First Monday

Virtually there: Travelling with new media by Peter B. White and Naomi Rosh White

This paper examines the uses of mobile, fixed telephone and Internet–based communication by travellers and the implications of that use for the experience of travel. For most of the respondents, continued communication with their networks of contacts back home were integral to their travel experience, allowing them to maintain an ongoing symbolic proximity or co–presence with people with whom they shared a common history. Travellers make clear distinctions between the uses, benefits and drawbacks of phones, texting and Internet–based communication. The continuation of intense communication between travellers and non–travellers suggests that people ‘back home’ and the travellers are involved in forms of ‘virtual travel’.



Text messaging





As recently as fifteen years ago, communication between people separated by distance required knowledge of the others’ location [1]. Not knowing people’s location placed them out of reach. Furthermore, distance was a factor affecting the possibility, cost and frequency of contact. Today, in the context of a globalised, increasingly borderless, interdependent world, the meaning of distance and communication has changed radically. One key element of globalisation is the increased intensity of interaction made possible by the new communications technologies. Writing about the impacts of globalisation in relation to these communication technologies, Jessop [2] describes a relativisation of scale in relation to both "‘space–time’ distantiation" and "space–time compression." By "‘space–time’ distantiation" he means the extension of social relations over time and space. "‘Space–time’ compression" refers to the increased speed and volume of material made possible by new communications technologies, and the resulting intensification of ‘discrete’ events in real time. This issue has been taken up by researchers interested in the changes wrought by mobile phones, whose findings support the notion that both space and time become irrelevant with the use of mobile telephony (Fortunati, 2002). Another key element in this process of globalisation is mobility. Mobility is a central trope of our times. Postmodernity, with its transience and fragmentation, is metaphorically configured in travel. As Sorensen [3] argues, mobility is in tune with the ideology of individualism, the extended space of everyday life and individual freedoms to move around in this extended space.

The changes in mobility and communication associated with globalisation are the starting point for the present paper, which examines the uses of telephone and Internet–based communication by travellers. Ready access to low–cost fixed telephone services, mobile telephone networks that allow for voice and text communication, personal mobile devices such as mobile phones and Personal Digital Assistants, and the availability of the Internet at public locations such as Internet cafes across the globe have radically diminished the significance of the constraints of communication at a distance. The global expansion of the Internet and the rapidly growing number of publicly accessible Internet cafes mean the Internet is coming to function as a de facto personal mobile communications technology. Moreover, changes in the structure and function of communications networks have led to a growing commercial interest in the provision of communications services for travellers. Most major airports and international train terminals contain vendors offering short term mobile phone packages designed specifically for travellers and pre–paid cards for access to the fixed telephone network. These travel interchanges also provide wired and wireless Internet access and Internet cafes and kiosks are proliferating in places frequented by tourists. In addition there are numerous Web sites that provide services for travellers. These new communications services make it possible for travellers to be "geographically independent" [4] and for social life to be "networked" [5].

The links between travel, the new communications technologies and the diminished spatial–time divide have been explored by John Urry. According to Urry, mobile electronic devices make it possible for people "to leave traces of their selves in informational space" [6]. Using these informational traces mobile telephone technologies ‘track’ the movements of travellers and make it possible for them to send and receive telephone calls and text messages synchronously. Readily accessible Internet cafes enable travellers to compose, send and retrieve a range of textual and pictorial information as they move through space. The geographical location of participants in these communications processes as they leave and retrieve these informational traces becomes irrelevant. As a consequence the domain of possible social connections is both expanded and intensified [7]. One impact of the irrelevance of geographical location is the separation of "body and information," with people becoming "nodes in multiple networks of communication and mobility" [8]. This view of people as ‘communication nodes’ suggests new ways of thinking about relationships and co–presence in a globalised world of mediated communication. It also has consequences for the experience of travel.

The notion of co–presence is integral to the social consequences of the intersection of mediated communication and mobility. Central to the original notion of co–presence was that it was contingent on those involved in a given communication both being and feeling close enough to both perceive each other and to be perceived in the course of their activities [9]. That is, the notion of co–presence initially referred to physical presence in face–to–face contact and interactions. However, with increased mobility and developments in communications technologies, relationships and interactions are now conducted over great distances. Ongoing Internet–based communication with established social networks has become ingrained in people’s daily lives (Yahoo!/OMD, 2004) with the use and meaning of these technologies being negotiated by users [10]. Research has shown that travellers use mobile communications services and a range of other communication strategies to maintain a "symbolic proximity" with family, friends and colleagues [11] and to promote a sense of "presence while absent" [12].

Furthermore, the meaning of mobility and travel has changed as a result of these technologies. Urry [13] identified four kinds of travel: the physical movement of objects that are brought to consumers whose physical travel may be consequently reduced; corporeal travel, which involves the physical movement of people; imaginative travel through images of places and peoples encountered via radio and television; and lastly, virtual travel through Internet and other electronic devices. Virtual travel has implications for the experience of co–presence. That is, virtual travel "makes it possible to sense the other, almost to dwell with the other, without physically moving either oneself or without moving physical objects" [14].In this paper we explore these notions of virtual travel, co–presence and location/distance independent communication through travellers’ characterisations and differentiations between the various communications technologies used by them during their travels. That is, we examine their perceptions of using mobile phones, fixed network phones and Internet communication, and how these communications relate to their sense of co–presence with significant others from whom they are geographically separated.




The methodology of the study which was undertaken in New Zealand in the summer of 2004 drew on the ethnographic principles of participant observation and understanding the point of view of the people under study. This approach maximized the possibility that "a detailed and reliable account of what it is actually like to be tourist in particular situations, and what generally happens in such events can be provided" [15]. The anthropological study of travellers commonly takes the form of part–time participant observation. In other words, the researcher meets, observes and interviews them at specific points that form a small part of the traveller’s overall trip [16]. Consistent with this approach, the researchers were travelling while conducting the study. One major goal of this approach is to understand nominated aspects of the ‘meaning’ of the traveller or ritual experience in the total lives of their subjects. This enables parallels in the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ journeys: the inner world of consciousness and outer world of experience to be studied [17].

People were screened for inclusion in the study on the basis of whether they were using either the Internet or mobile phones to contact their family, friends or colleagues while travelling. In addition to either of these communications technologies, people who used landline phones were included too. Twenty–seven people were interviewed. Of those, fourteen were men and thirteen women. Nineteen were travelling with partners or spouses, three were travelling with spouses and children, four were travelling with friends and one was travelling alone. They ranged in age from 19 to 67, and came from countries including Australia, Germany, Holland, the U.S., Canada and the U.K. The participants were approached in holiday parks and were travelling in campervans or caravans, by car or public transport. Participants were interviewed using a semi–structured interview schedule. The interviews were transcribed and then thematically coded with respect to regularly articulated points of view. Where points of view were distinctive, they were noted during the coding process as contrasting instances.




The interviews showed that access to communication technology was a significant issue when planning travel. Once travellers’ journeys and communication with distant friends and families had commenced, travellers made clear distinctions between the uses, benefits and drawbacks of various communication modes, differentiating between phones, texting and Internet–based communication. While similar in their impacts on the sense of distance, proximity and a general sense of co–presence, these communication technologies were seen to differ with respect to their ‘emotionalitys’ and the extent to which they offered opportunities for spontaneity and reflection.

Prior to undertaking their travels, most of the participants established detailed plans with respect to how they would use mobile phones and landline based phone cards, while others organized e–mail lists or set up blog sites. Key recipients of these communications were also determined in advance of undertaking travel. The nomination of a single individual as a communication ‘node’ back home was quite common. This person was generally the ‘expert’ or experienced user of a technology who had ready access to e–mail or text messaging. The expectation was that this person would pass on news to appropriate friends, members of the family or colleagues. In addition to the pre–travel planning, keeping in touch while actually on the journey also required careful planning and decision–making. Accessibility of communication technologies was factored into our participants’ travel plans. One interviewee remarked that in the past these decisions had not been necessary and that "It was much easier before the Internet" (Female, 42, travelling with partner). Furthermore, the availability of the new communications media for communication had changed the process of keeping in touch while travelling.

"In the past if (our friends) got a postcard that was good. If we got a letter from Mum or somebody in the Poste Restante, that was really nice." (Female, 42, travelling with partner)

Our interviewees weighed the perceived costs and utility of keeping touch in various ways. Travellers were very clear about why they choose different ways of keeping in touch. Mobile phones were seen as expensive for voice calls, and they were often reserved for emergencies (Ling, et al., 1997). Text messaging was seen as a cheap and effective way of keeping in touch although North American travellers reported that few people back home knew how to use this function. The various communication modes were understood to affect the sense of physical distance between communicators, and to have quite different implications for the experience and control of emotions and the feeling of proximity or distance.




The social and emotional function of communication was highlighted in travellers’ accounts of their use of the telephone. Of the three modes used by travellers, the telephone was seen by travellers as the technology by means of which emotion was communicated. It enabled travellers to obtain emotional support from those at home and to monitor the emotions of the people with whom they were speaking. Phone conversations enabled travellers to satisfy themselves that they were accurately informed about how people at home were feeling. The emotional function of the telephone had another positively valued dimension arising from its role in enhancing a sense of traveller security. As shown in previous research, mobile phones particularly were seen to ensure contact ability and therefore security in times of emergency (Rakow and Navarro, 1993). These positively viewed functions were undercut by the unsettling aspects of the emotional content of communication via telephone. That is, these interactions sometimes unleashed unexpected emotions of homesickness or feelings related to ambivalences about relationships with parents, children or work colleagues for the travellers themselves.

Cost was another factor affecting attitudes to the telephone, and contributed to a clear differentiation between mobile and landline phones. The regular use of mobile phones for voice conversation was restricted because of cost. When extended conversations on mobile phones occurred they were initiated by those ‘at home’, particularly if these callers had a low–cost calling plan or if they were not paying for the call. Mobile phones were primarily used for texting — a communication mode that enabled travellers to feel that they were readily accessible, and which had a lesser emotional content and impact than voice communication. Texting was seen as inexpensive and was highly valued. Extended voice conversations initiated by travellers were conducted from public telephones using pre–paid (also relatively inexpensive) cards.

Even though the mobile phone was not the dominant method for voice contact many travellers who were travelling with mobile phones expressed anxiety about any forced break in mobile phone coverage.

"In the beginning we were anxious about the telephone. Has anyone called? Is there mobile coverage here? ... We were talking about it and worrying about it." (Male, 39. Travelling with wife and children)

For those who relied on mobile phones for voice contact, being out of range was a real concern.

"When we have been out of mobile coverage and I have not spoken to my mum for two weeks I don’t have a good feeling." (Male, 31. Travelling with wife)

The travellers reported that the clarity of fixed line telephone conversations was a source of wonder and pleasure. One traveller noted that:

"We phoned home from Tonga last Xmas, the line was so clear and with the time difference we were just finishing our Xmas day and they were just starting it. I felt very close." (Female, 42. Travelling with partner)

Hearing the voice of family and friends was an intimate experience which altered perceptions of distance. It was possible to "laugh with someone" who was thousands of kilometres away. One traveller reported that he had made a telephone call the previous day because his wife wanted to hear their daughter’s voice. Another reported that:

"Here we are on the other side of the world. We hear their voices very clearly. It feels that they are every close to you." (Female, 25. Travelling with husband)

International calls of high quality led may participants to forget that they were separated by great distances and the cost factor. As conversations progressed, these international calls came to have the status of local calls, with some people acting as if their fellow conversationalist was "just around the corner."

"... because the phone communications are so clear they talk about really mundane things and I have to cut them off all the time. I keep saying ‘it’s getting a little expensive to hear about how you tied your shoes today.’ I know they forget because they aren’t thinking." (Female, 34. Travelling with partner)

The manifest content of communication was generally about the minutiae of daily life, such as the weather or pets. While the topics of these conversations might be seen as inconsequential, the conversations allowed the participants to deal with the fact of being physically separated. Telephone communications with family, friends and colleagues back home could have radically different effects on travellers’ feelings of distance and closeness. One traveller suggested that these kinds of communications:

"... made me feel the distance when they tell me about the -40o weather." (Female, 21. Travelling alone)

When travellers were homesick phone calls sometimes reminded them how far they were from family and friends. The immediacy of phone calls and their significant emotional content could also have the effect of obliterating the feeling of distance.

When travellers were homesick phone calls sometimes reminded them how far they were from family and friends. The immediacy of phone calls and their significant emotional content could also have the effect of obliterating the feeling of distance. One traveller contrasted the emotional significance of telephone conversations with those of e–mail.

"(Speaking on the phone) brings me back to Europe and I don’t have that feeling when I send an email. Because of the direct contact, hearing the voice. It’s much more personal. Email I think is impersonal ..." (Male, 56. Travelling with wife)

Sometimes the feelings of closeness and distance were experienced concurrently. Being in touch with family and friends could mean that:

"On the one hand, (with the phone call) you felt close to them but if anything it made you more aware of actually how far away you were." (Male, 40. Travelling with partner)

The emotional aspect of phone communication was a key aspect of telephone use. The major strength of telephone conversations was that they were seen as a means by which emotion was authentically monitored and conveyed.

"With the phone you’ve got emotion and from voices you do ... . When ... you hear their voice you know whether they are happy or not. With e–mail they can say that they are happy, but maybe they aren’t happy and they don’t want to worry us. When you speak to people you can tell if they are really happy. You can hear how they are feeling." (Male, 40. Travelling with partner)
"With a telephone it is more emotional and you can get an immediate response. Excitement, Adrenaline. It’s the voice and the stories. For a few minutes you feel that you are together with your friend even though you know that you are a long way apart." (Female, 39. Travelling with husband and children)

This emotional content of telephone calls was a problem for many interviewees. For example one reported that after a phone call:

"... (for) few minutes you are in shock. My stomach is churning and I am thinking about what I heard, what they told me and I am trying to work out what I feel about the things they told me." (Female, 39. Travelling with husband and children)

The perceived cost of telephone calls had an impact on the way that calls were viewed and the travellers’ feelings after the calls had ended.

"When you speak on the telephone you are always in a hurry because it is costing either you or your friend a lot of money. You can’t speak for long so everything is rushed. So when I speak with my mother she says ‘I forget everything I want to ask you’ ... The telephone is too exciting and you can’t remember everything you would like to say." (Female, 39. Travelling with husband and children)

Telephone conversations also provided some certainty in potentially ambiguous situations. One respondent noted that he could phone his son and emphasize things so that he could be sure that his communications had been understood and that requested tasks had been completed. Telephone calls were also seen as a ways of resolving issues quickly.

"Telephones are much quicker and save a lot of too–ing and fro–ing. In the end it is much cheaper than e–mails going backwards and forwards. If you want to discuss something its better to get on the phone." (Male, 40. Travelling with partner)

Travellers with strong views about protecting their solitude but who wanted to remain in voice contact developed specific management strategies. As stated by Ling, et al. [18], they developed schemes for managing their availability. Some set specific hours when their mobile phone would be turned on. Others chose not to use a mobile phone and used card–based telephone systems that enabled them to control the cost and timing of their calls.

Some travellers, particularly those travelling for shorter periods avoided using mobile phones and described them as ‘tyrants’. These travellers were pleased to be away from their phones and out of contact.

Some travellers, particularly those travelling for shorter periods avoided using mobile phones and described them as ‘tyrants’. These travellers were pleased to be away from their phones and out of contact. Their constant accessibility by mobile telephone back home was contrasted with a life of limited and controlled contact while travelling.

"In my old job I was responsible for a lot of people and I had a mobile phone and a pager and I hated it. I couldn’t stand it when people said ‘your mobile phone was off’ and I would say ‘what did you do before you had a mobile phone? Was it a life or death situation?’ It drove me crazy." (Female, 34. Travelling with partner)

For another traveller,

"At home in Germany you always look at your mobile phone and say ‘oh he called, I have to call back, or he mailed, I have to mail back.’ If you don’t have you mobile phone with you, you say ‘oh where is it, shit I forgot it’ Now I’m away I enjoy this feeling that I can do what I like." (Female, 28. Travelling with friend)

For this traveller being away was a chance to cut off from work, friends and family. She was

"... not interested in what is going on back home, except for an emergency. We don’t want to hear about the weather in Germany." (Female, 28. Travelling with friend)

She planned to make two calls back home, the first to let her family know that she had arrived and the second to tell them that she was boarding her homeward flight. She enjoyed the feeling that she was in control of the situation.

Other travellers expressed contrasting views, emphasising their desire to be contactable at all times.

"I want to be contactable. I think that’s the best way to stay in reality. I wouldn’t want to be away from home (for a time) and not know anything about anyone. I would like to stay informed, to know what is going on." (Male, 32. Travelling alone)
"It is reassuring (to be accessible). You always want to know if there is a problem in the family. I don’t think that they would tell us if there was something wrong. We wouldn’t tell them if something went wrong here because we couldn’t do anything about their problems and they couldn’t do anything about ours." (Female, 64. Travelling with husband)

These interviewees expressed a strong need to be connected and keep abreast of events back home even though they recognized that both parties might withhold information as a way of protecting each other. The travellers were aware of the advantages and drawbacks of communication by telephone. On the one hand telephone conversations could be used to eradicate feelings of distance, confirm feelings of connectedness, experience the co–presence of significant others and resolve potentially ambiguous interpersonal situations. But on the other hand they were aware of the more difficult emotional impacts of telephone contact. They were aware that it was always possible for telephone calls to create strong emotions and feelings of distance which could not be easily handled. Their remarks demonstrate how the combination of travel and communication technologies, the phone in particular, can be understood as an attempt to extend the parameters of our existence without sacrificing the possibilities actualised in our home place, and how they enabled a fusing of the desire to remain at home, with the security of the familiar with the desire to reach out into the world [19].



Text messaging

The low cost and easy accessibility of text messages meant that text messages could be sent spontaneously and frequently. Where time differences were not an issue, such as with communications between the north and southern hemispheres, if both parties were awake at the same time, the texting interchanges often became multi–message conversations. The possibility of an instant response and the ability to create a real–time, low–cost, text–based ‘conversation’ was often contrasted with e–mail, where there was often a significant time lag between communications.

Text messaging allowed for spontaneity, the ability to "play" with distant friends and to affirm relationships. Text messages alerted family and friends to random details of their travels and confirmed the travellers’ ongoing place in the family and friendship network. The conversational possibilities of texting encouraged the possibility of playfulness. One couple reported that when they were driving from one site to another they would text message their daughter to report on how many sheep they were seeing. As they described it, they would spend the day driving around "texting about nothing" (Female, 34. Travelling with partner). Others reported that texting was used for, in their words, "nonsensical" conversations about the weather.

One couple reported that when they were driving from one site to another they would text message their daughter to report on how many sheep they were seeing.

The content of these communications was not the key issue. The immediacy and fact of sending a text message was confirmation that the correspondent was ‘thinking about you’ at that instant. This is the kind of activity described by Album as "contentless meaningful chat" which has a high degree of expressive–symbolic content [20]. Text messaging is also used to maintain intense relationships and simulate co–presence. One young man reported that he and his girl friend who (was in Europe) would text each other many times each day.

"She sends me about five (text messages) each day and I send her maybe two back. When she goes to bed she sends me text message: ‘Goodnight, I hope you have a nice day’ — because it’s morning from me. It was Valentine’s Day yesterday so we used text messages." (Male, 22. Travelling alone)

He thought that these text communications made it possible for his girlfriend to be reassured that he was thinking about her.

The immediacy of texting encouraged one traveller to send a text message to a pre–designated individual each day.

"I send a sort of postcard to one person so that they can then relay it around to interested parties. I’m just sending a little report everyday of what I have been doing and I’m also sending text to individual people along the lines of ‘how are you doing?’ so they are getting a report and a personal message as well." (Female, 58. Travelling with partner)

Another traveller used text messaging as a way of continuing the pattern of mutual support between him and a special friend. It was the equivalent of their daily pre–travel telephone calls.

"I have friend back home and we are both on a diet together. So I send him text messages like ‘drink water’ and ‘don’t eat too much’. I send him a few words so that I can support him." (Male, 39. Travelling with wife and children)

The travellers’ accounts of how texting was used suggested that the symbolic function of these communications was a form of ‘gifting’; that is, communications where the act of getting in touch matters as much as, if not more than the content of the communication [21].




While voice and text communication by telephone offered an emotional immediacy integral to an ongoing sense of co–presence, our respondents reported that e–mail entailed a relatively disengaged communication. Their comments illustrated how people became "nodes" in multiple networks of communication and mobility and how their communications could be viewed as informational traces [22]. Almost all the interviewees stated that the meaning and impact of communication by e–mail was very different from that offered by the telephone. In clear contrast to the phone, e–mail was seen to lack emotional content.

"E–mail is just words. You don’t feel warmed from e–mail." (Male, 27. Travelling with wife)

If the telephone could be characterized as an emotionally ‘hot’ medium of communication, e–mail was more of a ‘cool’ medium ...

The sentiments about e–mail expressed by this traveller were echoed by many of the people interviewed. If the telephone could be characterized as an emotionally ‘hot’ medium of communication, e–mail was more of a ‘cool’ medium, and as such played a different more measured routinised role in the maintenance of social relationships.

Furthermore, in contrast to the phone, e–mail was seen as hard work and time–consuming.

"There’s a downside when it comes to e–mail. It’s very difficult when you open up your e–mail if you’ve got lots of messages. It’s lovely. It’s nice to get them. But you have to respond to them. I feel obliged. It kind of snowballs a bit. In Dunedin we spent a total of five hours on the Internet doing e–mails!" (Male, 40. Travelling with partner)
"It never seems to be a quick process, being able to type a reply. It takes about 15 minutes for each reply. So it is easy to swallow up an hour. Then you go into the second hour and there are still other people I need to get back to. Because your are so accessible and people know that you are accessible I feel that people are waiting for a reply." (Female, 42. Travelling with partner)

Some travellers experienced keeping in touch via the Internet as a burden. They chose to use group e–mail and blogs as ways of making the process less time–consuming and used e–mail lists to provide general information about their travel experiences. One–to–one communications with individuals only occurred when a distant correspondent responded, not always positively.

"... I write one group e–mail for everyone. And one friend got annoyed and said ‘this is the last time you are going to send me a group e–mail. I’m not going to read your e–mail if its not a private one just for me!’" (Female, 39. Travelling with husband and children)

Others reported limiting their time spent doing e–mail by not initiating any e–mail correspondence, even though they were very happy to reply to e–mail sent by their friends. However, while seen as a burden on the one hand, e–mail lists were also used as a way of meeting the social and relationship needs of the travellers. Individual responses to travellers’ "broadcast" e–mail list messages were seen as a demonstration that their friends were still interested in and cared about them.

While energy devoted to e–mail could be controlled, some travellers found that that, in contrast to the telephone, e–mail provided an opportunity to spend time composing their thoughts. It was a medium that enabled travellers to establish a reflective connection to the content of communication, both the communications they themselves posted or sent, as well as the communications they received. For instance, some travellers with laptops composed lengthy e–mails off–line and sent them when they were connected. One traveller reported that the "pressure" experienced telephone calls led his mother to follow up her phone calls with a list of questions in an e–mail. She was able to spend more time thinking about the question she needed answered. Also e–mail also made it possible to re–experience these communications subsequent to their initial occurrence. Travellers talked about liking e–mail because:

"... you can always read the e–mail again. That’s why I like it and that’s what my mum likes about it too. Sometimes you read it too fast because it’s so interesting ... But then you are able to read it again." (Female, 25. Travelling with husband)

The significance of re–reading communications applied to the travellers’ messages and postings as well. These postings were designed to enable travellers to re–experience their travels.

"... (My blog is) mainly for myself so when I get back so I can see that I was travelling there." (Male, 46. Travelling with wife and children)

The irrelevance of geographical separation and the sense of people becoming "‘nodes’ in networks of communication and mobility" [23] was most clearly evident in experience of communicating by e–mail. One traveller reported that

"I thought I was going to be so far from everybody. But with e–mail I never felt disconnected. If people didn’t know we were here in New Zealand they wouldn’t know we were here. You could be in Manhattan Beach or here. It’s all the same when you’re on your e–mail." (Female, 34. Travelling with partner)

Feelings of being distant were eliminated when travellers "participated" in family rituals such as Christmas celebrations.

"We were here for the holidays and in my family Christmas is a really special time. And this year ... my sister ... got one of those mobile phones with a camera and she e–mailed me the whole Christmas. Literally every six hours she would send the whole photo story. There they were opening presents. There they were eating. It was really, really nice. ... I knew exactly what they did. That was pretty cool." (Female, 34. Travelling with partner)

Internet–based communication contributed to maintaining a sense of co–presence for both travellers and their correspondents, despite their geographical separation. The manifest purpose of e–mail and blogs was to make it possible for family, friends and colleagues to keep track of the travellers. One participant estimated that about fifty family and friends accessed his blog each day. He regularly used it to show how his baby daughter was reacting to her changing environment. Travellers’ messages made it possible for family and friends back home to participate as virtual travellers, to "imagine what (they) were doing." (Female, 58. Travelling with partner). Travellers reported correspondence that affirmed this phenomenon.

"You are doing the travelling for us and its great hearing about all your detail, where you are, what you are doing, what the weather is like. Don’t tell us its so damn warm down there. We are living though your trip too, even though we’ll never do it." (Male, 64. Travelling with wife)
"My mother is so glad that I’m doing this because she feels that she can’t do it on her own. She says ‘Give me some feedback. I’m funding part of this trip. I want to see the sights and sounds.’ It lets them know that you are doing something exciting because they are not doing it themselves." (Female, 22. Travelling with friend)

However, the need to vicariously experience others’ lives worked both ways. Our travellers reported that they were also deeply interested in events back home.

"With some of our friends nothing happened for ages but suddenly some are getting married, having babies and changing jobs. So there’s quite a bit going on so its fun to hear what’s happening. You know, who the best man will be, what they are going to do on the stag weekend, when the wedding’s on. I feel that I am involved and included. At certain times I feel as if I back in my environment where it is all taking place. If I wasn’t kept up to date, there would be such a great time lapse when we returned home. I think that it would make me feel differently about the time we had away if we had missed these all these events." (Female, 40. Travelling with partner)

The exchange of experiences between travellers and those who remained at home was seen as a real benefit for all concerned. It facilitated a sense of continuity for all involved in these communications.




When deciding to travel, travellers give specific attention to the accessibility of communications technologies and their planning includes decisions about which technologies they will utilise. Once their journeys and communication with distant friends and families have commenced, travellers make clear distinctions between the perceived uses, benefits and drawbacks of various communication modes, drawing distinctions between phones, texting and Internet–based communication. While telephone calls and texting were seen to create feelings of proximity and co–presence these phone, texting and Internet–based communications are seen to differ with respect to their emotional consequences and the extent to which they offer opportunities for either spontaneity or reflection.

It is clear that in the process of using these technologies the travellers made clear distinctions about the significance and consequences of using specific communication modes. For example, texting was regarded as a valued option for spontaneous, immediate affirmation of connection. Telephone conversations had greater emotional salience because it was possible to hear the voices of family and friends. The voice was seen as an unambiguous and direct vehicle for the expression of feelings. While feelings could be disguised when e–mail was used, travellers felt that this was much more difficult in a telephone conversation. Often the emotional import of conversations could not be immediately apprehended resulting in the period after the conclusion of the call being one of emotional turmoil. The cost of telephone calls and their enforced brevity meant that telephone conversations were sometimes hurried and this had an emotional impact as well. In contrast, e–mail was a more reflective medium of communication, enabling travellers to compose and edit their thoughts and the content of their communications. E–mail also offered travellers a sense of greater control of the frequency and timing of contact. These findings offer a different slant on previously conducted research dealing with perceptions of telephone versus e–mail communication: namely, that mobile phones provide an effective way to make interpersonal contact whereas computers and the Internet damage the communication necessary for good social relations (Leonardi, 2003). Rather than confirming a duality of ‘damaging’ versus ‘functional’ with respect to the maintenance of social relationships, the present study suggests that the various communication modes entail different processes and content, and engender different feelings of connection.

Communications technologies were used to maintain an ongoing symbolic proximity or co–presence with people who shared a common history and mutual experiences. Their comments demonstrated the extension of social relations over time and space.

For most of our respondents, continued communication with their networks of contacts were integral to the travel experience. Communications technologies were used by them to maintain an ongoing symbolic proximity or co–presence with people who shared a common history and mutual experiences. Their comments demonstrated the extension of social relations over time and space. This continued contact stands in contrast with the technology–based ephemeral "network sociality" identified by Wittel [24].

The travellers’ comments suggest an extension of Urry’s (2000) notion of ‘virtual travel.’ This extension was implied in their accounts of how they used the new communications technologies. ‘Virtual travel’ has been conceived as a way of experiencing the distant and exotic from the safety and certainty of home, without moving oneself out of the everyday environment and without introducing physical objects into this environment (Bsumek, 2003; Urry, 2000). The focus of this notion is on the ‘virtual raveller,’ the person seeking to extend horizons beyond the known or the domestic. The present study suggests that both people ‘back home’ and travellers are involved in forms of ‘virtual travel.’ In other words, the extension of horizons occurs for those left at home through the continuous contact with travellers and through communication about travel experiences. In addition, a reciprocal extension occurs for travellers as well. That is, travellers can also be seen to be engaged in this process of ‘virtual travel.’ In their case, however, this travel consists of intermittent journeying back to the sites and relationships at ‘home’ on receipt of communications from friends and family members. In this way, the notion of virtual travel, with its independence of physical proximity can be seen to rest on reciprocal connections between ‘communication nodes.’

Finally, the content and form of communication was found to have implications for the experience of co–presence, for the ongoing sense of connection between the travellers and their correspondents. This sense of co–presence was shown to be woven through the travellers’ accounts of their communications and integral to the experience of travel. Travellers were simultaneously absent from and present in each others’ lives. This finding challenges the notion that travellers can be seen as entering a state of liminality which frees them from the structures which encumber their everyday lives back home [25]. When travellers have ready access to, and use mobile and other electronic communication services, the liminal experience is transformed into a continuing engagement with established relationships and an ongoing connection to people back home. End of article


About the authors

Peter White is Associate Professor in the Media Studies Program at La Trobe University in Australia with an interest in media sociology, travel and the new media and remote and rural communications services.
E–mail: peter [dot] white [at] latrobe [dot] edu [dot] au

Naomi Rosh White is Associate Professor in the School of Social and Political Inquiry, Faculty of Arts at Monash University in Australia. She has written on travel, childhood, youth, and the transition into adult and parental responsibilities.
E–mail: naomi [dot] white [at] arts [dot] monash [dot] edu [dot] au



1. An abbreviated version of the section on the use of mobile phones has been published as White and White, 2005.

2. Jessop, 1999, p. 21.

3. Cited in COST269 Mobility Workgroup, 2002, p. 33.

4. Makimoto and Manners, 1997, p. 2.

5. Urry, 2003, p. 156.

6. Urry, 2002, p. 266.

7. Gergen, 2000, p. 136.

8. Urry, 2002, p. 266.

9. Goffman, 1963, p. 17.

10. Haddon, 2003, p. 45.

11. Wurtzel and Turner, 1977, p. 257.

12. Short, et al., 1976, p. 65; Gergen, 2002, p. 227; Lury, 1997; and, Fortunati, 2002.

13. Urry, 2002, p. 266.

14. Urry, 2000, p. 70.

15. Graburn, 2002, p. 25.

16. Ibid.

17. Graburn, 2002, p. 30.

18. Ling, et al., 1997, p. 13.

19. Suvantola, 2002, p. 42.

20. Cited in Johnsen, 2003, p. 165.

21. COST269 Mobility Workgroup, 2002, p. 26.

22. Urry, 2002, p. 266.

23. Ibid.

24. Wittel, 2001, p. 71.

25. Baranowski and Furlough, 2001, p. 5; Harrison, 2003, p. 33; White, 2004.



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Editorial history

Paper received 20 April 2005; accepted 14 July 2005.
HTML markup: Kyleen Kenney and Edward J. Valauskas; Editor: Edward J. Valauskas.

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Virtually there: Travelling with new media by Peter B. White and Naomi Rosh White
First Monday, Volume 10, Number 8 - 1 August 2005