08 October 2010

Is social media the new guidebook?

So this writer for The Guardian is preaching what seems to be a common refrain among the social media lovers: smart phones killed the guidebook dead. Twitter is the only path to travel salvation.

A few choice quotes and rebuttals:

1. A quote about the joys of constant contact.
Four weeks ago I visited Manchester on a short break. I took a change of pants and socks, a spare T-shirt and my mobile phone. When I arrived in the city, I told Twitter that I was hungry, and within minutes I was gorging on corned-beef hash thanks to a recommendation from a fellow Tweeter. I held my phone up to Piccadilly Gardens, turned on an app, and itsWikipedia entry flashed across my screen, overlaid on to the grass in front of me through the camera in my phone. I opened another app, and dozens of local suggestions were hovering around me. There was a bar 288m from where I was standing where I'd get a free drink if I mentioned a secret word to a barman called Angus.
Okay, look, whatever works for you, go for it. I won't pretend that there's One True Way To Travel.

I'll grant you that social media can offer more and better options (in terms of restaurant recommendations and the like) than guidebooks. I mean, there's the potential problem of information overload--you'll probably get too many suggestions and some conflicting opinions--but, okay, if you can sort through it, there's undoubtedly some good stuff there. Guidebooks, in theory, cut to the chase and give you some curated picks (the best of this, the cheapest of that), but if you stick with a guidebook, your options will be limited, and I'm not sure that's necessarily preferable to info-overload. When I did my guided-by-the-masses experiment in Rome, I got some good recommendations and I got some clunkers. No matter what your source of information, your own experience will be hit or miss.

What I find more problematic with the better-living-through-Twitter argument is that it demands not just constant connection with the rest of the world but constant feedback. People joke that Twitter is just a bunch of people posting what they had for breakfast, but I'm more annoyed by all the people who ask, "Where should I have breakfast?"

How about that place right there in front of you, eh? How about asking someone on the street? How about not spending an hour a day seeking advice and validation from your friends back home? How about realizing that you can wander into a dumpy restaurant and have a horrible meal . . . and still get something out of it, a story, a friend, whatever?

Furthermore, when you're checking in with your friends, how much other time are you spending online? Are you also checking Google Maps? Your e-mail? Your RSS feed? Weather? Enough. I've said it before, but I truly think that willful ignorance (up to a point) leads to the most enjoyable travel experiences. Aren't surprise and discovery part of the joy of travel? Shouldn't travel involve getting beyond your existing networks and world views? Shouldn't it be about finding your own way, rather than continually asking your friends for help? All the world need not be a stage, and all your time need not be spent in pursuit of the best, the hippest, the friend-approved. Let loose, get lost, get in to trouble, make NEW friends.

I honestly think that the single most important travel app on a smart phone is the off button. Make it up as you go along.

2. A quote about how awesome it is to have so many friends and to be so popular.
And then, about 18 months ago, I started travelling with Twitter. I headed off on assignments without planning a thing. I began in Paris, where I arrived at the Gare du Nord and began slinging questions into the ether. For 48 hours the people of Twitter guided me around the city, from backstreet art galleries in obscure eastern suburbs to glorious belle époque eating halls in Montmartre. Every tip was tailored to my exact time and location.
In other words, you've got people. (As of this writing, the Guardian writer, Benji Lanyado, has 4,863 followers on Twitter.) And, as someone with a prominent platform, you presumably get a lot of re-Tweets and forwarded information. You're able to spread the word quickly, and get a wide range of responses precisely because of who you are and what you do; people want in on your experiment. That's all fine and good; I have no problems with that. But I have a big problem with suggesting that it'll be like this for everyone, that it's Just So Easy to do this, that everyone can do it: just ask the question and you'll get tips "tailored to [your] exact time and location." It doesn't work like that. Most people are still better off with a guidebook (or using Trip Advisor or online resources).

The steps to a pleasant trip are NOT simply:
  1. Buy an iPhone.
  2. Set up Twitter account.
  3. Broadcast that you're going somewhere and need tips.
  4. Get tailored tips; meet locals; eat well; find enlightenment; live happily ever after. 
3. A quote showing some ignorance about the purpose of guidebooks
When I got home, I was a guidebook refusenik. They offered me nothing beyond the decently concise history section.
Uh-huh. And how about the section on the culture in general? On tipping? Or safety? Packing for the climate? Etiquette and taboos? Appropriate attire? Politics? Transportation? Visas? The curatorial role of the guidebook writer goes beyond stay-here-eat-there, and there are plenty of times when you can't rely on your Twitter followers to bail you out, even if you have access to them ("Tweeps: Got 10 cops shakin me down. :(  Need tips plz ASAP. How much 2 bribe?") These are areas where I specifically don't advise willful ignorance and where a guidebook--or internet research or a chat with a local--can be invaluable.

The best travel guides serendipity and common sense. Twitter and Facebook and their online peers are fine as supplements to these, but not as substitutes.

Oh, and when you're in a forest or remote area or even the Metro in Paris, good luck with getting a signal. Don't panic if you don't. Enjoy it instead.

What do you think? Are guidebooks doomed? Is Twitter better? 

If you're interested in more takes on the future of travel guides in the internet era, World Hum has a nice round-up of articles here

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