Have Facebook, Won't Travel

Call me biased (because I'm based in the U.K.) or call me crazy (because, well, many do), but I think Facebook is exacerbating the average American citizen's continued reluctance to journey internationally.

There are 155 million Americans on Facebook, which represents about 20 percent of all Facebook users on the planet. Some 50 percent of people in the U.S. socialize with their friends and families on the platform. However you look at it that’s an amazing statistic — no wonder it’s called the social network.

But here’s the troubling part. As we reported during the week, there are now more Americans on Facebook than holders of U.S. passports.

According to 2011 figures from the U.S. Department of State, just 37 percent of the U.S. population owns a passport. Which means, of course, that almost two-thirds of the country’s citizens cannot — and perhaps will not — travel outside of the U.S.

This is almost an inverse of the situation in western Europe, where about 60 percent of the population own passports — myself among them.

Does it matter? I think so. Yes, America is a big country, with a culture that is both diverse and rich. Americans work hard. They also take fewer vacations than workers in other countries — about 25 percent of all employees in the U.S. receive no vacation time or holidays, not even public holidays. Contrast this with those lazy Australians, who get at least 30 days off.

And, annoyingly, the rest of the world is just so far away.

This is all well and good, and these excuses reasons are well-documented. We can talk about why Americans don’t feel the need to own passports until we’re blue in the face. But now there’s a deeper, and very modern reason that should not be underestimated.

The total number of passports issued to Americans in 2010 was about twice that of 10 years previously. Indeed, the annual number of issuances rose more or less steadily from 1996 through 2007, before it then began to decline sharply; 18.3 million passports were dispatched in 2007, 16.2 million in 2008 and just 13.5 million in 2009.

There are plenty of Americans left, so what happened between 2008 and 2009 to trigger such a descent? This: The planet got social, in every sense. In April 2008, Facebook moved above MySpace to become America and the world’s most popular social network.

This, I think, has played an important role in the average American citizen’s continued reluctance to undertake a journey that requires passing one’s body over international waters. After all, why do you need to visit your Facebook friends abroad when you can just send them a message? Or tag them in a photo? Or play a rousing game of Scrabble? Who wants to go to all the bother — and expense –of travelling to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower, when you can just ask one of your conveniently-placed French pals to upload a couple of photos?

Granted, poking is less enjoyable. But, pretty much everything else can be done from the comfort of your home — and done well. In just a couple of years, Facebook has ruthlessly trampled all over America’s growing desire to travel, with Mark Zuckerberg’s soothing calamine lotion quickly calming the itch that had started to develop towards the end of the last decade.

And as the network speeds towards one billion users it will almost certainly get worse — or, indeed, better, depending on your point of view. After all, 800 million of those users can tell you everything you could possibly want to know about non-America. And better still: You won’t have to risk the food (poisoning).