By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/12/2010 10:09:41 AM ET 2010-10-12T14:09:41

Mary Gallagher recently received an e-mail from the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau offering “hot deals.” But there was a catch: In order to receive them, she had to follow Tucson’s tourist authority on Twitter and friend it on Facebook.

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That didn’t sit well with Gallagher, a travel writer, who said she receives enough deals each day.

“How much Facebook and Twitter drivel could you spend each day reading?” she said. “This really, really annoys me.”

Are travelers overloaded by social media? It’s a timely question, given that “The Social Network,” which topped the box office for the second consecutive week , is about the origin of Facebook, the most successful social network on the planet.

Information overload
Travel is a huge component of social networking, propelling applications like Where I’ve Been (www.whereivebeen.com) — a website that allows users to mark their travel history on a color-coded map — to stardom.

“It can get to the point where it’s too much,” said Brian Ek, who oversees some of Priceline’s social media efforts. Which is to say, somewhere along the line, the travel experience isn’t meaningfully enhanced by having more friends or followers.

“I’m not sure if, as a traveler, you have to participate in a social network in order to have a good trip,” he said.

But where’s the line? Gallagher saw it when Tucson e-mailed her. She replied to the sender, complaining that social networking deals exclude travelers who don't participate in these newer networks. She also asked that her name be deleted from Tucson's distribution list.

Related: See the world through your smart phone

A 2010 YPartnership survey suggests most travelers are probably still looking for the line. Results show that 91 percent of respondents use Facebook, about a quarter use MySpace, and 17 percent are on Twitter. But the research also notes that only 1 in 20 leisure travelers has ever made a travel decision based primarily on research or feedback received from a social networking site.

A recent University of Maryland study found that American college students are addicted to social media. In fact, being away from social media was like a withdrawal, similar to the kind experienced by an alcoholic. One of the researchers, Susan Moeller, described some of the subjects as “incredibly addicted.”

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Where's the line?
Are you walking the line between acceptable use and abuse? That answer can be found at the pool or on the chairlift — or somewhere more private.

A recent survey of frequent travelers by Egnyte, an information technology company, found that 53 percent of people admit to using their smart phone when in a hotel bathroom.

Video: Park rangers to tourists: Put gadgets away (on this page)

When the line between reality and virtual reality start to blur, you could be in trouble. “You lose track with whether or not you’ve spoken with someone or whether you’ve seen something on Twitter or Facebook,” said Chris McGinnins, a travel blogger with an active social network. McGinnis said older travelers, who can remember a time before social networking, might find something wrong with this behavior when it’s pointed out to them. But younger travelers think nothing of it. And that worries him.

And who said you can never have too many friends? Many travel companies, including media-savvy JetBlue, have initiatives aimed at boosting networks simply for the sake of having the highest profile. JetBlue (1.5 million Twitter followers) recently gave away 25,000 frequent flier miles to random followers.

On the flip side, there are individual travelers who are in the business of collecting friends and followers, too. Experts would diagnose this kind of compulsive behavior as an addiction if it involved anything else.

If you’re obsessively collecting new followers, can’t bear to be apart from your cell phone and often confuse what’s happening on your social network with reality, you, like Gallagher, have found the line.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org .

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Video: Park rangers to tourists: Put gadgets away

  1. Transcript of: Park rangers to tourists: Put gadgets away

    MATT LAUER, co-host: If you're headed to a national park before the end of summer , you're going to have a lot of company. Yellowstone , for example, is playing host to record crowds.

    ANN CURRY, co-host: And those visitors are toting more technology than ever, digital cameras , smart phones , GPS locators. But as NBC 's George Lewis found out, all those gizmos can sometimes lead to trouble.

    Mr. KEN PHILLIPS: Did you see a deer?

    GEORGE LEWIS reporting: Park ranger Ken Phillips runs emergency services at the Grand Canyon . His mission is to keep park visitors safe, and there are plenty of those.

    Ms. SHANNAN MARCAK (Grand Canyon National Park Spokesperson): On average, we've been doing about four and a half million visitors each year.

    LEWIS: And these days, those visitors come laden with technology. The young woman from France with her iPhone , the guy from Japan balancing video and still cameras, and plenty of Americans eager to share their pictures with folks back home. Here's the old point of view shot over the canyon rim as we come close to the edge . But while people are carrying smart phones , they're not always doing smart things. I can use GPS to find out where I am at all times, and if I get so absorbed in this gadget that I forget the basics of safety, I can get in a lot of trouble. Just ask Kathy Hayes , whose brother-in-law Donald spotted a bison in Yellowstone . Kathy , sensing the perfect YouTube moment, followed, camera rolling.

    Ms. KATHY HAYES: We'll get a shot of Donald getting gored by the buffalo.

    LEWIS: But when the bison got angry and charged, it was Kathy , not Donald , he went after.

    Ms. HAYES: No! It was a traumatic experience. So yeah, just don't do what I did. Be smart, people.

    LEWIS: Ken Phillips says while rescue numbers remain constant, one of his technical pet peeves is a spike in false alarms sent by people with emergency beacons like the kind skiers use in avalanches. Here, most of the last dozen alerts have been for trivial problems like bad-tasting water.

    Mr. PHILLIPS: There were only two where people really sustained an injury that required an emergency response.

    LEWIS: So the message from the rangers: Enjoy the parks, take home lots of digital memories, but just remember the safety rules.

    Unidentified Man: He may not be playing.

    LEWIS: For TODAY , George Lewis , NBC News , the Grand Canyon .

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