Exactly a year ago, as we sat down to write our flagship travel Megatrend for 2017, Humanity Returns to Travel, little did we realize the coming year would play out in such a way as to make the underlying message resonate even more today: The whole world IS crying out now for a return to humanity.
As we sit here at the start of 2018 and within touching distance of 2020, we are at a reckoning point, socially, culturally and politically, where social platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, YouTube and others are facing a backlash from various constituents, including the users, media, regulators, politicians, governments and, in some cases, even founders and early executives who built these platforms.
The ill-effects of a constant-dopamine-hit society that has been created over the last decade is now apparent worldwide, and we are all reeling from the effects of it. One of these effects is what we termed earlier this year as Permanxiety, this never-ending anxious state of the world.
We are all beginning to see and feel the extreme effects of digital-led life: the casual tyranny of pervasive connectedness, constant virtual stimuli, and hyper-distractedness has taken over our lives.
Losing Control and Getting Overpowered
Whether is it the cancerous nature of our current politics or the daily interactions we have with our fellow human beings, in the virtual medium and even in-situ, we can’t shake the feeling that we have lost control, and that companies, governments and organizations in so many ways mine our digital lives to program, overwhelm and overpower us. For the last decade, social platforms have positioned themselves as different kinds of companies that exist to make our lives better, but we’ve realized that they’re just like any other corporation, seeking more profits from their users. But in this case, the user is also the product.
As John Herrman wrote in a New York Times essay last month on what he called The Return of the Techno-Moral Panic: “We find ourselves aware of the power and unaccountability of the new marketplaces in which we socialize, communicate and do business. To cast our recurring panics as technophobic reruns is to misidentify what animates them most: Not fear, but helplessness.
Travel as a Sensory-Deprivation Bubble
So if this is the state of the world today, what does the coming tech backlash — on a personal and societal level — mean for the world of travel? The surface-level promise of travel has always been an escape from all of this, almost a sensory-deprivation bubble of sorts that helps us unwind and, at best, forget the world for awhile. The deeper promise of travel, outside of the buzzword du jour, “transformational travel,” has been to break the silos of our own minds as we go through this gloriously multicultural and eclectic world.
Over the last decade, the ease of “capturing and sharing memories,” as marketers euphemistically dubbed our phone-and-camera-led lives, has triggered a gigantic explosion of user media in travel, pushed out through the social feeds we are all now addicted to. This is happening while the meteoric parallel growth of global travelers has continued over the last decade, as China, India and other emerging countries are creating new travelers in the hundreds of millions.
If It Isn’t Shared on Instagram, Does It Exist?
There are many intertwined threads to unravel here about our role as travelers: Is our increasingly narcissistic society reflected in how we travel and share our memories in these digital platforms? Are we really enjoying travel and its deeper promise anymore now that we are constantly recording “memories” or sharing them through these platforms every place we find a data connection? Has the act of travel and “seeing” and “experiencing” things sped up as a result, if we have no time to take it in and ponder, just to record and move on?
What role has the explosion of social media played in the growth of travel? What kind of travel has the rise of social media fostered? Is the experiential travel trend really just about better bragging rights so we can share these artsy photographs on Instagram? Does everyone want insidery experiences only because they can show them off to the outside world? Surely travel reaped a huge boost with the rise of selfie culture, right?
Did a sunset really happen if we didn’t Instagram it?
Are Marketers Enablers?
If this is the question we’re asking even in half-jest, what kind of dynamic have we created? How reductive can the travel experience get, chopped up into status-update-size chunks?
On the other end of it, travel marketers have been drinking from the firehose while filling up the hose at the same time, so to speak. At first came what we termed early on as “user-generated media,” and marketers used and encouraged their guests and travelers to share as much as possible.
If you want to take a dimmer view of it, the marketers enabled the hyper-distracted and social-addicted travelers. Free Wi-Fi became a human right at hotels and resorts, airports, and destinations, and the travel industry complied. No one ever stopped to question the rationale for pervasive connectivity, not in the larger societal sense, certainly not in the travel ecosystem. The travel industry, especially destinations, first embraced travel bloggers and then latched onto Influencers, for whatever that was worth, all the while pushing the narrative: share, share, share!
Then the other side of the digitally empowered traveler is the over-entitled, complaining traveler: The pervasive always-on nature of social media feeds an outrage culture that is now a dominant element of the customer experience. The news outlets, driven by the easy clickbait nature of this outrage, pile onto it with stories and slideshows. Angry people on planes, entitled people at hotel check-in, fake influencers at restaurants. It feeds a culture of extremes where it’s either love or hate and, if it’s the latter, we’re going to scream about it forever.
Marketers also took hold of customer service and turned it into “customer experience” or CX, if you want to use hipper lingo. Somehow that all became about digital user experience, but that also meant putting digital as the wall between travelers and the travel companies. Tweet at us, said our airlines, we will respond within seconds with a pre-canned useless response! Everyone else jumped on board, and every small and large travel mishap, especially by airlines, became a trending topic on Twitter and Facebook. Did airline and hotel customer service really become worse or did the slip-ups get amplified because all of us had a megaphone to shout out of, every waking second of every day?
Digital Disintermediation tests the Travel Industry
With the rise of messaging services, chatbots and Artificial Intelligence, even more disintermediation of the human experience is coming. And while the larger world is asking questions and turning on Silicon Valley, and the tools and culture it spawned, it is time for everyone — including us in travel — to pause to account for the society we are creating. The tech and social media backlash happening right now is a test for us in travel, as well.
So what are the solutions and where do we even start? It is unfolding, with this backlash. No one is asking for these digital and social platforms to go away. They won’t, the world — our world — runs on these digital services.
In travel, in addition to all the benefits of the online booking revolution that evolved over the last two decades, in-destination travel is now a completely new experience. We have driving/walking/transit directions on our phones; we use maps to navigate our daily lives and travels; restaurant reviews and recommendations have changed how we eat and socialize, and the ability to connect with locals via social media who we might never have had a chance to meet in the pre-connected world, these are just a smattering of benefits we get from these digital platforms.
The travel industry needs to think beyond the cliched digital detox holidays, which admit it, never really took off for any of us. Maybe like the Amtrak “Quiet Cars,” the digital detox needs to be weaved into every aspect of our holidays, resorts and hotels. The travel industry also needs to rethink its chase of digital tools and services as a proxy to the human experience, and build real social experiences as part of the social spaces it incorporates: airports, airlines, hotels, resorts, destinations, tours and activities, and restaurants.
BUT, awareness that these platforms have us addicted is the first step. A couple of weeks ago, I posted the following — ironically — on my social feeds. “Just a thought: if Facebook/Twitter etc. are really serious about solving constant dopamine-hits society they are creating, could they consider killing likes, faves etc? And take lessons from how Netflix changed their ratings systems? What kind of product could they build if they took empty instant feedback loops out of their services? A very naive hope, I realize.” This provides a hint of the potential product rethink that these social platforms have to undertake, either by themselves or perhaps public pressure will force regulators to take action.
Craig Silverman of New York Magazine wrote something similar recently, on how to stop trolls from weaponizing social media: “What if we had social platforms that didn’t constantly measure, assess, and rate us? That did away with follower counts and numbers of likes and retweets, which only serve to remind us of where we rank? These tools of assessment are what motivate so much bad behavior, along with the corporate colonization of our social networks. By pushing back against them — by demanding not to be rated, liked, or watched — we can take away one of the tools of the right-wing troll while also working to reform our culture of rampant surveillance. And perhaps finally, we can regain some measure of the elusive internet freedom so often promised to us.”
Two years ago, I wrote this as part of our Skift Manifesto on the Future of Travel in 2020: “Travel is the global crucible for everything. It is where the largest consumer and tech trends are first tested, they all converge in travel.”
Travel’s role then becomes a forcing function for us to slow down our speed-up permanxious life. It is a role many of us in the travel industry — and travelers — have forgotten.