10 years of Nomadic Notes and travel blogging in the 2010’s
In February 2019 Nomadic Notes marked the tenth anniversary as a registered domain. I never got round to doing a blogiversary post (and it’s closer to 11 years now), but the passing date did get me thinking about the early days of my blog and of the blogosphere in general in 2009.
It’s a topic I’ve thought about before then. I read a blog post by Wade from Vagabond Journey who touched on the subject old blogs in this post titled “There is nothing on the internet“:
“What I wanted was a story. Just a contiguous narrative that I could follow and check in on — something that wasn’t too heavy but may nonetheless teach me about something or get me thinking about something remote from anything that I was doing. What I wanted was an old-time blog, like the kind that we were making in the mid-2000s, when the internet was uncharted territory to explore. What I wanted was the kind of blog where someone you found kind of interesting or odd just talked about what they were doing and thinking. Something that you could easily follow day to day — a temporary escape.
I’m not sure where those writers have gone.”
More recently I read an article about old travel blogs which got me thinking about the subject again. I went through my bookmarks and RSS Reader in search of travel narrative and editorial blogs of old.
Originally this post was going to be about the decline of narrative travel blogs (“The death of travel narrative” seemed too clickbaity). After some research though I found that there is plenty of travel narrative and editorial, just not where we used to find it.
A more accurate title would be the evolution of travel narrative publishing.
This blog post looks how travel narrative publishing has changed over the years, rather than the business of blogging (which is another post in itself).
The so-called Golden Age of Blogging
There is a perception that there was a golden age of travel narrative blogging, of which Wade mentioned as being around the mid-2000’s.
Even though there were other blogging platforms before then, the acquisition of Blogger by Google is a useful milestone of when blogging content management systems went mainstream. Conversely it was Google that heralded the end of this era when it retired the world’s favourite blog reader. At this point Google was trying to promote Google+ as a competitor to Facebook and Twitter, and they wanted us to read everything in this ecosystem.
Not that it was all Google’s fault, as the tide was already turning towards social media. Even before then people were observing the changing of style, and with the explosive growth of social media the writing was on the wall. Perhaps the end date was when the world’s most famous blogger declared that the blog is dead in December 2013.
The perception that long-term bloggers were always a thing
If you had tuned into the blogging world in the mid to late 2000’s it might have seemed that long-term travellers blogging about their travels was a normal thing. But long-term travel isn’t normal, and eventually most people will go back to work or find something else to do.
In the grand scheme of things, doing something for a lifetime is rare these days. Gone are the days of working for the same company for 40 years and getting a gold watch at the end. And the same will apply for websites and blogs. If you own a blog, do a broken link check and you will see how often links and websites die.
This report cites a study that suggests that the median lifespan of web pages was 9.3 years. So a site over 10 years is a significant milestone.
“I still love this blog. I still love writing. I love everything it’s brought into my life. But after ten years? It’s hard.”
Blogs are still a relatively new format, and nothing lasts forever. We won’t truly know the lifespan of a website until the first generation of digital natives turn 100, then we can see data over a lifetime. By then websites might not exist and we will be reading content by neural implants, and blogs will seem as quaint today as telegrams by morse code do to us now.
Where those travel blogs have gone
Over the last decade the way we consume travel content has changed considerably. Here are where those blogs have gone.
Still blogging after all these years
I have been making websites since 2002, and I started blogging at Nomadic Notes in 2009 during the “golden age of blogging”. I went to Chiang Mai in the early days, which became a travel blog hub before it became the digital nomad capital of the world.
If you sort this list of travel blogs by domain age you will see how many old blogs there still are.
They went before their time
As Jim Morrison once said, no one here gets out alive. Some though are gone before their time, such as Johnny Vagabond. I still remember the first time I read his blog. I was in a cafe when I clicked on a link for “Three Mistakes on a Hot Day in Bangkok”. I recall pissing myself laughing and then wondering, who the hell is this guy? This guy was Wes Nations.
It had been a while since I read this blog post and I was wondering if it was as funny as I remembered it to be. I reread it and made the same mistake of reading it in a public place, because once again I pissed myself laughing. In fact this blog post is so funny that I’m calling it…
I remember the first day I met Wes as well. I was having a party for my 39th birthday in Chiang Mai. Actually someone else arranged the party as I hate doing parties for myself. I was then told that Wes Nations was going to come. I had never spoken to him before, so not only did I have the anxiety of having a lunch in my honour, the coolest travel blogger on the planet was about to crash my party.
He turned out to be as nice in person as he was funny online, and we ended up crossing paths in Chiang Mai again when we needed a stable place to work for a while.
[Wes, James, and Shannon – Chiang Mai 2011.]
Sadly Wes passed away in 2014.
Writing on hybrid travel guides and quasi-niche blogs
Most travel narrative blogs are now hiding in plain site inside blogs that are more like travel guides. I was looking for a word to describe such sites, and this article describes them as hybrid guides.
My own site here at Nomadic Notes would be classified as a hybrid guide. Nomadic Notes was originally a straight-out travel blog, posting the kind of updates that are now more suitable on Facebook and Instagram.
Over time I’ve gravitated back to writing guides. For example I took the train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, which used to be by one train service. It now takes a metro trip and three trains to make the same trip. There was no official information about this so I made a guide on how to do this trip. It’s not really something you would sit down to read about, but it’s ideal if you are specifically searching in Google for this information.
My site also includes observational travel writing, so it’s a hybrid of travel guide and travel narrative.
Going through my RSS I see that I follow quite a few sites that are hybrid guides. Many of those are sites that I would otherwise have no business of following if they didn’t include personal updates.
I used to follow Rachel from Hippie In Heels, who was another great blogger that sadly passed away. Rachel was living in Goa for several years, and she had a series called This is India that I would always read. I’ve often thought about expatriating in Goa for a while, so I enjoyed these first-hand accounts of life there. If her site was just a pure guide for women’s travel then I never would have been a reader. Having personal narrative on a travel guide site gives the reader a reason to stick around once the answer to a travel question has been found.
Hybrid sites highlight the beauty of RSS. I can go through my feed and delete posts that I can see aren’t relevant to me.
Similar to the hybrid guides are what I have called quasi-niche blogs. This is when a general travel blog has morphed into a part-time specialty guide. These sites lets you become an expert in a field while still letting you blog about other things. Dave from whatsdavedoing has now found himself as an expert in long-distance walking.
Microblogging on social media
If there is one medium that gets the blame for the death of blogging, it’s social media. There are still loads of travel stories being told, but they are now microblogged on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram.
During the golden age, bloggers were more prolific because blogs were the only place to post a story. Before social media it was acceptable to post an update with a daily photo or a short comment about something. Now google considers that as thin content as outlined in the Panda update, which can get your site penalised. Social media has thus become a better place for short posts, or microblogging.
Social media works well for ongoing updates of a long trip. One of the best examples I recall was the updates of Mario Rigby while he walked from Cape Town to Cairo over two years. I discovered his page about halfway through his journey, and his almost daily updates were the highlight of my Facebook feed. When the walk ended it was like when your favourite show on Netflix ends.
Facebook was an ideal medium for this trip. If I’ve been walking all day the last thing I want to do is to produce a thousand word blog post. A post with a photo and a 100 word comment is all you need on Facebook.
Mario has his own home page blog as well, and here you will find articles more suitable for long form.
On Twitter, threads and tweet-storms have taken the place of small blog posts. A prolific Tweeter in my stream is @travelfish.
Travelfish is a guide to travel in Southeast Asia, and it also has a blog for random thoughts by the editor. The blog is rarely updated, but you can find similar content on Twitter.
15.5 years in, if I was starting Travelfish today, given the vastly changed landscape of online travel, here’s a few things I’d do differently & why:
— Stuart McDonald (@travelfish) November 25, 2019
Instagram has basically replaced the “photo of the day” format from travel blogs of old. Instagram can be used for telling short stories and anecdotes. I don’t see Yomadic blogging much these days as he is busy running tours, so I have to make-do with Instagram updates.
View this post on Instagram
Our base for the night – an abandoned fishing shack on the Persian Gulf, outside of Muscat, Oman. It has everything we need: no electricity, no fresh water, and not a single luxury. (like Robinson Crusoe, it's primitive as can be). We have seafood, snacks, drinks, the taxi is booked to pick us up from here later this evening and drive us to the airport, so we can leave paradise and fly to… Bangladesh. Next time I'm in Oman I'm staying a week on the beach, the water is perfect. #oman
The pivot to video
Youtube was created in 2005, and by 2006 it was bought by Google. The 2010’s began knowing that it was going to be the decade of video. By 2015 “pivot to video” entered the internet lexicon, referring to when publishers switch from written content to video content.
I rarely watch travel videos so I’m always amazed at how big some of the Youtube channels have become when I have a look around. I should have listened when I was told to pivot as well.
Facebook has also proven to be an ideal medium for posting videos. Drew Binsky is one of the break-out success stories of travel bloggers that now vlog. He originally started with a blog and then pivoted hard to video, getting millions of views per episode.
The main problem I have with video is when someone tells me in 10 minutes what I could have read in 1 minute. I think that is why Nas Daily did so well was because he compressed an interesting story into 1 minute. I would watch one of his videos and next thing you know I’ve watched five of them.
Hobo Traveler is the longest long-term traveller that I’ve been following, with the domain having been online since 2000. Andy pivoted to video some time ago and rarely posts written blog posts now.
If I do watch travel videos it’s usually food travel videos, like Mark Wiens at Migrationology.
Podcasting is another medium that commands a massive audience. Podcasts are a silent giant as podcasts don’t turn up in search results and you don’t see podcasts shared as much on social media.
I’ve gone through periods where I’ve had a dozen podcasts on the go. As with video, I don’t consume travel themed content as I prefer to diversify my interests outside what I know.
Looking though the Places & Travel section of the iTunes podcast directory there are thousands of podcasts to choose from.
Travel guides with editorial
Similar to the blog guides with personal narratives are the travel guides with an editorial blog. A good example is Rusty Compass, which is a travel guide to the countries of the Greater Mekong Subregion. The site features things to do and accommodation reviews that are useful if you are travelling in the region.
The blog section features industry editorial and stories that don’t fit into any guide format, such as being on the first post-war Qantas flight in 1990. This blog lets you know there is a person behind the guide, and not some mega guide that is being authored from another country.
Writing for other sites
Some of my favourite writers are so busy writing for other sites that their personal blogs are neglected.
I finally met Greg this year after years of following each other. He reminded me that some people start travel blogs because they love travel and they want to tell stories about it. He also reminded me to be more in the moment and not spend all my time online.
I won’t mind if he is not blogging as much if it means he is getting into more crazy adventures.
[James and Greg in KL.]
Robert Reid is another infrequent blog updater, so I’m always happy when I see his site light up in my RSS folder. After attending to paid gigs at Nat Geo, BBC Travel, or working for Star Alliance, I understand if there is little brain energy left to tend to a blog.
Some of us have our own publishing house where we have other sites to attend to. Bren on the Road posts good narrative articles in between tending to his other sites.
Sometimes writers don’t have a fixed address so you just have to follow them around online. Matt Goulding is the co-founder of Roads and Kingdoms, and his story on the Guatemalan okonomiyaki maker in Hiroshima made me want to go there. He also wrote about how Japan became a Pizza hotspot for the Airbnb Magazine, which had me bookmarking pizza places in Tokyo (he is a true travel influencer).
One of the earliest travelogues I remember following is Johnny Jet. He has been online since 1999 and I’ve been an email subscriber since 2000. The site started out as a directory of useful travel resources, but the personal travel stories are delivered each week via email.
[James and Johnny Jet – TBEX New York 2010]
Craig Mod delivers his thoughts primarily via email. I follow his weekly newsletter on walking, Japan, literature, and photography. Through this format I then see when he has written on other sites, like this article in Wired about a six-week walk in Japan.
I keep an email list myself, which you can join here. It’s a weekly newsletter featuring my latest posts and interesting travel reads I’ve found around the web.
Sometimes bloggers go quiet because they are in the proverbial bunker writing a book. The aforementioned Madtraveler has written numerous guide books in addition to a travel memoir.
I hadn’t heard from nerdseyeview in ages, and that was because she was working on a book.
YOU GUYS I GOT AN OFFER ON MY BOOK.
(details to follow)
BUT I GOT AN OFFER ON MY BOOK.
— pam mandel (@nerdseyeview) November 26, 2019
Private membership sites
Private membership or subscription-based sites is a model I think about whenever I reread 1000 true fans. The line of thought is “what if you had 1000 fans that would pay you x amount per month”.
I’ve seen it work with niche news sites, and there are a number of airline flight deals sites using this model. I’m not sure if there is a full-time travel writer that is living solely off membership subscriptions.
Niall Doherty had a travel/lifestyle blog that has since been completely reinvented as a online business site. Rather than lose his audience who were following his personal updates, he has moved this section to a Patreon account.
For this to work you either need a big audience to start with, or have a platform that gives a compelling preview of your writing. Looking through the top Patreon creators, there are few travel accounts. And getting people to pay to read online is hard.
Travel writing on sites that aren’t specifically travel related
There’s also a lot of good travel reads out there from sites that aren’t exactly travel sites.
Personal blogs of people who happen to travel a lot
Some of my favourite travel blogs are just personal blogs of people who happen to travel a lot.
I like the blog of Tynan, which is described in the tagline as “a blog about adventure, working hard, traveling, and good habits.” Tynan travels to Japan frequently, has bought an island in Canada with a group of friends, and one of the most popular series is his annual gear list.
Some travel bloggers who used to have travel blogs have since moved to a personal blog. I was following Stephanie Yoder when she was at twentysomethingtravel.com (now maketimetoseetheworld.com). She talks about blogging burnout after 10 years (a recurring theme).
Stephanie is now blogging irregularly on her personal site, which I follow for the travel and life updates.
There are those that know they want to write, but a travel blog wasn’t the right place to do it. Sarah Aboulhosn wrote about her lessons as a failed travel blogger, and is now writing on a personal site.
Business blogs of frequent travellers
I would like to see more trip reports from business blogs, like this trip report to Vietnam by Dan at TropicalMBA (disclosure: I’m in this article). This post was the most commented article of 2018, so Dan – more blog posts please.
The most high-profile business traveller who blogs that I can think of is the economist, Tyler Cowan. His site features occasional trip reports, such as his visit to Baku. And when he is not writing on his site he will link out to articles he wrote elsewhere, like visiting Guangzhou, three decades apart. These are my favourite type of blog posts when bloggers give their own boots-on-the-ground thoughts and observations.
Expat blogs are another wellspring of interesting destination-themed writing. I follow a few bloggers in cities I have a personal interest in, as these are a good way to read about the city beyond the usual guides.
Often these blogs are written by people with a “proper” day job so there is less pressure to monetise. An example of such a blog is my friend Greg, who blogs about Bangkok at Greg To Differ.
The world doesn’t need more “top 10 things to do in Bangkok” type of articles. What it does need though is more unusual thoughts and observations on destinations, such as this article in defense of Bangkok’s malls.
Greg has also pivoted to podcasts and can be found on a more regular basis at Bangkok Podcast. His blog sits in my Feedly account patiently waiting for a new post udpate.
Where else to find travel writing
There is plenty of travel narrative out there, so here are some other places to look.
The Everything Everywhere list of travel blogs is the most comprehensive list of active bloggers.
Writing travel narrative as an individual on a consistent basis is hard work, so multi-authored magazine sites are a good source of regular reading material. One of the earliest multi-authored sites I used to follow was World Hum, and like Google Reader I still miss it.
Free blog accounts
When I was writing this article I got a message from a follower on Instagram who was visiting Saigon, so we met for a coffee. It was refreshing to meet Martin, who is a backpacker keeping a blog at welshiewanders.wordpress.com. This got me thinking about all the content on free blogspot/wordpress sites, travel communities like Travellerspoint.com TravelBlog.Org, and Medium.
While researching places in Vietnam I found some great stories at wherethewarswere-vietnamlaoscambodia.blogspot.com. This is a classic example of travel narrative blog, and the lengthy domain suggests that they couldn’t care less about optimal domain letter counts or other SEO practices.
The biggest travel blog I’ve seen on a free WordPress account is Kolja Spöri at luxuryrogue.wordpress.com.
I generally advise bloggers to have their own domain. I’m now thinking that a free domain might archive content on the internet longer than a site that has an annual hosting subscription. Of course there is the danger that Blogspot and WordPress may one day turn around and nuke inactive sites (like Flickr did with free photo storage).
The need for curation
With so many ways to have content delivered, and with so much content out there, the biggest problem is filtering the most relevant articles to read. Finding good travel narrative is not something you Google for, and you couldn’t find it if you tried.
I recently wrote a blog post about the demise of the backpacker street in Jakarta. I had wondered if anyone else had written on the subject so I tried searching for other blog posts. On Google I just got countless articles about things to do in Jakarta and nothing in the way of editorial blog posts. It made me think about how many blogs are buried in the search results never to be found.
There is so much travel content being published now that it’s been described as like drinking from a firehose. What is needed is thoughtful curation. Unless you are the man who reads 1,000 articles a day, then curating on your own is a herculean task.
There are some sites that are attempting the task of curating good travel reads. Outbounding made a good start, though it has now been abandoned to spammers.
Travelistly was an attempt to make a Reddit-style site to submit travel articles.
Surprisingly Reddit /r/travelblogs/ is just a link dump.
I publish a weekly newsletter of curated travel links, and I’m still working out the best ways to find great travel reads.
The future of travel blogging
I started this post thinking that it would be some kind of eulogy to blogging, but as we enter the 2020’s I think it’s more important than ever to keep a blog. Even though travel narrative has splintered into multiple formats, the unifying platform is still a blog. If you running a tour, are writing a book, or posting videos, everyone still has a blog.
Tyler Cowen suggested that one of the ways to stay weird for purposes of superior creativity is to blog rather than Tweet. I like Tyler’s blog as it is like anvil upon which to hammer out ideas. A blog is your personal online hub where you are in control of your own domain.
And I still like reading narrative. As I mentioned in my defence of the general travel blog, the world still needs story tellers. Jodi at legalnomads eloquently presented why travel blogging needs more storytelling, and Mike Sowden shows how improving your storytelling is good for business. Keeping a blog still makes sense, even if you don’t see an immediate ROI.
As for myself, I can’t see myself ever not having an online presence. I’m working on other projects that eat up my blogging time, but this site has given me so many opportunities it would be mad to stop.
I look forward to seeing what the next decade brings in travel blogging.