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Why Most Tourists End Up at the Crowded Spaces

Sitting on top of Mount Battie in sunny Maine today got me to thinking about the constraints and loopholes of social structure. As dozens of children ran around me on the mountaintop, each exclaiming loudly to the next that they had to see this, I found myself reflecting on the tourist’s lament: no matter where I go, all these tourists are there!

Scott Feld had some insight that can help us understand the tourist’s lament. In a 1991 article entitled “Why Your Friends Have More Friends Than You Do” (American Journal of Sociology 96: 1464-1477), Feld reasoned that your friends are likely to have more friends than you because in any community, the sort of people who are most likely to pop up in a list of your friends are the most gregarious. To get concrete, consider Smooth Samantha who has fifty friends in your town and Shy Serge who has only one friend. With whom are you more likely to have a friendship? Clearly, Samantha. Moving back to the general, people with many friends are found in others’ lists of friends in larger proportion than their share of the population, while the shy are disproportionately missing from those lists. A typical person’s typical friends therefore have more friends than the typical person herself.

It sounds strange, but it’s true, and more than that it must be true of a population of people, whether that population wants it to be that way or not. Such a pattern is what’s known as a social fact, and other social facts exist for similar reasons. Consider, Feld has commented, that the extent of highway traffic congestion varies. Sometimes traffic is light and sometimes traffic is heavy. An urban planner making studies from a helicopter might write in a city newspaper that most of the time the streets are clear. Local drivers might retort in angry letters that when they are on the highway, they usually encounter traffic delays. Both the planner and the drivers may be correct; the planner’s reference set is roads, and the driver’s reference set is his or her set of drives. These are not the same thing. Drivers will tend to find their drives are congested because, by the very definition of congestion, a lot of drivers are going to be on the road during congested conditions. On the other hand, no more than a few drivers can experience being on the road with just a few other drivers.

The same is true of tourism: if there’s variation in the distribution of tourists among tourist spots (spots like Mount Battie in Maine), then a lot of tourists will find that when they go to tourist destinations, there are a lot of tourists right there along with them.

Yes, this is an unavoidable social fact, but hang on, Lucinda, because that doesn’t make it an unavoidable individual experience for you. The key is to manipulate your social environment so that your experience is not typical. If for some reason you want to be the person in your social circle, start knocking on the doors of hermits. If you want to drive on an empty road, do your driving at night or move to Wyoming. If you travel, don’t read the “10 Undiscovered Gems in Santa Cruz” and expect them to remain undiscovered. To be a tourist who goes to places that aren’t teeming with other tourists, stop going on tours. Stop following social advice, whether from magazines or TV hosts or friends (remember, they probably have more friends than you do, which means word’s gotten around). Do your own empirical research. Unearth old travelogues no one reads any more. Make random decisions at crossroads. Although the patterns that societies tend to follow may be determined by forces outside our control, our individual choices within the context of those patterns matter.

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