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With
the development of information technology, online social network plays an
important role in modern society. The growing acceptance and popularity of social
media have changed human lives in many ways. These impacts can also be
reflected within the tourism industry. In recent years, social media, such as
Facebook, Twitter and Weibo, have been widely used among tourists. The use of
social media by tourists mainly includes two aspects: experience sharing and
information searching. First of all, the social media is an outlet for sharing
travel information and experience with others, and then as a tool for exploring
and planning travel.

 

Growing
numbers of tourists share their travel experience on the social media through
texts, pictures, and videos to provide information and interact with other
users. They also use social media to search travel related information created by
other tourists for their travel planning and decision making. Social media has
brought many benefits to the tourism industry and provided a convenience for
tourists. However, the use of social media can lead to some risks. Information
sharing by tourists can result in loss of privacy and information security
problems. Moreover, the information posted on social media is not always reliable
and as a result the users sometimes need to put in more effort to assess and
select effective contents.

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Sharing travel experience is one of the main
applications of tourists using social media. It provides a very convenient
platform for the release of information and has changed how information is
disseminated. It enables tourists to share personal experience on the platform
and interact with other travellers, tourism enterprises and destination
managers instantly. The behaviour of tourists sharing their travel related information or
experiences on the social media mainly occurs during and after their travel. During
the travel, tourists not only use social media to search travel related
information, but also begin to share their travel experiences (Amaro, Duarte and Henriques, 2016). During this phase, real-time sharing
of texts, photos or videos on social networks is one of the most popular
activities. After the travel, tourists use social media to post contents by writing
comments, reviews or uploading images and videos. Research by Fotis, Buhalis and Rossides (2012) indicates travellers using
social media platforms to share experiences with friends and other followers predominantly
take place after the travel.

 

Tourists share their travel experiences based on
different motivations and reasons. According to Munar and Jacobsen (2014, p. 48), the motivations for sharing tourist experience on the
social media can be identified as “self-centered”
motivations and “community-related” motivations. Self-centered motivation is
based on the personal level, the individuals obtaining benefits or achieving
psychological satisfaction from their own behaviour. The result of Yilmaz’s
(2016) research  demonstrates motivations behind sharing
travel experiences includes gaining respect and recognition from friends, presenting success to others, attracting attention
from other users, making the experiences more
memorable, considering the experience is important and imparting a sense of
belonging to the social groups. These factors can be seen as self-centered
motivations. Tourists gain some kind of psychological
satisfaction through sharing behaviour.

 

In contrast, Munar and Jacobsen
(2014) report community-related motivation reflect tourists’ expectations about
potential impacts of shared online contents on virtual communities or other
social network users. Tourists post online content because they hope to provide
reliable information for other travellers’ decision making, thereby reducing risks in
their travel process. Travellers participating in online social groups share
experiences to provide user-generated content and material as well as offering
advice and suggestions through the interaction on the social media platform. These
sharing behaviours bring
benefits to the online social community and provide support to other travellers. Community-related motivation is a
kind of altruism, which is for the good of the
community.

 

On the
other hand, although the behaviour of sharing experience on social media has become a
common phenomenon in the modern society, it can also pose serious threats. Schaik,
Jansen, Onibokun, Camp and Kusev (2017) state experiences shared by tourists
can result in loss of privacy and information security. While social media
provides a new channel for information exchange, its privacy and information
security issues have also been controversial. For example, a user of social
media whose contact details and identity information have been exposed may
become the subject of internet fraud or become a victim of identity theft.
Sharing experiences on social media may reveal a great deal of personal
information, such as phone number, location, flight schedules, even credit card
numbers. The main reasons for these information security problems are that the
information protection function of social media is still weak and the security design
is incomplete. Furthermore, as information
sharing is one of the most important functions of social media, the use of
social media may impart personal information. Therefore,
Schaik, Jansen, Onibokun, Camp and Kusev (2017) suggest social media users’ behaviour
and security awareness have become even more essential to protect privacy and safeguard
information security.

 

More importantly, information searching is
another application of social media in the tourism industry. Social media has
changed the traditional travel decision making process and product purchasing behaviour.
Except for traditional information searching, such as televisions, newspapers,
travel agents and personal experiences, social networks have become a new
source of information. According to Amaro, Duarte and Henriques (2016), social
media has become the most powerful force driving travel decision making and planning.

 

Before starting
to travel, tourists
collect useful information to help make proper decisions and plans, such as
which destination, route, airline or accommodation to choose. An
important reason that tourists need to search for enough information is because
travel is highly risky. Travel can be regarded as a special product or service.
However, Huang, Chou and Lin (2010) point out that compared to other services
or products, travel commonly requires more information and details before purchasing,
because as the following two characteristics of tourism show, travel is a
high-risk product. Firstly, when
consumers decide to travel or take a tour, they tend to move to a geographically and/or culturally unfamiliar area from their daily
environment. Unexpected accidents may occur in unfamiliar surroundings. Secondly, unlike purchasing physical objects, the making of
travel decisions is only based on images, videos and others available
descriptions, where consumers cannot see or try travel products or services
before using them. It is difficult to accurately assess the true value before
the actual experience (Kim, Qu and
Kim, 2009). Therefore, potential tourists will search
for valuable information and materials as much as possible before making their
decision to reduce potential risks.

 

According to
Parra-López, Bulchand-Gidumal, Gutiérrez-Tano, and Díaz-Armas (2010, p. 641), for
tourists using social media to
search travel related information, the most important factor is the “functional
benefits” of social media. Social media is a tool for users to share opinions,
judgments, ideas and experiences. The main function of social media is information
exchange and communication. Compared to more traditional forms of information
exchange, social media can include many diverse sources. Hwang and
Fesenmaier (2011) state that in the tourism industry, tourists pursue information
reliability through comprehensive information exploration in order to reduce
the overall risk. The informational reliability of social media is reflected on
the timeliness, truthfulness, and completeness. Chung and Koo (2014) demonstrate convenient access
to numerous sources of information in social networks can achieve information reliability
from reviews written by other travellers, advice offered by experts, or shared
materials from tourism companies. Information reliability enables tourists to have a deeper
understanding of overall travel and other related factors. Thereby, travellers
can effectively assess travel to make reasonable decisions and plans. Travellers
also obtain reliable information through interaction with other users on the
social network. Social media can achieve online real-time communication between
users or receive feedback by putting out a question or idea on this platform.
Through the interaction on the social network platform, tourists can obtain
relevant information more timely and effectively.

 

Moreover, Chung and Koo (2014) point out that
tourists use social media for searching information not only for the functional
benefits, but also for the enjoyment. Enjoyment is a positive factor in the travel information searching process.
Tourists enjoy
browsing information and materials generated by other users. Reading travel reviews or comments makes the
information exploration process more pleasant, makes travel preparing more
enjoyable and makes travellers feel more excited about the trip. In addition, in
modern society, individuals can interact with anyone who is using social
network, making it also possible to communicate with users who live in
different countries. Tourists engaged in an online social environment can have more opportunities to contact others who
have the same travel interests, making information searching process more interesting.

 

However, there are some
negative factors influencing travellers using social media to search for
information. Three significant problems can be outlined: information complexity, subjectivity of the contents and existence
of false information. One serious problem of using social media to search for information
is the complexity of information and effort required (Chung and Koo, 2014). With the increasing types
of social media and the number of users, there is a great deal of information
on the internet. More information means more complexity. The complexity of
generated information is mainly caused by the large quantity of social media
and different user groups. Yoo and Gretzel
(2012) conclude that the greater the amount of information, the more personal
time and effort required to find effective information.

 

Another problem in using
social media to search information is lack of objectivity. Social media has
become a very popular way of knowledge sharing and information transmission,
each user can be information manufacture and disseminator. Therefore, Yoo and
Gretzel (2012) report tourists’ personal characteristics are significant and
should be taken into consider often when trying to understand user generated
contents on social network. For example, because the travel experience is more
dependent on individual subjective feelings, judgments about the same travel
destinations or travel services may be completely different, since individuals
have different preferences and pursuits. The contents posted by users on social
media are highly subjective.

 

A further major problem
that faces those travellers who use social media for searching information is the
existence of false information. Social media is an ideal information platform
for creating and disseminating false information. First of all, social media
has a great concealment. In many cases, the information publishers of social
networks are driven by a certain interest to publish false information. Because
it is difficult to trace the original source of the false information, the
publisher of a false message can easily escape responsibility. Secondly,
information released on social media is instantaneous, and a false message can
be forwarded thousands of times in a very short period of time. False
information on social media can mislead travellers into making improper
assessments.

 

In conclusion, tourists’
use of social media mainly includes two aspects: the experience of sharing
travel and information searching. There are many arguments for and against the use of social media
among tourists. Tourists share experiences on social media driven by self-centered
and community-related motivations. Functional benefits and enjoyment are the main reasons
for tourists searching for information through social media. However, it seems
that the use of social
media by tourists can cause some negative influences. Sharing experiences
on social media may lead to privacy and information security problems. In
addition, when travellers search for information using social media,
information complexity, subjectivity of the contents and false information
might have negative impacts on their decision making.

 

Overall, it seems that overusing or relying too heavily on social media
is a problem for tourists. The reason for this is that although social media
platforms provide convenience for tourists sharing experiences and searching
information, they will be affected by privacy and security problems and more
effort is required to distinguish and select effective information. Therefore, improvements
to aspects of technology, legal policy and tourists own consciousness will
provide some of the solutions towards improving this problem.

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