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Social media, travel and me


Me being a Luddite in Colombia


When I went travelling in April 2003, I started out with a Walkman, some battered mix tapes and a Kodak Advantix camera. I also had an email address (a significant advance on an earlier trip in 1998 when I’d relied on postcards and a phone card rather than unpredictable internet cafes as I Interrailed around Europe).

As I travelled east across the continents from Holland to Singapore, I gradually upgraded my equipment. In Thailand I bought a portable CD player and dozens of illegal CDs. In Singapore, I invested in an iPod and spent hours on the agonizingly slow hostel computer trying to copy my CDs onto my new toy. By the time I reached New Zealand in December, I’d swapped my Advantix camera for a digital one.

I was slow to take to the social media melee to begin with. A friend forcibly set me up with a Facebook account in February 2007, on the grounds that it would be easier for her to stay in touch when she was travelling. This was less than six months after Facebook was made available to anyone with a registered email address, and already I was feeling online peer pressure.

In September 2009 I hit the road again, this time as a travel writer with connectivity as a priority, to travel the edges of India and then overland from Brazil to Canada. I took with me a Canon 450D camera, a Samsung NC10 netbook and a Samsung mobile phone. By this time I was a seasoned Facebook user but a Twitter newbie, having only joined the Twittersphere the previous month. Unaware of the effectiveness of photos, my first tweet was a lonely bit.ly URL.

I had a Flickr account, a Wordpress blog and was managing my own website via Dreamweaver. Phone calls home were replaced by Skype and I was reachable on other people’s terms not just my own. I intended to make some videos and upload them to YouTube, but somehow never found the time. On top of that, at heart a Luddite, I was still handwriting a diary on a daily basis. It was hard work, keeping all those up channels up to date. It’s a wonder I managed to do any travelling.

And this was before the arrival of Instagram and Pinterest, within months of each other in 2010 as I was nearing the end of that trip. If ever there was a social media platform designed for travel, it’s these two. Highly visual, instantly shareable, aspirational – I see a destination on Instagram and I want to go now. There’s no better place for planning my ultimate dream trip than on Pinterest. Everything is shiny and golden. Everywhere is the place to be.

Snapchat, a photo-sharing app that automatically destroys the material you send within 10 seconds, is another immensely popular social media platform that’s taken off since my last big trip. Launched in 2011, this platform of choice for teens is nibbling away at Facebook’s user database. I’m only just starting to figure out how this could be used by travellers and travel brands, in an age where data hoarding is the digital currency of choice. But travel is all about being in the moment, and few social media platforms are more in the moment than this. It will be interesting to see if and how Snapchat will feature on my next trip.

What is clear is that social media has become an intrinsic part of how I travel. I use it for inspiration, to plan in advance and get insider tips once I’m there. Then it’s used to share my experiences with on- and off-line friends and, yes, complete strangers too. I see other people’s travel snaps and teeter between green-eyed envy and asking them for recommendations. Finally, it’s storage for all my photos and memories in the form of email exchanges, blog posts and status updates. It’s all there, online, saved for eternity.

And yet… What if it’s not always there? My internal disaster monologue forces me to imagine what might happen if there’s a massive power cut or hackers find their way into all of the world’s internet servers? I could lose it all, just as I could lose all my old printed photos and diaries in a fire. What happens then? Have I lived my travels too much through the screen and lense to remember what it was really like to be there, in the moment? Has social media actually made me less present on my travels? Am I missing something? #fomo

How do you feel about social media and constantly being in touch with your friends and family when you’re travelling?

Join our #TandLC digital meet-up on Twitter and tell us how social media has changed the way you travel. Here are the questions in case you'd like to have a look so you can prepare your answers.