backpacking, new zealand, identity

Backpackers and identity in the digital world

20 minutes to read
Paper
Linmin Zheng
10/01/2020

In this paper I will analyze backpackers as a micro-population. It demonstrates how I produce part of my identity online and offline as a member of this transnational micro-population in the digital world.

Backpackers and identity display

Retracing my backpacker experiences, I will focus on what it means to be or become a backpacker and thus how I produce my identity as a member of this transnational micro-population. I will focus on three particular places: China, New Zealand and Europe, within today’s online and offline environments.

First, I will analyze how I became a member of a backpacker group during college in China, and which parts of my identity has been carried out in combination with automated interfaces and algorithms. During that time, backpackers were labeled as ‘non-mainstream’ because they did not follow conventional norms, and Chinese mainstream society saw backpacker groups as ‘outsiders’ (Becker, 1963). The concepts of “authenticity” and “micro-hegemony” will be dealt with in this part.

Second, I will illustrate that backpackers are a transnational micro-population. I will also discuss how I came to see myself as a member of the international backpacker group when I was on a Working Holiday in New Zealand. Third, continuing to be backpacker into my early 20’s, I moved to Europe. I will discuss how new media technologies sharpen new forms and scales of identity construction and culture production (micro-populations). In doing so, I will analyze my identity display as a member of a backpacker group in times of superdiversity. These two parts will use the concepts “polycentricity”, “layeredness”, “transnational culture” and “rules and norms”. Both online and offline infrastructures will be addressed.

Digital ethnographic tools have been used to collect blog texts in both Chinese and English, as well as data on the context of communication between myself and other backpackers. Varis (2016) has pointed out that digital ethnography not only zooms in on the digital world, but also looks at how digitalization affects offline practices and infrastructures. That's why I will analyze the nexus of the online and offline and will especially focus on the different infrastructures of social groups. My conclusion will contain a general understanding of backpackers as a micro-population and the part the internet plays in maintaining my identity as a backpacker in today's globalized digital world.

Being a backpacker in China: sub-culture and social changes

Becker (1963) pointed out that a culture is an abstraction; it is the type toward which meanings of acts or objects tend to conform for the different members of society::

A society has many groups, each with its own set of rules, and people belong to many groups simultaneously. A person may break the rules of one group by the very act of abiding by the rules of another group. (Becker, 1963)

A deviant group is defined as not following conventional norms. Society sees deviant groups as ‘outsiders’, whereas outsiders themselves see ‘conventional society’ as ‘outsiders’ (Becker, 1963). However, where people who engage in deviant activities have the opportunity to interact with one another they are likely to develop a culture built around the problems arising from differences between their definition of what they do and the definition held by other members of society. In other words, they develop perspectives on themselves and their deviant activities and on their relations with other members of society. Since these cultures operate within, and in distinction to, the culture of larger society, they are often called ‘subcultures’. A subculture is a group of people within a culture that differentiates themselves from the larger culture they belong to, often having beliefs or interests that vary fromthose of the larger culture.

In the larger Chinese culture, backpackers are seen as a very small group which have been referred to as ‘non-mainstream’. This is in comparison to ‘tourists’, a more general noun used to describe people who travel for pleasure or culture[1], . Backpacking is defined as a form of low-cost, independent travel. A sense of authenticity is important to some backpackers. Backpacking is perceived as being more than a holiday, but rather a means of education (Philip & Foster, 2007).

Impacted by globalization, and as far back as the beatnik and hippie counter cultures of the 1950s-1970s in the US, backpacking has become a mainstream phenomenon in tourism (Paris, 2009). The Guardian came to a conclusion regarding backpackers in China in 2014:

"Half a century after western hippies began backpacking from Europe to Asia on the old Silk Road, young Chinese backpackers are discovering the joys of hitting the road."

After a long delay, backpacking has become more popular than ever before among young Chinese people in the 21st century. In 2010, a travel documentary called To Berlin by Thumb received a huge response. The story was about Gu Yue (a self-styled professional backpacker) and Liu Chang (a documentary director) hitchhiking from Beijing to Berlin in 2009 in order to visit Gu's German girlfriend. They caught 88 rides in 13 countries in the more than 100 days they spent on the road and, as they went, made a 16-episode documentary series which has been aired on the Travel Channel[2]. All of the sudden, a trend of hitchhiking spread all over China as people were taken with Gu Yue's idea that ‘if you really want to do something, the whole world will help you’ - and I was one of them.

Figure 1: Poster of documentary To Berlin by Thumb

I started my hitchhiking experience in May 2011. I met my first hitchhiking partner Wei through thegroup "travel even if you do not have money" on Douban.com (a Chinese SNS community for users to share opinions and create content related to movies, books,music, etc). We had not met in person before we started the journey and all communications had been done through Douban message. In order to equip ourselves as professional backpackers, I borrowed a backpack and Wei borrowed a tent. General information had been researched including the route, the starting point and related useful hitchhiking tips through the internet.

We posted a subject on the discussion group (Douban.com) to have a live webcast. We got 404 responses and people enjoyed reacting to our post and offered tips or accommodations[3]. We also asked people who helped us to leave their signatures on a printed poster of To Berlin by Thumb (see figure 3). Authenticity is the voice we produce that contains good enough contents. It can be seen from the responses that I built my identity as a cool and trusted backpacker. The trip took us one week from Fujian province to Hunan province. I found myself ‘addicted' to hitchhiking. From that day on I continued traveling by thumb from my hometown (Southeast of China) to Tibet, Xinjiang Province, Nepal, and North of China during summer holidays. One of the longest trips lasted two months and hundreds of people who drove cars, trucks, motorbikes, police cars, and even an ambulance had given me rides.

 

Figure 2: Hitchhiking in Tibet, China

From my experiences as a backpacker in China, I knew I was not the only one who wanted to try something new and challenging. I also believed that ‘people should live for themselves’. That was very different from Chinese mainstream values, which state that people should first start their career and family, then think about doing uncertain things. My parents, relatives, teachers and neighbors did not understand why I would do this kind of nonsense. This ‘hegemony’ did not affect me much since I knew there was a group of people who regard ourselves as ‘outsiders’. We had our own ‘imagined community’ where 334,273 members understood each other and had our own rules (Miller, 2008). We aimed at inner self-realization: chasing our own, personal dream. The choice to leave everything behind is presented as an act of rebellion against the social norm, an ‘I’ or an ‘us’ against the world (Van Nuenen, 2016).

After a few years, backpacking has become more like a ‘lifestyle’ in China. Young people are to some extent encouraged to explore the world on their own. They are encouraged to see more possibilities apart from stable jobs. Deviance is not a quality that lies in a behavior itself, but in the interaction between the person who commits an act and those who respond to it (Becker 1963). There is no never-changing rule, social rules are the creation of social groups. Society is changing, and the rules are therefore changing. Acts that would not be appreciated before may become popular.

Figure 3:  People left signatures on a printed poster of To Berlin by Thumb

Being a backpacker in New Zealand: on micro-populations in the digital world

If being a backpacker in China is referred to as ‘local coolness’, ‘global coolness’ can be reflected by my backpacker practice in a foreign country far from home - New Zealand. I was inspired by the novels On the Road and The Dharma Bums by American writer Jack Kerouac, and decided to escape from the city I had lived in for 21 years. I put myself in a completely strange environment to challenge myself, and walked out of my comfort zone. I had the same feeling that Kerouac's novel describes:

"Japhy," I said out loud, “I don't know when we'll meet again or what'll happen in the future, but Desolation, Desolation, I owe so much to Desolation. Thank you for guiding me to the place I learned all. Now comes the sadness of coming back to cities and I've grown two months older and there's all that humanity of bars and burlesque shows and gritty love, all upside down in the void God bless them, but Japhy you and me forever know, forever youthful, forever weeping."

I had recognized myself as a member of the international backpacker group since I first arrived in Auckland, NZ and stayed at a BBH (independently owned and operated, BBH self-catering budget accommodation can be found almost everywhere you're going to be in NZ)[4]. I had a big 60L backpack with a tent, a sleeping bag, a knife, a water bottle, a flashlight, a first-aid kit and a red pepper spray, I tied my hiking boots to the sides of backpack, just like the other backpackers from all over the world.

Figure 4: Anatomy-of-backpacker

In New Zealand, I found many blogs encouraging people to travel. I took some of the following:

Everything you own is on your back – the freedom this brings is incredible.

Carrying your backpack around and having to walk everywhere will keep you fitter than you’ve ever been.

Gap years mean you can wear ridiculous clothes and jewellery and do what you want with a piercing gun, a tattooist and some hair dye.

You become part of an awesome backpacking community united in their love for travel.

All the best people backpack, and as you grow up you need more comfort. This leaves the hostels and backpacker trails free for the hardier among us.

Backpackers are more likely to support the local economy. They stay in the unique and authentic little local accommodations over the big fancy hotels belonging to foreigners.

As a backpacker you’re more likely to go out and explore rather than staying in the centre of the main cities – spreading the tourist wealth more evenly throughout a country.

You’ve got the time to really experience a destination and chill with the locals, volunteering or working, rather than just spinning in like a whirlwind and leaving.

Thanks to the cheapo transport at weird hours that you’ll no doubt opt for, you’ll get to see incredible sunrises and sunsets.

You’ll gather stories to tell for the rest of your lifetime[5].

These statements show the transnational culture and values of backpackers. Many researchers have been hesitant to examine backpacking in its entirety as a culture (Anderskov, 2002). Welk (2004) also argues that the backpacker community is not a real subculture, but it does take on some of the characteristics of one constrained by a constant assimilative pressure by mainstream tourism. Backpackers on the road are temporary members of the ‘road culture’. Backpacker groups present polycentricity and layeredness, it is, in other words, a layered, polycentric and transnational cultural phenomenon constitutive of a micro-population (Maly & Varis, 2016).

I consider the backpacking spirit to be a key value: I believe in the importance of experiencing the unknown, learning about new cultures, meeting new people, and gaining a better understanding of this world we live in.

Figure 5: Homepage of Couchsurfing.com

Although the life of a backpacker is not easy, the backpacker community in NZ helped me to overcome obstacles. The community I refer to here was constructed with a website called Couchsurfing. The website provides a platform for members to stay as a guest at someone's home, host travelers, meet other members, or join events.[6]. As the homepage (figure 5) shows, it allows people to stay with locals and meet travelers, and moreover to cut down their budget. Meeting people from Couchsuring or chatting with them through the application was very fun and made me feel a sense of belonging to a group.

Couchsurfing hosts who are willing to offer their couches or beds are generally open-minded and warm. Fellow couchsurfers are mostly those who like me, love traveling. Within this group (community), I not only made friends, experienced new cultures, and gained knowledge, but also built my identity as an enthusiastic, friendly, and open-minded Chinese girl, which can be seen from the references written by hosts (see figure 6 & 7). The internet and cellphones have had profound effects on cultural flows and processes of identity construction for everyone (Varis, 2016). As can be seen from the Couchsurfing website and application, these new media not only function as infrastructures of transnational lives, but also create cultural niches within which translocal micropopulations flourish (Maly & Varis, 2016).

Figure 6 & 7: The references of my Couchsurfing personal page

During my backpacking experience in NZ, I wrote “guides and tips” to post on social networking sites like douban.com. Many people marked the Travel Raiders as useful and that made me feel proud. Now that my study and part time job occupy most of my time, I spend much less time participating in online practices with either Chinese or international groups. However, the travel guide articles are still being read by other backpackers and I continue to receive likes and comments, and sometimes questions that I am always pleased to answer. These in a sense play the role of maintaining the social status of the backpacker in the hierarchy of the backpacker culture, Paris (2009) has added. This is similar to the ‘road status’ that backpackers seek to maintain, which is based on the level to which an individual fulfils the classic backpacker ideology.

Backpacker culture in Europe within online and offline environments in the digital world

Figure 8: A resignation letter: There is a lot of world to see

In April 2015, a resignation letter with only ten Chinese characters meaning ‘there is a lot of world to see’ suddenly spread and became unexpectedly popular on the internet[7]. I understood that because of globalization, social changes have been made in Chinese society. One of the methodological complexities in trying to describe superdiversity is the fact that it equals rapid layered demographic and social changes: the reality of today is no longer necessarily there tomorrow (Blommaert, 2013). Backpacking has become a mainstream phenomenon in Chinese society in times of globalization.

By this time I was in Amsterdam doing an au pair job for a Dutch family. I spend my weekends and holidays travelling in the Netherlands and around Europe, continuing to be a backpacker. Paris (2009) found that backpackers in the youngest cohort are not likely to actively participate in online forums; however they are very likely to use the social networking sites to maintain their connections to backpacker culture. I easily found the backpacker group in Amsterdam by attending the weekly Couchsurfing meetup. Similar to NZ, the members were both hosts and Couchsurfers. We shared our backpacking experiences and values, beliefs and interests. When I travelled to other countries in Europe as a couchsurfer, I attended local Couchsurfing meetings with my hosts. This was the way I connected to backpacker culture and maintained my membership of the backpacker group.

Social places are the places that facilitate public life. The more we integrate into a group, the more connections we will have in offline life. Nowadays, we are living in a social world where offline and online resources and practices are inseparable (Maly, 2015). Online communication is used to organize offline activities. Figure 9 shows an example of a Couchsurfing event. The event’s address, time, attendees and organizers are posted online, and there is a place for comments where people can ask questions and get in touch with others.

Figure 9:  Screenshot Couchsurfing Amsterdam Saturday Weekly Meetup, Couchsurfing Application

After observing a website called backpackers.com.tw (a website for Chinese speaking backpackers whith the mission to “assist everyone to complete their own travel”)[8], I found that the backpacker micro-population is a layered phenomenon that is present in the infrastructures where backpackers meet and interact, both online and offline. The impact of new media adds new layers of complexity (Maly, 2015). The members in this website are layered as “backpacker heroes”, “backpacker masters” and “backpackers”. On backpackers.com.tw, I as a “backpacker” can be identified as a “lurker” since I only search the site for information. The information, travel guides and travel stories are written by more highly layered backpackers. Following the online guide, I practice offline traveling.  

We are often in mediated contact with participants rather than in their direct presence (Pink et al., 2016). We might be in conversation with people throughout their everyday lives. We might be watching what people do by digitally tracking them, or asking them to invite us into their social media practices. Listening may involve reading, or it might involve sensing and communicating in other ways. When defining new media as places where we “perform identity” (Boyd, 2014), I always want to be regarded by others as an 'international cool backpacker'. This could be a reason I often post backpacking photos on Instagram. Since the medium itself is part of the identity, I produce my identity as a “Chinese backpacker travelling in the world”, just like my profile on Facebook: “A travel enthusiast, never want to stop exploring this world.”

Backpacking is a culture symbolic of the increasingly mobile world (Paris, 2009). Recent developments in information and communication technology have provided the basis for backpacker culture to once again gain cohesiveness without the temporal or spatial constraints of the ‘backpacker trail’. These developments allow backpackers to be fully integrated and maintain a sustained state of co-presence between the backpacker culture and their home culture (Paris & Teye, 2008; Mascheroni, 2007).

I not only regard myself as a member of the backpacker group in Europe, but also a member of the Chinese backpacker group by contributing travel tips and guides to Chinese social networking sites. In Europe, which has a much more mature backpacker culture, as well as within today’s rapid development of network technologies, my life-project becomes a dynamic complex of micro-hegemonies within which subjects situate my practices and behavior. The combination of such micro-hegemonized niches is ultimately what would make up ‘the’ identity of me (Blommaert & Varis, 2011).

As Maly and Varis (2016) pointed out, the internet functions as a key infrastructure supporting new translocal and interethnic micro-populations. Backpackers like me get to know other members through international websites like Couchsurfing.com, Chinese websites like douban.com and backpackers.com.tw, or social media like Facebook, Twitter and Sina Weibo (Chinese Twitter).

On these platforms, various identities have been carried out and different ideas and values have been shared, exchanged and mixed. I can find someone who is extremely lovely or the other way around in this micro-population. Others may see me as a truly ‘crazy Asian’ who enjoys exploring the world and getting involved in Western culture and ethics (see figures 10 & 11), or someone who indulges herself too much.

Figure 10 & 11:  The references of my Couchsurfing personal page

In summary, through backpackers’ micro-population in the digital world, my backpacking practices in Europe reflect a part of my identity. It has shown that local coolness has combined with global coolness to impact transnational culture and their rules and norms, which are created by backpackers’ micro-population.

Backpackers and identity in the digital world

In this paper, I explained backpackers as a polycentric, layered, and transnational micro-population by retracing my own backpacking experiences in China, New Zealand and Europe. My identity was carried out within online and offline practices inside the backpacker group. The social changes of this specific group – backpackers in China - were performed under the impact of globalization and rapid development of digital technologies. It was illustrated that the internet functions play an important role in forming the micro-population of backpackers. The availability of just-in-time information has increased backpacker use of the internet for pre-trip internet searches, as well as supporting increased independence and mobility while on the road.

I analyzed that my freedom and individual identity as a backpacker are enhanced through the ability to gain information from both online and offline infrastructures, as well as the ability to represent myself how I want to be represented on social networking sites and personal blogs. Meanwhile, the often fast and temporally constrained interactions that occur on the road can now be maintained through online communities and other forms of internet based communications. The convergence of the backpacker ideology with communications technologies has created a stable structure for the social systems of the backpacker culture. Backpackers in China could not be described as a monoculture or subculture.  The analyses has shown how I produced my identity in this imagined transnational backpackers’ community, and how new online-offline infrastructures maintained my identity as a backpacker in the digital world.

 

References

 

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Becker, H. (1963). Outsiders. Studies in the sociology of deviance, New York; The free Press.

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Philip, P. and F. Foster. (2007). "A "University of Travel": Backpacker Learning". Tourism Management. 28 (5): 1285–1298

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Notes

[1] The definition of tourist: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tourist

[2] Wang Wei. (2010). Beijingers hitchhike to Berlin: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2010-02/25/content_9499986.htm

[3] Douban group: https://www.douban.com/group/yly/

[4] The website of BBH in New Zealand: http://www.bbh.co.nz/

[5] Blog "The reasons why backpacking is awesome": https://www.gapyear.com/features/210551/27-reasons-why-backpacking-is-aw...

[6] Couchsurfing: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CouchSurfing

[7] Source of “世界那么大我想去看看”: http://baike.baidu.com/item/世界那么大我想去看看/17563648

[8] The website for Chinese speaking backpackers: http://www.bbkz.com/forum/