The chimera of social travel

Ever since Facebook set dollar signs spinning in venture capitalists’ eyes, the concept of social travel has been bandied about as the Next Big Thing in travel technology.

First came a wave of “Facebook for travel” sites that tried to build their own social networks, only with a travel focus. Crushed by the weight of the network effect, these all sank without a trace, with the qualified exception of TripIt, which survives more through its slick itinerary-building capabilities than through social networking.

Next Foursquare hit the scene, gaining critical mass through Facebook check-in notifications and proving that there was a market for “social-local-mobile” apps.  The inevitable wave of “social-travel-mobile” copycats followed, all of which seemed primarily designed to lure you in with the promise of useful travel info while actually spamming the hell out of your Facebook, Twitter etc streams to entice more marks into their Ponzi scheme.  A trendily spelling-impaired startup called Tripl has even come up with a pretty yet remarkably vapid infographic to justify its claims of “social travel revolution”, which can be summarized à la South Park as thus:

  • Travel is increasing.
  • Social networking is increasing.
  • Travelers use social networks.
  • ???
  • Profit!

But the question I want to ask is: does social travel actually work?  Let’s consider a simple thought experiment and find out.

So.  I’m going to Milan for the first time and I want to know where to stay, what to see and what to eat.  Will social travel help me?  There are three possibilities.

Case 1: My social network has no people familiar with Milan. 

If I know nobody in Milan, even on a “sat next to them on a flight once, exchanged business cards and added them on Facebook” level, then my social network can have no information about Milan.  And when you think about it, this is actually a very, very common situation: you usually meet people from Milan when visiting Milan, not before.  And even if you have already been to Disneyland, do you know anybody living there?  Or even in Orlando?

Case 2: My social network has a good friend living in Milan.

Let’s say I do know somebody from Milan; maybe we met at university and have known each other for years, or maybe they visited my town on business and I took them around the sights.  So when I visit Milan, gracious host that they are, they will return the favor and take me around in person.  No social travel network needed.

Case 3: My social network has a friend who knows Milan well, but doesn’t actually live there.

My friend Svetlana has been to Milan at least ten times and would love to tell me all her favorite places, like the five-star hotel with a fabulous spa she stays at, all the chic handbag boutiques she visits, plus a wonderful cramped little restaurant in a cellar that serves divine pizza by candlelight.  Kind and generous soul that she is, she’s even taken the time to type all these up on a social travel site, complete with accurate addresses and opening hours.  Surely this is a social travel match made in heaven?

Alas, no.  My budget extends to three stars tops, so her hotel is out; I’m a guy, so I have a distinctly limited need for designer fashion accessories with four-figure pricetags; and we’re bringing along the baby, so late dinners are out and we choose lunch restaurants based on availability of highchairs and staff that won’t throw a hissy fit when Jr. smears pureed broccoli all over the table.  So I can’t actually use any of her recommendations.

Lest you think I’m exaggerating, incompatible travel profiles like this are pretty much the rule rather than the exception.  Think back to your last casual conversation with somebody who had recently been to a place you were going to.  How much genuinely useful travel information did you manage to glean from them?  If you were lucky, maybe a burger joint or microbrewery worth checking out, but would it be enough to replace your guidebook?

(The reverse of this explains why local sites that operate where you live and have lots of friends do work: while most of your local friends probably do not share your interest in Japanese food or the perfect cappuccino, enough of them do that they will share interesting new places on a regular basis.  Also, since you’re living there instead of traveling, you’re not pressed for time: if I live in Milan and my local friend recommends a Mexican place, I’ll probably go check it out at some point, but if I’m there only for a weekend, I’ll stick to Italian.)

The final nail in the coffin is that while sharing your favorite spots at a dinner party with someone you know is effortless and fun, it’s fairly tedious to type them up in a social networking site at a usable level of detail.  While on a fully open travel site like Wikitravel you can at least bask in the warm fuzzy feeling of knowing that your handiwork will be read by thousands, on a social network that restricts visibility to people who know you, the odds of anybody actually ever seeing or caring what you write is low indeed.

And that’s it: the inescapable conclusion is that your social network is very likely to be useless for actual travel.  Not a few startups have realized this problem, and have tried to figure out ways to lower the bar.  Maybe they can find you an in-person guide by being a de facto dating service like Tripl and any number of “X with a local” sites tries to do, or maybe they can show everybody everybody’s contributions and hope you can make some sense of it (I’m looking at you, TripAdvisor), or maybe they can sprinkle in lots of content from experts like Lonely Planet and Frommers (hi there, Wenzani!).  But each of these actually involves going outside your social network, and thus loses the main point of social networking: that these recommendations come from people you know and trust, not random strangers.

This is not to say that social networks don’t have their place in a traveler’s repertoire: Facebook is great for keeping touch with acquaintances around around the globe, and any local site can give me good recommendations in places new to me if I can just be specific enough about what I want and where.  There’s also plenty of room for improvement, since most user-generated travel sites out there do a really bad job of using user reputation and nth-degree connections to sort out the bacon from the spam, and I’m mildly amazed that none of the major networks have taken a leaf from Dopplr‘s book and implemented a notification service that lets you know when visitors are heading your way.  But social travel alone is not going to be the killer app for travel.