Snow Shovel, Movable Type, and the Mobile Social Web

I think we can all agree that the Internet is pretty awesome. But a few things recently got me thinking about where the outer limits of that awesomeness may lie. I heard a quote recently to the effect of: "The mobile social web is the most powerful collaborative tool in the history of..." something, something, something. I think we've all been hearing a lot of this lately—certainly a lot of us in the travel business have, especially those who eagerly lean forward for such innovations, which, in actuality, rarely seem to be adopted.

As for the legitimacy of the assertion, I don't know. Seriously, I would have thought Gutenberg's movable type might have grabbed at least one vote as an incremental societal advancement—perhaps with all the other votes in favor of the invention of the be-all, end-all mobile social web. Maybe the telegraph and telephone would have split a vote. Radio? TV? Personal computer? Nah!

That's neither here nor there. We can quibble over the merits of becoming a species of oral communicators vs. our heritage of the written word. We can debate whether the top 10 % of the world's population are gazing too affectionately—and too frequently—at their handheld devices. What I think is not open to debate, however, is that I'm probably far from the only person taking issue with the implicit hucksterism and fear-mongering of quotes like this.

Far be it for me to deny the importance of mobile innovation in travel. I mean, look at what we as globetrotters can do with sophisticated smart devices nowadays. Frankly, it is amazing.

Thanks to mobile apps, we know where we are ("Where is that restaurant again?"). We know what we're looking at ("What's that church called? Santa ... something?"). We know what to do (actually, that's a bit of an exaggeration). We know what things there are to do, to a degree (depending on wherever we may find ourselves).

On the last point, let's remember that if a hip nightclub doesn't have a sign outside and doesn't advertise, they probably aren't going to call themselves out on Google Maps, either. You know where to find them, and if you don't, fine. You're not supposed to.

On that point, I was lucky enough to find an excellent transcription of a lecture recently given by Alan Rusbridger, a lecture which I found thought-provoking and wanted to share. In part of this Andrew Olle lecture Rusbridger makes a great case for social web tools in the frame of news/media sources. I would encourage you to read it in toto, because not only is it captivating, it also provides a vivid, personal, and comprehensive view of the impact of different types of communication media over human history.

Rusbridger makes several parallels to the Gutenberg revolution, in the context of news and media businesses. He even acknowledges the power of new media by quoting historian Raymond Williams, who says that we know live in the age of two-way communication.

Rusbridger does not neglect, however, to underline that interactive social web experiences do not quite manage to solve the problem of influence and power over messaging. Maybe most important is his underscoring of the Star Wars-like velocity of change, which poses the risk of unintended consequences to the positive impacts we reap. Ah-hah, dear readers: This is where the travel part comes in.

I've been watching a lot of Tweets lately (since I am a Twitter addict, @tentofortysix) about how there is a lot of snow in Europe. You may have seen the screaming headlines that many airports have closed or are seriously limiting their tarmac activity. This is good, because people can monitor with some level of accuracy (totally unaccountable) which airports are affected. This was famously helpful in last April's volcanic ash cloud disruption.

But here's the rub:

  • No one is getting those planes off the gates;
  • No one is plowing those runways; and
  • No one is clearing those terminals.

Now, I want nothing more than for Heathrow authorities to issue a statement about how the avalanche of Tweets and status reports will compel them to (finally) invest in snow removal resources for next winter.

But this right here is where we need to start setting our expectations more appropriately. Travel is an inherently global business that bears witness to pointedly localized business practices surrounding innovation (online booking tools are a perfect example). Bottom line: Not all technological innovations are a good fit for all players in a given value chain. I guess the dispute about travel and mobile/social will carry on for a while, although the boom in best practices certainly didn't seem to take off on Wall Street.

And otherwise, I really do hope that travelers get unstuck from the recent blizzards that have been snarling traffic at airports, on trains, and on the highways. Wherever you may be marooned this snowy winter, stay safe, and abuse the mini-bar as merrily as you may!

Road Warrior • Miami • Madrid • Amadeus.com

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