It's a special day just like any other. In Cervecería la Sureña just off the Puerta del Sol, a dozen twentysomethings crowd around a tiny table, singing, clapping and clinking beer bottles just as the iPhone strikes midnight. The birthday girl blushes and giggles, delighted to be celebrating with the good friends she met 30 minutes ago.
Sarah Murray met this group via Couchsurfing.org, a website that makes it easier than ever to organize hangout sessions with total strangers. The so-called social travel network is revolutionizing how Madrileños from all over the world socialize.
"I literally just moved here and didn't have anyone to spend my birthday with," says Murray, a Manchester native. "So I posted on Couchsurfing asking if anyone wanted to go out." Within minutes, she'd received several responses from complete strangers inviting her to come party.
But Couchsurfing.org wasn't originally created to facilitate spontaneous birthday bashes. The San Francisco-based site was launched in 2004 to help users find people to shack up with; in the literal sense of the phrase.
Spaniards are not really interested in meeting new people during the day”
Travelers all over the world can look for free lodging with other members, living like locals while saving cash. It works a lot like a dating site: users create profiles detailing their interests, allowing guests and their hosts to find the perfect fit.
But these days, Couchsurfing is a popular social networking tool for travelers and locals alike. "I already had a place to stay," explains 20-year-old Murray, who is spending the summer working as an au pair for a Spanish family. "But I wanted to find people to go out with here in Madrid."
Couchsurfing users can join groups that correspond to a city or geographic region. Madrid's page currently boasts nearly 39,000 members and is always abuzz with activity.
In the end, Murray responded to a invitation from Mayra del Pilar Quiñoz, a 22-year-old Colombian spending the summer studying biochemistry in Madrid. Quiñoz joined the website in March in anticipation of her trip to Europe. "A lot of the friends I've made here, I met through Couchsurfing," she says.
Like Murray, Quiñoz already had a place to stay, but she wanted to make new friends and found it difficult to connect with Spaniards her age.
"People here are kind of closed," she says, with a puzzled shrug. "They have their tight-knit group of friends who they've known forever. They're not really interested in meeting new people... at least not during the day."
Not many of my friends know about the page. But that will change"
So she decided to put up a flag on Couchsurfing, inviting people to see the Dalí exhibition at the Reina Sofía musuem. Within a few hours, she'd received several responses. "Six of us went, and we had a good time," says Quiñoz, who began using the site more frequently to arrange meet-ups.
Couchsurfers looking for something to do at any time, day or night, will be overwhelmed by a dizzying array of options. To get an idea of the kinds of events and activities members organize, try imagining... just about anything. From swing dancing workshops and cooking classes, to movie marathons and road trips. One man even proposed a ukulele jam session.
Some people just want to kill time. One user recently posted that she had a layover in Madrid and wanted some company for eight hours. People responded with offers to show her the city, grab a drink or just chat.
But while the Madrid page certainly gets a lot of traffic, even from non-travelers, the majority of its users aren't Spanish. "I've noticed that it's mostly used by foreigners," says Beatriz Hernández, a 19-year-old communications student from Extremadura. "Not many of my friends know about the page. But without a doubt, that will change."
The website is primarily used by foreigners, either travelers passing through town or expats who've made the city their home. Nonetheless, there are a handful of Madrileños who use the site to tap into an international community.
"I use it to practice English," says Pedro Ortíz, who attends weekly Couchsurfing language exchanges. Every Monday evening, Ortíz goes to Atomic Café in Malasaña to grab a beer, chat with folks from all over the world, and "find international girls to hook up with," he says, only half-jokingly.
The site currently has some six million users spread across 100,000 cities in every country in the world. "If you don't have money to travel, it's a good way to meet people from all over without leaving your city," says Ortíz.
It can definitely raise questions. Like, who is this other person?”
That's precisely what differentiates Couchsurfing.org from other social networking organizations. While sites such as Facebook and Twitter aim to connect friends and acquaintances, Couchsurfing exists to unite total strangers who have one thing in common: they're in the same place at the same time.
Users don't have to be "friends" in order to communicate and view each other's profiles. Anyone can post on public groups and invite other members to hang out.
The drawbacks to such easy access are obvious. "It can definitely raise questions. Like, who is this other person?" says Hernández. She believes the majority of users are "benevolent" and "philanthropic" free spirits. But she recognizes that a few might have ulterior motives.
Before getting together with a new group of people, Quiñoz always checks the comments that couchsurfers can leave on each other's profiles. "If someone has lots of bad references, that's a bad sign," says Quiñoz.
For better or for worse, Couchsurfing makes meeting strangers easier than ever. As Hernández sums up: "It's a simple way to bring together people from different cultures, as well as the same one." It can go wrong. But it can also go very right. Like Murray's impromptu birthday party.
"I got lucky," she says with a smile, surveying the group that came out to celebrate. They are an eclelctic bunch: Italians, Peruvians, Brits, Americans and an Argentinean, all gearing up to paint the town red with a bunch of total strangers.