World Hum’s 2008 Traveler of the Year: Matt Harding

Speaker's Corner: Jim Benning celebrates the power of a dancing traveler with a video camera

12.23.08 | 9:31 AM ET

Graphic: Joe Rivera

A few years ago, Matt Harding had a simple idea. While traveling with a hand-held camera, he collected video of himself doing a goofy jig each place he visited. He edited together the highlights, added some dance music and uploaded the resulting video to his website. It became an internet sensation. When Stride gum offered to fund his travels around the globe to make another video, he jumped at the chance.

Then he had an epiphany.

“Halfway through that experience,” he recalled the other day when I dialed him up at his home in Seattle, “I realized dancing with other people was a whole lot more interesting.”

So when Stride agreed to send him around the globe a third time, he embarked with a new mission. He contacted people who’d sent appreciative emails and asked if they’d dance with him.

MORE ON MATT HARDING: Watch his 2008 video

The response was overwhelming. From Madagascar to Madrid and Papua New Guinea to Yemen, people came out and happily flailed their arms, shook their hips and hopped up and down like pogo sticks. A few even did the funky chicken.

The resulting 2008 video, set to a hypnotic and haunting song, was among YouTube’s biggest hits, watched by millions of people. But that’s not why we chose Harding as our first-ever traveler of the year.

Here’s why: If you encapsulated all the global feel-good, can’t-we-all-get-along spirit of the Olympics’ opening ceremonies with the wonder of the Discovery Channel’s “Planet Earth” series—and then threw in some rough-around-the-edges DIY YouTube spirit—you’d get something approaching the simple yet deeply touching quality of Harding’s 2008 video.

If there exists on YouTube a more powerful invocation to travel, and to reach out to others and make friends along the way, we haven’t seen it.

The New York Times called the video “an almost perfect piece of Internet art: it’s short, pleasingly weird and so minimal in its content that it’s open to a multitude of interpretations.”

Harding, 32, doesn’t see himself as an artist.

“I appreciate the compliment, but I really don’t think in terms of art when I’m making stuff,” he said. “It’s so much about getting to the places and the logistics and it’s so mass participatory. I have limited control over what I’m doing. I just try to manage the chaos.”

He did that with the help of his girlfriend, Melissa Nixon, who produced the 2008 video. During their travels, the chaos reached a zenith in Madrid, when local blogs got wind that Harding was in town.

“The Spanish are big travelers,” he said. “Word spread we were going to Plaza Mayor. We got a ton of people. Almost 200. It was a bit more than the two of us could handle, especially with the language barrier. But people were there because they wanted to be a part of it and were so enthusiastic.”

He found such enthusiasm almost everywhere he went. And after the video went live earlier this year, Harding’s reach only broadened. People from around the globe responded—one version of the video has been viewed more than 14 million times and has more than 40,000 comments, fittingly, in a range languages.

Typical among them:

Indeed, it’s hard to watch the video and not feel happy.

The videos’ success has changed Harding’s life. The self-described “deadbeat from Connecticut who used to think that all he ever wanted to do in life was make and play videogames”—and who then got hooked on travel—now has a new career.

“People ask me all the time what I do for a living,” he said. “It’s hard to explain that this is my job, for lack of a better term. Stride gum sponsors the videos. When you put something out there, a lot of other opportunities arise.”

Among other things, Harding recently made a commercial for Visa.

He got the travel bug while living in Australia in his 20s. Back then, all he wanted to do was roam the world—spend months in Africa, for example, exploring. Thanks to the videos, he’s done that.

These days, he has no plans to make another dancing travel video, and his feet aren’t quite so itchy.

“I’ll always love travel,” he said. “I’ve had the unique opportunity to go to so many of the places I wanted to see. Now it’s good to be home. But I do expect to keep on traveling. It’ll be a part of my life for a long time.”

10 Comments for World Hum’s 2008 Traveler of the Year: Matt Harding

kathleen 12.23.08 | 11:55 AM ET

What a great story, Jim!  Matt surely has perfected his jig by now.

soultravelers3 12.23.08 | 6:46 PM ET

Ah, I KNEW it was going to be Matt and almost twittered it to you before seeing this! Who could not love Matt? His videos inspired us while we were busy planning our family open ended world tour three years ago.

We decided to make a take off of his in his honor of our first 18 months with our kiddo last February and called it, “Where in Heaven is Mozart”! Boy were we surprised when we almost got a million views!

Great story and perfect pick! We love all of his joyful videos and how they make us all want to travel more!

Allan Stumpe 12.24.08 | 3:14 AM ET

Pure inspiration!

travelchick 12.24.08 | 12:11 PM ET

I loved this video!  And I think I’ve cried every time that I’ve watched it.  If I didn’t already have the passion to travel, I’m sure this video would have inspired me to do so.

jayne Burnett 12.26.08 | 7:26 AM ET

theres only one matt harding , ,blueskys

bert 12.26.08 | 2:18 PM ET

it’s just a stunt that got a lot of attention and was free for interpretation…sponsored travel at that. lucky guy!

John M. Edwards 12.27.08 | 1:55 AM ET

Hi Jim:

This Harding cat has something going on! Yeah! Partay! Woo!

John M. Edwards

Enduring Wanderlust 12.27.08 | 5:24 PM ET

Matt deserves the honor :) Very funny videos. Nice to see someone bringing smiles to people around the globe with a little dance. I can definately see this becoming a trend of sorts.

bedava oyun 01.04.09 | 2:10 PM ET

travelling sometimes great especially summer

Barbara - Krakow 01.13.09 | 4:15 PM ET

When visiting in Krakow, let me know!
I would certainly enjoy more tourists like Matt:)

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