“Digital nomads”, what do we WANT to be called?

“Digital nomad” doesn’t quite fit me. I’ve tried the label on for size and decided it’s unflattering. I’ve worked remotely from abroad for months on end — with no home base — true to digital nomad form. Here in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I’m surrounded by other digital nomad types.

So why am I still reluctant to brand myself as such? Asking around, I found others who aren’t big fans of the nomenclature either.

A salty Reddit thread on the topic begins:

“I cringe whenever i hear anyone refer to themselves as a digital nomad.
I cringe when i hear myself refer to myself as a digital nomad.
I cringe when i hear people refer to us as digital nomads.
It just sounds very pompous and douchey to me”.

Lately I’m concerned the title supplants professionalism with lifestyle. The male twenty-something bravado it connotes doesn’t exactly apply to me.

I posed the question to the #Nomads forum, in the Chiang Mai channel. Jordan, an e-commerce and marketing guy, commented: “I prefer vagrant vlogger. Or blogger bum. Or lazy ass with a laptop. Any are fine really.”

Case in point.

Ryan, a software engineer who lives in Chiang Mai, expresses more philosophical concerns. “Yesterday somebody asked me ‘are you one of those digital nomads?’ almost as if I was part of some movement or belief system. It made me feel slightly uncomfortable for a moment.” Craig, a freelance software developer, agrees it sounds “cultish.”

Some people embrace it. “I like the term digital nomad,” says Albert. “It sounds cool. A little cyber-punkish.”

The name sticks

Like it or not, the label is here to stay. It’s been around for longer than I would have guessed. Observers trace the coinage of the phrase almost 20 years back to 1997, when David Manners and Tsugio Makimoto wrote a prophetic book on the subject, aptly titled Digital Nomad.

Since then, it has officially entered the online lexicon — complete with a trending pattern on Google, a Wikipedia page, and an adequately funny Urban Dictionary definition.

Is the term widespread enough to use in mainstream conversation? Not quite. In an interview, nomad product entrepreneur Pieter Levels notes, “We’re not yet at the point where digital nomads have become mainstream” because “digital nomadism seems a bit too radical.”

Sounds like a job for a brand strategist.

Nothing better (yet)

So how do we want to self-describe? The phrase, annoying as it may be, accomplishes a lot in just two words. “Digital” captures the online-based nature of our incomes, without getting overly-specific about what kind of work it is or how it’s structured (could be freelance, employee, or entrepreneur). “Nomad” captures how we use this freedom to travel.

The most often-suggested alternative is “remote worker”, which doesn’t capture the travel piece. New moms who work online for the flexibility of staying at home, for example, are also remote workers.

“Location independent” gets thrown around, although there’s no noun there. You’re a location independent freelancer/entrepreneur/whatever-er. Then it gets a little wordy, and doesn’t lend itself as well to click-baity article headlines.

I found two hilariously awkward neologisms from Ben Schott at Inc.com that try to capture this blend beyond distinction of life, work, and travel:

NEXT-PATS / • noun
Apparently, Americans who live and work overseas nowadays have more flexible, entrepreneurial, and open mindsets than expats of old.
CAREERCATION / • noun
“Careercation” is a way of incorporating retirement into your work life by including long vacations throughout your career, instead of waiting until old age. Ringing any bells, freelancers?

I’d heard of workations, but not careercations, before. That makes us either “workationers” or “careercationers”. Double hmmm. And next-pats? If anyone actually uses “next-pat” in the first person, I’ll choose to mishear it as “I’m an expat” — for their sake.

On the “digitial nomad” Wikipedia page, we are told to “See also: Full Time RV’er, Global Nomad, Location Independence, Mobile Bohemian, and Telecommuter.” I didn’t ‘see also’ any of those. Although all five are better than this crown jewel of pretension: “citizen of the world.”

In light of the alternatives, I suppose I’ll stick to “digital nomad” for now.