Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Great Expectations: Going Off the Social Media Grid

Last week I set off for the Trinity Alps of Northern California, leaving an out-of-office tweet and a vacation auto-reply on my email.

I was essentially offline. I didn’t do much to connect to the rest of the world while I enjoyed my time in the mountains. Well, besides reading a few Instapapered articles on my airplane-mode iPhone in my tent, Wikipediaing some wildflower names on the drive back into town, and Instagramming a post-backpacking-trip celebratory margarita.

Nobody was expecting much more from me, so that was fine. But I came home today to a widely shared story about how social media helped activate a search for a Stanford student feared missing in Malaysia after he stopped sending frequent updates about his whereabouts via outlets like his Google+ account.

Once those expectations are set, going off the social media grid can have as much of an impact on the recipients of a person’s status updates as it does on the traveler.

According to various reports, 22-year-old Jacob Boehm’s parents got worried after they hadn’t heard from him in a week, so they asked friends to help get the word out on Facebook. And it worked: Amidst a flurry of translation, brainstorming and promotion that was coordinated online, a search party got sent out into the jungle by someone in the Malaysian Prime Minister’s office whose son also goes to Stanford. Boehm was found; he called his parents to say he was okay.

The full details haven’t come to light yet, but at this point it seems that Boehm was actually out on a guided hiking trip.

The main cause for concern seemed to be that Boehm set extremely high standards for communicating while he was traveling — his Google+ tagline is “traveling in south east asia as you read” — and then he suddenly stopped posting photos, videos and notes.

In retrospect, Boehm was probably less lost and better connected than a lot of people in the world. Maybe he just couldn’t get Internet access for a few days. His mother, Nancy Luberoff, posted on Facebook, “The real story here is not that we “lost” Jacob, but that thousands of people worked together to find him. We are so grateful for this spontaneous community and outpouring of support. I hope it becomes a model for others.”

Given my own recent experiences, Boehm’s story also makes me think of the implicit contracts we make when we actively tell people where we are and what we’re doing. At some level beyond any specifics, we’re simply assuring our friends and followers that we have a pulse.

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There was a worry before I started this that I was going to burn every bridge I had. But I realize now that there are some bridges that are worth burning.

— Valleywag editor Sam Biddle