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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    (Couch) Surf’s up!

    Christina Jelly columnist
    Christina Jelly
    columnist

    Imagine not having to stress about accommodation costs on your next road trip or journey abroad. Rather than scouring the Internet for the best deal on a cheap hostel or pitching a flimsy tent in questionable terrain, you are welcomed into the home of a warm, down-to-earth local at absolutely no cost.

    That’s the idea behind The CouchSurfing Project – the brainchild of former computer programmer Casey Fenton. The online hospitality network connects travelers with hosts willing to share their couches for a night, a week or sometimes much longer.

    Based on the ubiquitous social network paradigm of Facebook or MySpace, CouchSurfing.com allows members to create profiles revealing interests, hobbies and the accompanying litany of idiosyncratic categories we use to define our individual digital personalities.

    Yet CouchSurfing is unique in its definitive ambition of bringing people together offline – as a host, you allow a stranger to enter the privacy of your home, and as a surfer, you consent to sleeping in the house of an unknown person. At first, the concept seems radical, if not entirely stupid – an idea completely anachronistic in a generation more familiar with the guarded vigilance and mutual cynicism spawned by the likes of “”America’s Most Wanted”” than the utopian delusions epitomized by Kerouac’s “”On the Road.””

    Nevertheless, the phenomenon has caught on. Since its creation in 2003, more than 360,000 members in 220 countries have participated in more than half a million positive CouchSurfing experiences, either as a host or surfer. The modern twist on traditional hospitality was spawned by founder Fenton’s last-minute trip to Reykjavik. With only four days to explore Iceland and no connections to speak of, Fenton hacked into the University of Iceland student directory and spammed 1,500 students with the come-on: “”I’m coming on Friday. I want to see the real Iceland. Will you show me your country?”” More than 50 responses, an unforgettable trip and five years later, CouchSurfing has evolved from an individual encounter to a global movement.

    Fenton emphasizes CouchSurfing isn’t just about a free place to crash: “”We want to create memorable, intense experiences, to put the right people together in the right situation at the right time.”” Sanctioned freeloading may be the initial draw, but the promise of cross-cultural connectivity and understanding has created a devoted following of travelers rethinking the way we travel and network online.

    The success of Web sites like MySpace, Facebook and YouTube embodies the unprecedented global connectivity made possible by the Internet. Yet in the face of such rampant worldwide communication that reaches nearly every corner of the planet, Americans are increasingly feeling isolated. According to a joint Duke-UA sociological study, Americans generally feel more isolated; the number of people with whom we discuss important issues has dropped from three to two, and the number of people saying they have no one to discuss important matters with has nearly tripled since 1985. Why do we generally feel more isolated when we can literally connect with anyone, anywhere, at anytime?

    Despite the deluge of communications technologies, our circle has effectively shrunk. Social networking sites ostensibly foster dialogue among diverse people with common interests, but for the most part, they merely recapitulate our existing social networks. The potential for global conversation has been supplanted by inside jokes and exhibitionist profile-crafting.

    That’s what makes CouchSurfing so unique – people are actually meeting people and bridging previously inviolable cultural boundaries. With a slew of safeguards including a personal vouching system, references, evaluations, testimonials and an optional credit card verification system, CouchSurfing undertakes to create such connections without threatening member safety. Just as the anonymity of the Internet gave rise to the trust-establishing mechanisms which make eBay so successful, CouchSurfing relies on its members to vouch for one another. Since the process is entirely consensual with hosts and surfers working out the duration, nature and terms of stay, the online social network simply serves as the channel to bring the people together.

    Yet, the more couchsurfing grows, the less self-selection will occur within its ranks. With all the young women traveling alone, it may take only one harmful encounter to question the viability of such an ideal concept that largely relies on the often deceptive goodwill of strangers. The site’s motto exemplifies such optimism: “”Participate in Creating a Better World, One Couch at a Time.””

    Whether the driving motivation behind CouchSurfing is delusional romanticism or a pragmatic hope in fostering cross-cultural exchange, in an era of cheap airfares, accessible visas and burgeoning tour industries in even conflict-ridden Myanmar and the Congo, the chance to penetrate the sanctity of the home tests the boundaries of even the most intrepid traveler. As such, it holds the opportunity to revolutionize not only the way we travel and network online but also how we come to understand diverse people and places.

    Christina Jelly is a senior majoring in biochemistry and philosophy. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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