Travel in the Digital Age

 

The daughter of my mentor, Aurora Uypuanco, interviewed me recently on the use of social media to propel different advocacies as part of her thesis. Mine centers mostly around travel and conscious tourism. Here’s how the conversation panned out.

When did you start utilizing the internet and social media to publish?

I first started publishing my work (writing, photography, graphic design, digital art) online through sharing platforms like Multiply and DeviantArt. This was back in 2003 in the latter part of my College years. The lure was instant gratification. I needed feedback to improve my work beyond what I received in the classroom. Social media complemented my formal education because it connected me with other writers and visual art practitioners who had a completely different perspective from the theorists and professors at University. Art became experiential and interactive. A sharing platform made me feel that I was part of this bigger, more dynamic community; that I was somehow taken seriously as an artist because other people actually bothered to read, comment, or provide constructive criticism to my work. That search for validation has its boon and bane, but at that time, it propelled me to move forward in what is usually a solitary endeavor.

The internet was also integral in letting me experiment with different mediums. As a starting artist, I couldn’t pinpoint what I wanted to excel at. I knew I wanted to create, but creation took on different, ambiguous forms. I was divided between the world of visual art – graphic design, digital paintings, photography – and the world of words – poetry, short stories, non-fiction. Blogging was a very fresh concept at that time, and so I experimented with that too. These forms called for different schools of learning, and I was lucky enough to find a holistic middle path. I’ve since used visual art, or at least its dynamics, as part of my profession, and made writing my passion.

 

You’ve been traveling before the world became “Facebooked”. What is the difference between traveling now compared to, say, 10 years ago?

With search engines and a layered digital footprint, you get a more visible picture that nothing is new anymore. Almost all physical manifestations of travel have been explored. You cannot say that any content is unique because places, these days, are not as inaccessible as they once were. Type in, say, “Bungee Jumping in Papua New Guinea”, and you’ll have 150 pages of resources to investigate, all with different voices, moods, tones, and levels of relevance. 10 years ago, this body of work was still being collected, much like the building of a physical library.

The birth of Facebook and blogging though have helped curate that information so that you don’t have to be completely overwhelmed by the body of knowledge. You can choose who to follow, and consequently, which information you believe to be relevant. This may have given birth to the internet personality as well. Travelers, these days, also have to create a personal brand and digital personality. Facebook has taken on the role of what publications like National Geographic Adventure, Lonely Planet, or Outside Magazine, did 10 or 20 years ago which is to highlight specific storytellers and stories. Facebook made that personality closer to us and has also made the creation of a personality easier. I once rebelled against this need to create a persona. Perhaps this was why it took me three years to get into Facebook. I’ve since realized that the control is still mine. How much you give in to the system is your choice.

 

Was it your love for traveling that led you down this path? 

It was my love for writing, more than travel, that led me to what I choose to do now. A professor of mine named Radel Paredes once asked me, in a casual chat, what I wanted to do after graduating. Quite spontaneously, I told him I wanted to be a travel writer. The next day, he gave me a photocopy of Pico Iyer’s Why We Travel. The first line was “We travel initially to lose ourselves; and we travel next, to find ourselves.” That line fixated me for a year, and I knew then that somehow, I wanted to capture that feeling for someone else. I wanted to create something – a line, a moment, an intangible image – that would catalyze a transformation, and would stay with them the same way Iyer’s line stayed with me. In a world that’s so ephemeral, I thought, what work could be more beautiful and defining?

 

What has the “magic” of the digital age brought in your travels?

Do you mean, have my travel philosophies changed because of the digital age? Well, yes and no. Logistics has become easier through the years because the digital age has given birth to more options. You don’t have to stay in hotels anymore; you can couch surf. You’re not forced to take an expensive tour; you can DIY. You don’t have to just pray for good weather; you can actually Accuweather how it’s going to be like on-the-ground. The magic that the digital age has brought in travel is summarized in two words: mobility and accessibility. In this sense, travel has become more much more “comfortable.”

Fortunately, or unfortunately, to be comfortable is not my primary intent when traveling. I am compelled even to make any trip uncomfortable with the belief that comfort equates to complacency. As a traveler, I feel that you have to take advantage of the heightened senses a new place or experience brings. Being uncomfortable means you’re learning, growing, debunking set beliefs. So, I don’t always fully utilize all the comforts and access to information the digital age brings. I purposely do not read blogs before going to a place, just so I won’t have a preconception of what it is. How the place presents itself to me is how I write about it. This may be foolish but there’s a sense of authenticity there, a sanctity between traveler and place, that I don’t want to break.

 

As someone that utilizes online channels to get your work out there, how do you feel about the irresponsible use of social media by other travelers? How do you think this can be properly regulated?

Just to clarify, I don’t think there is such a thing as the irresponsible use of social media, whether it be in travel or in any other area in the same way that I don’t think there’s such a thing as an irresponsible use of traditional media. The medium itself is not the acting agent. It doesn’t have control or consciousness. It’s simply a platform that magnifies content and context. The irresponsible one is the informer, and any information published without due diligence to both content and context.

We live in an era where everyone’s opinion is valid; where personality sometimes supersedes facts. We believe what we want to believe without taking all aspects in. I myself am guilty of that, so it’s important to check yourself once in a while; to remind yourself you’re not an expert in all subjects, so best to keep mum in some issues to give way to other people’s more relevant opinions. Silence, these days, is an act of being responsible.

Some sectors have more at stake than others. To me, travel has less to lose compared to, say, education or politics, because travel compared to these two is a very subjective industry. You can even argue that nothing is factual about it. People will always have a different sense of place even when they’ve inputted with the same stimuli. There are different types of travelers, and so, there will always be different interpretations. I think that is perfectly fine, and it shouldn’t even be regulated. I always believe it’s the reader’s greater responsibility to regulate, and validate. Read from different sources. Get a second opinion. Find a valid argument. Question all points.

 

How can tourism establishments and tourists curb the negative effects of social media to tourism?

No matter how good your intentions are, there’s always a fine line when it comes to using travel to catalyze social change. Because it’s an anchor industry, meaning when tourists are brought in, it gives birth to other industries, the impact of that can see-saw between positive and negative unless your control mechanisms are really strong.

Say, for instance, you have a community-based initiative that allows travelers to witness the everyday lives of the indigenous tribes of the Philippines, and even volunteer in helping them make a community structure or teaching them English. As a positive effect, they may go on to learn new skill sets while realizing the need to preserve their identity because now there’s an external audience that’ll appreciate te. Or as a negative, the community-based endeavor might teeter out of control, and it mutates to become a commercial industry that will compromise the tribe’s human dignity.

As a platform, social media can be a great tool for storytelling. It can also help manage expectations so that travelers will more or less know what they’re getting into even before they go experience something on-the-ground. When you travel, you’re subject to an overload of information and sensation. Social media assists in giving you the right context so that you get an initial sense of place even before arrival, not to say that you should stick to this alone, but at least you know what information’s floating out there. You can either heighten or debunk the archetype. Social media should be seen as a way to create a collective consciousness. All this information out there will later chronicle the zeitgeist of our generation. So any content, whether it be a simple post or an image, has to be telling, layered, and substantial.

 

How has social media helped you touch the lives of the people you have met? Places you’ve seen? 

Travel allows you to show a multiplicious self. You never know what self is going to appear when in a new place and with a different set of companions. Not to say this self is any less authentic, but it is different from what you show in your daily life. Before social media, the people that you meet along the way in your travels will only see that one-dimensional side of you; that side that reared itself in the limited time and space when you were together. With just that, it’s difficult to gauge whether your friendship can really withstand domesticity (what you call your real life) or if it’s the type of relationship that only stays in the streets of Ho Chi Minh or Bangkok. I believe that social media has become an integral part of having that ability to show that domestic (“real”) part of yourself, so the people you meet along the way get to see what you do when you’re not traveling. You get to know each other more across cyberspace. I’ve had friends I’ve met in hostels message me and ask, “What? You have a child?” or “So, you work with fishermen?” These are integral parts of me but they just didn’t show up when we were together. Social media fills in those gaps.

In a more functional sense, it helps sustain what was started during travel. Now that I’ve sort of built a steady network when I go to a place, I just instantly message friends I’ve met from those areas and they take me in. Juxtapose this to a conversation I recently had with the mother of a friend. She met a Japanese friend at a youth camp when she was younger. They only corresponded through letters after, but those quickly stopped. Everyday life gets in the way. Snail mail is slow, or it gets lost altogether. They only saw each other again 40 years after through Facebook. I thought, how lucky are we to have a platform where we won’t have to wait 40 years to see each other again?

 

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