NEW YORK UNIVERSITY
TISCH SCHOOL OF THE ARTS
INTERACTIVE TELECOMMUNICATIONS PROGRAM
PROPOSING AND DEFENDING THE UTILITY OF A SOCIAL NETWORKING
SPACE FOR CONTEMPORARY BACKPACKERS
TAMARA JILL OLSON
B.A., Macalester College, 2006
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the
requirements for the degree of
Master of Professional Studies
Supervisor: Kathleen Wilson
Kathleen Wilson, Ph.D.
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Communications
Chair of the Interactive Telecommunications Program
Tisch School of the Arts, New York University
INTRODUCING WANDERLUST: PROPOSING AND DEFENDING THE UTILITY OF
A SOCIAL NETWORKING SPACE FOR CONTEMPORARY BACKPACKERS
TAMARA JILL OLSON
Since well before the Hippie Trail of the 1970s, Bohemian twenty-somethings
have wandered continents in search of low-budget lodging, scintillating conversation, and
the adrenaline rush that only exploring the unknown induces. But in addition to extra
pairs of socks and the requisite Lonely Planet travel aid, today’s backpackers are
devoting significant space in their packs to technological goodies. Meet the contemporary
flashpacker: the technologically savvy Generation Y traveler who takes to the road
seeking adventure, new friends—and Internet cafés.
The social networking boom and “Web 2.0” fostered an unprecedented
relationship between people and computers as on- and off-line worlds blur into one.
Ubiquitous social networking sites like Facebook are not merely virtual reality; they
reflect and are intertwined with the concrete world around us.
This paper introduces and proposes Wanderlust, an online social networking
space for backpackers that provides tools to plan and document trips and connect with
other travelers, as well as friends and family back home. In this paper I address the site
from both the sociological and the technical perspectives. I contextualize Wanderlust by
describing backpacker culture and online social networking, explaining how the site weds
these two landscapes. I then go on to describe the features and functionality of the site, as
well as my experiences with production and site development.
With an aesthetic that reflects the authentic, kinetic, romanticized tenor of the
culture in order to create a seamless integration of the site with real life, Wanderlust seeks
to enrich the backpacker’s travel by encouraging both introspection and the social sharing
© Copyright by
TAMARA JILL OLSON
There are many I wish to acknowledge as I approach the culmination of this project.
First, I would like to thank my thesis advisor at ITP, Kathy Wilson, for providing
structure, feedback, encouragement, and input for this project. I am also indebted to Clay
Shirky for sharing his expertise on the more theoretical elements of social software; the
other students in my thesis seminar for their weekly feedback and creativity; my parents
for their unflagging support; and finally, B.J. Fleming for being a constant oasis of
creativity and humor.
For the adventure-hungry (and budget-conscious) young traveler, traditional
staples of the tourism industry might seem financially out of reach; the archetypal, ritzy
hotels, overpriced cuisine, and tourist traps may also be rejected as gaudy and
impersonal. But there is an alternative: The popular backpacker lifestyle invites twentysomethings
to join thousands and take to the road, hopping from hostel to hostel in search
of authentic local culture while fostering relationships with other travelers. Backpackers
value social interaction, finding adventure, and maintaining a sense of carefree
spontaneity. In fact, it seems the only act that could possibly agitate these Bohemian
wanderers is calling them tourists. They hate that. They are the anti-tourists.
This paper introduces and proposes social software targeting this population.
Wanderlust, an online social networking space, assists backpackers in planning and
documenting trips, while helping them to connect online with friends both home and
abroad. Its mission is to enrich backpacker travel by affording users the opportunity to
share and reflect on their experiences.
To explain the relevance of Wanderlust, it is necessary to delve into the users’
sociological landscape: the culture of contemporary backpackers. I will give a description
of the positive utility of Wanderlust contextualized within this landscape, followed by a
more nuanced description of the site’s features and functionality, explaining how they
create a holistic user experience. Finally, I will reflect on the production aspects of this
project and speculate on the potential for Wanderlust’s scalability.
Background and Current Landscape
To thoroughly understand the target audience, I will begin with a brief history of
backpacking, followed by an ethnological profile of the observed habits, typical
behaviors, values, and idiosyncrasies of the contemporary backpacker.
In an article about the history of drifter travel, Judith Adler does not trace the
roots of backpacking to tourism, but rather to the traveling working class tramps of the
nineteenth century. These trade members typically journeyed from town to town in
search of work, spending nights at inns specifically designated to accommodate this
population (339). When migrant worker travel declined with the advent of railways
around the beginning of World War I, what was once a respectable habit deteriorated into
an indicator of social marginality. According to Adler, the practice was now viewed as a
“social problem” and reasons for travel were “explained in individual, psychological
terms as Wanderlust” (341). Although their lifestyle choices were deemed taboo,
vagrants were often well educated; travel was a means for poorer class youths to gain
exposure to the high values of class culture.
Over time, wanderlust evolved into a romanticized ideal. Adler writes that during
the middle of the twentieth century, “tramping became aestheticized as a form of play”
(346). In addition to being a means for learning more about the world, traveling today is
often linked to the process of finding one’s self—particularly during times of intense
transition, such as the period between adolescence and adulthood. Adler writes,
“Tramping, like all travel, may also function, particularly for youth, who in Western
culture are expected to leave home upon maturity, as ritual play with separation and
social distance” (351). Additionally, independent travel is often viewed positively as a
character-building experience. Camille Caprioglio O’Reilly writes, “The symbolic capital
of having made a lengthy, independently organized journey—and the desirable personal
qualities it projects—can enhance prestige and reputation in a variety of contexts, from
employment to social circles” (1012).
The practice of tramping eventually evolved into what is now called backpacking.
According to O’Reilly, the term gained popularity in the late 1990s as “useful shorthand
for long-term international low-budget travelers, as long as it is kept in mind that not all
people accept the label and when they do they may not define it in precisely the same
way” (1000). In most circumstances, backpackers are between the ages of 18 and 33
(Sørensen 852). Most hail from northern Europe, Australia, Israel, New Zealand, and
South Africa (O’Reilly 1001). O’Reilly observes that few North Americans backpack,
with Americans proportionally outnumbered by Canadians (1001).
Backpackers are marked by the lengthy duration of their time on the road. Trips
usually range from two and a half to eighteen months, the end date usually determined by
the scheduled return flight home (Sørensen 853). According to Natan Uriely, Yuval
Yonay, and Dalit Simchai, the unplanned nature and long duration of the trip are
important identity markers for backpackers—the longer they stay on the road, the more
boundary-less they are, the fewer plans they make, and the more authentic they feel
(534). O’Reilly describes the attitude as “[embracing] serendipity: low levels of advance
planning, no fixed timetable, and an openness to change of plan or itinerary” (999). For
many, such expeditions provide a way to leave behind the familiar and monotonous; to
experience new routines, experiences, and independence; and to find one’s self and
transition into adulthood. Uriely, Yonay, and Simchai write, “They search in foreign
countries and culture for the authenticity they miss in their daily lives, and even if they
fail in this quest it should not devalue their efforts and sincerity” (525).
Backpackers are usually described as open, talkative, independent, spontaneous,
relaxed, fun, and easygoing (Murphy 60). The backpacker social scene, strongly reliant
on the hostel as a gathering place, is important; a study by Laurie Loker-Murphy and
Philip L. Pearce shows that surveyed backpackers cite meeting others as the second most
important element in traveling, after finding excitement and adventure (833).
Backpackers’ conversations usually center on tales of travel—an exchange that, as
Anders Sørensen describes, “in itself reconstitutes their social construction as identity,
[and] reinforces the popularity of certain routes” (858). Though friendships formed on the
road may be fleeting, backpackers find them quite meaningful. Sørensen observes:
It is quite common to strike up a friendship with backpackers encountered on the
road, travel together for a few days or weeks, split, and team up with others again.
Friendships are created rapidly and travel groups are formed and dissolved almost
instantly. However, the behavior connected to this social interaction is not
unregulated. It is circumscribed by the norms and values of the backpacker travel
Another nuance of backpacker culture is the importance of frugality, which is
reflected through their worn clothing and unwillingness to pay high prices. Sørensen
wryly explains that though it may appear the goal is to spend less than locals, the true
goal is to pay less than other backpackers. He observes that backpackers will often even
lie and understate prices they paid to seem more frugal (857). The act of scrounging for
cheap deals seems to authenticate the true backpacker, even though most have more
funding than their appearance suggests (Sørensen 856).
In general, acting authentic is an integral part of being a backpacker. They frown
upon spending too much, being afraid to meet other travelers, or acting too touristy.
However, further scrutiny suggests that the identity is grounded more in backpackers’
self-perception as anti-tourists than the reality of their behavior. Uriely, Yonay, and
Simchai observe from interviews that while backpackers verbally resist the tourist
identity, deemphasizing visits to popular or commercialized sites, most had in fact visited
mainstream tourist attractions—though they were quick to insist that the trips were
circumstantial, not planned (534). Yet Sørensen even finds, “The author has frequently
heard backpackers argue, when discussing plans, that ‘We can’t go there, it’s not in the
It is curious why backpackers are so motivated to create such a deliberate,
constructed, alternative identity. Adler describes that young, middle class tourists enjoy
pretending to be tramps “to romanticize their trips as vagabondage” – it is an example of
“people divided by social class [raiding] one another’s lives for metaphors” (352).
O’Reilly describes the desired identity:
... the tourist: the brave, intrepid explorer; the association of physical movement
across vast distances with adventure, excitement, and daring deeds; and the lone
individual pitting himself ... against the forces of nature, savage “Others”, and his
own physical and psychological limits (1003).
Amidst the uncertainty of transitional periods, they believe that spending time with the
Other might provide a valuable lesson in authenticity. O’Reilly observes:
Some approach the quest for “authentic” Others with a degree of postmodern
irony, but for many there is a genuine desire to experience what they consider a
more exotic or more “real” way of life. Even as they subscribe to orientalist
stereotypes, many backpackers consider themselves liberals and identify with
political causes such as anti-racism and the anti-globalization movement. It can be
difficult to understand the apparent contradiction (1004).
As the simulacra of adventure and the unknown have heightened in popularity,
the potential for encountering the actual unknown has rapidly decreased. Sociologist Erik
Cohen concludes that despite their articulated quest for adventure, “the need to deal with
strange and dangerous situations ... has been largely ameliorated through the emergence
of an institutional structure serving the needs of the backpackers” (103). Thus, the
identity survives only through its being perpetuated and reaffirmed within the backpacker
community and enclaves.
Introducing Wanderlust Into Backpacking Culture
In general, the distinctive and arguably elitist nature of the backpacker identity
points to the success of Wanderlust. Guidebooks popular among the community such as
Let’s Go and Lonely Planet are backpacker-specific, and it makes sense that backpackers
who vehemently reject the tourist identity would be unlikely to buy books written for
tourists. Sørensen writes, “It does not take much textual analysis to realize that the
alternative books thereby guide and support backpackers’ perception of identity, by more
or less subtly confirming a distinction between them and the ‘ordinary’ tourist” (859). In
the same vein, backpackers would likely gravitate toward backpacker-specific social
Moreover, studies of backpackers’ online habits suggest that they have the hours
and resources to devote significant amounts of time to a social networking site. Sørensen
finds they already go online daily to check their email, and that backpacker guidebooks
nearly always include the locations of internet cafés on the insert maps—evidence of
their importance (Sørensen 860). According to James Shrimpton, in addition to visiting
internet cafés, flashpackers, as he calls them, regularly carry technological goodies such
as cell phones and digital cameras.
In this section, I will apply my research and findings to explain why certain
design choices and features were selected for Wanderlust. I will go on to describe the
details of their technical implementation.
Ideally, the final iteration of Wanderlust will be available to backpackers
worldwide, but due to time constraints the preliminary prototype includes only one
continent. The popularity of backpacking within Australia, as well as my familiarity with
the country having lived and traveled there, made it a logical choice.
The look and feel of the site is intended to be elegant and minimalist with
straightforward navigation (inspirations for this design include Digg, Flickr, Virb, etc.).
The site’s color scheme incorporates three hues: green (hex value #72bf44), orange
(#f5821f), and purple (#5c2d91). During my research I noted that many travel social
networking sites sharing Wanderlust’s objective such as MyTripBook.com and
MatadorTravel.com fall victim to messy, cluttered designs due to an excess of content
and advertising. Thus, a particular effort has been made with Wanderlust to keep the
design clean and uncluttered.
There are examples of effective existing sites that target the same demographic as
Wanderlust, but most offer different types of features. Couchsurfing.com, for example,
attracts young wanderers looking for a place to stay, but the site does not emphasize
social networking or visualizing travel in terms of trips as much as it touts being a
resource for lodging. The relatively new site Dopplr offers a clean, well-designed
interface for planning trips, but unlike Wanderlust, it does not target backpackers—its
intended user is the business traveler. It also does not incorporate tools for trip reflection.
The general aesthetic of Wanderlust is designed to inspire a sense of romanticism,
adventure, and other sentiments associated with the backpacker experience. A screenshot
of the homepage that greets users following registration or login is shown in Figure 1.
Decorating the top right corner of every page is a Flash animation showing a map of the
world, reminding users of the limitless nature of global travel. To the left of the map
under the login and search information, a quote related to travel and wandering serves the
same decorative purpose—and with each page reload, a different quote appears.
Figure 1. The Wanderlust homepage greets users following registration or login.
The site’s primary navigation consists of three tabs that each point to a major
content area within Wanderlust, shown in Figure 2. The sections are: Travel, Connect and
Reflect. Each tab links to the corresponding landing page. Figure 3 shows the Reflect
Figure 2. The site’s primary navigation: tabs that point to the three major content areas.
Figure 3. The Reflect landing page.
Within the first section, Travel, backpackers record the dates and geography of
their trips. Wanderlust uses the Google Maps API to allow users to view visual
representations of their travels. An example is shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4. The Google Maps integration creates visual representations of travelers’ trips.
It has been shown that due to the free-spirited nature of the lifestyle, backpackers
deliberately do not plan trips in advance; they almost always make travel and lodging
decisions in transit. Thus, this section also includes city-specific resources for
inexpensive trip planning with content provided by outside sites and other backpackers.
Connect, the second section, incorporates social networking features, including a
messaging system to allow secure communication between users. Brett A. Bumgarner
explains that the primary reason that college students use Facebook is to feel connected to
friends. Facebook provides a documented, user-generated, visible accounting of the
social dynamics of their small worlds. This section of Wanderlust serves the same
purpose: it keeps users informed about other backpackers’ activities, travels, and
experiences. Sørensen explains that rather than relying on happenstance meetings as they
had twenty years ago, wired backpackers can now keep in touch online (860-861). The
features within Connect give users more flexibility with travel partners, as they may
continually stay informed of friends’ plans and whereabouts, and easily reunite if they
Figure 5. The user profile page shows current location, trips, friends, and journal entries.
On other social networking sites, users utilize the profile feature to define and
introduce themselves; Hugo Liu calls it an “online textual performance of self” (1). He
asserts that twentieth century consumer culture dictates that identity is determined
through “possessions and consumptive choices”—for example, Facebook users define
themselves according to favorite pop culture such as TV shows and music (1). However,
identity articulation largely depends on the environment. For instance, while a Swedish
backpacker might not identify “being Swedish” as a prominent part of his identity at
home, on the road it might play a significant role in how he envisions and presents
himself. Wanderlust takes this into account. Since backpackers most often engage in
conversations about their travels, trip-related data fills a large portion of the user profile,
as shown in Figure 5.
Wanderlust’s other prominent networking tool is the piazza, shown in Figure 6. In
observing successful online social networks, I noticed a pattern related to naming
practices: many titles allude to real-life objects or concepts. For example, the “Facebook”
title evokes the traditional paper reference book that provides students’ names and faces.
“MySpace” suggests actual personal space. By referencing real life, a site can convey the
function of the page using relatable jargon. Thus, whenever possible, features within
Wanderlust are named in a similar fashion. The city-specific piazzas are titled to evoke a
city center where users exchange conversations, ideas, and information. On the site, for
any given city a user can visit its piazza to locate resources such as hostels, restaurants,
bars, and Internet cafés. One may also find other users who have recently visited the city
and message them with questions.
Figure 6. The piazza provides city-specific resources for travelers.
Within Connect, users are asked to invite more users to the site. In his Facebook
study, Bumgarner acknowledges the importance of this feature. He alludes to the
snowball effect and writes, “A couple of people got on Facebook, then a few more got on
because it seemed like the thing to do, and then herd instinct led people to Facebook in
droves.” Communicating through the medium can be classified as social capital, a
phenomenon described by Francis Fukuyama as “an instantiated informal norm that
promotes cooperation between two or more individuals.” Facebook is so intertwined with
college social norms that students are expected to be on it; if they aren’t, they are missing
out socially. This type of motivation will likely play a significant role in the growth of
Wanderlust. If the backpacking community approves of and uses the site, it will become
more necessary for potential backpackers seeking approval and a heightened level of
involvement to join.
The last section, Reflect, is a place for users to document and reflect on their trips,
either through blogging or photographs. Once photos are uploaded, they can be sent as
virtual postcards to friends. A study by Bonnie A. Nardi, Diane J. Schiano, Michelle
Gumbrecht, and Luke Swartz explains that blogging is an adaptation of traditional
journaling and “stems from the impetus to make note of the events in one’s life” (6).
Three of their arguments for blogging over traditional journaling are relevant to
Wanderlust. First, blogging is quicker than writing and bloggers do not run the risk of
losing a paper journal—this is especially useful for those on the road. Furthermore,
keeping an electronic journal saves backpack space. The article also argues that bloggers
can share experiences with many people in a manner that is less awkward and pushy than
sending a group email—“no one need respond if they did not wish to” (7). Finally, the
authors assert that blogs foster communities. Within Wanderlust, the act of reading other
blogs allows backpackers to learn more about others’ personalities, trips, and
experiences. (It should be noted that in keeping with the tradition of naming site elements
according to their real-life counterparts, within Wanderlust the process is called
“journaling,” not “blogging.”)
Designing and Developing Wanderlust
Once I had my concept decided and research completed, I gathered a small group
of creative adults in their early twenties—all with backpacking experience—for some
preliminary brainstorming. After forming a fairly concrete list of the features I wanted to
implement, I purchased a domain (wanderlustlive.com) and hosting through GoDaddy.
My first step in actual site creation was to make Photoshop mockups to establish the
site’s look and feel. Around the same time, I drew an information architecture structure to
map site navigation. To store user content, I configured a MySQL database, which is
accessed using PHP, and drew a rough sketch of the site’s table structure.
About two weeks later, I began site development. Using the Photoshop mockups,
for select features like error checking form submissions. The information architecture
map and the MySQL database structure evolved as more features were added; the final
iterations are shown in Figures 7 and 8, respectively.
For user testing, initially I planned to send a questionnaire to several people and
ask them to answer it based on their interaction with the site. However, as I actually
began designing and developing, it seemed easier and more useful to sit down with users
and directly observe their behaviors. The user testing sessions highly informed the
navigational structure of the site.
As the site slowly became more robust, I invited more users to join. Through
watching their profiles, I observed how they were using the site and asked for
constructive feedback. User testing was particularly important because so many features
were made from scratch—users were able to find flaws in basic functionality (testing
whether or not it worked) and in user experience (testing whether or not the interface was
intuitive). Most of the changes that resulted from these sessions were small, involving
where-to-click issues or features that should be made more prominent, but ultimately
resulted in a significantly more functional, sleeker, more intuitive version of Wanderlust.
Figure 7. A map showing the information architecture for Wanderlust.
Figure 8. The MySQL database table structure used for storing data on Wanderlust.
The Future of Wanderlust
If Wanderlust were to be fully implemented and its doors opened to a large
number of users, certain technical aspects of the site would need to be improved. If this
project were produced on a large scale, a team of developers would be hired to strengthen
the site’s security. More time spent conducting nuanced user testing and examining user
experience issues would undoubtedly unearth solutions to making navigation even more
straightforward, easy, and fun. Following the course of the existing prototype, within a
small amount of time I believe the site could be ready for a full-scale launch.
Undoubtedly the most effective way to market the site would be through
collaborative partnerships with well-known backpacker enclaves like Internet cafés,
travel shops, and hostels. Though there might be potential in allowing hostels to pay to be
featured on the site, I am generally opposed to hosting advertising, as excessive ads seem
to be the downfall of many other travel social networking sites.
In general, the most exciting aspect of the current implementation is how strongly
the concept lends itself to expansion. As shown in the first section of this paper,
backpacking culture is a brand. The brand of Wanderlust, much like Lonely Planet, has
the potential to align itself with this unique identity and gain a strong following. It is a
phenomenon that could conceivably become a part of the backpacker’s daily routine,
much as Facebook has become with college students’. Future iterations of Wanderlust
might incorporate mobile phone integration, extended social networking features, and
even user-specific merchandising (e.g. a T-shirt with a graphic of a map of the user’s
travels or a printed photo album with all the pictures from the user’s trip).
Finally, though Wanderlust has the potential to achieve widespread popularity, it
is interesting and worthwhile to speculate as to the possible sociological effects the
project would have on the backpacking community. If it were to become ubiquitous, how
would Wanderlust change backpacker culture? Which elements of the culture would stay
the same? Which would change? To gain better perspective, I contacted Professor Erik
Cohen at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a sociologist who has published a great
deal of literature on drifters and backpacker tourism including the book, Contemporary
Tourism: Diversity and Change. He responded:
I am sure that BPs [backpackers] will find your project [Wanderlust] very useful,
since, as you observed, contemporary BPs are deeply involved in networking ...
Ironically, your project, while useful to the BP community, will probably help to
reinforce present tendencies by disseminating info and advice, and thus making
"traveling" less adventuresome and more routine than it already is.
The idea that Wanderlust might degrade the adventure of travel begs myriad
questions regarding definitions of authenticity, simulacra, experience, and selffulfillment.
It is a belief of mine that adventure is in the eye of the beholder. For over one
hundred years cinema has captivated its viewers. In reality, these audience members
never leave their seats—yet they embark on richer adventures than the actors themselves.
Any reality, after all, is arguably founded in nothing more than self-perception. The key
is identifying what the backpacker community believes to be authentic, and using that
valuable knowledge to inform the site. This paper has described how Wanderlust
precisely addresses, both aesthetically and functionally, the needs of a specific
population. If it becomes a staple brand accepted and embraced by the community as
Lonely Planet and YHA have, Wanderlust will garner the loyalty of backpackers.
O’Reilly writes, “Perhaps more than any other factor, virtual travel feeds the
backpacker imagination” (1011). By opening the doors for increased reflection and
reinforcing travelers’ perceptions of themselves, Wanderlust in fact provides a way of
enriching international backpackers’ experiences. It fills them with a burning desire to
explore, a romanticized portrait of themselves, and a satisfyingly rich sense of
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