Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Forum

Bert Maxwell's picture


Here at WanderingEducators.com, we're always searching the internet for resources for our readers. One of the best travel sites we've seen is run by the travel guide book company, Lonely Planet (who hasn't used one of their wonderful books?). the main part of their online community is the Thorn Tree Forum, and I was lucky enough to sit down and talk with Venessa Paech, Lonely Planet's Online Community Liaison.  Here's what she had to say...


Thorn Tree Forum Venessa Paech


WE:  Please tell us about the Thorn Tree Travel Forum.

For many web savvy travellers out there Thorn Tree is a better known 'brand' than Lonely Planet. It's one of the oldest forums on the web, and takes its name from the celebrated Nairobi café where travellers would tack messages about their journeys on a noticeboard around the trunk of the large thorn tree outside (the tree predates the café as a crossroads of information). Our Tree is split into categories which cover destination-specific and specialist-interest branches. There are at least 100,000 active threads at any given moment. Over the last decade, Thorn Tree has put down roots as the place travellers log on to gush, rant and fill in the blanks.

How many users do you have? From where?

We have around half a million community members posting from Tonga to Tajikistan. The majority of our community is currently based in North America and Europe. The beauty of the web is that travellers who've never bought or seen a Lonely Planet guidebook can still fashion an online home on Thorn Tree, in our neighbourhood. It gives Lonely Planet a different way to serve the global travelling community.

What is the history and development of Thorn Tree Travel Forum?

VP:  The tree was planted in 1996 when Lonely Planet realised they could (and should) provide travellers with an online home as well as a printed signpost. With some jiggery pokery Thorn Tree was up and running in 1997 as a bulletin board in its own right. In 2000 Lonely Planet introduced formal registration to the community to help formalise our contract of shared expectations with users, and to help battle the rising tide of spam and internet trolls.

What are the goals of Thorn Tree?

Our remit is twofold - enable travellers to connect and explore ways we can enhance that connection through innovation. Thorn Tree is a touchstone in that process; a practical platform that doesn't have superfluous bells and whistles obstructing the flow of information. We hope travellers will explore other aspects of Lonely Planet online when they visit Thorn Tree, but we don't mandate it. At heart, the community determines what the Thorn Tree is, and what's it for, and they've developed a strong sense of ownership over the years. It's their digital crossroads; to learn, to share and to meet friends halfway.

What are the most popular areas of the Forum?

VP: The most frequented areas are our Destination specific branches, where resident experts hang out and share insights with newcomers who arrive full of questions. A close second are our chat branches, devoted to more informal discussion around travel themes, or life in general.

It's these sub-communities that keep our users coming back. Irrespective of travel cycle fits and starts, the Thorn Tree community has put down stakes where they'd like to congregate and interact; if the travel industry evaporated overnight, I believe they'd still be there talking about politics, the weather, their favourite books, the price of groceries and the other stuff of life.


Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Forum


WE:  What other services are offered on Thorn Tree?

VP: Basic technology solutions such as RSS feeds; 'Watch Lists' that permit recent discussions of interest to be emailed to you; and a private messaging system that allows travellers to forge bonds and continue their discussions in a more intimate setting are the primary services on offer. We also run a community blog that highlights fabulous content from around our entire digital community (Lonely Planet TV, Bluelist and Thorn Tree). And of course we're hard at work in the labs developing new features that will hopefully make the Tree and our other community offerings even better.

  Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

It's important to be aware of the challenges involved when you're custodian of an online community. There's a lot of warm, fuzzy, curved-edged spin around web 2.0 and the new paradigm we're staring down as the collective electronic mob. The excitement is real, and the opportunities genuinely legion, but it's easy to gloss over the realities of coordinating virtual human relations.

Firstly, there's the problem of contribution with impunity - the ever-present double edged sword for online communities, from the BBS (Bulletin Board Service) network and newsgroups of the late 80s onwards. Anonymity is bait for immature provocateurs and can threaten harmony and security, but freedom to post identity-free is a sometimes essential spur for users who feel vulnerable or inhibited. There's the question of regulation and moderation. How much is too much? When does maintaining basic decorum become censorship? If you sanction the colour, do you inadvertently create a lifeless, 'vanilla' digital landscape that isn't authentically representative of your visitors, let alone people in general? What of serial offenders and spam purveyors who won't relent?

Legal governance around these matters is different country to country, and evolves constantly. You've got to keep apace, and beware policy makers with an agenda other than public interest. These are issues Thorn Tree has faced since inception, and their scope transforms as does Lonely Planet over time. Vigilance in these aspects of community management will dull incoherent, purposeless clamour and kindle vibrant discourse.

For a content producer like Lonely Planet, value trumps commotion (though there are certainly theses that could be written about the construct of that commotion).

Finally (but not finitely), we need to step up and truly become part of the conversation; not merely the host of the dinner party too busy in the kitchen to share a drink, a laugh and deep thought or two. Are we listening? Are we responding? Do we mean what we say? Are we taking it all too seriously? What are we learning from our users day to day? If we're not having that conversation, then we're not really online.

Come visit us at: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/index.jspa



WE: Incredible! Thanks so much, Venessa. I've enjoyed the Thorn Tree Forum, and I am even more impressed now that I know the background behind it. Thank you.



Thorn Tree site and Venessa Paech Photos provided by Lonely Planet.

Feature Thorn Tree Photo provided by Luca Galuzzi.