How social networks can add a dimension to your travel: real people

August 11, 2008 by Jared Goralnick

A real person on the other end of the monitorThe history, architecture and even cuisine come second when I’m traveling.  I want to meet people and learn through interaction.  But meeting people (especially locals) in distant cities had always been a matter of chance.

Today, social networks can stack the odds.  They made all the difference in my recent trip—and in this post I’ll describe how (with some specific tips).

Most of my trip I was traveling alone, but through friends and with the help of Facebook and LinkedIn I met some great people.  I almost met others through CouchSurfing and Twitter (logistically things didn’t work).  Next time I’ll work on improving my Dopplr network.

But I don’t want to just talk about the networks, I want to explain how to reach out…and why it works.  Put this all together and I hope you’ll build some great relationships when you’re out of town.

The Psychology of Distance: Why This is So Easy

Rarity + constraints make it easy to get together. Consider this: when you visit a city where you have an old friend, it’s fairly easy to get together.  However, you likely have good friends living within 15 minutes who you see equally as often.  When something is rare (being in the same city) and there are clear constraints (just in town for two days) things work out more easily.

The same can be applied to people you don’t know. If you can come up with a halfway decent reason to reach out to someone in the circumstances above, people will often make time.  I met with Ramit Sethi when I was in San Francisco, Tim Ferriss when he was in DC, and seemingly random people in places as diverse as Barcelona, Nashville, Reykjavik, Pittsburgh, Kowloon, etc.  People are receptive when there’s rarity+constraints.  More later on what to say when reaching out…

Where to Find People

Atli & I in Reykjavik For starters, take a look at your existing friends on social networks.  You’ve probably “connected” with people you don’t remember or know very well…who might be where you’re heading.  Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster, and MySpace all let you search your connections by geographical criteria.  (I wish Twitter let me search my Follows/Followers!).  Heck, also try searching your Contacts in Outlook/Gmail/etc (you’d be surprised what you’ll find).

If you have friends (who you care for) in any of these regions, a trip is a good time to reconnect.  If you find that they’re not in town then, ask if there’s someone to whom they could introduce you. For instance, two of my friends were unavailable while I was traveling, but they introduced me to others who I met up with.

Then look for second-tier friendships.  LinkedIn and Friendster makes this easiest (but I don’t use Friendster anymore).  So I used LinkedIn’s advanced search.  I searched for people who worked in the “Internet” field in Barcelona, sorted by degrees of connection, and came across a friend of my buddy Jake’s.  (If you’re new to LinkedIn, then an advanced search by region (without any narrowing criteria) should still work well.)

If you’re going at this completely cold (no connection with the individual or through someone else), look for people with shared interests.  I swing dance and I’m into productivity and startups.  I used LinkedIn to find tech people.  I found a discussion forum focused on swing dance in Barcelona.

Josep Maria Sala & I at Txapela in Catalunya Plaza Still stuck?  Try CouchSurfing.  CouchSurfing is designed for people who are looking to crash on someone’s couch while traveling…or offering such couches.  Or at least that’s the idea.  What many people use it for is a way to connect with other travelers or locals when they’re in foreign cities.

When I was in Hong Kong I reached out to one of the several dozen active people on the site there and received a response within an hour.  My logistics kept it from working out, but the knowledge of other accessible people around was comforting (I’d been stuck inside during a hurricane that day.)

Some other options to consider

  • Your alumni network on Facebook
  • Your alumni network through your university (most have them now, just ask)
  • Do you belong to any “groups” at home?  Whether it’s formal like Kiwanis or informal like a knitting/pilot/Halo/book/LAN/rollerblading/whatever club, look for ones where you’re going.  Everyone is curious of how things are different in other parts of the world (or country)
  • Dopplr is a network all about travel that I’m getting more involved with (it also offers great travel tips for many cities)
  • Posting where you’ll be on Twitter, a blog, or in a Facebook status can often lead to random meetings, good travel advice…or jealous friends
  • Many conferences offer directories to attendees, and some of them offer city search functionality.  For instance, I could’ve looked up SXSW Interactive attendees by city; that would’ve led me to many like-minded individuals
  • Do you have a friend who’s well-traveled?  That studied abroad in your desired destination?  Who was born there?  Ask for introductions!  Or at least for spots to visit…

If you try hard enough on your network of choice, be it Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, or even OKCupid, you’ll likely find people interested in getting together.  You don’t even have to say something creative…

What To Say When Reaching Out?

Ines and I by the Pier in Barcelona...I know it's not a great picture, but it's a happy one If you’re familiar with the person you’re reaching out to (you read their blog, follow them on Twitter, etc.) then mention something that caught your attention.  But regardless, just be genuine.  Tell them…

  • Where and when you’re visiting
  • Who you are
  • That you don’t know anyone there (or something to that effect)
  • That you share something in common and are curious how that is different in this city / are looking to learn more about their city / something generic about how you think they get it in whatever it is you’re looking to learn about (My Obvious Point: if there’s no reason you’re interested in meeting them then there’s no point in reaching out, duh!)
  • Confirm that you’re somehow not a freak by sending them some sort of social proof (link to your blog or Facebook or company or mutual friend, etc)

Everyone I reached out to wrote back, including the ones with no mutual friend.  Perhaps it was the psychology at work above, perhaps it was out of courtesy…but we all seek out connection.  We’re all curious.  And ties to different cultures are all the more fascinating.

Other Ideas for Meeting People…How about YOU?

There are things outside of technology and mutual friends that lead to meeting people while you travel.  Taking group tours, staying in hostels, going to certain bars, looking for the only person who looks like you in a crowded train… I imagine this stuff has all been discussed ad infinitum though in the past.  Do you have any tricks?

And how about the topic at hand: have you met anyone online while traveling?  Got any advice? Oh yeah, if you do any of the above, be careful.

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  1. Liz

    Great post! Piotr and I are heading to Europe in a few weeks and you’ve inspired me (and likely him as soon as he reads this). One of my favorite things about traveling is meeting new people. I’d also love to read about what you gained from meeting with all of these people and how the method affected the experience. Welcome back to DC!

  2. Jet Set Life

    Great Post. I would say that more than half of my friends on Facebook are from my travels around the world. It’s kind of weird getting invited to a party that’s in Monaco tomorrow night (when you live in the states). The world is getting smaller and smaller. I bumped into someone who follows me on Twitter last month at a nightclub in Greece. Anyway, keep up the great posts.

  3. Jake

    Practical and example filled. Love it. And so glad you were able to meet up with Josep!

    It’s remarkable just how commonplace and useful (versus being a novelty and clunky) using the tools at our disposal these days really is. Clay Shirky’s latest book really speaks to that and I think this post does in a way as well. One of his best lines: “Communication tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.”

    I think your post demonstrates it beautifully in that you show plainly and simply how the technology is ingrained and accepted, and at this point it’s really about the effective communication within the mediums that makes it interesting.

  4. Jared Goralnick

    Thanks, Liz, I hope that you can apply some of this to your travels…it really added a lot to my trip. I suppose I could write a post about all those people…but suffice it to say, the people I met MADE the trip.

    Rob, that’s really awesome. I hope your travels take you to DC one of these days. It’s great that you’re living the dream with all these travels!

    Jake, thanks as always. Maybe I should check out that book

    You bring up a very good point: that the technology is no longer a novelty but is immensely practical. Unfortunately, using it most effectively still requires work on our part. All the stuff I did on this trip took actions that I know some people are too shy for…or that it just doesn’t fit their personalities. I think the next step is when the technology can automatically figure out some of these things for people and offer suggestions…since people will always be intimidated about reaching out. Nonetheless, I’m so glad the social networks are where they are. The more I think about it, the more I realize that even my “existing friends” on the trip were people I met electronically first… interesting stuff.

  5. Josep

    Jared, I totally agree with your post. I have sort of practiced this while traveling, more when you travel alone than with somebody, but the value in meeting somebody from other country and culture is very high to let it pass.

    As you know my fiancee is from Belarus, and whenever I go there I try to meet other professionals, share knowledge and strengthen relationships. It’s not only about spreading your brand or name. For me, the key is to learn from every experience.

  6. Jared Goralnick

    Thanks for stopping by, Josep! I really enjoyed meeting you!

    You do bring up a point I didn’t even touch on–spreading your brand/name. When I packed for my trip I actually packed a lot of stickers and cards but didn’t really use them. It really is about the people and the learning…not about the business.

    When I meet people locally sometimes it’s focused on business, but those are often relationships that peter out. However, the business relationships that are focused on personal connection, on learning from one another, are the ones that have a chance to last.

    I think when traveling it’s nice to see eye to eye on business things, but that it’s much more important to connect personally. After all, when one crosses country lines there’s so much to learn that it’s a waste in the first couple of meetings to just talk shop. After all, business can always happen after.

    Thanks again for stopping by and hope to be in touch soon! Some stickers are now in the mail ;-)

  7. Ricardo Bueno

    I’ve developed several on-line relationships into off-line connections through Twitter… I tweet under my name and most of the people share a common interest (myself included of course). So I suppose that’s why it’s easier to get together. The great thing about twitter is that it’s so instant… If you’re in a certain area, you can tweet about it asking if anyone would like to get together and you’re bound to get a response (it’s really pretty cool).

    Another tool that a friend of mine uses is Utterz. He’s met a few people at a conference through that… (Personally though I haven’t used this..)

  8. Hans

    Great Post. If you are looking for locals you can also check to find a local tour guide.

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