If you're moving abroad or travelling to a new place, chances are you're going to tap into online expat groups or travel communities in search of advice and real life accounts from people who have been there, done it, got the t-shirt. But as great as these resources are, they have the ability to perpetuate an 'online bubble' which can stop you from fully immersing yourself in the culture around you.
Does that mean you switch off completely? Let's weigh up the options...
When I moved to Berlin with my family at 19, the online expat community was our first port of call. We were active on the group before we’d even set foot in the country, meticulously following threads on what to expect and how to start house hunting. Upon arrival, not knowing what to type into google apart from “We’ve arrived in Berlin…now what?” we consulted the group on pretty much everything – from where to find decent jerk chicken to organising our documents. Through the constant array of comments, statuses and resources made available on the group, we were guided seamlessly through our moving process. 3 years on, and we still shamelessly rely on the group for most things.
With the regularly posted ‘expat meet-ups’ (which I assume are as common throughout the rest of Europe as they are in Germany) there were no concerns about making friends in Berlin. Oh, apart from one huge downside: none of your friends will be German.
The expat community formed a population within a population; complete with it's own dating circle, businesses, and social hierarchy. With all the information you could ever need at your fingertips, one could go weeks without interacting with any actual Germans. At times I was so tuned in to British discourse online that it felt like I hadn't actually left the UK.
I couldn’t help but wonder what our moving process would’ve been like had we not had access to these groups. Would we have been disorganised and introverted, unsure of what to do next? Or, unplugged and forced to face the real world, would we have rallied our efforts in learning German, acculturated into our immediate community and made friends of our own accord?
These communities aren’t exclusive to expats. Most travellers today will seek insight from other travellers online, rather than google search for tips and insider guides. But are these communities hindering our ability to immerse ourselves in a new culture and push ourselves out of our comfort zone?
Both moving to a new place and travelling to a new destination are extra daunting because of one key thing: when you’re out there, you’re on your own. The support networks you usually rely on are miles away, and losing that safety net can evoke an onslaught of stress, anxiety and homesickness during the initial arrival period. Online travel communities are a useful and readily accessible inbetween-y safety net. You can meet up with other travellers close to you who are also new to the area. Many people online will likely have gone through the same thing, and will be able to answer all (or at least some) of your questions. This is especially useful if you don’t speak the local language, but there are others you can connect with who do.
An extension of this new support network is making new friends – a vital aspect of being abroad, especially if you’re going solo. You need those support networks, and sometimes a quick “Hi, i’m here – anyone wanna get a coffee?” status is enough to get the ball rolling with a brand new travel squad for life. Even if you find someone online who you can Facebook chat to when you’re feeling down is enough to battle the feeling of helplessness that comes with moving abroad.
The travel tips and reviews on online travel communities can be a vital resource in your new destination. Mixed bag of people who are from the country and people who have been there, meaning you can gage a range of experiences when asking for advice and tips.
Another huge pro is real-time advice. Got a health problem but you’re not sure how to approach the local health system? Need a time-sensitive question answered? Wether you’re posting at 3am or midday, there will always be someone who’s able to help you within a matter of seconds. Keeping in the loop of things that are going on in the city is another massive pro – especially if you’re looking for something specific.
Equally, you can find people who match your demographic or personality. Want to link up with people in the vegan community? The black community? The LGBTQ+ community? People of your age? Other mums? There will always be someone who is part of that community who will share their experiences and be available to chat, meaning you’ll never feel out of place in a new environment.
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The most harmful attribute of these travel communities is that they don’t allow you to have your own experiences – and often it becomes difficult to tune out the comments (especially when they’re periodically popping up on your screen). You’ll likely begin to rely on these online communities to guide you and be your travel companion rather than going off, seeking your own fun and chatting to locals of your own accord. If you’re lost in the ‘online realm’ before even setting foot in the country, you’re not exactly breaking out of your comfort zone.
Travel shaming and elitism are rife within these communities – as are bragging and one-upping. Think comments along the lines of “Oh, you went to that cafe and had a great time? I went to that cafe and had a fantastic time, took a picture with the owner, and got a free dessert.”
Travel isn’t a competition, and people are super quick to bash other peoples lifestyles and travel styles online. It’s so important to take this into account when wading through threads; a couple in their 40’s who earn six figures are naturally going to have a different experience to a young solo female traveller doing the trip on a shoestring – that doesn’t mean either styles are the ‘best’ way to do it.
The internet is public domain and arguments are bound to break out - especially when negative people can hide behind computer screens. Online arguments can go on for days, so be wary of overly opinionated people. They can be draining.
It’s easy to get caught up in other people’s experiences, rather than having your own. People will call things ‘worn out’ or ‘full of tourists’, but for someone who’s never set foot in Europe before – that doesn’t matter. With all the self proclaimed ‘travel experts’ who aren’t actually travel experts, take these reviews with a pinch of salt: between the review of a bar written by someone who went there for an hour once at its busiest time, and the review written by someone who’s lived locally and has gone to the same bar for years – who’s review are you going to trust more?
So what’s the verdict?
Online travel communities are useful and integral for quick advice, but don’t latch on to the online world. Whilst immersing yourself in the these online groups you’re simultaneously isolating yourself from the real life that surrounds you. Remember, there’s no point in travelling if you’re just going to exclusively hang out with people from your home country!