Travel blogging: An auto-ethnographic study of how online interactions influence a journey
First Monday

Travel blogging: An auto-ethnographic study of how online interactions influence a journey by Michelangelo Magasic



Abstract
Travel blogging’s necessary routine and connectedness directly challenge the sensation of liminality seen as the core experience of travel. Using the lens of auto–ethnography, this paper finds that the practice of travel blogging affects the experience of travel in three main ways:

  • by creating a routine in which the traveller needs to regularly find an Internet connection;
  • in taking the traveller out of the moment and putting them into a detached narratorial role; and,
  • by mediating the experience of travel as the blogger frequently takes their online audience into account as they travel.

Taken together, these results suggest that blogging precipitates a constraining effect on travel as it creates structure and commitments which limit the freedom of the journeyer. Moreover, the requirement to narrate in a way that matches the conventions of the blogosphere suggests that blogging travellers will have more homogenous patterns of travel as similar images, sites and destinations are pursued.

Contents

Introduction
Methodology
Findings
Discussion
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

The theorisation of travel can be seen to be at an interesting crossroads. Last century’s preoccupation with travel as a rarefied, and colonial, act (Clifford, 1997; Pratt, 1992; Cohen, 1988), has, since the arrival of the Internet and globalisation, shifted into new inquiries like Urry’s (2007) ‘mobilities’ theory and Thrift’s (2008) concept of ‘emotional geography’ which highlight travel as a prolific and multifaceted event interwoven with the way society is formed and operates.

The experience of travel is likewise changing as tourism grows, the world globalises and technologies shorten temporal and spatial difference (Bauman, 2000). The affect of digital technologies upon the experience of the traveller has been explored by Burgelman (2000) and White and White (2005) who look at the way the connectivity provided by these lessens the “liminal” experience of the journey (White and White, 2005). The phenomena of travel blogging adds a post–modern reflexivity to contemporary tourist practices as the journeyer now uploads their personal experiences to the Internet as they go along (Akehurst, 2008; Banyai and Glover, 2012; Enoch and Grossman, 2010; Pudliner, 2007; Pühringer and Taylor, 2008; Wang, 2012).

Viewed collectively, the large volume of travel stories published on the Internet present a detailed picture of our travel habits: what we do, where we go and our thoughts and feelings along the way (Bosangit, et al., 2012; Hsiao, et al., 2013; Lin and Huang, 2006; Pan, et al., 2007; Wenger, 2008). It has also been recognised that the blog space produces its own particular recollections of travel (Pudliner, 2007). The blogger’s transcribing of events is influenced by the “performance of the self” intrinsic to personal writing in social media where the author seeks to emphasise characteristics seen as beneficial to their online avatar (Papacharissi 2012). As such the blog narrative does not simply represent a timeline of the journeyer’s travel experiences, but rather reflects a selection of events carefully chosen and structured to present a favourable picture to the audience.

It is this paper’s belief that this ongoing framing of travel events for the audience changes the practices of travel as blogging becomes a significant, and, in many ways, transformative, influence upon the journey. The purpose of this paper is to assess the extent to which blogging affected the author’s experience of travel and to consider the forces behind this.

 

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Methodology

While there have been numerous studies of travel blogging made from the outside, these have focused on analysing travel blog data in a quantitative manner (Bosangit, et al., 2012; Mansson, 2011; Lo, et al., 2011; Pan, et al., 2007), or, examining the practice of travel blogging through the artefact of the blog (Enoch and Grossman, 2010; Lin and Huang, 2006; Pudliner, 2007). Less common have been studies which assess the relationship between travel and blogging from within, exploring the personal processes through which travel events become blog content.

The need for embedded research into travel blogging has been noted by Banyai and Havitz (2013). This call providing the context for my own auto–ethnographic study in which I kept a travel blog on the Wordpress host for the duration of a three–month overseas trip. The areas encompassed within include: France, Algeria, Senegal, Gambia, Switzerland, Oman, Malaysia and Indonesia. During which I recorded my experiences on blogging to a research diary in order to build up a line of critical thought on the question: “How does the practice of travel blogging influence the experience of travel?”

In all, my blogging produced 28 unique posts. Additionally, the practice of blogging did also extend into other behind–the–scenes events such as assessing ‘likes’ and ‘follows’, so that my blog was a quotidian concern even if I was only posting once every three days.

The process of making a post involved the recording of textual and visual information in the field and later editing these notes into the material uploaded to the blog. All posts included written information and the majority were complemented by visual features such as photos or video. Finalising a post involved tagging it with metadata so that it would circulate through the Wordpress network, as well as frequently placing a link to it on my Facebook profile as per the tenets of the blogger’s distributed identity (Papacharissi, 2011).

Rather than having a specific routine for how I blogged, this was done on the fly and under a variety of different circumstances. The practice of blogging benefited immensely from a good Internet connection, although it was not only confined to areas which had this and many times I had the experience of re–doing blog posts that had failed midway through.

While inspiration for writing was usually forthcoming, some limiting factors for how much I posted did arise in both identifying a subject that would be interesting to my audience and in finding a good Internet connection to post from.

The value of auto–ethnographic method for this study lies in my close connection with blog space and processes, and my ability, from this position, to tease out the meanings underlying different practices in blogging (Murthy, 2008). The spectrum of writing encompassed with travel blogging is very rich and covers many different types of writing ranging from casual familiar communication to travel agent–esque advice from professional bloggers to experimental writing such as Jeff Luckey’s “The new informal destination guide” (http://thenewinformaldestinationguide.com/).

I would say that my blogging is typical of the casual travel blogger who wishes to communicate their travel experiences to family and friends. I wrote out my travel stories into cyberspace knowing that my most immediate audience would be the contacts within my social media circles. At the same time, I was also innately aware of the potential for my work to disseminate across digital space as the act of tagging, and, moreover, simply publishing a post, permits. This ability to connect with a wider, unknown audience (and perhaps gain renown as a well–followed or professional blogger) was something I was conscious of from the very start of my blogging.

While there will be some bloggers who remain uninterested in (or unaware of) the reception of their audience, it is a reasonable assumption to suggest that the majority of travel bloggers are interested in sharing their travel narrative with a wide audience. This observation is supported by the relative ease through which one’s blog may be shared with an extended audience (tagging) and the prominent trope of the professional travel blogger who is able to sustain a travelling lifestyle purely via the popularity of their writing (Azariah, 2012; “Nomadic Matt”, at http://www.nomadicmatt.com/). Moreover, interaction with one’s audience is something that is explicitly promoted through the share–friendly interfaces of blogging and social media platforms (an example being the trophies that Wordpress grants as one gains more followers/likes).

In response to my engaged perspective as a blogger, a critical viewpoint on my experiences was harboured within the site of my research diary. Within this space, personal experience was analysed from an academic standpoint — an essential skill for the auto–ethnographer. The space of my research diary functioned as a reflective domain where I could forge my “self–claimed” hypotheses with academic rigour, thus making them useful to the wider research community (Ellis, et al., 2011).

The viewpoint from which I approached my assessment of travel blogging reflects a cultural studies epistemology. I felt that a cultural studies perspective was relevant as it considers the interrelatedness of social practices with consumer roles (Fiske, 1992). In using this particular framework, I am lead to notice the way in which the individual’s participation both in travelling and in social media is imbued with a commercial significance. These relationships can be tracked by looking at travel mobility as necessarily underpinned by the tourist industry (Bauman, 2000; Urry, 2007) and at social media as connected to the commercial economy of the Web 2.0 paradigm (Christen, 2012; Fuchs, 2009; Lovink, 2011; Scholz, 2008).

The value of this viewpoint is in gaining a macro view where the quotidian routines of travel blogging might be understood as contingent with wider societal forces (Fiske, 1992). An example can be seen in the way the blogger’s online presentation of self is shaped by strategic entities in this realm such as the travel company Lonely Planet (Azariah, 2012). In acknowledging this relationship, I am given space to parse out the inter–relations between, “blogging prompts, personal engagement with the medium and individual tourist travel behaviour” [1] and to explain the subject’s practice travel blogging as influenced by their wider societal functioning.

 

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Findings

Research finding 1: The blogging traveller is tethered to being in places that have Internet connectivity

When writing a blog, one needs to frequently use the Internet for posting and upkeep. The experiences of travel are numerous and often unplanned, and it is the blogger’s task to transmit these to his audience.

I tried to post my experiences to my blog close to when they happened so that they were fresh in my mind and I could keep a faithful order within my online narrative. If one doesn’t post regularly, the experiences of travel build up and become jumbled in the mind of the writer and risk losing their freshness. When an Internet connection wasn’t close at hand, I tried to write events down in a document ready to be posted when a connection allowed.

While this was a serviceable plan, there were several reasons that made this system undesirable. Firstly, because blogs are a “social genre” [2], the writer has a closer relationship with the reader and aims both to post and to monitor audience feedback regularly. Secondly, blogs are a genre defined by concise kernels of information, brevity and sharpness, rather than large “dumps” of information, are valued in the blog form (Sullivan, 2008).

If posts are not done singularly, both the audience and the form of the blog are neglected. It is such that blogger needs to use the Internet on a near daily basis to do a faithful job of blogging. There may be some bloggers who are less interested in following this convention — such as those documenting a trip for their family. On the other hand, there are some that travel with a satellite connection to ensure postings on a regular basis. However, the majority of bloggers will find themselves continually seeking an Internet connection.

The fact that the blogging traveller has a close connection to the Internet has been indirectly explored by scholarly literature. While not pertaining specifically to blogging, Burgelman (2000) describes the implications of using digital technology as, “virtuality” — a condition in which the user no longer sees and feels their embodied experiences as intensely as the devices they carry allow them to depart from and re–enter the physical moment at will.

The experience of “virtuality” while travelling was explored in an ethnographic study by Peter and Naomi White (2005) examining how travellers use digital technology on the road. White and White’s (2005) conclusion is that:

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.

Here, digital communications devices can be seen to precipitate a weakening of the importance of ones’ physical surroundings and a renewed connection to home space and its encumbrances. While in this research, the effect of digital technologies upon the traveller is configured through a regular, and disruptive, engagement with digital worlds, my experience was that it was not the continued immersion to digital space which most significantly affected my experience of travel but rather the physical necessity of repeatedly finding an Internet connection which keeping a blog entails.

Searching for the Internet is not something one imagines frequently doing on their trip yet it was perhaps the most constant and repeated activity of my travel. Within their study, White and White (2005) acknowledge that the accessibility of Internet connectivity will become an increasingly important factor in tourists’ travel planning. The impact of this (that tourists will search for Internet connections while travelling) was more pronounced in my research, given that, whereas White and White’s paper was set in New Zealand, my own study encompassed several less connected areas including parts of rural Africa and Asia.

The fact that I had a blog indelibly altered my travel routines. It was quite often my first priority for the day after I came to learn that the process of posting or just checking my blog could take a deceptively long period of time in environments where Internet connections, electricity and other factors were uncertain. Moreover, I was forced to alter my travel plans because of my blog, being hesitant about travelling to new places out of uncertainty that I would find a good connection once I arrived. Slow or unreliable connections can be worse than no connection at all in the potential lost time they may amount to in failed posts; especially when photo or video upload are involved.

This reliance on an Internet connection was something that I could likewise observe in the routines of other travel bloggers that I met on the road. At backpacker hostels (places that, dealing with digitally savvy backpackers, are attentive to their Internet connection), travellers sit shoulder to shoulder in front of their laptops relating narratives of travel to their blogs or social media accounts. These stories might be, however, much less individual than they seem when it is considered that the majority of bloggers (those interested in posting regularly and who do not have their own personal satellite connection) will share the same constraint of requiring a good Internet connection.

Following these experiences, I am led to consider the way in which the practice of travel blogging produces its own version of the travel experience. One in which the traveller is less likely to get off the beaten track and more likely to prefer places in which a serviceable Wi–Fi connection, mobile coverage and electricity are assured.

These kind of communications hubs have been a significant part of the travel experience since the days of post restante, if not before. Yet, brought to these places by shared needs and ambitions, the question arises: does the traveller’s use of technology expand their horizons, opening up new ways to experience and record place, or does it in fact diminish them in the way it creates a structure for their movement?

A sense of inquisitiveness toward foreign culture is one of the prime motivators for travel. As Maccannel [3] states, “All tourists desire the deeper involvement with society and culture to some degree; it is a basic component of their motivation to travel.” Given their tethering to an Internet connection, bloggers, however, seem likely to be hindered in their ability to delve deeply into foreign cultures if they are effectively forced to stay within range of well–amenitied spaces while they are travelling.

Research finding 2: A blogger habitually assesses and frames experiences as potential blog posts.

The travel blogger is a storyteller who relates their experiences to an online audience (Banyai, 2012; Hsiao, et al., 2013; Pudliner, 2007; Wang, 2012; Chen, et al., 2014). The duties of this role include posting regularly to maintain one’s presence, and the blogger’s imperative to frame their personal events in a way that conforms to typical travel blog discourse so as to appease audience expectations (Azariah, 2012; Lomborg, 2009; Rettberg, 2008b). It is my contention that these practices affect a given journey as the traveller is at times taken out of the ‘moment’ — the experience of travel — and put into the shoes of the narrator.

Azariah’s trio of works (2011; 2012a; 2012b) examining the relationship between form and content in the travel blogosphere may be read collectively in order to provide a practical insight into the parameters of travel blog discourse. This is found to be: ‘heteroglossic’ in its mixing of traveller and tourist rhetoric (Azariah, 2012b), outwardly motivated as is the blogger’s position in an online network (Azariah, 2012a), and, shaped by the formal conventions of the blogosphere (Azariah, 2011).

In using these works as a frame for travel blog discourse, I am able to consider how the responsibility of having my own travel stories conform to the genre inevitably affects my physical experience of the landscape and travel itself. Here I ask some key questions relating to the transforming of my personal experience into blog content: where does the information in blog posts come from? By what process is it taken from the landscape? And, how does its end form reflect the physical experiences of the traveller?

The information featured in my blog posts can be regarded as coming directly from the landscape. It is things that I have seen or done myself — physical experiences that I have had — rather than events or experiences I have been told about or recommended. The processes by which blog content is recorded are multifaceted, including the use of small notebooks in which I transcribed textual impressions of the landscape, as well as my camera to take photos and video. However, these impressions were never uploaded to my blog in an unedited form.

The process of making a blog post always necessitates a period of review and reflection equivalent to what Papacharrisi [4] has referred to as “redaction” — the editing of an online post so as to project particular facets of selfhood (also, Papacharissi and Eastman, 2012). Mostly, the goal behind this process of redaction was to present my experiences — or the recordings I took at this time — in a way that fit within typical travel blog discourse and which consequently I felt my audience would understand and enjoy.

I see this process of redaction in a blog post of mine relating my opinion on the workings of two garbage trucks I spied during the course of my wanderings. The language which I use in this post is assertive and knowledgeable, leaving no doubts as to the personal importance of these events to me:

Two different views of rubbish collection, the first in Algeria and second in Senegal. Good to know where your garbage is going, the trucks operating in broad daylight and not under cover of night, one even stopping at a petrol station.

In actuality, the two photos that make up this post were fleeting and forgettable moments within the scheme of my trip and certainly not so significant as to stand for some 1/30th of the journey as they do in my blog narrative. However, rather than representing an outstanding event in my trip, my recounting of these events is strategically motivated, done so as to emphasise my position as an authentic “traveller” (Azariah, 2012b) who gets off the beaten track and notices quotidian features of the landscape and not only tourist attractions (Dann, 1999; Good, 2013).

 

Trash travel photo and text
 
Figure 1: Trash travel photo and text.

 

While in my blog I may allude to understanding the activity of rubbish collection in these places, the reality, when I look back critically upon my experiences, is that this is a ruse: it was not my garbage in those trucks, nor did I talk to the people collecting it or know where it was going. My blog, rather than stating the truth about my brief experience with those garbage trucks, proffers a narrative I would like to assert to the audience as having experienced.

Here we may see that while the information in travel blogs does come from the landscape, the travel blogger’s position within the wider genre means that blog content is not so strictly a factually accurate recount of travel but one constructed for the audience following the conventions of typical travel blog discourse.

Indeed, a blogger’s ‘success’ can be monitored by the amount of ‘likes’ a post receives (Papacharissi and Easton, 2013). After a time, this routine of following the audience’s feedback made me feel like my travel experiences were becoming “preconceived” as I felt a vague pressure to find elements in the landscape which suited typical travel blog narratives. Thus, even while the experiences of travel remained essentially aleatory and unplanned, I found my mental state was less in the moment as I searched for pre–considered features to post about.

In this way the blogging traveller’s status as a narrator plays a significant role in their experience of travel. Moreover, while the blogger’s practice of “redaction” may be largely invisible to the reader of the blog, it marks a significant element in blogging that needs to be taken into account during the analysis of travel blog content.

Research finding 3: The blogger’s experience of travel is mediated by their interaction with their perceived audience.

Research has shown that a blogger’s motivation to post online is in large part due to their reciprocal relationship with the audience who bestow them with social capital as a condition of their interaction with blog content (Papacharissi and Eastman, 2012; Rettberg, 2008a). Within the networked environment of social media, popularity is in large part judged by the metric of “attention,” the more that the author gains, the better (Marwick and boyd, 2011). The ‘likes’ and ‘follows’ which an audience confer upon the blogger are, in this way, a quantitative measure of online success.

Based on this currency, a relationship is formed between the audience and the blogger, who, in a sense, works for this reward.

As I built up the number of ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ on my blog (and was awarded the digital trophies that Wordpress grants for reaching certain milestones in each), I devoted more time to the activity of blogging, to the point that I began to view my blogging practice, and the narrative it produced, as an essential part of my trip.

Blog posts form a vehicle by which the traveller may exchange their experiences into a capital lasting long beyond fleeting physical experience, as I noted in my research diary:

Some days when travelling, today being one, it feels like the only productive thing you get done is to write a blog post. This in the way that your plans do not work out sometimes, time gets away and you do not see/do anything exciting. Blog posts, however, are permanent and getting one done you feel like you are sharing with the world. A product, a communication, a creation.

The long term worth accessible in blog posts means that the blogger considers very carefully how they present themselves to their reader. Drawing on the work of Erving Goffman, the social media researcher Zizi Papacharissi (2011) relates that identity in online social networks occurs as a “performance of the self.” A calculated self presentation that is affected in order to maximise recognition (and to minimise the potential harm that could occur) in a networked environment where content is “persistent, replicable, scalable, and searchable” [5].

The strategies which the blogger uses online do likewise pervade their physical travel practices, given that, as Schecher [6] states, “a performance involves the practice of doing, but also the practices of pointing, underscoring, and displaying the act of doing.” An example of this can be seen through my own blog.

In one post, a series of photos from Muscat, Oman are presented and given captions. One of the photos — a sunset panorama of the city — receiving the short descriptor: “Musky pink skyline like Arabian Nights.”

 

Musky pink skyline like Arabian Nights
 
Figure 2: “Musky pink skyline like Arabian Nights.”

 

Rather than relating my own impression of the sunset scene, this statement is again a ruse as I have not read One Thousand and One Nights. My simile is chosen for attention value, knowing that a reference to this well–known storybook could pay dividends in ‘likes’. I speculate (having no way to go back and assess the event itself), that my experiencing of this moment was shaped by my mental preoccupation with my online audience. Whilst I did begin to notice the sights, sounds and smells present (“Musky pink ...”), inevitably, my frame for this moment is a dreamy fabrication chosen to pique the interest of potential readers rather than a personal interpretation of the scene before me.

The interplay between my sensory perceptions and blatant pandering to my blog in the above shows how the blogger’s performance of self affects the journeyer at the time of their experiences. In the era of social media, the traveller obtains immediate value from their experiences by posting them online within hours of the event. Merit is obtained following Hollbrook’s idea of “other oriented value” in which a person looks, “beyond the self to someone or something else, where the consumption experience is valued for their sake, for how they react to it or for the effect it has on them.“ [7]

Given as much, it is easy to observe the influence that blogs exert on travel practices and goals. The audiences’ ability to respond to the blogger immediately, and the value this holds, means that they can influence the traveller’s choices and routines on the road (Enoch and Grossman, 2010). Thus, the bloggers’ aims and experiences of travel are to some degree (depending on how much stock they put in their blog), mediated by their online audience.

 

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Discussion

When I began this project I was under the impression that blogs might have the ability to take travel recording beyond its status as a colonial event (Clifford, 1997; Pratt, 1992) by allowing the audience, and people who live in the places being described, to include their voices in travel narratives. This participation, I hypothesised, might diversify the travel experience of the blogger by gifting them new ideas and leading them along different paths.

Apart from other travellers (and other bloggers), I did not meet anybody during my travels that was particularly interested in the fact that I was keeping an online travel diary. Moreover, the polyvocal participation I hoped to have occur in my travel narrative was promptly revealed to be but a pipe dream as I received very few comments. While there is the potential that some travel blogs might shine for their uncommon insights and fresh, individual voice of their narrator, the reverse scenario seems more likely to be true as the “echo–chamber” [8] effect of the blogosphere favours consenting rather than alternative voices.

Rather than diversifying travel experience, my research has shown that there are many reasons why blogging precipitates a homogenisation of travel practices. Together, my three research findings show the practice of blogging as not only broadly lessening the liminal experience which travel provides but in fact circumscribing travel experiences within certain limits as the blogger stays in touch with an Internet connection and has their travel events mediated by a concern for their online audience.

The conventions of the blogosphere encourage travel visions to be more similar as the blogger is led to perceive their experiences within the frame of pre–existing interest factors likely to garner attention from their readers. The blogger is dissuaded from a detailed, individual experiencing of the landscape and from discovering the pathways these bring. The environment which is most conducive to blogging is indeed that which is most similar to the Western traveller’s home space, meaning that blog content likely reflects the geography of connectivity.

These effects can be broadly theorised to be a result of travel blogs being part of the social media paradigm in which companies influence how communication is performed (Langlois and Elmer, 2013). The explicit influence that tourism companies have on shaping travel experience is observed as they act as “arbiters of taste” which shape blogging conventions and trends [9]. One of the potential gains of this can be seen as, following the limitations set by blogging, travel patterns themselves become more predictable and thus more easy for tourism entities to monetise.

As a whole, the results of this research show how social media is interleaved with contemporary tourism and the implications of this for tourist practices. However, the introductory nature of this research as an auto–ethnographic study of travel blogging does itself raise further questions. While I consider my blogging practice to be fairly representative of the average blogger, the validity of my findings could be improved by applying my results to a variety of travel bloggers from different types and contexts (such as those communicating purely to family members or those from different sub–cultural groups such as food or photography travellers) to see to what degree my findings are echoed in the wider community.

 

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Conclusion

The findings from this study suggest that the practice of blogging makes the experience of travel more homogenous as it limits the freedom to be found within. Blogging enacts a number of constraints upon the traveller which both physically and mentally limit how they experience the environment. These are reinforced through the interactive space of the blog which offers rewards to the blogger for conforming with the conventions of the blogosphere. Azariah (2012) has shown that many blog hosts have an overt corporate presence and that blog discourse is shaped by the online avatars of tourism companies within social media platforms. As blogging is itself a tourist activity and part of the journey, the emotional affects that the traveller receives blogging influence the way they approach experiences on the road. Thus, the interactive forum of social media allows strategic entities to influence how online travel texts are received and how the travel practices of their authors are performed. End of article

 

About the author

Michelangelo Magasic is a postgraduate student at Curtin University. His research interests include travel blogs, social media and file sharing.
E–mail: m [dot] magasic [at] postgrad [dot] curtin [dot] edu [dot] au

 

Acknowledgements

To my tutor Stew Woods for your patience and support in helping me complete this paper.

All images in this paper were taken by the author.

 

Notes

1. Pudliner 2007, p. 53.

2. Rettberg 2008a, p. 57.

3. Cited in Pudliner, 2007, p. 50.

4. Papacharrisi, 2011, p. 317.

5. boyd in Papacharissi, 2012, p. 4.

6. Schecher in Papacharissi, 2012, p. 1,990.

7. Hollbrook in Komppula and Gartner, 2013, p. 176.

8. Lovink, 2011, p. 2.

9. Azariah, 2012, p. 74.

 

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Editorial history

Received 13 October 2013; revised 15 May 2014; accepted 11 June 2014.


Creative Commons License
This paper is in the public domain.

Travel blogging: An auto–ethnographic study of how online interactions influence a journey
by Michelangelo Magasic.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 7 - 7 July 2014
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4887/4098
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v19i7.4887





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