Has social networking ruined backpacking?

I recently returned home after two months backpacking around South-East Asia. Without a doubt the experiences and things I saw during my short stay will remain with me for the rest of my life, however I’m not going to write about that aspect of my travels.

I last backpacked in 2009, spending six months on the east coast of Australia. As many will remember, in 2009 ‘smartphones’ were not so smart, when compared to the 4 inch supercomputers we all carry in our pockets these days. The iPhone 3 (not even 3G!) had just celebrated its first birthday. (I suddenly feel very old..) During my travels, I spent a lot of time lounging around with fellow backpackers. The Australian climate and abundance of beaches was a contributing factor behind this policy. This gave my fellow travellers and myself a great deal of time to talk to fill the spaces when you just didn’t want to read and the iPod had died. And talk we did. I left Australia feeling like I had known the friends I made for years, rather than the relatively brief time that I actually did. I remember opening up to people, as they did to me, and really connecting. When travelling this is not uncommon, you are thrust into a strange place relatively unknown, therefore you naturally band together. This, in my opinion is the reason that the backpacker community is such a close-knit one, as we all shared a mutual feeling of self-imposed isolation.

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This is not to say that I felt any differently during my more recent travels, in fact, I was even luckier this time around, as I had even more in common with the group of friends I found myself with. However, one thing that I found myself observing more and more as time went by, was that during idle moments of the day, our hands invariably reached down into our pockets, and out came the small black mirrors (thanks Charlie) that dominate modern-day life. For tens of minutes at a time we were transfixed on the latest Facebooks updates, tweeting and Instagram-ing our latest breathtaking photo (@jonnysnaphappy, wink wink). To clarify, I’m not attempting to take a holier-than-thou standpoint on social networking, as I was just as guilty of shutting myself of for 10 minutes to endlessly swipe down on a screen. However, I did feel slightly guilty every time – had I travelled 7,000 miles to update twitter? I felt bad that I was potentially missing out on golden conversation with people I had grown very fond of for the sake of seeing what was going on in a life that I was thoroughly, and quite happily detached from. When I asked my friends about our use of smartphones, they felt the same as me – quite silly at how dependent we were to use our smartphones.

There are certain positives to having a smartphone whilst backpacking, which I should mention. Whilst in Australia, if I was lost, or needed help of any kind, the solution was simple as opening my mouth and making sound – as everyone speaks English. While this is somewhat the case in South-East Asia, as more and more people learn English – the language of tourism. However, there were instances when there was no way in which I could communicate, other than speaking louder, and gesturing. This is where a smartphone was invaluable – Google translate, maps, or any other aid was at my fingertips, and on more than on occasion I was able to get from A to B with nothing more than a point at a screen and a smile. Communicating with my anxious mother was facilitated by WhatsApp, and I was able to at least partly able to explain the wonderful things I was experiencing via a tweet.

Ultimately I have mixed feelings towards smartphones and social media combined with backpacking. They can be a huge benefit, and if anything allow you to share the wider world with one and all back home. While at the same time, it removes the escapist element of travel, the one which made backpacker such a draw, and one of the reasons I enjoy it so much. You are no longer truly alone, as your entire world that you left behind is a swipe and click away.

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