The spread of hostels around the world in the last decade or so is a social phenomenon maybe second only to the rise of smart-phones in the current millennium. In fact they could easily be seen as an ideological counterpart to social media, i.e. a residential counterpart, sharing physical spaces, not just baby pics and stupid pet tricks on Facebook.
Modern backpackers' hostels have come a long way from the sometimes-dreary and institutional 'youth' hostels of yesteryear, with their curfews and age limits and nondescript barracks. The modern versions are as varied and diverse as any 'boutique' hotel or B&B, and if the low prices and bunk beds are the lowest common denominator of the genre, then the social nature is the highest, for here you can meet people from all over the world, and maybe even a few locals, too.
Western Europe has more than a thousand hostels—real ones, too—and Eastern Europe is not far behind, (maybe even ahead). America is way behind, but that's no surprise. We're an 'ownership society': yeah, right. We were way behind on cell-phones, too, until you-know-who got involved. In many ways Australia and New Zealand lead the pack, with hundreds between them, well-placed and prominent, too. In many places, they're hard to find, literally, no signs and off-the-radar.
And in case you're thinking that this is a plaything of Western kids, mostly European, on their gap-year sprees, you would be wrong. South America is full of them, and Asia, too. Africa and the Middle East are a patchwork, but developing steadily. We're now just waiting for America to get off its ass and get its act together, for Americans to get out of their cars and see their country. True, it's more of an urban phenomenon, but American urban areas are getting 'greener', too. Go see the changes. It doesn't have to be expensive.
Hardie Karges is author of 'Hypertravel: 100 Countries in 2 Years' and the series of 'Backpackers and Flashpackers' guides to world hostels. The next installment of the series, '600 Hostels in Asia' is due out in September.