To Use Twitter for Travel or Not to Use It: Is That Really the Question?

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A few days ago, I opened Twitter in the morning (like I do every morning) to find that one particular article had the travel Twitterers I follow up in arms. It seems that well-respected vagabonder Rolf Potts had replied to a reader’s question about using Twitter while traveling in his "Ask Rolf" column at World Hum, and – to put it mildly – he’s not a fan.

Rolf likened people who use Twitter to update the universe about what they had for lunch or how they found a killer parking space with a "doofus" he knew in college who changed his answering machine message every time he left his room. He went on to say that he thinks people "should quarantine Twitter to [their] home routine (along with other activities of the workaday mundane, like watching ‘Dancing With the Stars’ or eating at Taco Bell)."

The buzz about this article has continued for days on Twitter, as many devotees of the tool were stung by Rolf’s assessment of it and, by extension, them. World Hum followed the Rolf article with another, "Twitter Tips from 25 Tweeting Travelers," but that did little to placate the masses. The comments section on Rolf’s piece is now far longer than the article itself, and I doubt the conversation will end anytime soon.

At the risk of adding to the noise, I wanted to make a point which I think has been lost a bit in all the ranting – it’s not that it takes all kinds, it’s that there are all kinds.

You Can’t Judge a Tool by its Newbies

Much has been made in the press about how Twitter is just a bunch of useless commentary by people with no lives. And a quick scan of many of the missives on Twitter does nothing to refute that point. Those who dismiss Twitter after such a quick scan, however, may not be giving it a fair shake.

A colleague of mine recently said he didn’t find Twitter as useful as I do because of all the pointless comments he sees from new users who take the "What are you doing?" question too literally. My reply was that it’s not fair to judge anything solely by the way it’s used by newbies. By that logic, one could say, "Wow, that person who just learned to play the violin last month sounds horrible. Therefore, I hate the violin."

Yes, there are plenty of people (newbies and seasoned users alike) who use Twitter simply to answer that "What are you doing?" question that’s in bold at the top of the screen. That’s not how I use Twitter, and it’s not how the vast majority of the people I follow use it – and I’m also not going to say the people who do use it that way are wrong. I might not follow people who post nothing but literally what they’re doing, but I’m certainly not going to find fault with Twitter itself for those users.

The good news is that there’s room for all kinds of Twitter users out there, including travelers – as evidenced by the many great travel Twitter tips in the aforementioned World Hum article or this excellent EuroCheapo article on Twitter for budget travelers.

Technology Isn’t Really the Problem

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Frequent travelers such as Rolf are often asked for their opinions on everything from places to go to what to pack to – in this case – whether or not to use a certain tool. I have no problem with Rolf’s opinion that using Twitter can detract from the travel experience. What I take issue with is the notion that it can do nothing but detract from the experience. He says:

Back home, Twitter can distract you from the doldrums of your home-life, but on the road it will only detract from all the potentially amazing experiences that come when you leave yourself open to your new surroundings.

This comes across, to me, as limiting and dismissive, and it doesn’t leave any room for the possibility of another line of thinking. Which, in my opinion, detracts from the message. Rolf obviously believes there’s no room for Twitter in his travels (or in his life, for that matter, as a quick glance at his update-free Twitter account shows), and that’s fine. Twitter isn’t for everyone. And if I saw a traveler who stopped what he was doing every ten minutes to send an update to Twitter, I’d probably think he was nuts. But here’s the thing – if I asked that person if he was having a good trip and he said, "Yes!" then who am I to say he’s not?

Sure, if that same Twitter-addicted traveler went without technology for a day he might have a more fulfilling experience. He might decide that unplugging – at least a little bit – is the way to go when he’s away from home. But there’s also the very real possibility that he wouldn’t have any more of a "real" experience, wouldn’t meet any more locals, wouldn’t engage in any more real-life conversations – and wouldn’t have any more fun while traveling. The assumption that going without technology equals a more enriching travel experience is, I think, a false one. And the assumption that one person’s definition of a "meaningful travel experience" is the only valid one is just as false.

"Should" is a Dangerous Word

My mother taught me a long time ago that the word "should" isn’t to be trifled with. It implies that one way is superior to another way. Yes, there are some cases where this might be true – but we throw the word "should" around without thinking about it, and that has consequences.

So when I read in Rolf’s article you "should quarantine Twitter to your home routine" I raised an eyebrow.

There are plenty of arguments in the travel community that rage on and on despite having no inherent value – tourist vs. traveler, guidebook vs. serendipity, backpack vs. roller bag. There are zealots on both sides of each of these debates who dig in their heels and can’t be swayed, even though each group misses the much larger point that there’s far more that unites them than divides them.

In his 2003 book, "Vagabonding," Rolf writes:

The tourist/traveler distinction has largely degenerated into a cliquish sort of fashion dichotomy: Instead of seeking the challenges that mindful travel requires, we can simply point to a few stereotypical ‘tourists’, make some jokes at their expense, and consider ourselves ‘travelers’ by default.

I think the same can be said for the current Twitter-while-traveling vs. no-Twitter-while-traveling debate. If either side takes too extreme a stance, they’re falling back on stereotypes and into cliques that are easy and comfortable, and which ignore the obvious similarities that exist between these two groups.

Twitter is one of the latest in a long line of tools which have been introduced to travelers as a way to make their lives and journeys easier, cheaper, or better. One of the reasons there are so many of these tools available is that there are so many kinds of travelers. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you, and vice versa. But to me, the greater point isn’t that you and I have different travel styles and use different travel tools – rather, it’s that we both love to travel. I might never want to set foot on a cruise ship, and you might never want to taste Haggis, but we can at least agree that there are merits to having a passport and getting out of town, right?

It’s About Respect

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Just as my mother once warned me about the weight of the word "should," she also taught me a long time ago that it matters less what I believe than how respectful I am of the beliefs of others. I like to think that I’m tolerant of other people’s opinions, so long as they’re tolerant of mine. The minute I feel like my opinions are being disregarded or put down simply because they differ from someone else’s, however, then all bets are off.

Rolf’s definition of happiness while traveling clearly doesn’t involve Twitter. Many of the people who commented on his article, people who use and love Twitter, clearly happily include Twitter in their travel plans. Is one group right and the other wrong? Well, if you ask either one, they’d probably say yes. But I think that answer is too simplistic and the truth – the complicated, messy truth – lies somewhere in between. Rolf isn’t wrong for thinking people should unplug. Twitter’s defenders aren’t wrong for thinking it’s a useful travel tool. If anyone’s wrong in this argument, it’s both sides – for thinking they’re right.

Twitter is one travel tool. It’s not the travel tool. If it doesn’t work for you, then don’t use it – but don’t dismiss the people who do use it as so many navel-gazers. And whatever you do, don’t pretend that saying, "I respect all those who find creative ways to communicate" (as one commenter did) somehow makes a put-down about Twitter users acceptable. If you really respected everyone, you wouldn’t accuse them of "adolescent navel-gazing," would you? Well, I wouldn’t – at least not out loud to their virtual faces.

I realize that the interwebs are rife with heated arguments (on topics of far greater importance than travel or Twitter) between people who, if they were forced to argue face to face, would likely be much kinder and gentler. I realize that my dream of a respectful disagreement (while acknowledging the fact that we’ve got more in common than not) in this or any other argument may be a bit naive, but it’s still something I’m going to hope for.

Who would have thought Rodney King had hit the nail so firmly on the head all those years ago when he said, "Can’t we all just get along?"


About the Author

BootsnAll writer Jessica Spiegel is completely Twitter-pated and isn’t afraid to admit it, although she still struggles with how to explain to her mother just where she’s gotten all those fabulous travel tips about their upcoming summer jaunt to the Haida Gwaii. You can find her on Twitter as @italylogue.

original photos, top to bottom, by: 4peterse, theCarol, Kmeron

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Older comments on To Use Twitter for Travel or Not to Use It: Is That Really the Question?

Shawn
18 April 2009

Informative, constructive…nicely written.

WT
16 April 2009

Excellent post! I do think the rigid language in the first ( Rolf post & then later his comment) is what fueled the fire. Even the most pro twitter voices never said that everyone MUST twitter while traveling, but those who were against it seemed to be adamant that no one should ever do it. Makes a lot more sense to support each individual doing what best supports their individual journey, needs and personality.

Cristina Dima-772
15 April 2009

This came right after a TV show I watched on Sun abt…well, Twitter. They had the same opinion as Rolf, unfortunately.
I agree with you, Jessica. There are many people who take that “what are you doing?” question way too literally but I find twitter very useful (in many cases).
It is fun to read updates from your friends who travel or who decided to be a tourist in their own city!

Traveller At Heart
15 April 2009

A terrific article, once that has changed my perspective on “twitterers”. As you say, to each his/her own! One person’s positive travel experience, is another person’s nightmare! Your mother is a wise woman – respect and deleting the word “should” will go a very long way to bringing folks together. Can’t we all just get along? Well, Rodney, it’s something to shoot for, but humans, being humans, it won’t happen, unfortunately. We can try, though, oh yes! Thanks, Jessica, for a thoughtful and open minded viewpoint.