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I wanted to put this together for a while, and I am hoping you guys will help me add things I might have missed. Digital nomading is simple — you travel around a lot and you somehow make a living, usually because you do your job remotely, via the internet. This has only really been possible since 1999 but it shows no signs of slowing down. Personally, I think the heyday of travel blogging has passed, that blogging in general is really only a career option for serious writers and photographers or PR people and marketers.

Still, there’s a silent majority of people who run small businesses, travel part of the year or full time, work online because they are a freelancer or a consultant or work in tech. I also recognize that travel blogging is overly represented here, and that’s simply because while there are, for example, college professors teaching online courses from Thailand to students in Seattle, they don’t have a big online clubhouse to celebrate that fact, they don’t write blogs about it and there’s no data on how many of them are out there. (I think realistically the majority of digital nomads are freelancers using oDesk, Elance or their contacts to get work or have work-from-home agreements with their employers, whether they have a blog or not, but I have no way to prove that.)

In other words, this is my best attempt, but I’m open to improvements. I did think it was necessary to show some of the shifting forces in the community too, like moving away from the 4HWW but still being inspired by it, or the shift of TBEX and some travel bloggers to more marketing-driven writing for hire. It’s hard to pin down all the moving pieces and get a handle on the exact dates and events in this social shift, but I linked to sources as best that I could.

 

1983 The First

Steve Roberts sets out on a “computerized recumbent bicycle”, he becomes the very first digital nomad. His feature in Popular Computing still evokes travel envy.

1985 

Motosat, a satelite system for personal users (mostly RVs and boats) comes into the market and allows nomads to get online anywhere. In 2013, the company closes because wifi and cell service are cheaper and so widely available.

WiFi is born.

Wi-Fi_Logo.svg

1995

There are an estimated 20-30 million internet users

1997

Who coined the phrase Digital Nomad?

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Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners publish the book Digital Nomad with educational pubisher Wiley. It’s unclear if they coined the phrase or tapped into one that was already in use, but it’s the first book on the topic. The Amazon review now reads as prophecy:

“New digital technologies promise to enable large numbers of people to work wherever and whenever they wish and to choose between a stationary or nomadic lifestyle. In Digital Nomad, Makimoto and Manners explore the new potential for modern nomadism, beginning with the technology that is making it possible. They cite some examples of current nomads, such as the president of a major European technology company who does not have the traditional perk of the president’s office. Instead, he spends his workweek traveling around Europe from one company site to the next. Digital technology has made it more economical and efficient for the company to work this way. But the authors point out that there is more to nomadism than the technical ability. They discuss how nomads tend to be difficult to track, making them difficult to tax and control. Many governments see nomads as threats and some governments are currently discouraging nomadic lifestyles that have existed for thousands of years. How will world governments react then to those who opt for a high-tech nomadic life? The authors also discuss what parts of the world may be most attractive to tomorrow’s digital nomads, speculating on how future technological developments may further enhance the ability to live and work on the go. It’s debatable if many people really want a life with no physical roots, but Makimoto and Manners’s speculations read like a dream come true for those who’d love more variety in their work lives.”

Makimoto eventually became the CEO of Hitachi and the book focuses on existing nomads in his peer group, which might explain why the book didn’t reach a large mainstream audience. The table of contents is here.

1998

Paypal is launched and eventually becomes the standard for online payments.

Paypal's original logo

Paypal’s original logo

Edward Hasbrouck writes The Practice Nomad. It is currently in it’s fifth edition.

1999 Digital Nomading is technically possible for the masses

Laptops now have wifi, the prices have dropped, the processing speed is better and the battery life has been improved.

For a glimpse into this world, Kristina Johnson (wired2theworld.com, where she still writes) and her husband were interviewed by via email during their round-the-world trip for this New York Times article featuring so-called techno-nomads. (She informs me in the comments below that, “when we traveled RTW in 98-99 it was strictly dial-up all the way, if we were lucky.”)

Elance a site for hiring or getting freelance work is launched with the tagline, “Changing the way the world works.” Today it has over 2 million registered freelancers.

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Original Elance logo

2000

360 million people are online worldwide.

2002

Rolf Potts writes, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term Travel, it’s not about digital nomading, but it becomes the template for a type of travel that many digital nomads adopt.

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2003

Google Adsense goes public allowing bloggers to run ads from Google’s network of advertisers. The original website says, “Unleash the full revenue potential of your website.”

Skype is launched and eventually offers services that let you have a static phone number (in the US or other countries) that will redirect to your online Skype account or can be set to send calls to your local overseas cell phone. As of 2012 it accounts for 34% of the international call market.

Original Skype logo

Original Skype logo

2005

oDesk is launched.

Original oDesk logo

Original oDesk logo

2006 The Early Adopters

Technomadia.com is launched and over time becomes a resource for digital nomads (typically tech-careers who work online) who live in RVs and travel around the US

Blogger Where the Hell is Matt? becomes a Youtube star with his video dancing around the world. He is the first travel blogger to receive major corporate sponsorship and he makes two more videos in 2008 and 2012.

2007 The Awakening

Tim Ferriss writes The 4-Hour Workweek which outlines how to work online and while many digitial nomads don’t necessarily follow his life hacking techniques it inspires a generation of travelers to take their careers on the road. It becomes a NY Times Bestseller, selling well over a million copies. Almost no digital nomads claim to work only four hours a week.

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The US Government, realizing the cost savings of telecommuting begins to push for more work-from-home employees.

Lea Woodward coins the phrase “location independent” to describe digital nomading and actively ran a blog with the same name from 2007-2010.

2008 The community organizes

Travel Bloggers Exchange is launched, it’s not for digital nomads, but it’s where many digital nomads end up finding each other.

The NuRVers community is created as a resource for younger RV-based digital nomads.

2009 Brands start to jump on board

National Geographic launches the Digital Nomad blog.

Dell Computers launches a site called Digital Nomads about using technology to work from anywhere. They shutter it a year later.

The first TBEX conference occurs in Chicago after Blogher, and while it doesn’t focus on digital nomading, many travel bloggers try to monetize their blog to travel continuously.

The site workshifting.com is launched by Chris Brogan and others, but is later acquired by Citrix.

2010 Selling the dream

The digital nomad academy is launched, originally charging as much as $1,500 for mentorship.

MatadorU is started and the ads say, “Get paid to travel the world”.

matador-man

Travel Blog Success is launched, “Do you wish your blog paid for your vacations?”

Global Bloggers Network forms a group on FB saying, “Travel blogging is fun! But it can be much more than that. It can be a source of income and free travel.”

Sean Bonner from Boing Boing writes a special feature on technomads ending with, “going “technomadic” also suggests the possibility of totally revolutionizing my life.” He launches a google group for digital nomads that runs from 2010-2012.

2011 The floodgates open

There’s no source for this, but my view is that there was a large increase in bloggers who attempt to travel full-time by monetizing their travels/blogs in the Lifestyle Redesign, Digital Nomading and Travel Blogging niches.

Late 2011 Keith Jenkins launches iAmbassador to connect travel brands with bloggers saying, “Blog trips are an excellent means to showcase a destination or travel product, with the bloggers functioning as digital ambassadors.”

2012 The movement continues to grow

Navigate Media Group is formed by several travel bloggers, who promise to amplify social media campaigns and to provide content for tourism boards and travel brands.

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The Professional Travel Bloggers Association is formed by Michael Hodson, who also runs Navigate Media.

Christine Gilbert and her husband Drew Gilbert raise $37,000 via Kickstarter to finish and festival release their documentary “The Wireless Generation” about people who work online and travel overseas.

There are an estimated 2.4 billion internet users, about 1/3 of the world population and in almost every country in the world you can get online.

More than 140,000 US Government employees now have written telecommuting agreements with their agencies

A study shows that over 40% of the US population are in jobs that could feasibly be done remotely.

2013 The Reality and Myths (Backlash Against Bloggers?)

TBEX is sold to Blog World and there is a marked shift from travel writing to travel writing for sponsorships and free travel. BBC covers the “speed dating sessions” and wonders about the ethics. (Navigate Media Group’s collaboration with Finland Tourism is also discussed.)

The New York Times writes about the shift in travel blogging towards more marketing, in blogger’s attempts to keep financing their travel.

From the New York Time's article.

From the New York Time’s article.

Outside Magazine writes an article about “How to make a travel blog” – because obviously they haven’t been online, ever.

The UK’s The Daily Star writes about When Work is a Non-Stop Vacation

The Australian Magazine The Business Spectator writes about The Rise of the Digital Nomad

ComputerWorld.com writes about What I Learned Living Abroad as a Digital Nomad

The “online staffing industry” (read: freelancers working online) is estimated to increase from $1 Billion in 2012 to $5 Billion in 2018.

2020 The Future

According to Euromonitor, by 2020 43.7% of the world’s population will be users of the Internet.

My prediction

I think digital nomadism will continue to grow but it will be largely freelance or remote employment based, not blogging as has been promoted in the last five years or “online businesses” like Tim Ferriss proposed in the 4HWW.