Where holiday-makers go

Tourism sites are tapping into the insights of those who’ve been there done that, but are they also exposing some of the limitations of social media, asks David Bowen.

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I’ve been trying to work out what I should do with my family on our visit to Maine, and have been looking on the internet for ideas for the US state. In the process I got to look at an area well away from those I usually cover. And as travel and tourist information is the home of ‘user-generated content’, I learned a good deal in my digging.
My first impression was how little tourism sites have changed. The Maine Office of Tourism site is in essence a database that lets you find what you want by location and type: lots on day trips, hotels and restaurants, and also devices such as a trip planner and direction finder. Heading north, I found a similar story from the tourism office in New Brunswick, Canada. Both are useful, but not so different from what we were being given a decade ago.
The main reason is that they are produced by the tourism people themselves, rather than letting the rest of us say what we think. I like TripAdvisor, which asks travellers to rate hotels and such like, and have come to relying on the view of others.

Super Nova


Heading east from New Brunswick across the Bay of Fundy, I got closer to what I was looking for. Nova Scotia’s main site is covered with signs of modernity. Links to YouTube, Flickr, Twitter and Facebook line every page. ‘iLove Nova Scotia’ is a competition that asks people to make a two-minute video “expressing their love” for the Canadian province, while ‘Share your favourite places in Nova Scotia’ has gathered about 120 contributions in the past year. The folk in the capital city, Halifax, have jumped enthusiastically on the user-generated bandwagon.
Actually one of these is not user-generated – our new friend Twitter. Cynthia from the Department of Tourism does the posts. It would, I suppose, be possible to set up a feed that displays other people’s tweets that mention Nova Scotia – but that would be risky as well as largely irrelevant.
Nova Scotia’s YouTube channel has a mix of in-house videos and those generated by the ‘iLove’ competition, with the Facebook page used to point people to them. Flickr, the image sharing site, is full of photographs taken by visitors.

Quantity will out


But there are issues, quite fundamental ones.
First: lack of editorial control. What happens if someone posts a terrible photo? The 327 pictures in the group pool are not categorised: how many people will go through the whole lot? This is the big problem with all this user-generated material – there is no limit on quantity, and that means quality inevitably suffers. The fashionable way of editing is to get users to rate one another. But no one is taking an overall view. If you have 50 pictures of the same beach, who will say we only need five? There is surely a case for old-fashioned editorial judgement – but this runs against the ethos (and quite possibly the rules) of these sharing sites.
Problem two: balance. I like TripAdvisor because it tells me the bad as well as the good. Cut out the eccentrics, and you get a pretty fair view of what the hotel, or whatever, is like.
NovaScotia.com is not the site to visit for a balanced view of the province. Every post on its Facebook page is enthusiastic, or at least polite. What would happen if someone did post a negative message? The Rules of Engagement page, put up when the page was launched in May, says that “we reserve the right to delete offensive posts without notice and to ban offensive users”. One person’s ‘offensive’ is another person’s ‘robust’. Tricky area.

Down to Google Earth


I then moved to the world (literally) dominated by user-generated comment: Google Earth. This is an extraordinary beast – the planet laid out in satellite images, with the invitation to anyone and everyone to add pretty much whatever they want.
So I typed in the town we’re visiting – Princeton, Maine – and ticked all the ‘layers’ boxes. That means every feature that has been added by users showed up on the image.
I certainly learned a lot, some of it about Princeton, Maine.
I now know how to find the food store, the bank, the car wash and the Baptist church, and I can see what the town looks like using Streetview – those cars with cameras on the roof really do get everywhere.
I’m not sure how much of this is user-generated. But I do know that other elements I zoomed in on are.
There’s an ‘i’ for information icon that gave me technical details of the Lewy Lake boat ramp and linked to a site with all the boat ramps in the state. That would be useful for those who need to know.
A handful of YouTube icons took me to videos: of someone surfing with a car hood (bonnet to me), a snapping turtle being caught and a lobster being boiled. I found them all slightly depressing.

Robot generated content


A ‘W’ took me to the Wikipedia entry on Princeton, where I spent a while investigating a great mystery of Wikipedia: who has the time, energy and desire to create and edit articles on … everything? I dug around in the ‘history’ section of the entry, and found that the answer is ‘no one’. Or, rather, the entry was created and edited almost entirely by clever software.
The original entry was generated by ‘rambot’, which was developed by Derek Ramsey, “a happily married many living in the US”. He’s also a clever man, because his software took data from a public demographic database and turned it into perfectly good English: “There were 370 households out of which 36.8 per cent has children under the age of 18 …”. Etcetera.
Most of the changes have been made by other ‘bots’, sometimes with odd consequences. At one point the article changed from saying Princeton is a town in Washington County, Maine, to announcing that it “is the greatest person in the professional team of milwalkian”. This was corrected by a real person going by the name of ‘Titoxd’ (“currently attending a senior year in college”). He is the sort of editorial saint I assumed produced all the pieces: “As I roam through Wikipedia, I often stumble upon an article I feel can be improved”.
Finally, I found some ‘bed’ icons, which lead to guest house and hotel reviews taken from TripAdvisor. As I have said, these are very handy indeed.

Six thoughts for the road


*The concept of getting people out there to provide content is powerful indeed. When it works, it works brilliantly: TripAdvisor is a marvellous example.
*People are even cleverer than I thought, producing programs that can turn machine-held information into real English. I am in awe of geeks.
*We need to be aware that computers can be very silly; they need humans to correct their daft mistakes.
*Quantity can easily overwhelm quality. The YouTube videos I looked at were terrible; in any ‘normal’ medium they would not have been published, and I would not have wasted time looking at them.
*Even where the quality is good, as with Nova Scotia’s Flickr photographs, I do not want that many pictures; at the least, I want them classified.
*So, while some people may have time to trawl though all the dross to spot the good stuff. I don’t. And I doubt you do. Bring back old-fashioned editing. Please.

First published 21 July, 2009
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