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B.A., Macalester College, 2006

Submitted in partial fulfillment of the

requirements for the degree of

Master of Professional Studies

May 2008

Supervisor: Kathleen Wilson


Approved by


Kathleen Wilson, Ph.D.

Adjunct Assistant Professor of Communications


Red Burns

Chair of the Interactive Telecommunications Program

Tisch School of the Arts, New York University






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

of experiences.

© Copyright by






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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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

culture (854).

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.

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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

book’” (859).

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

landing page.

Figure 2. The site’s primary navigation: tabs that point to the three major content areas.

Figure 3. The Reflect landing page.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

Olson 15

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,

I began coding the front-end design with HTML and CSS. Javascript and AJAX are used

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.

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Figure 8. The MySQL database table structure used for storing data on Wanderlust.

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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).

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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.

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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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Works Cited

Adler, Judith. “Youth on the Road: Reflections on the History of Tramping.” Annals of

Tourism Research 12 (1985): 335-354.

Bumgarner, Brett A. “You have been poked: Exploring the uses and gratifications of

Facebook among emerging adults.” First Monday 12.11 (5 Nov. 2007). 22 Mar.

2008 .

Cohen, Erik. “Backpacking: Diversity and Change.” Tourism and Cultural Change 1.2

(2003): 95-110.

Cohen, Erik. “Re: Questions about a project of mine.” Email to the author. 6 Feb. 2008.

Fukuyama, Francis. “Social Capital and Civil Society.” Conference on Second

Generation Reforms, IMF Headquarters, Washington D.C., 8-9 Nov. 1999. 29

Mar. 2008 .

Liu, Hugo. “Social Network Profiles as Taste Performances.” Journal of Computer-

Mediated Communication 13.1 (2007). 20 Mar. 2008 .

Loker-Murphy, Laurie and Philip L. Pearce. “Young Budget Travelers: Backpackers in

Australia.” Annals of Tourism Research 22.4 (1995): 819-843.

Murphy, Laurie. “Exploring Social Interactions of Backpackers.” Annals of Tourism

Research 28.1 (2001): 50-67.

Olson 22

Nardi, Bonnie A., Diane J. Schiano, Michelle Gumbrecht and Luke Swartz. “‘I’m

Blogging This’: A Closer Look at Why People Blog.” Communications of the

ACM. Dec. 2004. 20 Apr. 2008 .

O’Reilly, Camille Caprioglio. “From Drifter to Gap Year Tourist: Mainstreaming

Backpacker Travel.” Annals of Tourism Research 33.4 (2006): 998-1017.

Shrimpton, James. “Flashy way to backpack.” News.com.au. 31 Jul. 2006. 4 Feb. 2008


Sørensen, Anders. “Backpacker Ethnography.” Annals of Tourism Research 30.4 (2003):


Uriely, Natan, Yuval Yonay and Dalit Simchai. “Backpacking Experiences: A Type and

Form Analysis.” Annals of Tourism Research 29.2 (2002): 520-538.

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