What would you share with a stranger?

Peter Iltchev 1 November 2014

This was the provocative question posed by a few young CouchSurfing enthusiasts who documented their travels around the world, all the while seeking out benevolent hosts willing to set them up with a place to sleep for a night or two. By relying solely on other people's goodwill, these couchsurfers set out to question our inbred mistrust of strangers, and to consider what it would be like to live in a society where people are more accepting of the idea of sharing their personal space with those around them.

You might be tempted to raise a skeptical eyebrow at this Utopian nonsense as you search for the appeal in letting a rugged, unwashed twenty-something backpacker into the comfort of your own home. They could be compulsive snorers, or ravenous gluttons, or, worst of all, they could be an axe-wielding serial killer. You’ve got to be mad!

And you would be right in thinking that safety is an issue if we weren't living in an age where technology allowed us to create online platforms through which “surfers” could communicate freely. This is no exception with CouchSurfing: if you're looking for a friendly and reliable host, you need not look any further than the feedback, positive or negative, left by those who have met the host in person. While not flawless, this system of self-policing is currently the most effective one in a free-thinking, democratic community such as the Internet.

So we've established that some of us don't mind having complete strangers sleeping over on our couch from time to time. But why? How could we, both as hosts and as human beings, possibly benefit from this temporary but nevertheless bothersome inconvenience? If you're expecting to make a few bucks off a close-to-broke traveler, then you've clearly got the wrong idea.

Once you remove money from the equation, however, you are left with two people eager to learn about and better understand each other’s cultures. The exchange is not material, but rather vital in the literal sense of the word: each person has a life story to tell, and we have everything to gain from knowing about it.

You could choose to see it in pragmatic terms as a means of trading skills, so that a native speaker of English would offer his language in exchange for the local knowledge of the city his host inhabits. But why the need to quantify something as abstract in value as an experience? We owe this attitude to the ideals that our Western culture is built around: a culture that believes in tit-for-tat fairness and which places greater emphasis on material than on personal worth. This is precisely what CouchSurfing is trying to change, “one couch at a time”.

The irony of it all is that this and other similar initiatives, such as Airbnb and Zipcar, which seek to revolutionise the way we utilise our resources by creating an economy where goods are shared rather than merely owned, are all just organisations forming a niche, capturing the imagination of the millions in search of more sustainable ways of life, and making a nice and profitable business out of it. The hypocrisy of this fact is undeniable, but the positive cause which is the driving force behind these ventures cannot be faulted.

The compatibility of a sharing economy within an overbearingly capitalist society remains to be seen, but, much like the Couchsurfing community, it is asking questions which are challenging our perception of material wealth and forcing us to rethink the way we interact with others, especially strangers. And even if we don’t witness a revolution in the coming years, sharing will still be caring.