Slicing the fruitcake of atomic content

Atomic content is the buzzword for distilling travel information into its smallest possible units, the atomlike single points of interest (POIs) that stud the pages of a guidebook, in the same way that nuts stud the innards of a rich, rummy fruitcake.  And the premise certainly sounds seductive: once these nuts are liberated from dough tying them together, so the theory goes, then they can be repackaged and recombined into all sorts of new, sexy pastries and confections.  Baklava!  Pistachio ice cream!  Nutty monetized eyeballs!  The sky is the limit!

And from a purely technological point of view, atomic content does make huge amounts of sense.  Tag POIs with geographical coordinates and store them in a database, and all sorts of neat things that you can’t do with a printed guidebook suddenly become easy: you can create a dynamic map that can pan and zoom, you can serve them up in a car navigator, you can get a list of all restaurants within 100 meters of a point.  Whee!

Yet the fallout of decomposing a fruitcake into its constituent parts is insidious and dangerous.

People rarely count the number of nuts in a slice of fruitcake, but if the price is the same, any shopper will take the 1 kg bag of nuts over the 500g bag of nuts.

Atomic content emphasizes quantity over quality.  A guidebook lists only the best 10 restaurants for a town, not all 500, but any feed consumer will prefer the feed of 500 POIs to a feed of just ten.  This pervesely incentivizes lowering the bar and keeping around old and even actively harmful information simply to inflate the POI count.

The only perceptible difference between the various brands of peanuts at your local supermarket is price.

Atomic content is commoditized.  There are a handful of sources out there for local POI information, all offering the same basic bits and bobs of information: name, address, coordinates, perhaps a telephone number, web address or opening hours.  The only differentiating factors are quantity (see previous point) and, as distant second and third, accurary and recentness, resulting in a race to the bottom that only the largest can win.  The quality of the review doesn’t really figure as far as Google is concerned, which means that user-written reviews, even if they’re crap or spam, can easily trump professionally authored reviews.

If I pick an almond from a bag of mixed nuts and eat it, there is nothing stopping me from eating a macadamia or cashew next.

Atomic content is not sticky.  If I Google “how do I get from Narita airport to central Tokyo“, Google will return 140,000 pages all advising me to take the train, not a taxi.  Having gleaned that atom of information off the page — and the way the Internet works, it’s the page most whole-heartedly devoted to answering that question and only that question that will bubble to the top — I have no incentive whatsoever to stay on the page, and odds are extremely high that the next question I ask, whatever it may be, will take me somewhere else entirely.

It’s the dough that makes or breaks the cake.

Ever heard somebody praise the quality of the raisins in a fruitcake?  Me neither.  Atomic content lacks the core of good travel information: the prose that binds it all together.  A sentence or two telling me where to find cheap late-night eats and where to go for romantic haute cuisine dinners is a far more useful starting point than an alphabetically organized phonebook of restaurants.

People value a slice of good nutty cake far more highly that a bag of nuts.

But the biggest morsel to take away is this: travel itself is not atomic.  Yes, there are occasions when I want to find an atom of information like “a good Chinese restaurant open for lunch in Northbridge”, but the true value of a guidebook is when it can help you with Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns“: the things I should know about a destination, but do not know to ask about.  I will not Google “gem scams in Bangkok” if I have never heard of the Thai capital’s shifty diamond dealers; I will not take a 30-km detour to an awesome museum in a neighbouring town unless someone tells me it exists.

The way to compete against atomic content is thus not to play the atomic content game, at least not to the extent of letting it corrupt your core cake-baking skills.  Bake cakes that are dense, filling, rich and nutty, which taste good from the first bite and leave the traveler hungry for more.

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