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The Couch Revolution 

How a grassroots website is changing the world one sofa at a time.

Top Couch Surfing Countries (Number of Surfers)

United States 107,431
France 37,359
Germany 35,741
Canada 27,761
United Kingdom 21,728
Italy 15,685
Australia 13,362
Netherlands 9,105
Spain 8,701
Brazil 8,691
Austria 7,992

Top cities, number of surfers

Paris 8,212
London 6,866
Montreal 6,818
Berlin 4,969
Vienna 3,930
New York 3,387
San Francisco 3,221
Istanbul 3,125
Melbourne 3,054
Toronto 2,944

Julio Nunes spent a quarter of last year traveling through Eastern Europe — Germany, the Balkan States, Latvia, Bulgaria. He didn't spend a single night in a hotel. He spent only one in a hostel, the usual haven for young travelers. The rest of his 90-some nights he spent in that new frontier for adventurous globetrotters: the couch.

Nunes, a 29-year-old social work graduate student at Eastern, is a member of CouchSurfing.com, a social networking Website that links travelers in need of a place to crash with locals willing to host them for a night or two. He says it's the only way to travel. "You get to know [your host's] cultures, the way they live. Normal, everyday people," he says. "You get to live, walk, do everything they would do on a daily basis in their country. They can give you inside stuff."

The Website was the brainchild of New Hampshire resident Casey Fenton, who, on a 1999 trip to Iceland, decided he didn't want to get stuck in hotels and tourist traps. Fenton, then 20, ended up e-mailing a bunch of local college students and asked if they were interested in putting him up for a day or two. The trip was transformative. On his return to the United States, he fleshed out the idea, gathered some friends and launched the Website.

Since then, the site has attracted more than 430,000 members in 224 countries around the world. It's especially popular in North America and Western Europe, but it's not impossible to find a couch in Argentina or Zimbabwe. There's even a free couch in Antarctica.

Despite its scope, the company has hung onto its grassroots nature. Crystal Murphy, a spokeswoman, says the company has no office. Murphy herself isn't even paid. She says CouchSurfing (CS) has only three full-time employees (including Fenton, who quit his job a few years ago to help run the company). "We have a pretty hardcore dedicated core of people," she says.

It's that network of enthusiastic people that keeps the service running. "Every member is essentially a volunteer," she adds, noting that users spread the word and some like her take it upon themselves to be official CS ambassadors for their countries. But it's also this network of people who -- they hope -- keep the service safe, a major concern for those thinking of using it.

The site's security system is fourfold. First, there's a verification system that uses members' credit card information to confirm their identity and address. The pages of members who undergo this optional process display a lock icon. Second, members can vouch for other members. A high number of vouches suggests the person is trustworthy. Along the same lines, members can leave comments on other members' pages. If you had a very pleasant stay on a Hungarian metal fabricator's couch, you can tell other surfers about it. If he tried to cop a feel, you can tell them that, too.

The fourth pillar in the security system, Murphy says, is common sense. She advises travelers to take the other three indicators into account but also look at the whole profile, which includes photos and fields for users to list the languages they speak, the music they like, the places they've been, what their mission in life is, etc. A profile that leaves a lot of these fields blank might deserve a degree of skepticism. Many members also say communication with hosts and surfers beforehand, via e-mail or telephone, can be a good way to suss them out.

Though it can't guarantee that its users aren't pedophiles, Murphy says the site has been relatively problem-free. "We have not had any sort of murder or rape on the site. That's one of the best things we have going for us, as compared to any other sites," she says. "We've only had one major problem -- a member [who] had a couple of false identities and he was going about stealing checks from people." She adds that there's also a safety team in place that investigates member disputes.

Julio Nunes says his experiences have been almost uniformly positive -- nothing worse than the occasional misunderstanding or hosts not showing up to fetch him. But Nunes is a guy.

Nicole Buckoski says it's different for women. The 24-year-old Gonzaga law student hasn't yet surfed, but like Nunes, she's hosted a handful of visitors to Spokane. One was a young woman from the East Coast in the area to look at colleges. No problem. Another was a man riding his scooter across the country. "He took me on a scooter ride. It was fun," says Buckoski, who lives in a tiny studio with hardwood floors and just a plush futon to sleep on.

Still, she's not sure she'll host another single guy. Two men e-mailed her a day in advance last summer requesting a place to crash. "They said they had camping stuff and could camp in the front yard," she says. "They came and were a little creepy. I said, 'You can camp in the yard if you want to,' but wasn't exactly inviting them in." They got the hint and left.

"It's important to ... draw those lines early," she says. "You want to talk to them a lot beforehand."

Neither Nunes nor Buckoski has gotten a chance to host more than a handful of surfers in Spokane. In larger destination cities like New York and San Francisco, hosts can get multiple surfing requests a day. And frequent users often get together for parties and to introduce their surfers to more people. Not so in Spokane.

But that could change. Crystal Murphy says membership in the site has gone through the roof in the last year. Part of that she ascribes to a major database meltdown in 2006 that suspended the service for months, then opened the floodgates to a year of dammed-up interest. The other part must be ascribed to a raft of media coverage, including stories in National Geographic and the New York Times.

But the service also just makes sense and fills a much-needed niche, according to several surfers. "The Internet is truly evolving into its finest form, and CouchSurfing.com is a perfect example," says David Tremaine, a 19-year-old hitchhiking and dumpster-diving enthusiast from Spokane, who's currently traveling through Mexico. "CouchSurfing is unbeatable for finding friends in a new place."

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