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How Social Media is Changing Travel

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Photo: Alice Cho

Funniest thing I’ve seen on the road lately? I was in Barcelona, in the lobby of the Hotel Arts. Everyone around me was on a laptop, taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi: Google Mapping itineraries, consulting TripAdvisor for shopping recs, posting Flickr photos of lunch at Cal Pep. A couple from Chicago were using Skype to video chat with their children back home when, as if on cue, LL Cool J strode into the lobby. “Hey, LL Cool J!” the mother cried out, recognizing him instantly. “Come say hi to our kids!”

What else could a hip-hop icon do but squeeze in between Mom and Dad on the sofa, flash that killer smile, and offer a digital shout-out? “What’s up, kids? I’m here in Spain with your moms and pops! You two better behave while we’re away!” And just like that, he was gone.

That encounter would never have worked as a postcard.

As a journalist who writes about travel, I can’t begin to count the upsides to this earth-flattened age we’re in. I’m on the road every month, yet I rarely have to leave home, if “home” means the familiarity of RSS updates and NBA scores and Funny or Die clips, and having my entire social circle a mere button-touch away.

Nor is there much left unknown or unknowable, or at least un-Bing-able. With minimal effort, in the comfort of a hotel lobby, I can plot a route to a restaurant I’m considering, download tonight’s menu, translate it instantly from the Catalan, read 47 detailed customer reviews, call up TwitPics of the razor clams, even take some guy’s virtual tour of the dining room. When I started covering travel 15 years ago, we hadn’t imagined search engines, let alone Skype. (Also? We walked to the airport, knee-deep in snow.) Last summer I listened to a Red Sox game live on my iPhone while on a layover in Hong Kong.

So let’s be clear: I do not pine for the days of inscrutable foreign pay phones and the endless searches for postage stamps. I far prefer the current model; my job is certainly easier for it. That said. Any life-changing innovation has its attendant perils. Not to get all Andy Rooney on you, but in our rapture over ones and zeros, we tend to overlook the negatives.

Thirteen million Wikipedia articles. Twenty hours of YouTube videos updated every minute. Two hundred million blogs. What’s a person supposed to do in the face of all that? TripAdvisor alone has 25 million reviews of 450,000 hotels, from the Cathedral Hideaway in Sedona, Arizona (“We’re really going to miss the two-person shower!”), to the Abalonia B&B in Ogunquit, Maine (“The shared bathroom was disgusting!”). Clicking through the blurbs is like online poker; it’s impossible to stop, until suddenly you’re down the digital rabbit hole.

It’s not pretty there. Whenever I spelunk down the wells of TripAdvisor, Raveable.com, and VirtualTourist—when I find myself bookmarking Breakfast Recommendation #223 in Barcelona—my most vexing concern is, “How am I ever going to see/do/eat/enjoy all of this?” Sometimes I believe I’d have a better time showing up at my destination unprepared and unannounced, like an Outward Bound orienteer with some powdered milk and a compass.

Of course, getting advice from people you know and trust—that’s priceless, and Twitter was built for it. Depending on your followers, the tweet “Thirsty in Barca, any ideas?” might elicit a perfect suggestion in an instant. But what if your Twitter friends haven’t been to Barcelona? Then you wade into the broader morass of the Internet—and drive yourself crazy sifting through umpteen million reviews for a shred of reliable advice.

Some praise this decentralized, democratized, social-media-driven culture as a triumph of individualism; others see it as so much uninformed noise. Are we moving into a world, as so many tell us, wherein everyone’s an expert? Or a world without experts?

It’s increasingly hard to imagine those antediluvian days, back when information was static and scarce and costly besides; before the data flood swallowed us up. Actually, I don’t have to imagine it: my wife and I were just in Tokyo, where neither her BlackBerry nor my early-model iPhone worked on Japan’s 3G network. For the first time in recent memory, we were completely off the grid—in the most technologically advanced city on earth.

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