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Social media butterflies just can’t take a break

Even on vacation, they feel pressure to feed the Facebook and Twitter beasts

Hair stylist Eddie Foley uses social media to build his personal brand, even while vacationing in Provincetown. Hair stylist Eddie Foley uses social media to build his personal brand, even while vacationing in Provincetown. (Steve Haines for The Globe)
By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / July 23, 2011

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As a full-time mother, Yara Marquez doesn’t have a boss. But when she goes on vacation, she has work to do beyond caring for her 1-year-old son. “If I’m not on Facebook, I don’t feel like I’m doing my job,’’ said Marquez, 22, of Waltham.

If she takes a few hours off - at the insistance of her annoyed grandmother - her personal taskmasters are quick with negative performance reviews. “Why haven’t you hit me up?’’ friends write on her Facebook wall. Or: “You’re lost!’’

For years, employees have been complaining about bosses who expect them to respond to e-mail or meet other online demands even when they are on vacation. But now some people are feeling social pressure to stay on the grid.

“People expect you to be available,’’ said Rich Ling, author of “New Tech, New Ties: How Mobile Communication Is Reshaping Social Cohesion.’’ “It’s become taken for granted you are accessible.’’

Statistics on holiday travelers who feel compelled to feed the Twitter beast or respond to friends’ texts are hard to come by. But smartphone penetration has hit 35 percent of the adult population, according to a study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.

And in a recent online survey of 1,000 US adults, 54 percent say they use social media on vacation, up from 28 percent in 2010. The survey was commissioned by Marriott.

Expectations for staying in touch are so high that some people feel the need to send out a preemptive variation of the “out of the office’’ auto response.

“I’ve seen people declare, ‘I’m going to be gone for two weeks, so you won’t see me on Twitter or Facebook,’ ’’ said Andrew J. Rosenthal, an MBA student at Harvard Business School. “They’ve built such a strong day-to-day relationship with their followers they need to let them know when they’re leaving town.’’

Few are better positioned to see vacationers’ fear of falling out of the loop than Joe Fernandez, the chief executive and cofounder of Klout, an online firm that measures users’ influence on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. He regularly hears from people who are despondent, or even angry, that their Klout scores dropped while they took a break.

“Leave town for 3 days for a funeral and my @Klout score drops 8 points,’’ tweeted @asimpson920. “How quickly I am forgotten.’’

Many digital dinosaurs, disgusted family members, and even the plugged-in are quick to brand the 24-seven social media users addicts. But Fernandez disagrees.

“A lot of people take their beach week in summer and they unplug,’’ he said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, but if you’re not creating content and people aren’t engaging with you, there is so much going on in everyone else’s life that it’s unreasonable to expect the world to push pause while you’re away.’’

Many users simply don’t want to stop, said Mike Schneider, a senior vice president at Allen & Gerritsen, a Watertown advertising agency. “A lot of people who do social media want people to think they are cool, and if they go on a fun vacation, they want to create content and say, ‘Look what I’m doing.’ Social media is like a personal People magazine.’’

Eddie Foley, 44, a stylist at the Patrice Vinci Salon on Newbury Street, is one of those eager to burnish his personal brand. In an attempt to broadcast a youthful image, he regularly uploads vacation pictures of himself, enjoying oysters, riding a tandem bike, working in his garden.

“Even if you’re busy on vacation, you need to get out what you’re doing,’’ he said from Provincetown, where he was (theoretically) vacationing. “It probably takes about 30 seconds, and it’s important. You want to show the world you have balance in life. Not only do I work hard, but I have fun. Social media is a way to express your life.’’

Schneider likens Facebook updates and tweets to the “having a good time, wish you were here’’ postcards of the past. “This is the evolution of that,’’ he said.

Except that with postcards, once they are sent, that is the end of it. The sender does not obsessively check to see how they were received.

That’s not the case with online vacation updates, said Tyler Duckworth, 29, a personal trainer in Boston, who says he is not planning on posting - at least not often - during an upcoming international cruise.

“I want to be in the moment, and if you’re posting, you’re focused on what other people think of your vacation,’’ he said. “There’s a certain sense of insecurity. You have to ask yourself why you’re posting if the vacation is so good.’’

Courtney Runft, 25, a New York City tap dancer vacationing in Boston, had an answer for that as she checked her smartphone while enjoying the Public Garden. “I choose to go on vacation, but I need to keep up, so I’m not lost when I get back.’’

Meanwhile, even as some family and friends gripe about vacationers who are too busy uploading photos to spend time with the people they are traveling with, others, like Jim Collison, a Michigan State University doctoral candidate, points out the bright side: “The old days of sitting around someone’s slide projector looking at their vacation pictures and being bored are over.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.