If you hadn’t been keeping up with your Facebook newsfeed, HitchBOT, a great social experiment on a hitchhiking robot was brutally beaten up in Philadelphia, ironically the City of Brotherly Love. A shame yes, but that he reached so far, travelling through Canada and through Europe with nary a scratch (except America)  says a lot about human nature and the power of social media to deliver a story.

HitchBot starting Journey

HitchBOT is the answer to the question: Is it possible for a robot, that can’t move, to hitchhike across Canada. The answer is yes and it took an existence in social media to make it happen.

 

A journey of Self-Discovery

Travel narratives usually have a consistent theme of self-discovery, one in which the journey is for the traveller to find or not find what they were looking for in their journey. In one of the most iconic travel novels, “On the Road”, the protagonist Sal Paradise travels across the United States several times, searching for a sense of meaning for his life.

Hitchbot’s existence began as a question, can empathy and social collaboration, carry a defenceless robot 4,480 km from St. John’s to Victoria? There were many likely fates of HitchBOT when it started.

  • It could be destroyed by petty vandals or accidental road accidents
  • Left on the side of the highway, relegated to being a quick curiosity for travellers
  • Actually make it to Victoria on the passenger seat of Canadian kindness

All this relied on a social media campaign to reach out to followers to help carry HitchBOT to its destination. Unlike Sal Paradise, who was unable to find his destination, HitchBOT’s foray into social media kindness was a success.

 

Connecting with Followers, Friends, and Travellers

In almost all travel narratives, encounters with fellow travellers is a common trope, offering brief glimpses into their lives as reflections of the protagonists’ own journey. One of the best examples of encountering other travellers is the film “One Week” about a man with terminal cancer travelling across Canada on a motorcycle, there each encounter forces him to reflect his life and how they carry him to his epiphanic revelation of his life.

Hitchbot + Traveller

David Harris Smith, assistant professor of communication studies at McMaster, poses for a photo with his latest project, hitchBot.

Social Media is all about reaching out to people, strangers, and connecting with them to share content. HitchBOT in a way is a child of social media, as he is utterly reliant on the followers and friends of him to meet him on his travels and quite literally carry him to his destination. Without a social media presence, and his connections. HitchBOT would have never even got on the highway.

 

Creating a Story

Hitchbot’s social media presence was not only necessary to connect with other travellers but as a way to create his story. Social media channels including Instagram and Storify, spread Hitchbot’s story online to his followers and fellow travellers. Conversely for those who had the happy chance of interacting with HitchBOT they became an integral part of its story.

Tragically Hitchbot’s journey was cut short in a brutal act of needless vandalism. His “killers” or “vandalizers” will never be found. But the fact that HitchBOT travelled so far before his untimely fate is still a testament to human kindness and the continued benefits of social media as a powerful medium of telling a narrative.