I’m Traveling to Europe This Summer. Should I Twitter From the Road?
Ask Rolf: Vagabonding traveler Rolf Potts answers your questions about travel and the world
04.09.09 | 10:09 AM ET
I’m going to travel in Spain, France and Italy for four weeks this summer. All my friends are addicted to Twitter, and they want me to send them updates when I’m in Europe. Is this a good idea, or do you suggest other ways of keeping in touch when I travel?
—Tina, Gainesville, FL
Whenever I think of Twitter, I am reminded of a guy I knew back in college. For the sake of anonymity, let’s call him Doug.
Doug entered university in the early 90s, back before most people used cell phones or email—and well before the genesis of Twitter. Doug had recently purchased a telephone answering machine, and he loved using it. Whenever he left his dorm room, Doug would change his outgoing machine message to fit his current status. “Hey, I’m off in accounting class right now,” he’d say, “but leave a message and I’ll call you back.” “I’m going out to see a movie and maybe go to a bar, but leave a message and I’ll call you back.” Whatever Doug was going to do next—eat lunch in the cafeteria, travel to Portland, study in the library—invariably made it into a freshly updated answering machine message.
Back in 1991, this degree of obsession branded Doug as kind of a doofus. Nobody really cared to know what Doug was doing every time he left his room, and his dorm-mates began to razz him about his constantly updated messages. “Hey Doug,” they’d say. “Are you going off to take a crap? Dude, you’d better change your phone message because, like, we’d really like to know about it.” Eventually, a chastened Doug changed his message to a simple, “I’m not here; please leave a message,” and that was that.
Nearly 20 years later, social-networking services like Twitter have turned us all into Doug. No tidbit from daily life, it would seem, is unworthy of a “tweet” to our friends. What a decade ago made Doug a doofus is now standard social-operating procedure. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so—but I do think that you should quarantine Twitter to your home routine (along with other activities of the workaday mundane, like watching “Dancing With the Stars” or eating at Taco Bell).
In saying this, I don’t mean to be a technophobe; I’m just noting that travel—especially overseas travel—is a special experience that should be approached mindfully. Back home, Twitter can distract you from the doldrums of your home-life, but on the road it will only detract from all the potentially amazing experiences that come when you leave yourself open to your new surroundings. This isn’t a new challenge. In 1909, banker Pierpont Morgan traveled across Egypt in a private luxury train car—an exotic journey that was the envy of his peers. His travel companions later noted, however, that Morgan saw almost nothing of Egypt because he spent most of his time obsessing over cablegrams sent from his family and colleagues in New York. One hundred years later, the cheap ubiquity of instantaneous communication—what I’ve come to call the “electronic umbilical cord”—means that you no longer have to be a billionaire to ruin your vacation.
So my advice to you is this: Before you leave for Europe, send out a tweet explaining that you’re going to lay off Twitter for the duration of your travels. Then send out another tweet promising to write postcards to anyone who sends you a mailing address. Odds are your friends will be charmed by the postmodern novelty of receiving an actual physical piece of mail—and you will be cut loose from the electronic umbilical cord during your journey (so long as you can also lay off Facebook, email and cell phones).
Freed from the compulsive obligations of micro-communication, you’ll get to experience some of the best gifts of travel: anonymity, a genuine connection to your immediate environment, and the unique opportunity to process and ponder new experiences before you share them with others.