May 20, 2009

CouchSurfing's Flawed Feedback System
Umm Sayhun, Jordan

I have grievances with the profile feedback system in place at CouchSurfing. Particularly bothered for some time now, this morning I decided to write the following message to the CS administrators:

I've been CSing continuously (every night without stop) for about nine months now, but I'm having a hard time finding the rational for leaving negative feedback or warnings for other community members in profiles of people that I've surfed or have met in person when such things can only bring anger or unwanted negative comments back to me in retaliation.

Case in point: there's a surfer here in Petra that I'd love to leave feedback for who seems to be using the system as a hook-up mechanism. My family and I have met him in person, and seems to have little interest in people who aren't going to sleep with him or become a drinking buddy—which is a shame, as he's the most popular profile in town.

But where's my motivation to leave such feedback for others to read? The risk to reward ratio is way off—in favor of keeping my mouth shut.


Feedback Blackmail: A Lesson from eBay

The CouchSurfing feedback system is not all that dissimilar than the way feedback was once done between buyers and sellers on eBay—and that's not necessarily a good thing.

In May 2008, amidst massive outcries, eBay dramatically overhauled its feedback mechanism in order to clamp down on the practice of tit-for-tat feedback by preventing sellers from leaving negative feedback on buyers.

Bill Cobb, president of eBay North America, laid out the rationale for the move:

"Overall, the current feedback system isn't where it should be. Today, the biggest issue with the system is that buyers are more afraid than ever to leave honest, accurate feedback because of the threat of retaliation. In fact, when buyers have a bad experience on eBay, the final straw for many of them is getting a negative feedback, especially of a retaliatory nature."

eBay's data revealed that sellers were eight times more likely to retaliate in kind against negative feedback—a figure that grew dramatically over the years.

But eBay's feedback system has always been much more useful for buyers trying to find trustworthy sellers than vice versa. For the most part, if someone wins an auction, the system is set up so that you have to sell the item to them. In this respect, there's never been much of a reason for eBay to allow sellers to rate buyers.

Also: I've never really understood why eBay simply didn't hide feedback until each party had posted theirs, or merely revealed it after the comment time limit expired. This way people would be willing to leave honest feedback without the worry of retaliatory negative feedback.

But CouchSurfing isn't eBay

Unfortunately it's not so easy to interchange eBay's buyers and sellers with CouchSurfing's hosts and guests (not to mention the permitted inclusion of comments made by friends and acquaintances that are neither). The social system of CouchSufing is much more communal and complex than the simple buyer/seller model found on eBay.

The feedback problems that once plagued good-natured eBay buyers also exist within the CouchSurfing system.

The tit-for-tat feedback mentality is generally the de facto standard among users. Many hosts won't leave feedback until the guest has done so—mirroring the labored seller/buyer relationship found on eBay where sellers would withhold positive feedback (or threaten to leave negative feedback) until they received what they wanted.

Note: Personally I feel it's the responsibility for every happy guest to leave public feedback for their hosts, even if it's a one-line thank you. This should always be done promptly to avoid insulting your host.

Retaliatory feedback is an ugly, albeit exceedingly common practice when negative or neutral comments are made on profiles. A negative comment is often then left in turn, saturated with defensive posturing. If the decency guidelines are broken the remark can be flagged and held by administrators, concealing it until the author revises his or her statements.

Should I write a negative reference?
If you feel that the disagreement can't be worked out through discussion—especially if you felt unsafe—then leaving a negative reference is the next step. Think first about what you feel the community needs to know. Remember that information in a reference must be descriptive and relevant to a CouchSurfing experience. Do not use abusive or emotional language, and stick to a specific account of your experience. The reference that you leave will reflect on you as well as on the person you're writing about. It's helpful for other members to see that you've considered your opinion carefully and can present it in a level-headed way.

Finally, please remember that CouchSurfing supports the right of all members to tell their side of the story. Be prepared for the other member to leave you a reference describing their version of events. All members will be able to read both accounts and make their own informed judgment of the situation. By leaving an honest reference, you show the community that you care about safety and trust.
CouchSurfing References FAQ

Risk and Reward

But just like with eBay, CouchSurfers are often forced to give pause before leaving honest, accurate negative or neutral feedback because of the threat of retaliation.

As someone who has looked through thousands of profiles over the past nine months, I can assure you that even amongst a sea of positive statements a negative or neutral comment sticks out immediately, and is always read.

When presented with a situation where I can maybe help inform or persuade future surfers or protect my profile, I—like many—seem to err of the side of safety. This means adhering to grandma's policy of "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."

Prospective hosts can be skittish and weary enough without giving them more reason to be cautious about inviting you into their home. Negative reviews, even if justified, are unsightly blemishes.

As for my inquiry, a CS staffer wrote me back quite quickly (with his less than surprising response):

Evening Craig,
You are definitely bringing [up] an important point but in the end, the choice is all yours. Leaving a negative comment must be based on fact and not appreciation or subjective matters. Moreover it should not be influenced by stories.

If you feel that person is doing harm to the community then your choice should be to drop the negative comment and warn the rest of the community. Imagine if something bad happen and that you knew about it, how would you feel?

That's why the reference system is the key of the safety on CouchSurfing. If you need to address to the safety team, you should again contact us but this time use the problem with a member [category] to report the abuses [to the Member Disputes and Safety Team].

Happy Surfing!

CouchSurfing Volunteer


The United States


September 4th, 2010

Quite appreciate this. I've gotten involved with CS over the past couple of years (due, in part, to your posting about your using it), and while my experiences have been almost uniformly positive, the one negative experience definitely left me wondering how best to approach it (esp. as the surfer was the sort of type to retaliate (her various pending lawsuits against former landlords and employers were my first clue . . .)).


Craig |

September 4th, 2010

I think for most who've encountered the ugly side of the collective it's a hard balance between wanting to share your honest thoughts and opinions and still wanting to be desirable as a host and guest.

The experience came and went, but that blemish, if recorded publicly, will always be there and always be read.

Even if you're in the right as a host or a guest, you've become marked as one of the unfortunates — what might be perceived as high maintenance, difficult to cohabitate with, or possibly just not worth the trouble (particularly if you're hosting where there are lots of other hosts to select from).

It's really a case-by-case judgment call, and often the victor is the one who can write the best statement in English.



September 17th, 2010

Interesting article. It's a bit beside the main point of the article, but one thing that struck me was the following:
"Personally I feel it's the responsibility for every happy guest to leave public feedback for their hosts, even if it's a one-line thank you. This should always be done promptly to avoid insulting your host."

I have left feedback for half or less of the people I have surfed with even though I have only had good experiences with kind and generous hosts. I don't do this because I am lazy but because I find that the vast majority of couchsurfing references are a complete waste of time to read. They are glowingly positive but totally generic. So I only write a reference when I feel that I something interesting to say, particularly when I found my host fascinating and had a special connection.

My motivations are selfish in that I don't want my profile to be cluttered up with lots of generic positive references, but presumably other people shouldn't want that either. I do hope that I'm not being perceived as rude, though! I've only hosted twice and got a reference both times.

Frankly, one of the times I would rather not have gotten the reference, even though it was very positive. Of course, I wrote a reference back; I can see that not doing that could be rude. Maybe I would not write a reference back if I really didn't have anything very nice to say but the person seemed to be trying to do the right thing.


Craig |

September 17th, 2010

I'd say it's the preference of the majority of CSers to prefer a large quantity of 'generic' reviews as opposed to a small number of strong, well-written ones.

In the collective your references are your reputation. It doesn't even matter what most positive references say — only the negative ones are read 100% of the time — only that it's been left. This is generally so because unless you take the time to list out each and every host or guest you've had, one might never know just how 'experienced' or 'inexperienced' the person is. (The 'friend' count is always even lower than the feedback total).

You can see an example of this at work when people start up a CS profile who've been long-time members of another hospitality exchange site. "I'm new here, but check my profile at ____ to see all my positive feedback! [You can trust me!]"

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