Book review: Twitchhiker, Paul Smith

*** NOTE: Contains spoilers! ***

I don’t normally do book reviews on this blog, but seeing as this one combined two of my favourite things – travel and Twitter – I felt compelled to write about it. That, and it just happens to be a very good read too.

Twitchhiker is the tale of an ordinary man who had (a) an extraordinary idea and (b) the courage of his convictions to make it happen. Like a 21st century version of Around The World In Eighty Days‘ Phileas Fogg, Paul Smith decided to undertake an incredible journey, travelling – literally – to the other side of the world, his destination being Campbell Island, a point diametrically opposed to his starting point of Newcastle. Aiming to complete his trip within 30 days, his self-imposed rules stated that he could only use transportation provided and funded by fellow users of the microblogging service Twitter. In other words, his objective was to travel to the other side of the globe relying solely on the kindness of strangers.

If you aren’t familiar with this social networking tool, it is essentially a platform which allows you to share updates of up to 140 characters which can be read by any other user. These could be Facebook-like status updates (“Good morning! Stuck on the M4 again”), conversations with another user, weblinks, photos or relevant news. Its detractors point to it being just another way for self-promoting narcissists to broadcast the minutiae of their lives, but Twitter has notably become the fastest way to engage with friends with shared interests (or followers, in Twitter’s terminology), or to disseminate news around the world, from the Iranian elections to the emergency plane landing on the Hudson. Personally, I love it – it is my front-line for information-gathering, making ‘traditional’ push media like email alerts or RSS feeds feel positively cumbersome by comparison.

Smith’s grand expedition underlines the sense of community and altruism which exists in this virtual world. Friends, acquaintances and complete strangers come together, Pay It Forward-style, to move him from the UK to the European mainland, and from there to the US east coast. Fellow tweeters pay for Greyhound bus tickets and drive him across the country to a chance meeting with the actress Liv Tyler at a Hollywood party, and from there to New Zealand, where he falls heartbreakingly short of his final objective (Campbell Island being both one of the most remote and difficult to reach locations anywhere on Earth and a UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site on account of its endangered sub-Antarctic fauna).

And I do not say ‘heartbreaking’ lightly, for while Smith recounts the events of his trip with a deft, frequently wry touch, the man and his mission draw you in emotionally so that you feel you are right there with him every step of the way. This is more than your common-or-garden semi-serious/semi-humorous travel book – it is a journey, in every possible sense.

Over and over again, his adventure demonstrates the capacity of Twitter as a force for great good, eliciting acts of charity in the most unlikely of circumstances, and for facilitating serendipitous events, aligning the orbits of loose acquaintances or like-minded strangers in distant locations around the world – genuine ‘social networking’, if you will. In real time, the Twitchhiker’s voyage captured the imagination of all those people who provided their help and support. Reading Smith’s account more than a year after the events in question, it captured mine too. A rollicking good read.

Rating: 5/5


Twitchhiker on Twitter

Twitchhiker blog

Twitchhiker travel tech website

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