In February 2014, activist and entrepreneur Rob Greenfield set himself a challenge: to travel the 4,000 miles from Panama City, Panama, to San Diego, California, without any possessions besides the clothes on his back and the passport in his pocket.
He called the journey Share My Way Home. And, as Rob had expected, he found plenty of people willing to share resources, including money, a place to sleep, rides and, of course, the always-welcome tortillas. However, Rob didn’t expect that many of the shared resources would come from a single source: social media.
It isn’t that Rob Greenfield is some kind of a stranger to social media. In fact, quite the opposite: his previous projects have involved social media in a myriad of ways, including a 2013 Mexico trip called Change the World with Rob Greenfield, in which Rob used Facebook both to choose his traveling partner and to allow his fans to determine the environmental missions he and his partner would have to complete before coming home.
It’s just that Rob expected this trip to be different. He had planned to disconnect, to live face-to-face, to conduct his interactions in person as he would travel across the six borders between Panama and San Diego.
What Rob found was that this type of disconnection is possible, but that “online” and “face-to-face” communication are often intertwined. That it’s all just communication, all just sharing, all just people living life.
“I could have been out there all day, looking for someone to stay with—or I could post a status and BOOM, friends.”
The first thing Rob discovered during his travels was that social media was one of the best ways to handle logistics. He had expected to make the majority of his travel plans via in-person conversations, with an occasional hop to sharing sites like Couchsurfing, Craigslist and Rideshare.
Rob found many local people willing to share resources in person, such as the dozens of individuals who picked him up as he was hitchiking from town to town. He found fewer resources on Craigslist or Rideshare—although a lot of people in the US use these sites successfully, in Central America Rob only found spam and dead ends.
Then Rob turned to social media, and everything started to fall into place.
Through Facebook and Twitter, Rob was able to connect with locals easily.
Through Facebook and Twitter, Rob was able to connect with locals, meet friends of friends, and find people who were thrilled to share their homes, their rides and their resources. Rob’s social media accounts served both as authenticator and conversation starter; people he’d never met were able to learn everything about him in just a few clicks, and because of that were able to build the kind of in-person friendships that would not have started if Rob had first met them during a face-to-face interaction.
“If you want to disconnect, it’s still possible, but can be quite difficult in our highly connected world.”
Just because Rob was able to use social media to secure some of his rides and lodging, it doesn’t mean that he didn’t find opportunities to fully disconnect. As Rob told me:
“The truest human connection is meeting someone on the street and striking up a conversation. You don’t have a preconceived notion of who they are from their Facebook account, you haven’t gone to LinkedIn to figure out what their job is, you don’t know how many followers they have on Twitter. It is a genuine human interaction.“
She did it just to do something nice, not because it would get a lot of likes on Facebook or show up on a viral website.
Rob continued: “In Guadalajara, Mexico, I was 1,400 miles from home and down to my last $30 (which I had earned by building a website for someone in Nicaragua). I asked the lady on the other side of the desk to sell me a ticket for as far north as my money could go and she saw that I was in need of some help. She gave me a discounted ticket so I’d have a few bucks left, bought me a sandwich and juice, and filled my water bottle. She did it just to do something nice, not because it would get a lot of likes on Facebook or show up on a viral website. It’s really beautiful to be a part of the genuine human experience.”
“Social media made traveling so easy and connected me with so many incredible people.”
Rob values every fully-disconnected experience he had on his journey. They are some of the best memories of his trip. However, his adventure also taught him just how important social media is to our in-person interactions. Sites like Facebook and Twitter are now a way to quickly build trust between people who have never met, and a way to connect a traveler like Rob to hundreds of people who are interested in his work and willing to share their own resources.
The trip also revealed just how integrated online communication is to our day-to-day lives
The trip also revealed just how integrated online communication is to our day-to-day lives, even in countries like Honduras and Guatemala. Although many people living in small towns were truly disconnected, about half of the people Rob met used social media to communicate and share. Even a disconnected traveler like Rob, who did not carry a smartphone or laptop with him during his month-long trip, found himself continuously connected via people willing to share their own online resources to ensure he had access to social media communication. Rob also used many of the numerous internet cafes that help Central Americans stay in touch online.
Before Rob left on his journey, people asked him “how are you going to communicate without having your laptop or your cell phone?” It turns out that cell phone communication is pretty much globally ubiquitous; according to a 2012 International Telecommunication Union study, more than 6 billion people across the world have cell phones. In 2013, BI Intelligence estimated “By the end of this year, 6% of the global population will own a tablet, 20% will own PCs, and 22% will own smartphones.”
Social media gave him access to even more person-to-person interaction than Rob ever would have had a decade ago.
That’s the key lesson for anyone worried about how social media is “ruining” person-to-person interaction: as Rob traveled, people offered him water, they offered him food, and then they offered him a way to get online. Social media gave him access to even more person-to-person interaction than Rob ever would have had a decade ago, and it was as essential a travel tool as the free bag of fried potatoes packed for him by a friendly El Salvadorian vendor.
By trying to disconnect, Rob Greenfield learned just how much we are all connected. And by using social media, we were able to share Rob’s way home.