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Inside baseball, friends. Not interested? Here’s a story about that time I went on safari in Tanzania. Man, that was amazing.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been culling a lot of my social media feeds. I’m unfriending, unsubscribing, unfollowing. The reason for this dieting? There’s been a marked shift in the tone of what’s broadcast through my online travel channels. A change of focus, of attitude, of goals underlying the creation of the “stuff” that makes up the corner of the web where I spend most of my time. Lately, I feel like bloggers about travel are driven by a marketing agenda more than a storytelling agenda. I don’t particularly like it.

Let’s cue the “Who are you to judge?” stuff right away, shall we? I’m your reader, that’s who I am. When I feel like you are writing for the marketing and PR department who sponsored your trip more than you are writing for me, your reader, I lose interest. When you are transparently writing for the Google monster and stuffing your posts with garbage that Google likes, I lose interest. When your blog makes me feel like you are more interested in the perks of being a blogger than writing good stories, I lose interest. When I feel like you’re trying to sell me something rather than tell me something useful or interesting, I lose interest. When you place junk links in your content and add popups that ask me to subscribe before I’ve finished reading the post, I lose interest. I am losing interest a lot, lately.

I am one terrifically snobby reader. I willingly acknowledge that you do not have to write for me, no sir, not at all. I also willingly acknowledge that a lot of the stuff that causes me to lose interest is increasingly popular because it leads to a certain flavor of success. That flavor of success is so attractive, too, it means plush hotel rooms and airfare to exotic locations and balloon rides over the desert followed by champagne brunches. It leads to a wallet that is not quite so empty, maybe to a book deal or a thriving business model. It is easy to understand why someone would want these things. Hell, I want these things, of course I do.

But pursuing those things looks, in my feed readers, increasingly like a shift towards sponsors at readers’ expense. Instead of asking “What am I giving my readers?” there’s a voice that says “What am I giving my sponsors and what am I getting in return?” Sponsors have become the audience. And the audience, instead of being a readership, has become a potential customer. It’s an extreme analogy, but there’s a creeping used car lot feeling about the travelsphere. We’ve traded in our excitement for personal experience and honest advice for checkered jackets with wide ties.  Travelblogging is for closers. “Let me tell you a story” (or share some great advice) has been replaced by “Let me tell you my sponsor’s message.”

It may surprise you to learn that I don’t think the problem is with sponsorships (or press trips). I think it’s with the work that results from those sponsorships. It’s in that shift from making readers happy to making sponsors happy. The problem is with pervasive creation of advertorial. With blog posts that read increasingly like brochure copy. I am glad you had an awesome time on someone else’s nickel, now, can you tell me something genuinely interesting, new, insightful, enlightening, peculiar, maddening… about the destination? Or am I just reading about you and your friends (or a group of bloggers) having a good time? Whose voice am I hearing when I read about your travels? Yours or a voice heavily filtered to please a sponsor? When you sit down to write, do you think about who you’re writing for?

It’s common, when casting about the travelsphere, to settle on a “popular” entity and think, “Oh, I want that job.” We think this because we’re focused on the trappings, the travel. It’s less common, I think, to say, “I want to write (or take pictures) like that.” I wince every time I hear, “I’m just a blogger, it doesn’t matter how well I write, I don’t have to focus on that.” (New rule: Anyone who’s dismissive of writing’s role in blogging isn’t allowed to use words anymore.) It’s pretty to imagine ourselves on a patio with a cocktail in golden hour light — the jetlagged writer pinned to deadlines and in difficult edits is not such an attractive image. Writing classes where a teacher nitpicks our grammar are considerably less satisfying in the short run than a check for a sponsorship with a company that will only correct us when we don’t use the product name in alignment with the brand guidelines. We want to skip straight to the comped meals and the view hotel rooms without learning about the Oxford comma or narrative arc or that service writing means it’s a service to the reader.

None of this is a particularly new conundrum, it’s just the media that’s newish, and the fact that travel, as a topic for bloggers, has grown enough to be an attractive investment for sponsors. I remember having a panel proposal for a major blogging conference rejected because travel was “too niche a topic.” Growth is good, though sometimes painful, and I don’t begrudge those selecting the marketing path as their direction; I just stop reading them. I also think it is possible to do sponsored content well. It takes a good relationship with the sponsor and a bravery on the part of the writer. I could point you to my role models for this, but you can probably name your own by asking yourself how you feel after you’ve read a blogger’s work. Do you trust them? Do you think they are honest? Who do you think they are writing for?

What I do regret is that this marketing shift seems to be the dominant method behind travel-blogging madness right now. I crave variety. I crave voices that focus on story, on experience, on the delight of perfectly chosen words. I’m going to name drop and tell you that I had the pleasure of spending time with Don George recently, and I’m also going to embarrass myself by telling you that I kind of whined at him. “I get lonely,” I said, “for the company of people who genuinely care about travel writing purely for the sake of doing good travel writing.”

Photo: Shift by Slack Pics via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Related must read: Among the Junketeers: 90 Hours in Vegas, Selling Out Hard. Freaking brilliant.

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99 Responses to “Shift”

  1. Dick Jordan says:

    March and write to your own drummer. Call your own tune. Don’t follow the Pied Piper.

  2. Jackie Smith says:

    A most thought-provoking post. If you are ‘a name’ and have a following I guess they will stay with you no matter what. Glad to hear there are folks like you out there reminding us of the importance of writing and subject matter not just money generation and fame.

    • I don’t think people will stay with you no matter what, actually, I think they will flee when you lose — more to my point — or sell their trust. I like generating money and I probably wouldn’t say no to a little fame (which is different than notoriety, eh?) but not at the expense of my readers’ trust.

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