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Backpacking is the ultimate low-budget option for eager world travelers. It conjures up images of gap-year young people on bus rides with huge packs on their laps, sparsely furnished hostels in off-the-beaten-path locales and tattered hand-me-down copies of guide books. In case you haven’t noticed, the world has changed and travel has changed with it. Backpacking is trending again, and with mobile devices at the ready, backpackers are are staying in touch while they are out there exploring. “Flashpacking” is the term being used to describe this new iteration of backpacking in the connected world.
Jennie Germann Molz is a sociologist who studies globalization, travel and technology. She recently published a paper called “The Social Affordances of Flashpacking: Exploring the Mobility Nexus of Travel and Communication.” The ATTA asked her to walk us through the implications of this new trend.
What is your best definition of flashpacking? What does a flashpacker look like?
Flashpackers are backpackers who bring electronic gadgets – such as laptops, mobile phones, digital cameras, and portable tablets – with them while traveling, and then use those devices to stay in touch with friends, family members, local people or other travelers while on the road. They often do this through various social media, such as travel blogs, Facebook, Twitter or whatever the latest social app is.
Has flashpacking replaced backpacking?
No. I think it is more accurate to think of flashpacking as continuous with traditional practices of backpacking. Travelers are incorporating new technologies and social media to pursue the same complicated desires that have long motivated backpacking – to escape the pressures of modern life, to construct an identity, to pursue new experiences, to learn about the world, or just to have fun. Now, the Internet and social media afford new ways of pursuing those desires and of documenting them while on the road. I will say, however, that I think flashpacking has become mainstream.
Does being tethered to “home” through virtual and social media — called “Virtual Mooring in the Statusphere” in the article — have any impact on how long backpackers stay away from “home”?
I don’t know if there is a direct correlation between technology and the length of the trip, but our research revealed two interesting trends that suggest this may possibly be the case. First, we found that many travelers saw the security, convenience and connectivity offered by their devices as a kind of safety net that might encourage otherwise reticent travelers to go ahead and hit the road. So people who might not travel at all, or who might only go for a two-week holiday, may feel able to embark on a longer journey. Second, we have also found that many flashpackers are able to work remotely via the internet and therefore fund extended journeys. In many ways, these flashpackers have become lifestyle travelers, or location-independent workers, who have found ways to combine flashpacking with income-generating activities like freelance travel writing, consulting or online advertising.
It seems like the backpacker — in the traditional sense — was a consumer of travel experience, while flashpackers are producers of experiences in the form of content. What does this shift mean for travel?
I would argue that tourists and travelers have always been producers of experiences and content. For example, early travelers produced journals, sketches, postcard quips and other forms of artwork, and later photographs, videos, and now travel blogs to represent their travels. And this is in addition to all the things they make, do, and perform while on the road. Just think of the artistic effort that goes into building sand castles at the beach, for example! In fact, Judith Adler, a sociologist at Memorial University in Newfoundland and one of the most important scholars in tourism studies, has referred to tourism as a performed art.
I do, however, think that the Internet and especially the emergence of Web 2.0 and then Web 3.0 has created new ways of producing content and performing tourism, and it has also coalesced new audiences for these performances and content. Perhaps one of the most interesting shifts has been the blurring of the line between expert and amateur. This is something that Emilia Ljungberg, a researcher at Lund University in Sweden, has been examining in light of travel journalism. Flashpackers no longer necessarily turn to so-called expert resources (like travel guidebooks or glossy magazines) for up-to-date practical information; they turn to one another and collaboratively produce this knowledge in online venues.
How does this trend impact travelers’ interaction with local people and places?
In my analysis, I have been very curious about the way flashpackers connect to people and places while on the move. In fact, this is the main question I address in my book Travel Connections: Tourism, Technology and Togetherness in a Mobile World (Routledge, 2012). Instead of outlining all of the specific impacts that I explain in my book, let me just say that these impacts are diverse and contested. Some travelers argue that new technologies create a barrier between the traveler and the local people or places they are visiting, keeping them mentally immersed in their social networks back home rather than opening up to the environment around them. Others argue that social networking sites, such as Couchsurfing or Airbnb – what I refer to as ‘network hospitality’ – actually enable them to make connections with local people all over the world and to gain more meaningful and authentic experiences than they could without technology. Still others will refer to the various mobile apps that make a place more accessible or that enable travelers to connect and communicate with local people. Take mobile language translators, for example, or apps that allow travelers to send local texts for free. What is really at stake in these debates about how technology impacts travelers’ interaction with local people and places, however, are a whole set of anxieties and aspirations that we attach to technology in our daily lives as well. Are new technologies bringing us together, or tearing us apart? Are we in control of the technology, or does it have control over us? What are these technologies doing to our social skills, to our attention spans, to our ability to be alone or to be together? When flashpackers take their mobile devices on the road, they are enacting these debates, only this time questions about power, cultural understanding, authenticity, and meaning also come into play.
Has this changed the landscape of armchair travel? What about the followers of these flashpackers?
One of the most interesting findings that emerged in our research was the way people do togetherness through the related practices of ‘sharing’ and ‘following’. In many ways, following has become a synonym for relating. The way friends do friendship is by following one another’s updates in the statusphere. I think that armchair travelers have always ‘followed’ the traveler via their narrative, even before Facebook and Twitter! What is different now is that the audience at home can interact with and even shape the traveler’s journey while they are traveling. By ‘following’ their social media updates, the audience can provide support, advice and even critique along the way.
So, are we all flashpackers now?
Yes, absolutely! And here is the best evidence I have of this. When I first started conducting research on travel and technology almost 15 years ago, the flashpackers in my study were just starting to experiment with new technologies and social media platforms. They were among the very few backpackers carrying laptops and constantly looking for power outlets, telephone jacks, and Internet cafés. At the time, these tech-savvy travelers were part of a new but small subculture. Today, the tables are turned. It is the backpacker without a mobile phone or a tablet or a laptop who is the odd one out. Flashpacking has become so mainstream, that the experiment backpackers conduct now is not how to travel with technology, but rather how to do a technology detox. However, even for those travelers who decide to go au natural (as technology-free travel is now defined!), the travel landscape is so completely saturated by technology that their experiences will be shaped by these technologies whether they engage with them or not. When they show up at a hostel, they may find it fully booked because everyone else logged on and booked ahead; when they go into the common room of the hostel, they will likely find their fellow travelers immersed in their own personal screens; and the more travelers adopt personal communication technologies, the less available public communication options will become for those who leave their own devices behind. Already, public telephones have become obsolete, and the Internet café is likely to be on a similar trajectory. So yes, I would say that we are all flashpackers now, whether we like it or not!