2018/08/27: the best parts of travel are precisely the things that technology cannot touch.
Algorithms are great at giving you something you like, but terrible at giving you something you love. Worse, by promoting familiarity, algorithms punish culture.
One caveat: Avoiding algorithms doesn’t apply to traveling in beautiful places. I depend on algorithms in expansive natural parks. When I’m in Patagonia, I want to do the best hike. In Alaska, I was to see the prettiest glacier. The focus is on nature, not people. Depending on algorithms, however, doesn’t work as well in cities, where culture is more important than geography. City travel works best when we put down our phones, seek serendipity, and lean into another culture.
Distinct, foreign experiences in cities — which evolve around people —cannot be bought or sold. They can’t be found in guidebooks and you’ll find no reviews on Yelp. More, as I scroll down these algorithmic websites, I find bland experience after bland experience. When we rely too much on algorithms, we travel around the world and end up with the same experiences we’d find in our backyard.
As tourism increases, I wonder if we’re actually traveling less. To travel is to escape familiarity and learn into the head-scratching quirks of another culture.
Dan Wang said it best:
“We’re all traveling to more places now, but I wonder if their novelty is limited by our tendency to travel to them in all the same ways. We use online booking to find hotels close to the city center, Yelp for restaurants nearby, and grab coffee in cafés that frankly all feel the same at this point.”
Unfortunately, algorithms discourage this kind of culturally rich travel. In turn, they destroy difference and encourage similarly — a “globalized sameness-as-a-service.
2018/10/09: while Couchsurfing emphasizes people, Airbnb places more emphasis on places. One of our participants explained:
“People who go on Airbnb, they are looking for a specific goal, a specific service, expecting the place is going to be clean […] the water isn’t leaking from the sink. I know people who do Couchsurfing even though they could definitely afford to use Airbnb every time they travel, because they want that human experience.”
In a follow-up quantitative analysis we conducted of the profile text from hosts on the two websites with a commonly-used system for text analysis called LIWC, we found that, compared to Couchsurfing, a lower proportion of words in Airbnb profiles were classified as being about people while a larger proportion of words were classified as being about places.
Finally, our research suggested that although hosts are the powerful parties in exchange on Couchsurfing, social power shifts from hosts to guests on Airbnb. Reflecting a much broader theme in our interviews, one of our participants expressed this concisely, saying:
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Ever wondered about the future of travel? I was challenged to speak about it at travel industry conference in Italy. What did I know about tourism? It turns out more than I thought, that is if the way my Silicon Valley friends travel today are any indication of things to come.On December 3rd, I gave the below keynote at the Buy Tourism Online conference in Florence, Italy about the sharing economy and travel.
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