Monday, March 21, 2016

The Strange World of Travel Blogging

What the hell happened in the world of travel blogging?

I remember reading some pretty good travel blogs 10 years ago or so. Well-written, fairly regularly updated blogs by people who lived as expats or otherwise managed to spend a good chunk of time travelling every year. They weren't always the slickest-looking sites. But the bloggers were usually thoughtful, well-read, intelligent individuals who made an effort to present their own unique take on various destinations.

Travel Blogs

I was so impressed with all those blogs I apparently read, that I can't remember the name of a single one. I'm probably engaging in some revisionist history when I talk about those long-lost travel blogs. But I believe that I enjoyed reading much of the early travel writing that appeared online. For example, I remember a long-term traveller who posted numerous essays on his blog and after a while started putting them together and offering them as ebooks. I believe he even gave many of them away free of charge. They were simply written, interesting thought pieces set in various locations.

I recall that many travellers at the time had a certain anti-establishment attitude and were always exploring various philosophical questions as they spent time in some of the most impoverished countries on the planet. Sure, we're all hypocrites to some degree and are inexorably tied into a world of corporations and profit. But at least those phantom travel writers made an effort to temporarily leave some of the worst excesses behind instead of seeing their journey as an opportunity to hook into the system more completely than ever before.

It was travel writing with a gonzo journalism sensibility and was reminiscent of independent publications produced by people who, not too long ago, would get together a few times a year and print a couple hundred magazines on the cheapest paper possible in whatever third-world hellhole they were temporarily calling home. Some of the earliest travel blogs had the same nose for the quirky angle, the out-of-the-way destination, and the interesting locals you would never encounter if you were on a two-week whirlwind tour.

Today there's a certain sameness to many of the most popular travel blogs. They're all professional-looking, multi-media sites with plenty of stunning photos and breathless headlines. A nice-looking website certainly isn't a bad thing. But aside from the banner, not a lot distinguishes the design of most of these top-end travel blogs. In fact, the cookie-cutter look emphasizes exactly what most of them have become: one big advertisement. Most are in the business of peddling all manner of travel-related products: hotels, adventure-tour companies, clothes, sunglasses, food, their own advice on how to become just like them. The self-congratulatory, smug, listy-ness of some of the writing can be very off-putting. Most of the time, the writing simply isn't engaging.

And what about those stunning photos that appear on every last one of the most popular travel blogs? When did the world start looking like that? Of course, the world doesn't look like that. Many of the photos I see on those blogs are lifelessly impressive. I find that very few of those photos demand an extended viewing or multiple viewings the way good photos, drawings or other artwork does.They remind me of young women who flaunt their sexuality in a crass, this-must-be-what-being-provocative-and-alluring-is-all-about way. You can almost hear their thoughts: "How can I not dress like this when it brings me so much attention?" How can you not post those breath-taking, panorama shots with the crisp delineation of every last molecule that appears in the frame? What are you going to do, tweak the settings on the camera that was gifted to you on the condition that you mention its make and model every week in the captions of those very same stunning photos? Tweak it so the photos don't look quite as good? So that when you just keep mashing the "take the fucking picture" button with your thick, peasant fingers, the results are not as impressive as they otherwise could be? No, of course not. The thing is, you can overdose rather quickly on those amazing pictures that span the width of the webpage. I find them oddly distracting especially when I am reading. I want my online reading space a bit cozier and more word-focused than those hotshot, faux-world photos allow.

What else do most of the high-flying, top travel bloggers of today have in common? They all devote a certain amount of their content to advising their readers how they can also "quit your job, sell everything and get paid to travel the world." Of course, anyone who operates a blog can easily track their most popular posts, and doubtless those how-to articles are their top draws. Fair enough. But sweet mother of f***, wading through the carnival huckster, revivalist tone of those pieces has no doubt turned off more that a few potential readers.

And while we're speaking of all the thinly-veiled advertising that is necessary to allow someone to travel full-time, let's drill down a bit deeper. Very few, if any, of the elite travel bloggers address the issue of how they can write honestly about products and destinations when the companies which sell those products and benefit financially from having those destinations hyped are also paying those people who are writing about them. It seems a handful of travel bloggers who survive on the tainted benevolence of free trips are content to stick with the flippant, hipster approach to any questions of their ethics. It's kind of the "Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, we all know this is the way the world works and you would do it too if you were in my position. Besides, I'm never influenced one way or the other when I take free accommodation, flights or products from companies who expect, nay, spell it out plainly when they make their offers, that this is a quid-pro-quo and they want something in return."

Many industries are built on the premise of handing out billions of dollars in trinkets, free dinners and all manner of other tangible benefits every year in exchange for less-than transparent shilling by those who slurp up all the goodies. People who operate businesses give things to people because they expect something in return. There is no other reason for it. Regardless, writing about something which you have been paid to cast in a positive light cannot be done in an objective way. That's not to suggest that many of the hotels or locations highlighted by travel bloggers are not fantastic, exciting places worthy of paid visits. But situations could arise that bloggers might describe differently or not at all if they have previously benefited financially from various owners or operators. Just maybe those owners or operators wouldn't always appreciate a truthful account of everything related to their product or service. The point is, if your interests are the same as those who are paying you, your interests aren't always the same as your readers, regardless of how many times you claim that you "always tell it like it is."

Why not be up front and tell people when travel freebies are offered in exchange for publicity? And also, tell us exactly what happens—a real-time, unfiltered, behind-the-scenes look at the (likely) shamelessness of  it all. It would be refreshing and would add some real authenticity to many blogs whose writing has taken on a tired, brittle, advertorial sound. I'm not suggesting that most travel bloggers are constantly showered with all expenses paid trips, nor that any of them don't simply work traditional jobs in various locations to finance their travels. But I have no doubt that many bloggers aim for and achieve a situation in which they are basically being paid to advertise under the guise of writing about their adventures on the road.

On the other hand, provide me the names of some travel blogs that don't all look the same, sound the same, or have the same collection of "you can do it too" articles and I'll quit complaining. Please point me to some well-written, non-professional blogs that are updated more than a few times a month. I can't seem to find many of those. Every time I type some likely search terms into Google, I get countless results that point to other blogs and websites which have Top 10 or Top 25 or Top 50 lists full of the top travel blogs. And all those blogs being ranked in the lists are inevitably the type that I have described above. If the most popular slick, hip, travel bloggers are the big leagues, then the legions of other bloggers who make the lists are desperate wannabes on farm teams hoping that their sycophantic praise will get them some attention from their heroes. I mean, you've really got to go pages' deep into the results of an online search before you start finding travel blogs that don't include numerous mentions of "affiliate marketing," or "travel hacks."

Of course, travel books are still an option.


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