Shows 2008 1027

Monday mornings I'm on the air sharing more stories about how people are living better through computers. I'll tuck field notes from those shows right here. You'll also be able to dig into the archives to explore previous shows as I determine how best to share some of the highlights of the past 9 year's worth of adventures.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Using Web Surfing to Inexpensively Couch Surf Your Way Around the World

If you're looking for a fun way to add a little adventure to your life without the big cost you might want to turn web surfing into couch surfing. A young man who used the Internet to book a cheap flight from Boston to Iceland for a "weekend trip" on a whim found himself desperate for a place to stay, and in turning back to the Internet wound up creating both a successful and highly rated alternative travel experience web site.

While you've probably heard about "hostels" as an inexpensive way of launching a soul trek, chances are you haven't considered "exotic couches". This week I'm going to share a bit about an interesting web site community called the Couch Surfing Project and how it might be an inexpensive way to experience new cultures and people around the world.

What is the "Couch Surfing" project?

A close friend of mine has really enjoyed his experiences "hostelling" across Ireland and the U.S., and recently told me that he was considering "couch surfing". When he told me that it was a form of alternative travel based on free accommodations in other peoples' homes, and often literally on their couches, my first reaction was "you've got to be kidding!? That sounds dangerous!" Never one to simply leave a rabbit hole on the web unexplored, I decided to find out for myself what had made him consider this as an exciting new form of alternative travel.

A young man named Casey Fenton was leaving home in New Hampshire and heading for Finland, but finding himself without a place to stay. Being web savvy he decided to reach out through the Internet to see if someone might be willing to offer their couch. He ended up with almost 100 replies. What began as a problem finding accommodations inverted itself: who would he choose to stay with? This was a turning point for Casey who has since travelled back and forth across the U.S. Many times, and also around the world. He ended up creating a web site that not only helped other travellers safely connect with free accommodations through a network of trusted host sites, but engage in educational exchanges that helped promote a sense of global cultural tolerance at a time when that is a real challenge.

What kinds of places can you travel to and find these sorts of free accommodations?

If you're simply travelling some place close to home, the web site makes it easy to tap into a fairly large network of trusted "hosts". Looking for something more international? Why not try their "exotic couches" program:

When I first started looking into this my own "aha!" moment came from my desire to travel to Peru, but being more than a little paralysed with fear because of the dangerous climate spawned in political corruption and fatal crimes. I wondered if it was possible to find a "local" who might have a sense of the ropes, who might help me explore what was safe, know what to avoid, find the truly meaningful places to visit in the country's rich culture off the usual tourist beaten path? This brought me to the digital doorstep of a 27 year old marketing guru who lives with her mother and grandmother, has ant-eaters and who has cultivated a reputation as a generous and humble host, welcoming people into her home and teaching them how to cook the local dishes.

My first reaction was: "a family of women! This must be safer!" Perhaps more than a little naive, but it got me excited enough to dig deeper into the possibilities of this kind of alternative travel.

Wouldn't it be considered dangerous both for the host, taking a stranger into their house, and for the guest, staying with a stranger?

That was of course the very first thought that made a skeptic of me when I first heard about this web site, and what impressed me most about the project once I found the answer:

The "Couch Surfing Project" is based on a "reputation system" similar to what the founders of eBay put in place. Guests rate the hosts that they stay with, and hosts rate the surfers (guests). At the simplest level this kind of user-based reference system offers a sense of where there are safer opportunities that fit your own needs. The more ratings a host or surfer. Of course I wondered how new people entering the project were able to offer some sense of safety when they had no ratings. This is where the projects "verification" system comes in, inviting hosts to go through a series of steps to validate where they live and who they are, offering a sense of authenticity to begin from. Ratings, references and member "vouching" are the main things upon which a network of trust has been built, and their commitment to this sense of safety has resulted in a customer satisfaction rating of 99.8% in a network of more than half a million hosts, with almost 2 million positive experiences.

Has checking this project out made you want to try this yourself, Sue?

I have to admit that I'm surprised to hear myself saying "yes", but I am! I find myself wanting to try out this "couch surfing". I've had some bad experiences in the past that leave me on the paranoid side when it comes to travelling by myself, but I find the more I dig into this particular project the more excited I get. While ideally I would love to take that trip to Peru, and this seems like an excellent way to do it, I'll likely start out in a small way close to home and begin to network with other people who are writers and artists, people with whom I have something truly in common so that I'd not only benefit from the experience but would have something significant to give in return myself. So I guess I can say "to be continued …" and that I'd love to hear from listeners who decide to try this out for themselves, or who perhaps already have.


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