05/28/2013 12:51 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

Travel 2.0: Traveler as Performer

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This is something I've been thinking about for a while.

There is a certain amount of legend and lore surrounding travel, especially long-term world travel ("vagabonding," if you like). The shapes will be familiar to you: stories of far-flung locations, strange and endearing (or dangerous!) characters, endurance under adverse conditions, discovery (self and otherwise), independence, and growth. For some, the story might have a sepia-toned, leather-and-canvas sort of feel (a la Indiana Jones). For others, it might take a more hyper-saturated booze-and-misadventure flavor (a la Eurotrip). In any case, we know these stories, which we internalize during our lives, especially during our childhood.

For many people, these stories will remain just that: stories. Due to whatever reason -- work, school, relationships, money, caution, or common sense -- many people never find themselves halfway around the world, vaguely confused and vaguely excited.

For many other people, however, these stories will become scripts for their own lives, as they themselves find a way (whether seized, or given, or forced upon them) to travel great distances and see other nooks and crannies of the world.

For most of history, the first group and the second were disconnected. People leaving on journeys were for all intents and purposes completely cut off from their homes and friends, for months or years at a time. Their stories were unknown, until they returned home to tell their tales. More recently, it became possible to send messages, postcards, telegrams across huge tracts of space, keeping a select few in touch with the traveler and her adventures, (more or less) as they occurred.

Today, however, is a new day.

The internet now wraps around the entire world, and almost every place is connected, continuously, to every other. Services like Wordpress, Flickr, and Facebook enable us to project our thoughts, images, and identities instantly across space. Gone are the days when a young man or woman would leave home and return, months later, a new and barely recognizable (although hopefully better) person. Now is a time of constant connection, of back-and-forth communication, between the traveler and their home. Gone are the days of traveler-as-pioneer. Now is the age of traveler-as-performer.

What do I mean? I mean that now, for the traveler, every act of uploading data from the road is an act of performance. The traveler, by virtue of their circumstances, is unconsciously placed on a kind of social stage for the people they've left behind. The traveler becomes a protagonist, living out some loose form of the internalized "hero's journey" narrative of their family and friends.

There are many ways that travel can be performed.

There are the public venues of Facebook and Twitter, in which every status is a kind of bite-sized op-ed on your movings through the world. Since people have nothing else of you, they will take those tiny dispatches and synthesize a larger narrative of your experience. There are photos, ways of staging and adding depth to the story. There are blogs, ways of more explicitly owning your narrative. There is tremendous room for subtlety in this performance, if you choose to exercise it -- you can combine multiple narratives across these various platforms, with different messages for different audiences. You are limited only by your creativity, and capacity for expression.

You might say that I'm mistaken about the "inevitability" of traveler-as-performer, and instead argue that it is perfectly possible for someone to travel without self-consciously broadcasting their lives like some 21st century radio serial.

I would reply that you are partially correct, but that regardless of your actions people will still, in their minds, be constructing a narrative of your journey. Your choice to give or withhold information (and today, it is very much a choice) will affect the kind of story they are able to construct. It will not, however, keep them from constructing. Your friends and family and wider networks are, to varying degrees, invested in you, and they care about you. You have not been forgotten.

To think of it another way, you are not the owner of your travels. Rather, they are a kind of commons, made so by virtue of your having stepped into the role of hero of a universal story. You can perform well, or perform poorly, or even try to resist performing at all. But either way, you're on stage, and people are paying attention. What you choose to do with the opportunity, in the end, is up to you.