Saturday, 6 September 2008

It’s not such A Small World after all

Is it the end of This week the Guardian predicted the demise of the exclusive, invite-only travel networking site. "Did you manage to get into the site?” sneered a well-to-do member at the reporter, as if this illustrated its downfall.

I'm sure the same member would turn his nose up at me. Not typically moving in the same circles as other members, which include Naomi Campbell and Ivana Trump, I managed to wangle an invite to ASW through a very vague contact.

I've dipped in from time to time, curious to how travel networking functions at the other end of the spectrum. However, when I mentioned the site within my weekly travel-networking column in the Guardian, it sparked a couple of reader emails.

One wanted to know if I could hook him up. (Sadly no, I'm a low-level member without invite privileges). Another said it was wrong of me to include it when it was clear out of bounds to most readers. (Although perhaps not anymore, if this week's article is anything to go by.)

I'd argue that ASW - even if you can't or won't join - is fascinating. Not just because of the outlandish snobery found in its forums, but it is also an interesting illustration of how the travel-networking movement is forming "niche" offshoots and how it is motivated by the idea of “belonging” to a likeminded group. Whether you’re a member of ASW or, people trust each other based on a presumed mutual understanding.

The Guardian has recently reported on how the future of social networks lies in niche sites. I also predicted this when I started out on my trip.

However, achieving a small-club feel on worldwide web must have its limits. Have some already reached their peak? ASW has now grown to 325,000 users. Far behind Facebook’s 90 million, but almost matching the 328,000 of Hospitality Club, a site that is open to all and sundry.

I've always thought that ASW and HospitalityClub/Couchsurfing – although based on the same principles of bringing travellers together – share no overlap. But it seems this is changing too. One of the other big hitters in the ASW forum recently was a thread suggesting ASW members start accommodating each other in their own homes ("Couchsurfing on ASW" was its heading).

What surprised me the most was finding there is already such a big cross over of members from the two sites. It seems many ASW members are also part of the exceedingly down-to-earth and non-elitist It’s something that must horrify the core elite. An old-school member (since 2004) replied to say he didn't believe the two networks are compatible: "Everyone is satisfyingly rich on aSmallWorld. Every ASW member I know stays in the Belle Etoile Suite at Le Meurice when they visit me.” He was soon shot down by the Small World Couchsurfers for totally missing the point.

It seems ASWers aren’t as likeminded as they once were. Perhaps the original members will set up their own offshoot where people have to provide proof-of-funds before signing up.

Meanwhile, the ‘Death of ASW’ thread (9,000 views) is nothing if not entertaining. One London member said the day they knew it really was all over was when a Foxtons estate agent told him he’d “discovered cool new website for chatting up girls and all his mates were on it”.

A London/Dubai member added: "This used to be a playground for the jet set, the good looking, the creative and business powers that be. now i feel like a slimebag when i log in." Something tells me his inner slimebag has been waiting to get out for sometime.