PORTLAND — Like a modern-day troubadour, Dotan Negrin rolled into Portland last Thursday afternoon with his dog and an upright piano dominating the back of his van, and a plan to perform on the streets for a day or two.
The New York-raised musician has criss-crossed the country three times with his piano, paying for his travels with the proceeds from his spontaneous public performances. Upon his arrival in Portland, he started making calls to people he had never met, to arrange a place to stay in Westbrook, and an evening meet-up at an Old Port bar.
He got the phone numbers from messages sent to him via perhaps the most social of online networks, couchsurfing.org.
The website was created in 2004 by a Brownfield native, Casey Fenton, to help travellers find authentic, local experiences where they land, more so than simply free accommodations.
Negrin, with a reluctance to stay put and a penchant for free-wheeling adventure, is a veritable poster boy of the site’s original model. But as his dinner companions that evening showed, the website is proving to be a powerful tool for local community building, too.
His companions that evening, gathered on the patio of the Thirsty Pig until a light, late rain began to fall, included a quartet of people who, having once been strangers, are now connected thanks to Couchsurfing.
For some local Couchsurfing members – the site has a group dedicated to Portland with 525 members, though many are from elsewhere – the network has become their primary means of establishing social connections. The group has been used in the past month to organize Independence Day gatherings, ultimate Frisbee games, and nights out on the town.
Couchsurfing has about 4 million members worldwide, far fewer than Facebook, which has over 800 million. The smaller website, though, far surpasses its larger competitor at its ability to promote real social interaction and introduction, said Shanna Walker, one of Negrin’s new acquaintances.
Walker has hosted travellers overnight at her home just a few times and has never surfed herself, and now uses the site mostly to make new contacts in the Portland area, she said.
After responding to Negrin’s message seeking Portlanders to meet and make merry with, Walker invited Thirza Steinfort, a social worker from the Netherlands living in Maine on a work exchange program. The two became friends after Steinfort arrived in the state; she joined the Portland group on Couchsurfing shortly before and was “discovered” by Walker.
At the Thirsty Pig, they added Jake Boston, who had not seen the open message that Negrin sent, but knew Walker from a previous Couchsurfing-facilitated meet-up she hosted at her home. The fourth Couchsurfer left early, the community pitcher of beer having been finished.
“Couchsurfing is something where, if you’re talking to someone new, you’re more likely to actually meet them,” Boston said. “You’re building a connection.”
At a lunch date with Walker and Steinfort the next day, Victoria Hartley explained the threads that tie Couchsurfers together.
“CouchSurfing people have a common interest in gaining knowledge,” said Hartley, an Alabama transplant who has also joined Walker’s inner circle, thanks to the website.
The website’s members typically share a need for a constant injection of something new, and a willingness to be open, they said. The experience is best, Walker said, when the user is willing to be themselves, rather than trying to promote an image. And the site includes a section on each member’s profile page for references, which the member cannot control.
This lack of pretense, the group said, has helped them establish connections. “For me, it was very useful to acclimate to the local culture,” Boston, who moved to Maine from Missouri a year ago, said.
And showing visitors and newcomers around the city has led to a stronger connection to it as a physical place, both Walker and Boston said. “It makes me feel somehow more at home,” Boston said.
Even as he prepared to leave town after playing his piano on Commercial Street for a few hours, Negrin nodded to the potential the website’s users have tapped to build locally.
One of his most memorable Coachsurfing experiences, he said, was a birthday spent in Madison, Wis., with a group of strangers who were part of that city’s Couchsurfing cohort.
In Portland, Walker and her unlikely friends walked down to find Negrin performing after their lunch date. They talked with him for a few minutes and played with his dog before Walker had to return to work.
“I think it’s incredible. Being able to connect with these incredible people instantly,” Negrin said, would otherwise “seem almost absurd to me.”
Shanna Walker, left, Victoria and Rachel Hartley, and Thirza Steinfort talk with Dotan Negrin as he plays piano on Commercial Street on Friday afternoon, July 27. The women, all Portland-area residents except for Rachel Hartley, who was visiting from Alabama, became friends after meeting through the travel-oriented website Couchsurfing.org. They also met Negrin, a travelling musician, through the website.