Graduate Research Group “New Travel – New Media”

“New Travel – New Media” (NTNM) was an interdisciplinary graduate research group at the University of Freiburg funded by the Volkswagen Foundation between 2018 and 2023. Its work comprised six doctoral and one postdoctoral project, and saw scholars from Literary Studies, Human Geography, Cultural Anthropology and Media Cultural Studies working together. NTNM’s research programme revolved around the following questions: Which practices and experiences are prominent in the current culture of travel? How are they presented in today’s media? How do travel and media intersect? How is travel enabled by, and established through, media? In accordance with the funding guidelines, the doctoral students spent several months at non-university institutions and companies, and this transdisciplinary element enriched their academic work.

Travel and (Digital) Media

Travel and media have long been interlinked. Maps, cameras and guidebooks are well-established travel companions. For centuries, travellers have recorded their impressions in diaries, sketchbooks and albums; travelogues have been circulating for as long as there has been a print market. In the twentieth century, radio, film and television made the most of travel as an attractive topic for its listeners and viewers. More recently, many of the older forms of mediating travel have found new expression in the digital media, such as blogs, vlogs, YouTube channels and online reviews.

Digitalisation has changed the relationship between travel and media: it has enabled new forms of multimedial and -modal presentation, and new trans- and cross-media marketing strategies in the tourist industry. The link between travel and media is now more complex and interdependent than it was in earlier times. However, the concept of ‘new media’ should not be understood as a strict demarcation from older media. Historically, travel has been presented in many different media, but the standards and modalities of these media have also accumulated. Old and new media coexist and converge, and the communication of travel today manifests itself more than ever as a transmedial phenomenon.

NTNM thus focused on the changes caused by digitalisation while also addressing the continuum between older and more recent ways of medialising travel. It investigated media-related transformations of travel and asked what interactions exist between the practice, experience and (re)presentation of travel. These three aspects were understood as reciprocally related: not only are experiences of travel processed in (re)presentations, but travel (re)presentation can already pre-figure travel experience.

Travelling as an everyday practice

The restrictions resulting from the Corona pandemic since 2019 have put into relief   how much NTNM’s topic is rooted in the contemporary lifeworld. In today’s societies of the Global North, travelling is an intensely mediatised practice of considerable social, (trans)cultural and economic relevance. Possibilities to travel are constantly expanding – geographically and in terms of social reach (despite all the inequalities that continue to exist). In addition, the possibilities of learning about other people’s journeys and communicating one’s own experiences are also expanding.

However, the digital age has changed and shaped not only the presentation of travel, but also the practice and experience of travel itself. The practices of travel have been mediatised, and the hiking pole has, in a sense, been replaced by the selfie stick. Travelling today means taking photos, filming, posting, blogging, vlogging and commenting online before, during and after the trip.

Smartphone and Claude glass

Smartphones are a pertinent embodiment of the convergence of media and travel practices. They combine a multitude of functions that used to be distributed among a number of travel accessories, such as cameras, guidebooks, maps and old-fashioned paper diaries. We use our smartphones to plan routes and find out about places of interest, to book tickets and hotels, to take photos and videos for family and friends and to access social media accounts where these photos are then shared. All this can happen within minutes, meaning travel practice, experience, communication and representation are almost simultaneous. Moreover, smartphones facilitate a very specific form of traveller self-representation, the travel selfie, which has become ubiquitous and has greatly shaped not only tourist destinations in the form of over-visited selfie spots, but also the construction of travellers’ images and identities.

It should be noted, however, that carrying devices to document one’s journey and to enable specific travel experiences has a long history. Picturesque tourism popular around 1800 is an example of this. This form of landscape tourism became popular in England in the last quarter of the eighteenth century with the proliferation of illustrated guidebooks such as William Gilpin’s Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales (1782). Picturesque tourists were primed by verbal and pictorial representations of landscapes, and often used a Claude glass, i.e. a mirror that framed and coloured the view of the landscape in front of them in the manner of a painting.  They were also equipped with sketchbooks that enabled them to record their own impressions of places and viewpoints. All this seems to anticipate practices in the smartphone age, including the use of filters on Instagram.

Instagram and the tourist gaze

The practices of travelling are historically shaped, as are the media involved in the process. The ‘tourist gaze’ has always been determined by available media and pre-figured by (re)presentations in these media, in eighteenth-century guidebooks as well as the social media of the present. Pictures shared on Instagram constantly reproduce a specific gaze and specific motifs, for example of tourists supporting the seemingly toppling tower of the Leaning Tower of Pisa with their hands. Such repetition creates  shared image regimes, and such regimes have their own dynamics. A natural ‘infinity pool’ near the Königssee waterfall in the Bavarian national park of Berchtesgaden, for example, developed into an Instagram hotspot that attracted increasing numbers of tourists who wanted to document their bathing experience above the waterfall that plunges 70 metres into the depths of the lake.  The increased littering of the place, and above all the deaths of two people in April 2019, finally led to a ban on entering the area around the pool. This example also illustrates another central aspect of digital  media: the availability of travel locations becomes temporally and spatially unlimited. Tourists’ experiences can be shared on social media immediately and viewed by a mass audience with the potential to unleash consequences that are difficult to keep up with.

With its limited number of projects, the research of NTNM concentrated on selected aspects of the connections between contemporary travel and the varied media landscape of our time. The findings from individual projects document the impact of digital media on travel as well as the resilience of older media in the (re)presentation of travel. They also show, however, that in-depth research in this area has only just begun.