Holiday-Travel Twitter Is the Best Form of Social Media

The play-by-plays from airports and bus rides offer the random, unpolished personal moments that the web has largely lost.

Two windows on the side of an airplane show hands holding up smartphones inside.
Peter Nicholls / Reuters

Whenever one of my friends tweets that they’re at (or on their way to, or getting ready to go to) the airport, I start refreshing their Twitter to see if anything has gone wrong. The only good kind of Twitter, maybe the only good kind of social media, that remains is Travel Twitter. And Travel Twitter gets better the more things go wrong for the tweeters.

Twitter, like so much of the internet’s social corners is full of trolls, toxic arguments, and self-promotion, by turns distressing and mind-numbing. But around the holidays is still the best time for social media, when all of these little oversaturated digital playgrounds get briefly more bearable. Holiday Twitter is the best Twitter because Holiday Twitter contains the highest per-capita occurrence of Travel Twitter (which includes the sub-categories of Airport Twitter and Megabus Twitter and Train Twitter (especially Quiet Car Twitter) and Rental Car Twitter).

I used to love social media, which is how I ended up hopelessly addicted to it, and most of what I have loved about it is its quotidian weirdness, the way it takes the same impulse that makes people want to read tabloids and watch reality television, and applies it on the level of our personal lives. Us Weekly allowed us to recreationally spy on celebrities, and social media took this permission one step further, making it acceptable to spy on our friends. Our friends rarely do anything very interesting (neither do celebrities), but that was exactly what was so compelling.

Remember when people used to complain about Twitter by saying it was just a bunch of people posting “I ate a sandwich for lunch?” Doesn’t that sound like an impossible, far-off utopia now? If anything was ever good about social media, it wasn’t the big events that were supposed to connect us all, television and awards shows, or even the viral sharing of news, the large-scale promises of relevance that all of these apps make about themselves. It was instead the boring and un-self-conscious narration of small and unnecessary details from people’s lives.

These details became compelling simply because they were the type of thing you would never have gotten to witness otherwise, the things that are highly personal simply because we had heretofore found them too boring to share.

But the longer social media has been around, the more we have begun to take it seriously, and in taking it seriously, we have lost track of these weird, small, unimportant observations and interactions that once made the form so strangely compelling. I met my boyfriend and most of my best friends on Twitter. All of these relationships resulted from someone tweeting about something extremely random and silly, and my realizing some stranger with a few mutual friends wanted to talk about the same ridiculous thing (in one friend’s case, it was a documentary on the history of the American whaling industry, for instance).

But now I’m aware that this is the kind of space where I could meet important people, where things might happen that might change my life, and it gives weight to what once felt inconsequential. People get jobs on Twitter, and lose them, too. Instagram has always felt like a magazine version of life, its formal constraints leaving no room for messiness, but now many of other social-media platforms have followed, making the messy little stories of Travel Twitter a novelty among all the other polished performances.

While people still on occasion post about a stranger in a café, or livetweet a TV show, these are bloodless remnants of the kind of small-voice confessions that were once common when we could all still deceive ourselves into believing no one was watching except our friends. For the most part, people on social media try to present the most important and most interesting version of themselves, rather than the least. There’s less room for small and un-self-conscious personal revelation. Twitter is clogged with trolls and long threads explaining the election and people picking vicious personal arguments with each other over things neither of them can change through the argument. Facebook, lacking Twitter’s character limit, is full of unpolished political essays and the endless circular arguments generated in the comments below, or else defined by family interactions too legitimately personal to be interesting from an outside perspective.

Recently, there was a drawn-out debate on Twitter over whether tweet threads are bad. Many, if not most of them, are in fact bad, but Holiday Travel Twitter is the exception here, too. I experience a giddy, knuckle-biting joy when I watch a spontaneous thread begin to spool out of someone’s Odyssey-like struggle to just get on a goddamn plane. The first tweet almost never sent with the intention of starting a thread, but if we’re really lucky, we get to watch the thread of grow over the course of hours, in tweets that are often shorter than 140 characters, rarely include replies, and certainly do not include deep thought, intellect, or analysis. Airport Twitter and Holiday Travel Twitter are pure, uncensored emotion, our basest and, sometimes, best selves.

Travel Twitter functions much in the same way sports do for spectators. Most social media posts are untethered from any specific time or place, contextless snapshots or just some airy pontificating. They lack the narrative urgency of a sports game. Part of the reason reading through one’s Twitter scroll is so deadening is that it goes on forever. It can rarely offer highs and lows the way a movie or a sports game does because it’s usually not moving toward anything. Everything on Twitter collapses back down into one continual muddle. A sports game, or a journey from one airport to another, has a clear beginning and an end—even when flights are delayed, the point is that we’re supposed to get out of the airport, we’re supposed to go home. The story is supposed to end. Both a sports game and somebody’s holiday travel tweets tell you exactly when you’re allowed to stop watching. Both offer what feel in the moment like devastating losses and giant triumphs (a goal is scored, another plane finally arrives at the gate).

Sports are fun to watch in part because players become so absorbed in what they’re doing that it seems they forget anyone is watching. When someone gets stuck in an airport or in a quiet car where not everyone is quiet, they tend to tweet like they’re talking to themselves, simply expressing their frustration. Holiday Travel Twitter just needs to say something. It isn’t looking for praise for what it said. Nobody hopes to get a job because of their airport tweets. While these tweets are for an audience (anything posted online is), they aren’t pandering to that audience. This is a paradoxical feat, in sports and on social media, two forms where being watched is the whole point but where, when the form is at its best, the players or performers must forget for a few brief moments that anyone is watching. Holiday Travel Twitter is people at their least put together, least glamorous, least hire-able selves, people who say things without wondering whether those things create a coherent narrative of personality. When someone live-tweets a six-hour Megabus trip, we get to see who they are when they aren’t trying to look good for an audience. The liminal spaces that exist in the shittiest, most inconvenient parts of travel allow us this; we are briefly free of trying to prove anything or to achieve anything except to get to wherever the bus is going.

Holidays themselves exist as a sort of cozy mania. The frantic psychosis of holidays is what makes them endearing—Christmas is about trying not to say the awkward thing in front of your family and saying it anyway, about desperately cleaning before your relatives arrive. The holidays are often full of little moments of farce and farce is comforting because it reminds us that many of our problems are inherently absurd and essentially small. At a historical moment full of problems which are anything but small, pockets of farce feel particularly, hysterically enjoyable. Similarly, the inconveniences of holiday travel offer a sort of sensory-deprivation-tank experience—we get so annoyed and so caught up in trying to get to the airport, to make the flight, to deal with the train delay, that we can forget about the larger world and its larger problems. A cancelled flight is a totally tangible and totally fixable thing, a thing that offers just enough suffering to justify ignoring everything else.

The same part of me that loves Holiday Travel Twitter is sometimes secretly relieved when my flight is delayed. Being stuck in an airport relieves any obligation to get anything done other than waiting; it eliminates all noble goals or grand ideas. It’s the reason all calories eaten in airports don’t count, and the reason emails received in airports don’t have to be answered until you get where you’re going. Twitter turns boring and solipsistic and wonderful during the holidays, when nobody has any big plans and everybody for a few days just wants to complain about small dumb stuff—food, and travel, and the awkward collisions of family members. In the in-betweens of airports and bus delays and the strange, intricate, frequently awful systems by which we get to and from home, we return to the version of social media where we come closest to living our lives instead of lecturing about other people’s. Holiday Travel Twitter returns to the cozy voyeurism of watching people eat sandwiches and experience small triumphs and losses, the version of the internet where everyone was interesting because nobody was important.