Crossposted to Tumblr.

*This project never really had critical mass and is no longer operative; it did later inspire another project, also now defunct.*

There are a lot of people - there are probably incredibly tragic mountains of people - who just need one or three or six no-pressure months on someone's couch, and meals during that time, and then they'd be okay.  They'd spend this time catching up on their bureaucracy or recovering from abuse or getting training in a field they want to go into or all three.  And then they'd be fine.

There are empty couches, whose owners throw away leftovers they didn't get around to eating every week, who aren't too introverted to have a roommate or too busy to help someone figure out their local subway system.

And while sometimes by serendipity these people manage to find each other and make a leap of trust and engage in couch commensalism a lot of the time they just don't.  Because six months is a long time, a huge commitment for someone you haven't vetted, and a week wouldn't be enough to be worth the plane ticket, not enough to make a difference.

I think there might be a lot of gains to be had from disentangling the vetting and the hosting.  People are comfortable with different levels of vetting, ranging from "they talked to me enough that it'd be an unusually high-effort scam" through "must be at least a friend of a friend of a friend" through "I have to have known them in person for months".  And you can bootstrap through these.

Here's a toy example:

  • Joe barely makes ends meet somewhere out in flyover country but in between shifts at his retail job he's doing well at self-teaching programming and seems like he could pass App Academy.
  • Norm has a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco and doesn't really need his couch to be empty, nor does he need to rent it out for money to someone desperate enough to pay rent on a couch, but he's not ready to give some dude on the internet a commitment to providing shelter for the duration of App Academy.
  • Tasha has a house somewhere in visiting distance of Norm, maybe even several different people like Norm, and she too has a couch, and is willing to host an internet dude for one week based on a sad blog post.  During this week, Joe and Norm meet, and Tasha evaluates Joe's suitability as a guest, and Norm decides he can commit to have Joe as an occupant for the duration of App Academy.

My household has been informally couching (or bedrooming, as the case may be) itinerants for a while.  Sometimes they get jobs and move out, or get jobs and don't move out.  Sometimes they find other households they fit into better and move into those.  Sometimes they wind up staying for a while and not really improving their prospects and going back whence they came; this is just the sort of thing that happens sometimes.

And I think more people could accommodate this fine from the hosting end, and just don't have the networking to find would-be couch occupants on a routine basis.

I propose a minimum viable product, low tech, Y Couchinator, to gauge demand and work out kinks before I try to make a technical person build me a website and expose us to liability and all that exciting stuff.  Here's how I'm imagining it will work.

  • If you have a couch, you tell me about your couch.  Is it available for a specific week in June for people you talk to for two hours first and like a lot?  Is it available for one month to nonsmoking vegetarian afabs who your landlord might believe are your cousin?  Is it available to anybody for any portion of the academic summer as long as they can walk your dog and don't seem inordinately sketchy to me when I hear about them?  Is it available for six months if they can cover groceries and get a reference from somebody who has hosted them for at least a fortnight?  Please be prepared to really maintain these boundaries when you need them even once you are presented with an actual couch occupant who has a sob story, even if it's a really sobsome story.  We've never had a serious problem with this, but it's the sort of thing that could happen. (Of course, distinguish "not enforcing a boundary" from "liked person more than expected, happy to keep them longer than I committed to based on less information".)
  • If you need a couch, you tell me about your couch needs.  Does it have to actually be a bed, not a couch?  Do you need to bring your gerbil?  Are you deathly allergic to peanuts/children/cats/country music/Brutalist architecture?  And you tell me about your plans for your couch time.  This is a somewhat constrained offer, so there do have to be plans.  I want to match people whose couch needs are plausibly likely to be self-limiting and don't come with a need for cash in particular, at least unless I find that there are many more couches than occupants under this condition.  Do you have a prospect for getting some kind of job as long as you can park in the right city for a while to attend interviews?  Do you have a plan for some kind of job training, like the example of App Academy or something less classic?  Are you pretty employable already but only when you have your mental health under control, and just need some time not relying on your parents for survival in order to get there?
  • I collect couch needers and couch havers.  I match people who can be straightforwardly matched, and I do my best to line up dominoes when several couches have to be strung together ("Bill, you can stay with Haley for a week, and she'll introduce you to Penelope, and if Penelope likes you you can stay with her for three months, and if Penelope doesn't feel comfortable with that then Wilbur is willing to subsidize you in REACH for a week and a half until Leroy's place opens up, which is yours for two months as long as you do dishes and sometimes give him rides to the airport").

I want to emphasize here that there do exist people who have couches they would be willing to offer.  This came up in a Discord chat and two people I didn't even know about before mentioned that under certain constraints they could offer couches.  My own household (which currently contains three different people who have at different times lived with us, paid no rent, and stayed on to the present day, and that's if you don't count my toddler) can fit people short-term, medium if we really click.

How to get ahold of me:  You can put out initial feelers via Tumblr ask (I will assume this post is not getting enough circulation until at least 3 depressed anons have wondered at me whether they really deserve couches) but it is a bad way to do anything long form.  My email address is alicorn at elcenia (dot com).  If you share any Discord servers with me, Discord works great too.

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I don't have very organised opinions on this right now, but I thought I'd add the little data I have. I was at Oxford Uni for a total of 18 months (3 years - yeah, the term length is surprisingly short), and from the beginning I made an effort to strongly advertise to visiting EAs/rationalists that they were welcome to sleep at my place for free, at length. I'd say over the 18 months, about 4-6 of those months consisted of someone staying with me for free, consisting of some 6-10 different people and basically all of those times they were visiting either CEA or FHI.

I am surprised how much free energy I was able to give people who otherwise often would have had to spend a sizeable amount of money or time to get the same thing. This was definitely vetted by the fact that they were trusted enough in the distributed community that they were being invited to FHI/CEA, and there are definitely people I met at uni who I could've offered this to that I chose not to for general lack of strong feelings of safety around them.

It was positive sum for me, as it lead to meeting more senior or competent people than my level at the time. I was also more lacking in people with whom I could have interesting conversations with, and this was exciting on that front. I feel stronger on the social fronts now and probably put in less effort in analogous situations today.

I am surprised how much free energy I was able to give people [to stay at my place]

That seems like it might be one of the secrets AirBnB was built on.

Tru dat. This suggests to me a more general strategy, something like "When a billion dollar startup makes money from a secret, look if there is extra value to be gained by trading non-money for these things in places where you have higher trust."

So, how many months of living on your couch before someone gets to claim protection under California's tenant's rights laws, and you then have to go through a hearing, a lawsuit, a trial, a judgement, and then calling the sheriffs to perform an eviction.

It only needs to happen once, and you're screwed.

In most countries, a person sharing accomodation with the owner of a dwelling is classed as a lodger, with limited to no tenancy rights.

The lodger can be evicted with reasonable notice (usually ~30 days), after which they are treated as a trespasser. The police can remove them.

A quick search brought up the relevant sections of the CA civil code and penal code.

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It's worth knowing that the linked code says: " This section applies only to owner-occupied dwellings where a single lodger resides. Nothing in this section shall be construed to determine or affect in any way the rights of persons residing as lodgers in an owner-occupied dwelling where more than one lodger resides. "

That's an important point to clarify: the above only applies to single family lodgers. It looks like if there is more than one lodger (such as a mother and child) then the usual eviction process must be followed. I also found out that some local police departments don't get involved with lodger disputes as a matter of policy. If you're really concerned that potential lodgers will abuse the rules, then maybe it's safest to take on a single lodger at a time, after finding out whether your local police will deal with any problems? Extra precautionary measures for the paranoid: make sure you meet, get a contract drawn up, and get some candid character references.

BTW, I'm interested if anyone around Berkeley, CA, would be willing to do something like this for me. I'm visiting for a few months (Oct-Jan) to help out with the Secular Solstice but I only know one person well enough to ask around for accommodation.

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These are good suggestions, I think, but they reveal a problem: “candid character references” are likely to (often though not always) anti-recommend taking on exactly the sorts of people who are intended to benefit from the OP’s plan.

To be clear, I say this not to argue against your suggestions, but rather to point out a fundamental problem with the plan in question: that the personal qualities that make one a risky couch-surfer candidate either are, or are highly correlated with, those qualities which make one a couch-surfer candidate at all.

Yeah, I agree; still, if you decided that being a host is something you really wanted to do, you'd probably want to do some basic asshole proofing beyond setting the terms of the background check with Alicorn. Just in case Mark's scenario comes up.

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Also want to add: I've already seen Mark's scenario come up at least once (at least, the general version of "person doesn't leave when they say they're going to")

[ramble that I don't think makes sense but don't have time to word properly]

I think there's still a bunch of value left on the table in terms of people who could benefit from staying on a couch for a bit and people who are (usually) willing to do so, but the tail risks are nontrivial. I've gone from being willing to host random people on my couch to no-longer-willing-to (although I think I mostly endorse having originally been willing to. This doesn't feel very consistent of me and I'm not sure how to disentangle that)


I’ve gone from being willing to host random people on my couch to no-longer-willing-to (although I think I mostly endorse having originally been willing to. This doesn’t feel very consistent of me and I’m not sure how to disentangle that)

Well… there is a fairly obvious account of your apparently-inconsistent view, but it’s not a very complimentary one (although just how uncomplimentary depends on whether you consider hypocrisy to be a mortal or a venial sin).

I don’t say that said account is the correct one—I have no way of knowing that, after all—but it does neatly account for (and, indeed, predicts) everything you observe.

I'm actually not sure which cynical view you're pointing at (and would be interested and comfortable with it being spelled out).

Sure. It goes something like this:

It is to your benefit to be known as the sort of person who’s willing to host people on your couch—it makes you appear selfless, generous, altruistic, etc. Because talk is cheap, simply saying that you’re willing to do this doesn’t suffice.

On the other hand, actually hosting people on your couch is risky and inconvenient.

How to get the best of both worlds? That is, how might you most effectively get the benefit of being known as someone who’s willing to host people on his couch, while avoiding the downside of actually hosting people on your couch?

Your solution would seem to be a fairly elegant one: host some people on your couch for a while, then stop doing so. After this temporary sacrifice, you then continue to be known as someone who was willing to do such things (and therefore as someone who’s selfless, generous, etc.), while no longer having to endure the downside. (If an explanation for the change is needed—and it isn’t always—you can blame the disconnect on any number of things: anything from inexplicable-even-to-yourself inconsistency in preferences, to some variation on “I’m getting too old for this”, etc.)

(Note the parallel with a variety of structurally similar, and well-documented, behavioral shifts: “I did all the drugs in college”, the “lesbian until graduation”[1] phenomenon, etc. In each case, we can take the person to be making an “investment” of sorts by engaging in a risky behavior, which then allows them to receive reputational “interest” long after terminating the behavior.)

[1] Note that the backlash, in the LGBT community, against this sort of behavior, can then be seen as a way of punishing this sort of “collect reputational interest on an initial investment without continuing to re-invest” strategy. But now we’re getting into the weeds of speculation, of course.

Ah, gotcha. Yup – certainly seems like a plausible facet of my motivation.

The less cynical version of that I was vaguely thinking about was "if _nobody_ hosts anyone, that leaves at least some value on the table. If everyone implements "host people until they get burned enough to no longer want to, while implementing at least minimal precautions against getting burned", you get at least some people getting hosted (as well as some of the positive benefits of hosting, like meeting more people, variety, etc).

On the face of it this seems a bit incoherent (why not just have everyone implement the "exactly the right amount of couch surfing?"). Some aspects of it that seem at least somewhat defensible include:

  • If you're younger, you have less of a network, and it's actually just worth hitting the "explore" button on more things to make friends, meet people, build out your network.
  • Slightly cynical version of previous point (although I don't think I'd hold it against people) that relates to your comment is "if you're newer to a social network, you have fewer things proving your value to that social network. Providing couch space is a way to provide value. Later on, you may have demonstrated your value in other ways, such that you no longer need to do so in order to have a reputation as "person who is helpful to the network."
  • When I used to host more, I lived in NYC where there were few other places to crash within my social network. Now I live in the Bay where I wouldn't provide as much marginal value. There might be other versions of this applying at a more general level.
  • I think some amount of "getting wise/street smart about how to deal with people" actually requires you to get a bit burned in some way. You can hypothetically learn it from people who've already been burned and passed the wisdom along, but it's harder to internalize. So, might as well spend the process of getting street smart on actually helping some people?

Oh, final point which I suspect ties more closely in with Alicorn's original motivation:

People vary in how much they enjoy hosting guests (and how costly "bad" guests are to them). Before you start hosting people, you don't know how much this benefits/costs you. Everyone implementing the algorithm "host people until they find that they have no longer want to, or slowly raising their standards on who they host over time", gets you a mixture of benefits for hosters and hostees.

I do not think that this consideration is plausible unless the distribution of “guest quality” is very narrow (low–σ); otherwise the luck of the draw trumps everything.

My own distribution of guest quality has been quite large, and most of my "burned-ness" comes from 2 extreme cases, but I also would probably still be hosting people if

a) I lived in NYC where guest-crash-space was more important

b) I lived with roommates who weren't particularly averse to hosting (by contrast, those roommates have correctly updated that even median-ish-but-below-average hostees are very costly to them)

Non-extreme cases seem to fall in a fairly regular spectrum from "actively good person to have around" to "costs a fairly predictable amount of tension in 'how easy it is to get time using the show', 'having the common space to yourself', 'dealing with travelers who are in some kind of bad mood that makes the living room slightly worse'", which I feel fits into my point.

The extreme bad eggs are quite bad and I'm not sure about their total frequency, but I also now think I mostly know how to screen them off now.

Indeed, I have no quarrel with most of your points (and your second bullet point—“do this until you have sufficiently proved your value and don’t have to”—is, I think, particularly worth considering for its wider applicability).

That being said, let me play devil’s advocate on one aspect of what you wrote:

If you’re younger, you have less of a network, and it’s actually just worth hitting the “explore” button on more things to make friends, meet people, build out your network. … So, might as well spend the process of getting street smart on actually helping some people?

This is, I think, counterbalanced (at least to some degree) by the fact that when you are younger and have less of a network, you face a greater risk that any given tail risk (such as finding yourself embroiled in costly, lengthy legal proceedings, or having all of your valuables stolen, or having your good name slandered, etc.) will “wipe you out” completely. Someone who has a dense, reliable social network, and a reasonable build-up of assets, has a “cushion” that can more easily absorb such tail risks.

(There is also the emotional analogue of this: when you’re older, more experienced, and more financially and socially secure, setbacks—especially direct personal betrayals—do not hit you as hard as they would if you were younger and, perhaps, more vulnerable. This is something to keep in mind especially for folks who are neuroatypical.)

An alternative, less cynical viewpoint, would be that it actually does cost more to host couchsurfers as you get older. You get more stuff. You get better stuff. You get more attached to your stuff. All of these things make it more costly to host couchsurfers since the expected cost of broken stuff increases proportionally to all three of those things. It's one thing to host a couchsurfer when all your furniture is Ikea and all your dishes are plastic. It's quite another thing when you've picked up a proper sectional, a nice coffee table and proper plates and silverware.

This definitely seems like something to address. But it also doesn't seem like an obstacle big enough to get in the way of Y Couchinator succeeding long term. It seems like something that can be addressed by the occupant signing some sort of form.

Or putting up a deposit?

Yeah that also seems like a good idea.

I would caution that in many states -- including California -- the law specifically prohibits waiver of some tenant rights. Even where not prohibited, such waivers can be challenged easily and, even if that challenge is unsuccessful, will be both extremely expensive and time-consuming.

That style of worst-case scenario is unlikely, but it's something to be very aware about.

My dream is for REACH to play this role. It already sorta does to some extent for people who have some money, but I want it to eventually have enough funding to afford to routinely offer this for free for people who need it. (Of course, funding is hard.)

This is a really cool idea, thanks for taking the initiative!

  • Personal loans seem like an alternative for people who need couches. A lot of companies that give personal loans do seem sketchy, but I recall stumbling across Upstart a few years ago - it seems kinda cool.
  • Another alternative/spin on this idea: if the couch needers end up doing really well for themselves some time in the future (eg. their income is in the top 20% of their country), they have to pay the couch provider some amount of money. Whereas if they never reach that point, they don't have to pay anything. I could see this really helping with vetting, because randoms who are just looking to mooch might not want to get involved. I could also see it really helping with motivating couch providers. I'm not sure though.
  • Vetting definitely seems like the biggest obstacle here. As opposed to 1) whether people would be willing to offer their couch to someone who has been vetted to their satisfaction, or 2) whether there are actually people out there who would benefit from such couch time. 1 and 2 seem very likely to be true to me (although of course it's still good to treat them as hypotheses and test them).
  • The second biggest obstacle I see is spreading the word. People need to know that this exists in order for it to be a thing.
  • Perhaps what you can do to get off the ground is something like this. You start off building a list of couch needers that either: 1) you know personally and can vouch for, 2) a friend of yours who you trust knows personally and can vouch for, 3) a friend of a friend of yours who you trust knows personally and can vouch for. I'm not sure how many degrees of separation would be optimal, but three sounds like a practical and safe place to start. I'm sure that most of your social network and many LessWrongers would feel comfortable enough with this level of vetting to start volunteering as couch suppliers.
  • Such an approach relies on people trusting you. I know that I have read enough of your stuff and seen your name pop up enough to trust you. Perhaps this approach can scale with someone else being the "initial node". For example, maybe there's a YouTuber who has a ton of followers who have enough trust in them to offer to be couch suppliers. In fact, this could be a great PR tool for people who have some amount of a following on the internet.
  • Initially the couch needers wouldn't know this exists, so I think the person acting as the "initial node" would have to reach out to their social network and "manually" find the couch needers. But at scale, it would be nice for couch needers to go to the website and use some sort of search function to see if there are any "initial nodes" that they are close enough to. Something like Facebook's Graph API would be incredibly useful here. I'm sure other social networks have something similar. But for those who aren't part of social media, perhaps they could do things like enter names of people they know, enter names of organizations they've been a part of, enter where they live, etc.

Be very careful about introducing an expectation to pay. Payment, even contingent future payment, will fundamentally change the nature of the endeavor. People are very motivated by social norms in most situations, but introducing money buys your way out of those norms. The classic treatment of this is is that daycare centers that fine parents for tardiness and making the staff stay late have much more tardiness than those who just disapprove.


To the extent that this practice stays within a community, the community's own norms are probably sufficient. Besides, many/most hosts would probably prefer guests donate to charity if they end up well-off. Maybe you have some sort of soft norm that guests offer to let their prior hosts direct some of their altruism, but be careful even with that. Everything matters on the margin, and that's about the upper limit of incentive that won't meaningfully displace the group norms.

Interesting point. My main thought is that it is a hypothesis to test, and that I don't feel strongly about how people would react to the contingent future payment. I could definitely see some people being turned off by it, as well as others turned on, but I don't have a good sense for what the results would be on balance.

Have couch. Sydney, Australia.

Thanks, so much for organising this. Undoubtedly, it will be challenging, but if it works, it could greatly help a bunch of people fix up their lives.

Three years later: How did this work out? Should it be repeated?

The idea looks similar to to me.

I think most of the infrastructure is the same for couchsurfing, but my sense is that is more optimized around travel than around "person needs a place to crash to get back on their feet", which requires... something like more expectation of emotional effort on the part of the host? (The stronger vetting is also a thing, but I think even after having vet, it's a fairly different experience to have someone live with you a couple months than a couple days or weeks)

I am somewhat skeptical that Y Couchinator can really scale outside narrow-ish communities with internal trust. (Although i don't think it needs to be tied to any particular community – but I think it need to be built on an actual social network, in a way that couchsurfing isn't, and that LinkedIn sort of tries to be but rapidly was gamed into nonsense)