The Smart(Phone) Traveller

How is Facebook changing young people’s travel habits? How do smartphones and the mobile Internet affect the way we behave on holidays? These are interesting questions and I’m not aware of much research that addresses them empirically (to be honest, I didn’t search at all, either). Thus, I have to rely mainly on observational evidence.

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Recently, I went on holidays to Thailand. Spending time in a foreign country used to be an act of detachment. High costs of telecommunication and the slow speed of messaging – sending postcards via snail mail, anyone?? – made staying in touch with people at home a cumbersome encounter. Not anymore. Thanks to the Internet and mobile devices people can stay in touch (almost) 24/7. I noticed this during my holidays, when I travelled in a group of mostly young people aged 18-40. As soon as we arrived at a new hotel, restaurant or other (semi)public place my fellow travellers (and I) would wipe out our smartphones, ask for the WIFI code, log in, and start texting, surfing the web, gaming and using apps. At times, our travel group of 12 people was completely absorbed with our mobiles, while sitting in the hotel lobby or in a restaurant. Entire evenings were spent that way.

Is this what Sherry Turkle referred to in her pessimistic piece “Alone Together” (here a good summary: http://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together.html)? Yes, I guess so. The descriptions in the second paragraph are typical situations she analyzes in her book and talk. But while Turkle reflects on people’s use of new media in everyday life, holidays are yet another layer. Realistically, most people have different – and somewhat higher – expectations when it comes to holidays and ICTs: Holidays are the time we should switch off our devices, relax, leave behind our everyday worries etc. At least, that’s what’s generally expected from standard holidays. Briefly, holidays should be relatively ICT-free. This expectancy is stupid and increasingly unrealistic. I made the experience that despite an increased absorption with technology during holidays, most fellow travellers had the necessary skills and literacy to know when to switch off. In addition, the use of smartphones was in many cases not isolating but also creating new conversation topics and ground for sociality. Interestingly, Facebook was mainly used for lurking and not for constantly updating the travel status or boasting about personal adventures (i.e. impression management). There were exceptions to that behavior but generally people uploaded their pictures only after the holidays.

Sure, some of the people used their smartphone A LOT (not necessarily the youngest people) but almost everyone made use of the affordances of the mobile Internet at least at times. Some even bought local SIM cards to go online while being on the road – be it on the mini-van, the train or even on the boat. 

Well, how does travelling change through smartphones, social media and the mobile Internet? I can’t tell exactly but want to sum up some tendencies to conclude the post. Travelling becomes:

–          More information-rich

–          Less surprising??

–          More documenting

–          More personalized

–          More connected and social?

Especially the second point needs further reflection and analysis.

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