For nine days, I was silent. The world heard not a tweet, not a Facebook post, not an email from me. This is the story of one man who went to four South American countries with nothing but an iPhone, two digital cameras, a Kindle, and a couple suitcases, and survived without social media in even the darkest of times, like when I really could have used restaurant recommendations.
I didn't expect to be as disconnected as I was earlier this month while on vacation. I like to occasionally share updates from other countries, even if I'm not actively monitoring all the responses. Reviewing the travel journal I penned longhand while away, my first entry mentioned, "No phone for me (well, iPhone, but that's more for games and Foursquare)."
Then something miraculous happened. When I arrived at the hotel in Rio de Janeiro, there was no open Internet access. The idea of pay-per-minute Internet usage just to claim Foursquare mayorship bragging rights seemed ludicrous when I was trying to get away from my daily routine. Friends could wait for me to return to see my photos of Christ the Redeemer and the city's favelas (slums).
Early on, it was tough to resist temptation. Lunch spots in the Copacabana neighborhood where we stayed all seemed to serve the same food, and I was tempted to tweet out a request for help. Thanks to certain articles getting republished in Brazilian trade publications, I even have a disproportionate number of Portuguese-speaking Twitter followers. Yet with the Frommer's guide to Rio, asking hotel concierges and other locals, and simply walking around exploring, I hardly went hungry.
The week progressed. My wife and I made it to Buenos Aires, where we knew about the best restaurants and biggest attractions. Advice we'd received before we left both from guidebooks and friends converged on the same places. Some spots underwhelmed -- really, avoid dinner theater-type tango shows at all costs even if someone swears it's authentic. Other tips couldn't have been better, such as when the city shut down for the Immaculate Conception holiday and we chose to spend the day in Uruguay. It would have been fun to post about the Uruguay jaunt on Facebook, but again, it could wait.
In Santiago, Chile, serendipity played an especially prominent role. As I led us in the wrong direction trying to find the subway, my wife spotted a tourism office and picked up information on a free four-hour walking tour covering a large swath of the city's colonial and bohemian neighborhoods. Being disoriented can pay off, as long as you keep your eyes open.
That final Sunday night, while waiting in Santiago's airport lounge for the return flight home, I resisted going back online. If I had any urgent business to attend to at work Monday morning, I could find out once I landed at JFK. Sure enough, when I arrived, there was plenty waiting for me:
· 652 emails in my work inbox
· 342 emails in my personal Gmail account
· 13 Facebook friend requests (only one from someone I clearly knew), plus five emails there and 11 event invitations
· 32 connection requests on LinkedIn (the vast majority from people I don't know)
· 22 friend requests on Foursquare
· A handful of tweets and direct messages I had to respond to, plus some new Twitter followers to check out
And then there were all the updates I had to share, from the photos on Facebook and Flickr to a few blog posts I haven't written yet. All of it could have waited a few days more.
Foursquare wound up being the hardest social service to disconnect from for several reasons. For social media geeks like me, it's fun to get mayorships in other countries. I also love that on the Weeplaces visualization of my check-in history, it darts around to other countries, and I miss having four more additions to that map. Lastly, and more practically, food always plays a prominent role in my vacations, and it's helpful to access local tips, especially when you can do so passively, rather than by actively asking your friends.
I managed, though. Sure, it's not exactly the kind of survival story that James Franco will want to option. As a social media addict personally and professionally, I was able to disconnect and have at least as good a time abroad as I would have had I brought my social graph along for the ride. Completely disconnecting is possible -- a lesson I'm happy to both learn and share. I did miss it, though, and on my next trip I probably won't hold back from social media entirely. It will be that much easier to use it in moderation.