like any new irony-laden, tech-savvy, profile-toting service these days, is laden with, well, self-justifying self-descriptions. Patricia Marx’s insights on these descriptions, though, do an insightful (and hilarious) job of it. When presented with the opportunity to commune with folks in a distanced context, without actually having to have been known by them, allows them to commune instead with an idea of themselves, an idea of community, an idea of good-natured hospitality. Just like the Atlantic said last week, just like Portlandia continues to show us–the dotcom hipster ethic is one rooted in a gussied-up notion of who we are and what we can offer. It doesn’t take us long, though, before we find out in our searches that we’re just a bunch of weirdos. Weirdos we don’t trust. Even what we think people might find sublimely hospitable (that we’d yearn to stay in an “Oppression-Free” home) ends up just sounding oppressive.
Marx goes on to narrate her most recent CouchSurfing excursion, and she sets us up for yet another nay-saying barrage against the well-intentioned lovetarian community, the feces-composters, the Bangladexicans… and she doesn’t. Her CouchSurfing experience disarms her, and not in the traditional sense. She’s wary of the idealism in its inauthenticity, she’s wary of the puppeteering life-journey narratives and life-mastery diagrams. She is, though, providing an insight on what people still crave despite the cheap loneliness that the internet has provided. The social media enterprise is calling back something lost–CouchSurfing is trying to bring it back inside. She’s not denying these are weirdos, she’s just saying that she’s one too–and realizing that makes anyone a visitor and anyone paradoxically at home. Still, I don’t really like it. I think it sounds weird. I mean, weird. It sounds, as Marx points out, that maybe it’s an Eat, Pray, Love sort of idealized community-of-experiencers-and-adventurers, a “game of pinball, you score points by bumping up against as any of them as possible.” Yea, that’s weird. And the last two sentences of the piece get at that. But what kind of love-longing’s behind that?
Oh, and there’s CouchSurfing in Bermuda.
“This is the last thing you want to hear when you’re couch surfing,” said my host, Cortney Fielding, a thirty-year-old freelance writer, when I arrived, this winter, at her one-bedroom apartment in the Nob Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. “Couch surfing” refers to the practice of temporarily lodging with a stranger—free of charge, unless you count being incessantly sociable as payment. Fielding and I, along with 3,965,492 others, are members of CouchSurfing.org, a hospitality-exchange network that pairs travellers looking for a place to crash with locals willing to accommodate them or perhaps just meet for a beverage. There are members in every country, including North Korea, Pakistan, and the Vatican, and also in Antarctica. They speak, all told, three hundred and sixty-five languages—Saramaccan, Yapese, Quiché, and Nicaraguan Sign Language, to name some I bet you are not fluent in. The WikiLeaker Julian Assange belonged to CouchSurfing.
I do not find the concept of consorting with unknown persons appealing. (Is it for people who have no friends? How do you know the sheets are clean? What is it with people always wanting to get together? What happened to “Never talk to strangers”?) Still, I joined CouchSurfing recently, and I surfed in four cities on seven couches (actually, beds, mostly). Fielding and her husband, Andy Storch (he was out of town on business when I visited), are three-year veterans. “Like most Americans, we have two weeks of vacation, so we don’t get to travel much,” Fielding explained. “If we can’t go to the world, the world will come to us. So, when we’re feeling a little bored, we think, All right, why don’t we have someone from the Netherlands visit? It’s like a blind date where the person brings his toothbrush.” Fielding and Storch, who typically take in guests every month, recently hosted a dumpster-diving couple from Canada and had just said yes to some Australians.
…When I told friends that I would be sleeping in the company of strangers, the second most frequent question they asked was “How do you know you’re not going to be bludgeoned to death in the middle of the night?” The most frequent question was “What about bedbugs?” Regarding the latter, I have not come across a single mention on the Web site of these pests, so, New Yorkers, get over your paranoia. As for safety concerns, a twenty-nine-year-old woman from Hong Kong was raped when she travelled to Leeds in 2009. There have been less dire violations reported, too, such as burglaries and harassment, but Daniel Hoffer, the company’s C.E.O. and co-founder, who is thirty-four, says that, statistically speaking, couch surfing is remarkably safe. “We have had over six million positive experiences, with only a tiny fraction of one per cent negative,” he told me at the groovy new CouchSurfing headquarters, in San Francisco, a double-level aqua-and-orange-painted loft sheltering seventeen couches and two swings suspended from a roof beam.
O.K., but what happens if Jack the Ripper signs up? There are three protective measures, each indicated on a member’s profile. First, for a credit-card payment of twenty-five dollars, the Web site will verify your name and address (which means that a member can be certain she is hosting the real Ripper, and not an impostor). Another feature, “the vouch,” is a sort of seal of trustworthiness conferred upon a member, say, Jack, by another member, say, Mrs. Ripper. Only members who have been vouched for three times have the power to issue such an endorsement. The most helpful security information, however, is the references that hosts and guests are encouraged to write about each other after every rendezvous. According to a 2010 study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, the ratio of positive to negative evaluations is twenty-five hundred to one. Still, an astute reader can read between the lines in an assessment like “Jack has an awesome collection of steak knives” or “He can put out a fire really fast.” Given these safeguards, it is unlikely that anyone on CouchSurfing could get away with murder more than once. How comforting.
My next hotelier, cicerone, and instant buddy in Iowa City, Deborah Yarchun (age twenty-six), was neither verified nor vouched for, but she had thirteen gushing references. A strawberry blonde dressed in black who rides a unicycle and does micrography, making drawings composed of tiny words, Yarchun is pursuing an M.F.A. at the Iowa Playwrights Workshop. Over morning coffee at the Prairie Lights bookstore, she explained that she joined CouchSurfing after she moved to Iowa, in 2010, and missed having roommates. “The first time I lived alone, I lasted three days before I bought a hamster,” she said. “CouchSurfing is perfect, because I can share my space a day at a time.”
…Has our relation with machines made us feel so deprived of human contact that we befriend anyone and shack up with whoever has a mattress? Moreover, how profound can a social connection be if it is arranged through paperwork and typically lasts only a day or two? “It’s sad when they leave,” Sommer, one of my San Francisco hosts, said. “But then you get another one.” People, it seems, are becoming fungible, and, as in a game of pinball, you score points by bumping up against as many of them as possible.Does CouchSurfing represent something new, then, or is it simply an Internet-enabled version of the age-old practice of crashing with the friend of a friend of a neighbor of a third cousin of someone you sat next to on a bus? When I was young, I hitchhiked through Europe, staying with strangers I met along the way. I was just looking for a place to crash; I did not expect to find soul mates or playdates. Contrast this with the remarks of a cheesemonger in New York, who wrote in his profile, “I’m in this for the relationship and the person, NOT just the free place to sleep.” Or the thirty-three-year-old real-estate agent in New York, who warns anyone contemplating him as a host, “If you are not fun, social, cool, not looking to go out and enjoy the nightlife of NYC, please request elsewhere, I do not want someone that goes to bed at 10pm. Sorry.” On a loftier plane, consider the official objectives of CouchSurfing: “Our goal,” the company’s Web site says, “is nothing less than changing the world.” I think it has.
My place? I’d love to have you, but we’re sanding the floors and the fish has the flu.