5 Questions with Rolf Potts: How Blogging + Social Media Are Changing the Way We Travel

Few authors have helped to evolve the 21st century backpacker’s “movement” like Rolf Potts. His inimitable work Vagabonding arguably inspired more young people to venture out into the world than any other book of the last ten years (Rolf’s probably too modest to say so, but I’m not …).

Rolf joined us in 2008 to wax eloquent about travel in general and his then-new book Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. Now, with the 10th anniversary re-release of Vagabonding, we wanted to get his thoughts on how technology – in particular blogging and social media – have changed and continue to change the way we travel.

Rolf Potts

#1: Social media wasn’t a twinkle in the collective online world’s eye when your book Vagabonding was released ten years ago. Now, sites like Twitter/Facebook/Pinterest provide travelers with instant recommendations as to where to go and what to see in every destination around the world. If we’re at all connected to the online world, it seems difficult to be entirely surprised on our travels. Do you think this has affected the way many people now travel? Has it removed the serendipity of “vagabonding” by diminishing that “hum of possibility” you so eloquently described?

Social media has definitely impacted travel. As with any new technological development of the past two centuries, this has impacted the travel experience in ways both good and bad. The good part is that it’s made travel easier, more accessible than ever. The bad part is that it has made travel even more of an extension of the lives we leave at home.

All that performative social-media chatter that characterizes home life gets taken with us on the road. In the process, travel itself becomes performative — it becomes a conversation with one’s home audience as much as it becomes a conversation with the destination.

Serendipity is still out there, but one has to unplug a little, worry less about crowd-sourcing recommendations, and more about getting information and inspiration from one’s immediate surroundings. This is harder to do these days, but it’s just as rewarding as it ever was.

#2: I’m sure it’s increasingly rare that you venture to a destination that’s truly new to you. But, when you do, do you use social media for travel planning or suggestions? Or do you throw yourself blindly into the fire and take every experience as it comes?

I sometimes use social media for travel suggestions, especially when I’m on assignment for a destination-oriented travel story, but I treat those suggestions like I would any sort of travel research. That is, I’m grateful to have the information and recommendations, but I defer to the intuitive experience of the place that’s in front of me. I don’t throw myself into an experience blind, but I try not to let the recommendations of the virtual world trump the wisdom and spontaneous inspiration of the place in front of me.

#3: Documenting one’s own travel experiences online – and more specifically keeping a travel blog – is almost a requirement for young, tech-savvy vagabonds nowadays. Call it a symptom of the “ME, ME, ME” generation. In a general sense, how do you think this constant need to share affects the travel experience for today’s youth?

There’s nothing wrong with writing about yourself, or sharing your own experiences as you travel. The potential disadvantage isn’t in what you say in your blog, but in what you’re missing out on when you’re blogging. The charm in travel has always been the opportunity it affords you to leave the banal, compulsive habits of home. This includes constantly broadcasting the moments of your life (then waiting to see how people react). You’ll get more out of a travel experience if you disconnect for awhile and savor it fully before sharing it with the rest of the world.

#4: How do you see travel blogs affecting the travel writing industry? Do you think professional travel writers will one day be replaced by crowdsourced content from blogs, Tweets, etc.?

Travel blogs already have replaced the travel writing industry, at least at a service level. For the most part this is great. I still love a good, authoritative destination article or a well-written travel guidebook, but I increasingly offset this kind of centrally produced information with insights from the online world.

Traditional travel media will never fully go away, but it will increasingly begin to blur with the blogosphere. What won’t change is the old-school literary type of travel writing — that is, travel writing that isn’t slanted toward consumer planning, but wrestles with deeper cultural and existential issues. Deeply researched and experienced long-form reportage has always existed outside the notions of a travel writing “industry”, and will continue to endure, regardless of whether or not it appears first online or on paper.

#5: … and let’s finish with a softball: what’s one blog (aside from Vagabondish of course) that you read regularly?

I enjoy travel blogs, but I can’t say I read first-person travel blogs with daily regularlity — in part because I’m already deeply vested in the everyday issues of backpacker life. What has captured my attention in recent years is reportage by people who aren’t like me, and this tends to be global writing by people who live (instead of travel) in these far-off destinations. Blogs like Global Voices and Africa is a Country are great outlets for this kind of writing. I still love checking backpacker blogs from time to time, but it’s these cross-cultural perspectives that I tend to seek out on a more regular basis.

Thanks as always for joining us, Rolf and good luck with Vagabonding, Part Deux!

For more travel inspiration, check out the 10th anniversary re-release of Rolf’s seminal book, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel (for paperback and Kindle versions) or visit Audible.com for the new audiobook version.

About The Author

Mike Richard
Founding Editor
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Mike Richard has traveled the world extensively since 2008. He's camped in the Jordanian desert with Bedouins, tracked African wild dogs in South Africa, and survived a near-miss shark attack in Mexico. He loves the great outdoors, good bourbon, and he (usually) calls Massachusetts home. He also enjoys speaking in the third person.

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