It was a strange experience working as a social marketing strategist while planning my July vacation to South America. I had especially high hopes for question and answer sites, given how much they've evolved since the days when it was just Yahoo Answers competing with the now-defunct Google Answers. I thought I'd write a column about the recommendations the sites provided, but then I started asking questions and the answers underwhelmed.
I first tried Aardvark before Google bought it, back when I thought I was just going to Peru. A decent enough response came back when I asked for restaurant recommendations, but it ultimately wasn't helpful, and the respondent admitted he defaulted to the Lonely Planet guides. Before I left, I then asked Aardvark members for packing recommendations for Peru, as well as for my Ecuador leg to Quito and the Galapagos Islands, and the responses were mildly helpful but similar to any packing list I found through search engines.
As my trip date neared I also tried Quora and Yahoo Answers. I got one response to a question asked on Quora, which I now would disagree with. I got three responses on Yahoo Answers, with little information I hadn't seen before.
The one site I didn't use was Facebook Questions, which only opened up after I departed. It's not very useful right now, and the Facebook staff answering questions there admit it's a very early trial. It has the potential to be better than the others for several reasons. First, Facebook knows all my explicit interests, which other sites like Quora could tap into using Facebook's API. Yet Facebook also knows whom I interact with the most, what kinds of links I click, which ads resonate with me, and many types of information I never realize I'm sharing. Facebook could in theory scan the text around my photos and the locations where I've updated my status to determine I've been to Lima and Quito, and then it could suggest relevant questions for me to answer.
All of that's speculation. There are ways that social media proved to be helpful for my trip. The trick? I had to stop trying so hard to use it.
On July 14, I posted this status update to Facebook: "Atlanta: T-10 minutes. Lima: T-48 hours. Yes, hard to say which I'm looking forward to more." It was a casual note about some business and personal travel, ambiguous enough that two people thought I was going to Lima, Ohio (historic site: the Neal Clothing Building built during the Civil War), not Lima, Peru (historic site: the cathedral where Francisco Pizarro rests right by the lead box that used to hold his severed head). That update led to several emails from friends with great ideas for what to do in Peru.
One former coworker had spent some time in that part of South America. A former coworker from a different company told me his daughter stayed in Lima with a friend, and the friend sent me recommendations in Spanish. The Lima resident noted I should try the restaurant Astrid y Gaston, which also appeared in The New York Times' story "36 Hours in Lima." That restaurant wound up being the best meal of the trip, and one of the best I've had anywhere. I'll also warn you: once you've eaten guinea pig as part of its 12-course tasting menu, it's hard to really enjoy "cuy" anywhere else.
Traditional sources also proved helpful. Along with The New York Times, Lonely Planet guides were useful in Peru, and Frommer's repeatedly turned up when I was searching for ideas such as where to eat in Quito (best bet: Zazu, with seafood coronets so perfectly prepared, you'd think you were at Per Se). The one site that was indispensible was TripAdvisor. Checking out its mobile site from our hotel in Quito led us to TeleferiQo's cable cars that go 4,000 feet up the mountainous city for breathtaking vistas. I realized after the fact that TripAdvisor's regular website uses Facebook Connect to show friends who visited various cities, and this feature will be even more helpful if it migrates to its mobile site.
Once I was away, I appreciated the belated effects of word-of-mouth recommendations. A Twitter friend saw my status update and told me she used to live in Quito. Others made similar comments as I'd check in sporadically from Facebook or Foursquare. When I returned and started uploading photos, several friends assumed I was still away and offered to make relevant introductions.
When I brought souvenirs back to my office, such as a ceramic bull akin to those spotted on rooftops across Cusco and the Sacred Valley, a colleague walking by rushed in and said, "You were in my home country!" While I have benefited from her bagel recommendations, she's hardly someone I work closely with, and there was no reason for me to suspect she was brought up in Peru. It made me realize how close I was to such great insight, and how far out of reach it was before.
What I'm waiting for is word-of-mouth technologies to get so good that they'll know when there is someone sitting a hundred feet away from me who grew up within a hundred miles of places I'm visiting. They're getting closer, with TripAdvisor pulling the right pieces together and Facebook starting to mine its potential. No matter how smart these networks become, there will always be that serendipity that comes from connecting with unexpected people over shared experiences, which is almost as fun as the traveling itself.