The more I use CouchSurfing, the more amazed by the idea, but especially by *how well couch-surfing works* I get. It's one of the prime examples of how the communications revolution facilitated by the Internet has genuinely changed the way people interact and actually do things - do things in real life rather than just things online.
For those who have not heard about CouchSurfing, here is a quick run-down: it's an Internet-based hospitality network, where people offer a place to sleep to travellers for free. This is the essential idea and this is really what CouchSurfing is about. There is a website, there is a big, growing and active community around it, there is a multitude of forums and sub-groups for people to interact on, exchange travel tips, advice or just socialise, there are meets and events. But at the core of it all is this fundamental idea of opening your home to strangers that need a roof over their head, with no expectation of payment.
I was talking about it to another CouchSurfer one day and we agreed that the CouchSurfing website makes it possible, in the 21st century, to practice the old virtue of hospitality as it was practised in so called olden days, where a traveller could knock on anybody's door and expect to be put up for the night. CouchSurfing is thus essentially post-modern phenomenon, in the best sense of the word. According to the CouchSurfing website, it is "not about the furniture, not just about finding free accommodations around the world; it's about making connections worldwide. We make the world a better place by opening our homes, our hearts, and our lives." And although very gushy and somehow reeking of new-age California, this is actually, well, true!
Set up by a once-backpacker and a son of hippie travellers, the website now boasts members over 1.5 million members in over 200 countries, offering close to 900,000 "couches" and reporting over 3 million "positive experiences" (of which in a moment).
The website itself is simple enough, but very usable and seems to have enough to make it interesting and easy for people to participate without becoming too heavy or turning into a social networking site.
Every member has a profile, on which they can (but don't have to) place their photo(s), a description and the way they want to participate in the project: this can be either by offering a "couch" (i.e. being prepared, in principle, to host people) or by showing willingness to meet "for coffee or drink" or by just joining and marking oneself as "unavailable" or "travelling".
This profile forms the first, basic level of security - I would be reluctant to host or stay with a person who has neither a photo nor any information about themselves in their profile.
There are other safeguards, though: you can get verified (you make a small payment to the website, this depends on the country and in the UK was 10 GBP) and via that your address and name get checked with the card company and are thus confirmed.
The main way to enhance security is, though, through system of references, or feedback, that members leave for each other. This is simple and helpful, allowing the hosts and the "surfers" to report on their experiences as positive, negative or neutral. Hugely overwhelming (over 99%) majority of the references are positive. Hard to believe? I can't judge - as my own experience is tiny and probably atypical sample, but of the experiences we did have all were positive, and most significantly better than expected.
In addition to references, there is also a higher-level of positive feedback, in which members can be vouched by others, but only such that have been vouched for by three people before. The "vouch" is a harder accolade to achieve than a positive reference and people with more vouches tend to be those that travel or host a lot.
As for our experience, we have hosted several people in our house in Perth - and each encounter was enriching, while some seriously inspirational. We are now travelling around Canada as a family of four, with two children, mainly CouchSurfing, and the whole experience - so far (we have done about 20 days, of which only two were in hotels) has been simply amazing. The level of hospitality, trust and openness has not ceased to astonish me (despite the fact that I did similar things when hosting people). We were picked up at bus stations at midnight, given daily lifts from the Metro, had our kids taken off our hands for a few hours, had breakfast cooked for us, were even provided with packed lunch of sorts (never asked for) and shared numerous meals, bottles of beer, hours of conversation and company. None of these are required in principle by the CouchSurfing system, but people just do it. As another CouchSurfer said "it's like a secret society of really nice, honest, genuine and generous people".
We try to be decent guests, keeping the space we are given clean, we also buy food and cook at least one meal for our hosts. If we stay longer, we also get gifts for our hosts (or at least their children). But again, none of this is required.
In some places you will be offered a floor, in others an en-suite bedroom with fluffy pillows (the profiles describe what the host offers). Some hosts will want to socialise with you, some will be happy just to provide the bed. You create the CouchSurfing experience yourself - and it will be as varied as people who host and who surf, but it has over 99% chance of being positive.