I call myself a digital nomad for want of a better term. I run a business that doesn’t require me to be at a fixed address so I take advantage of that by working in locations around the world. In my travels I have met many others who are living a similar life, yet they don’t identify as being digital nomads.
I wrote an article for the Digital Nomad Month at toomanyadapters.com. During that month I saw this Twitter conversation between toomanyadapters editor @driftingkiwi and @travelfish:
Dave’s point sums it up for me; I use the phrase as a convenient description.
Wes at johnnyvagabond.com has also written about using the term:
It’s a bit of an over-used term these days but I’ve yet to find one that better fits my lifestyle: I am a digital nomad.
When I began my life of self employment I used to say a similar mouthful of words like Dave’s example of a “person whose work doesn’t require them to be in a particular place and can be done largely online”.
I began the life self-employed travelling in 2003 and I can’t remember when I first started using the phrase digital nomad. I also don’t know who coined the term, which is something I would like to know.
I know friends who fit the description that resist the label, yet when I ask for a suitable alternative I get no answer. I have listed some other terms to see if they apply to me as a digital nomad.
Not appropriate for me as that implies that I have expatriated from my homeland to make a home in another. While I have left my homeland I don’t claim residency in another and all that it involves (leases, bank accounts, paying local taxes). The last time I was technically an expat was when I lived in Ireland for a year (in 2002-2003) where I had work visa, a local bank account, and paid taxes. Even then I never referred to myself as an expat; I used to say “working holiday maker” as I was on the working holiday visa.
A remote worker is someone who is employed for a company while working from home (also known as Telecommuting), so this does not apply to me. The term also makes me think of people that are working remotely in the literal sense, like on an oil rig or mining in the Australian outback.
I’m sort of under this category, but I don’t like the presumption that this is a perpetual condition. I always say that I might get tired of this lifestyle tomorrow and go back to live in Australia. It’s too presumptuous to say you will be doing this forever. There is a scrapheap of abandoned travel blogs that have loudly proclaimed that they are going to travel the world forever right after burning all their possessions, only to burn out after a year and return to their regularly scheduled life.
I also don’t fit under this category (if we are going by the description on the wiki page) because I still have a business registered in Australia and I pay tax there. I’m not drifting around the world to avoid tax.
Location Independent Entrepreneur (or insert your job type here)
I like the phrase Location Independent and I sometimes use it as an alternative to digital nomad.
I have used this one often as it’s the most descriptive phrase that a layman would understand. I’ve seen that blank expression too many times when I told someone I’m a digital nomad, so I use working traveller in general population situations.
The only problem with this is that it implies that I am mostly a traveller who happens to work. The description invokes an image of those who are working to travel (usually on a beach), rather than running a business which happens to be from anywhere.
It’s interesting to note that Tim Ferris – the writer who propelled the digital nomad way of life into the mainstream – never mentions the phrase in The 4-Hour Workweek. Instead he uses the term “New Rich”:
For the first time, I’m going to tell you the real story. It involves a quiet subculture of people called the “New Rich.” What does an igloo-dwelling millionaire do that a cubicle-dweller doesn’t? Follow an uncommon set of rules. How does a lifelong blue-chip employee escape to travel the world for a month without his boss even noticing? He uses technology to hide the fact. Gold is getting old. The New Rich (NR) are those who abandon the deferred-life plan and create luxury lifestyles in the present using the currency of the New Rich: time and mobility. This is an art and a science we will refer to as Lifestyle Design (LD).
I have personally never used the term “New Rich” and I have never heard it uttered in the wild. While I love the point he is making of having rich life experiences without being a millionaire, New Rich sounds too much like Nouveau Riche, which is a completely different meaning.
Instead of this phrase taking off, most people who have read the book just default to saying that they are living the 4-Hour Workweek lifestyle. That’s been a boon for Ferris from a personal branding perspective, but the point of the book has been misinterpreted as it implies that you are trying to live a life without work, rather than freeing up your time to put focus on other work or projects.
While “New Rich” never took hold it appears that Ferris introduced the term “Lifestyle Design” which did gain traction. After the book was released there were hundreds of “lifestyle designer” blogs that just came out of nowhere. Usually some 23 year old guy who was gracious enough to impart the sum of their life experience on how to live life.
Again, this is a phrase I have never applied to myself as it has the association of doing the minimum amount possible in order to attain the sitting on the beach lifestyle. It’s a phrase that sounds so 2010 and my eyes would roll into the back of my head if I heard someone say they were a lifestyle designer.
Is there a better term?
So, dear reader, have I missed any phrases? And if you don’t think “digital nomad” is the right phrase I would like to here other suggestions.
Whats in a name? Does it really matter… I think the word digital nomad is catchy and sums it up nicely. Nice thoughts though, I enjoyed reading this article. Its amazing to think that being a “digital nomad” (or whatever) would of been nearly impossible so many years ago.
James Clark says
Thanks Rebecca, in the end it doesn’t really matter so I go with it too. Amazing to think that it wasn’t a work option not that long ago.
Fred Perrotta says
Let’s hope so. Oddly, digital nomad sounds outdated because of the word “digital.” It can also sound pretentious.
As many marketers and copywriters as are in the community, we still haven’t beat it though. Can we all donate a few dollars, hold a contest, and award the money to the best alternative name? The only problem is that self-appointed nicknames never stick as well as organic ones.
James Clark says
Same for me – it sounds a bit odd, like hearing “cyber cafe” for a net cafe.
I thought about the competition idea as well but I think you are right there in that names are better when they emerge organically.
George Millo says
Now that Mike is working for Woo, I’ve been using remote worker (My husband and I both work remotely) but I also lean towards generic freelance. I dunno, I generally go with whatever will get people to ask the least follow up questions #grouchy.
James Clark says
In Mike’s case he is a true remote worker in that he is working for an employer from home (and congrats on you both moving to Seattle!)
Dan Cowell says
This is something I struggle with as well. I kind of exist in the no-man’s-land between Remote Worker and Location Independent Entrepreneur. I’m employed though, so I tend to lean on the “Remote Worker” epithet, at least for now. Digital nomad just seems… not really tacky, but cliché and kind of dated.
James Clark says
Yes, for me the phrase is acceptable but it’s just not quite right.
Raymond @ Man On The Lam says
I’m sticking with Cyber Stray. 🙂
James Clark says
That has a nice alliterative ring to it 🙂
Stuart McD says
I think you were on the right track early on up top when you talk about being “self employed”.
“I’m self employed” pretty much sums it up, is accurate, and doesn’t come with any luggage. People know immediately what it means – you work for yourself – which is what you do right? 🙂 If you want to wrap in the “lifestyle” then a “self employed traveller” works I guess.
Digital nomad is like sand in the mouth and I don’t get why people actually like using the term. Not intentionally perhaps but comes across as a bit of oneupsmanship – that whole “I’ve escaped the cubicle” stuff, which really grates.
It’s all a bit if a distraction though – what matters is what you’re doing and that you’re happy doing it – not what you call yourself!
Caffeinated Nomad perhaps 😉
James Clark says
Thanks Stuart! I like the sound of caffeinated nomad 🙂 Self employed is one I use and I would agree that it is the most relatable. I guess I am trying to look for a phrase that explains how I get to travel as many people outside of our line of work that I speak to still don’t understand. For example when I meet expats in Vietnam (like teachers and those working for international companies in an office), when I say I do web design as one of my jobs they ask if my clients are in Vietnam and is that why I am here. They get it after I explain how it works but it would be nice to have a phrase that is universally understood.
I would never call myself a ‘digital nomad’ outright – I would preface it with something like ‘so-called digital nomad’. 1) Because most people won’t recognise the phrase (as has been your experience) and 2) it sounds pretentious.
I usually end up saying something like ‘I make money online’ or ‘I run an online business’. This is more factual, understandable, and doesn’t imply anything about travel, just leaves it open as a possibility.
We tend to just say “we work online while travelling” because for some reason digital nomad feels wrong or pretentious. Also, people who aren’t digital nomads don’t really get it. I also don’t like “lifestyle designer” because who said people with jobs or who don’t travel can’t design a lifestyle they love?
Yes! Thank you. It’s as unbearable as people that like to overly engineer their linkedin titles.
Nothing too specific, I would say I work online and because of that I have an option to work while I’m on the road.
I don’t particularly like digital nomad or any other catchy phrase. It kinda brands you and I don’t prefer to be described by something that I do to make a living.
I like how you described yourself on the homepage, first sentence. Better and more understandable then digital nomad. half the people don’t know how to make money online, let alone what the phrase means…
I normally say ‘I’m self employed and I work with website’ also mimicking writing on a keyboard with the fingers.
Many times the reaction I get is ‘oh, so you can work everywhere’ even from people I would not expect to understand.
I guess everyone has heard of this possibility in TV by now.
Self employed means I manage my time.
Internet means you just need a PC.
I don’t identify with digital nomad because I’m not permanently on the road like a nomad, but I rather alternate times at home with times of travel.
Phil Stephens says
I call myself a SMOW, Small/Mobile Office Worker.
I am probably a digital grey nomad, I work out of a backpack for hours a day, even when I am in my home town.
My entire work-space can go with me at a few minutes notice.
Not Douchie says
I don’t like the term Digital Nomad, I think it is retarded. I use “Location Independent” because that is what I am.
André Gusseklo0 says
I have been scratching quotation marks in the air every time I caught myself uttering this term.
The fact that we’re so confused about this probably means we’re reaching moment that Damien Walter foresaw in his article about laptop farangs in Chiang Mai: “In a decade, we will look back on digital nomads as pioneers of a lifestyle so widespread that it no longer requires a name.”
Cody McKibben says
Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners wrote the book called Digital Nomad in 1997… I think they are credited with creating the term.
James Clark says
Good find, Cody!
Euvie Ivanova says
I don’t have a problem with the term “digital nomad”, and I have used it to describe myself online. My work is very much digital, and I am quite nomadic, so I think it fits.
I’ve also used “location independent entrepreneur”.
In real life conversation though, if people ask what I do, I usually just say “I run an online business”. As Daniele mentioned, many people react with “oh, so you can work from anywhere”.
That said, I don’t think I have ever used “digital nomad” in a real-life conversation with a stranger. Just, ahem, digitally.
Sally @ thewinetraveller says
Nothing too particular, I would say I perform on the internet and because of that I have an choice to perform while I’m on the street. I like how you described yourself on the home-page, first phrase. Better and more easy to understand then electronic nomad. 50 percent the individuals don’t know how to generate income on the internet, let alone what the term means…
Brian Hill says
James, how about binary bum, or hobo hacker, itinerant ipod icon. digital database drifter, electronic entrepeneur escapist, bit byte bedouin, ram rom Rom, [Rom is a gypsy], tablet trekker, binary backpacker, gigabyte gypsy, laptop loiterer, and for you, cyber cafe cursor crusader. I have more but they are even worse! Brian.
James Clark says
Haha, thanks Brian – I like the way you think 🙂
Jon Myers says
Thoughtful post. I like it.
I don’t like the term Digital Nomad.
There’s just not another term right now.
Terms, communicate ideas and concepts, so I do think it’s important.
The term Digital Nomad, Lifestyle Designer or any of the others, fail to capture what I see as the evolution of this movement.
At its core, I see that evolution being about the types of businesses many are now building from the road and how we are organizing and optimizing our lives around building these businesses.
In the beginning, the movement was about building BS passive income businessses, which most have proved to be unsustainable.
Now, there is more of a focus on building real businesses, businesses that resemble scalable startups back in Silicon Valley without the focus on raising cash. A focus on building real, profitable, sustainable assets.
Whatever the term is – it has to capture the essence of this evolution and I think all the lifestyle BS references has got to evolve.
Capture that with a term and we are in to something that is inspiring and massive.
Finally, this next wave, the evolution of this movement is dependent on communicating these ideas and inspiring others to take action.
Free Range Employee
I like “Hobo CEO”!
I wouldn’t agree that location “independent entrepreneur” and “digital nomad” are the same thing. You can be location independent and never make use of it, never be a “nomad”.
Nomadic Professional ??
Allison Foat says
Greetings from Cape Town – I’m a wandering Coffice worker 🙂
Try technomad. I’m not the first, but one of the first. Stephen K Roberts is the grand daddy of us all. I’ve been on the digital path since 1994 and was inspired by his work in the early 80s. http://www.bikepaths.org
Chico Guerrera says
Digital Gonads is an apt description.
I find this term unbearable so I created a reddit group r/perpetualtraveler specifically just to write a bio that I hate this term. If you also can’t stand this term come and join the community.