Thanks to our digital devices, the developing technology and all the opportunities available online, it becomes easy to isolate ourselves from the real society around us.
It’s definitely easier to be social online without needing to worry about your looks or your energy levels, the weather or what cake to choose in the café. It is also definitely wonderful to find inspiration online on social media, on blogs and random websites, and to connect with other like-minded people. To know you’re not alone with your passion to write a book, start a business, go separate ways with your long-time partner or start a new life somewhere else.
But all of this exists also outside the Internet, social media and forums. You can find it in real life as well.
As we are rounding up our half-year adventure, we flew from Christchurch to Auckland to spend a few days in the capital city before returning to Finland. As we had been renting a private room in a house in Christchurch, staying at a hostel seemed like a refreshing change. It would be nice to meet new people, right?
The great thing about hostels is that it’s impossible to not meet new people. You share a room with them, you eat breakfast at the same table, you make travel plans and get advice from more experienced backpackers. Hostels are backpacker hubs. That’s what we thought, at least.
But our digital lives have changed that hostel culture.
I could already see it in Malaysia when we were staying at a hostel in Cameron Highlands. In Auckland, however, the effect of technology and digitalization could be seen even more clearly.
The combined kitchen/lounge area of a hostel is supposed to be the place where people talk and get together. Instead, we saw people sitting alone, eating their food while facing their phone, watching a video or scrolling their feed, isolating themselves from their surroundings with headphones. One time, when we tried talking to a girl, she was too busy taking a perfect picture of her food for social media to stay on track with the conversation we were having.
It’s weird that people wish to hold on to their social media fees, keep on following the same content producers as back home – why travel if you’ll only do the same things on your phone abroad that you would at home?
Only sometimes, when we played Skip-bo or any other card game, we could spark up some conversation with the few who weren’t distracted by their phones or who had dared to sit at one of the bigger tables. But taking out your phone or turning on the TV – it’s a conversation killer, a passive force that takes over and to which we so easily succumb to.
Hostels, the places that were supposed to be backpacker hubs, where the free travelers gather and talk, seem to be dying. Or at least, changing form, if our digital consumption continues as it does. The cultural exchange goes lost when you can do it online, the conversations die when you can have them on your phone, the stories are already out there, on the Internet. What do we need social, real life experiences for anymore?
However, there is hope.
Lucky for us, we got to meet curious characters elsewhere in the city. We met a couple of Swedes queuing to the same impressive gelato shop and ended up sharing our ice cream experience with them. Two days later, at a café, we shared a table with an older man who knew surprisingly lot about Finland and its history with Russia, and we got into a conversation about the differences between New Zealand and Scandinavian countries.
And the thing is: I think both conversations bloomed because we kept our phones in our pockets and instead opted to observe our surroundings. We looked like we were up for a conversation, open-minded and curious about the people around us.
The Internet is a wonderful place but only if we use it wisely. If we let ourselves become isolated, if we find it ”too hard” to let go of social media, if we can’t let go and instead embrace the awkward silences, the seeking conversation-starters and sometimes even weird conversation partners… I honestly don’t know what the world will look like in ten years.
It’s already happening in hostels, the sacred places of connectivity and feeling of community. And if it’s happening there, it’s most likely happening elsewhere as well. But believe me when I say that putting away your phone, headphones, laptop or any other mobile device will do wonders. For you, both internally and socially.
Let’s prioritize real human connection. Our phones and social media feeds aren’t going anywhere. People around you, however, might.