As we sit within touching distance of 2020, we're at a reckoning point socially, culturally and politically: Digital platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and YouTube are facing a backlash from users, media, regulators, politicians, governments and, in some cases, even the founders and early executives who built them.
The ill effects of a constantly dopamine-hit society, one created over the past decade, is now apparent. One of these effects is what Skift termed last year as "permanxiety," or the never-ending anxious state of the world.
What does the coming tech backlash mean for the world of travel?
There are many intertwined threads to unravel here about our role as travelers: Is our increasingly narcissistic society reflected in how we travel and share our memories? Are we really enjoying travel and its deeper promise any more now that we're constantly recording "memories" and sharing them every time we find a data connection? What kind of travel has the rise of social media fostered? Is the experiential travel trend really just about better bragging rights so we can share these artsy photographs on Instagram?
Did a sunset really happen if we didn't Instagram it? That this question can even be asked half in jest points to the weird dynamic at play.
If you want to take an even dimmer view of it, travel marketers have enabled hyper-distracted and social-addicted travelers. Free Wi-Fi became a human right, and the travel industry complied. The travel industry, especially destinations, first embraced travel bloggers and then latched onto influencers, for whatever that was worth, all the while pushing the narrative: Share, share, share! No one ever stopped to question the rationale for pervasive connectivity, certainly not in the travel ecosystem.
Another side to the digitally empowered traveler: the entitled, complaining traveler. The always-on nature of social media feeds an outrage culture that is now a dominant element of the customer experience. Angry people on planes, entitled people at hotel check-ins, fake influencers at restaurants. It feeds a culture of extremes where it's either love or hate, and if it's the latter, we're going to scream about it forever.
Marketers also took hold of customer service and turned it into "customer experience," or CX. "Tweet at us," said the airlines, "we will respond within seconds with a pre-canned useless response!" Everyone else jumped on board, and every small and large travel mishap, especially by airlines, became a trending topic on Twitter and Facebook.
And just as the larger world is asking questions, and some are turning on Silicon Valley and the tools and culture it spawned, it's time for us in travel to pause to account for the society we're creating.
So what are the solutions and where do we even start? No one is asking these digital and social platforms to go away. They won't, the world—our world—runs on these digital services. The travel industry needs to rethink how it chases after these digital tools and services, and build real social experiences that are part of the social spaces it incorporates: airports, airlines, hotels, resorts, destinations, tours and activities, and restaurants.
Late last year, I posted—ironically—on my social feeds that if Facebook, Twitter, etc., were really serious about addressing the anxiety-provoking results of a social media-fueled society, why don't they consider killing likes, faves, etc.? And take lessons from how Netflix changed its ratings systems? What kind of product could they build if they took empty instant feedback loops out of their services? This is just a piece of a product rethink that these social platforms need to undertake, either by themselves or, perhaps, regulators making them take action.
Travel plays a crucial role here: It's where the largest consumer and tech trends are first tested. The industry's role, then, is to become a way to encourage people to slow down our sped-up permanxious life. It's a role many of us in the travel industry, including travelers, have forgotten to play.