06 March 2011

100 ways social media will make your travel experience, like, SO much more authentic and enlightening and off the beaten path and, you know, all that awesome stuff. Also, Justin Bieber (is not mentioned anywhere in this post).

Trying out a new SEO tactic here. You know, like the cool kids. You'll see why. Also, this post really isn't as grouchy as that headline might lead you to believe. 

Stop me if you've heard this one before. From today's Washington Post:

Crowdsourcing a Panama trip

Less than 24 hours after I announced on Facebook that I was heading to Panama, the tips started rolling in.

... Never mind that I hadn't seen these people in years. They were my Facebook friends, and I was willing to take their advice. I am, after all, a Facebook junkie.

Which is why I was thrilled to discover several new Web sites that merge my two favorite things: social media and travel. TripAdvisor recently integrated its site with Facebook so that you can see where your "friends" have visited and read any reviews they've posted. Other Web sites - Gogobot, IgoUgo,Travellerspoint and Tripping, among others - are creating communities of travelers Facebook-style.

So I wondered: Could I toss aside my guidebooks and plan an entire trip based on tips from virtual friends? Could I, in social media lingo, crowdsource a vacation?

Now, if you just read the first page (of three) and the last couple of paragraphs of the article, you could easily get the distinct impression that the conclusion is this:
guidebooks are dead--social media is the only way to go! All hail social media! Now, I've already ranted about offered oh-so-insightful comments on some of this before, but it's worth revisiting it, especially because I think this Post article offers a more complete picture, even if you have to sort of read between the lines to see it.

I'm guessing various bloggers and Facebookers are going to latch onto those themes without a second thought, never mind that the writer, Nancy Trejos, encounters some serious setbacks, namely: (a) she gets too many tips and ends up trying to do too many things, and (b) a bunch of the tips are total duds.

In short, the experience is hit-or-miss--like most travel methods. But here's a kind of maybe REALLY IMPORTANT observation that passes by without any real comment: the things that save the trip are:
  • Serendipity.
  • A local expert. 

After a series of frustrations, Ms. Trejos comes to prefer the advice of that local expert, a friend-of-a-friend who works for the UN.

In other words, the true lesson to draw from the article is that you're ultimately best-served by relying on the exact same thing that travelers have been relying on for, well ...
forever. The person on the ground. The local expert. Also, it helps if that person works for the UN or is otherwise someone with an outsider's perspective but an insider's knowledge.

And, yes, social media can help you work your network to find that expert. Granted. But, let's face it, there are many other ways, aside from Facebook and the like, to make those contacts. Online crowdsourcing is just one more means to that end. And sometimes it just gets in the way.

Of course, that conclusion won't get you a lot of Diggs and "likes" and retweets. It's not great SEO. A few months back, the
Post's inimitable Gene Weingarten had a column about the "new media"-oriented newsroom.
Every few days at The Washington Post, staffers get a notice like this: "Please welcome Dylan Feldman-Suarez, who will be joining the fact-integration team as a multiplatform idea triage specialist, reporting to the deputy director of word-flow management and video branding strategy. Dylan comes to us from the social media utilization division of Sikorsky Helicopters."
I can't help but wonder if that social media emphasis becomes self-perpetuating: social media loves social media, so social media types get all excited when someone talks about social media. (Still with me?)

And I strongly suspect that's the ultimate reason that this travel article doesn't play up what seem to be its most important points: not much has changed, actually. At the top of page one of that article, there's a slide show sidebar (say that five times fast). The caption reads:
Panama: Off the beaten path
Nancy Trejos discovered Panama's hidden gems thanks to recommendations from her online social network.

Wait. No, she
didn't. At least, not really, since her online friends led her astray just as often, and her best guide was--say it with me now--THE LOCAL EXPERT.

I guess honesty isn't very SEO-friendly.

(You know what
is SEO-friendly, though? Cliches. Can we please please have a moratorium on "off the beaten path," at least in headlines?)


  1. I think you're certainly right about the social media feedback loop (as usual, the Onion is on it (also, Dilbert)), but I think this is a problem as old as journalism, even if technology has amplified and accelerated it: how do you make a news story out of something that's not new? Newness often seems manufactured or exaggerated so that the subject is worth of reportage. But a good writer/reporter ought to be able to find something to say while acknowledging sameness. And as you've done here, the Post piece could've recognized the unchanged truth of relying on local experts and still had social media in the headline and lede, satisfying the current bandwagon requirements.

  2. Ha. All so true. Whenever I write a blog post or an article on social media, it gets tons of hits... from the social media folks. Love your use of SEO here, too :)

  3. @LJ: Agreed that the feedback loop is an old problem. The main problem to me is not the fact that there's another article about this subject (because I get that it's still a new-ish thing, and I totally get that social media *can* be useful) but that willful distortion of what seems to be the actual story here.

    @Alexis: Ah, good--it's reassuring to hear agreement from someone who knows way more about social media than I do! I'm all in favor of SEO that works in tandem with content, but when it becomes the entire point and the actual content gets lost or distorted ... it makes me cringe.

  4. IMHO you get an A+ for your observations on social media, travel guides, and your insightful "review" of this amazing story about a trip to Panama. As someone who has lived in Panama for almost five years, it's difficult not to comment on the content....staying in a bathroomless room that costs $140 and then not naming the hotel? Why didn't she let all her "friends" who had given her all those tips know about it? Heading for Gamboa instead of Parque Natural Metropolitano? I guess the Washington Post was paying for the trip (the park is free, Gamboa...is not). Walking by the incredible Canal Museum in Casco Viejo and not going in? I don't get it. I hope these criticisms are considered civil (smile). Having someone who knows a place tour you around is a good thing, in part because it can save time and make one feel more secure, but, as you discovered when you were in Europe, stumbling onto places...that wonderful serendipity... is the best part of travel. My favorite memories of many countries are from times that I was leaning into my discomfort: edging into funky neighborhoods, eating street food, walking in the jungle, talking with locals. Comfort isn't bad either: having a big bathtub, an unexpected pleasure at the end of a hard day being a tourist, or a fireplace on a cold night, rank right up there with the discomfort!


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