November 8, 2018 / 4 Comments
We were in Chichen Itza when it hit me. Tracy and I had always wanted to visit the Yucatan Peninsula, to walk where the great Mayan civilization once created a vast and powerful empire, and there we were. We stood as close as we could to the main pyramid named El Castillo (or more properly, The Pyramid of Kukulkan), and took in as much of the structure, shape, size, and just sheer power as we could. Stepping away, I looked around, having always loved the reaction on someone's face when they see something truly life-changing - but, I saw none of that.
Person after person, group after group surrounding this iconic beacon, and not one person was actually looking at it. One group attempted take after take of the classic "catch-a-photo-of-me-in-mid-air-while-i'm-jumping" photos, cycling their iPhone from down the line until they each had their own rendition of what has become an Instagram classic.
Further down the way, but still very near the pyramid, a couple shuffled through their photos frustratingly before I heard the boyfriend say, "okay, let's try one more.... do your fingers like this this time..." I'm not even sure what he was referencing. Small groups milled around the Great Mayan Ball Court later that day - looking bored. It was the same as we strolled past the Temple of Warriors, during which point I heard someone say, "I thought it was bigger," before asking her friend if she was ready to eat.
"Is this what we've become?" I can't remember, but I may have even said it audibly. Tracy and I had a long conversation later that afternoon, and it's a question that has been on my mind periodically since that day - has social media, and more specifically, Instagram, ruined travel?
Now, I don't mean "ruin" as to render meaningless as a truism. Rather, have we lost something about our own sense of wonder, or of wanderlust, having been constantly bombarded with everyone's finely-tuned filters via our social channels for the last decade?
Beyond this, are we facing environmental, social, and ethical dilemmas directly the result of social media?
We have mixed feelings about Instagram.
What started as an enjoyable platform for impromptu photo sharing among friends has since become a feeding frenzy for monsters of self-regard. Everyone, it seems you would think, is either famous or on the verge of becoming so on Instagram.
The truth is, the platform is a necessary evil for travel bloggers like ourselves. Brands, partners, and your audience expect you to have a presence on Instagram, and to fail having one is somehow to admit illegitimacy. There are a million things wrong with Instagram - ranging from the disingenuous algorithm that constantly filters the average person to brands instead of their friends' pages and pages of those they find interesting, to the necessary gamesmanship of growing a following and oft-faked statistics and matrices that can easily be fluffed or downright falsified. Yet, the biggest flaw is what Instagram has driven the average traveler to do.
Did you know that more and more people - especially Millennials and Generations Z'ers - actually choose their vacations based on the Instagrammability of a place? In fact, about 40% of people under the age of 33 cite Instagram popularity as a major factor in their choice of where to visit.
Not the food.
Not the history.
Not the culture.
They base their vacations on what type of shots they can get on Instagram.
Now, it would be disingenuous for me to say that wanting engagement on social media is all wrong - I mean, we're travel bloggers. It's great to create content, release that via some channel (Instagram or otherwise), and be heartened by a level of popularity that content receives.
That's fine if the focus is on honoring the subject. We're always very careful that what we put on Instagram honors the place we're visiting, and brings attention to something honorable about the place - either a structure, a dish, a local person, or something that contains a sense of place. Our Instagram feed, you'll find, lacks our actual presence in most of the photos.
That's for a reason.
The problem with Instagram is when amazing locations like the Cenotes of the Yucatan, the Pantheon, and the Acropolis in Athens are reduced to merely backdrops for a would-be model photoshoot. When we travel, we want to create content that inspires you to travel - not content that is self-aggrandizing.
Frankly, the right type of social media content in the world of travel isn't about the traveler - it's about the destination.
Instagram advocates a certain level of disingenuity that flies in the face of what exploration and travel really mean, and it's sadly changing travelers. I've seen numerous examples of flubbing influencer statistics - followers, likes, and comments - to drive popularity of a given Instagram page. In fact, I've seen one large travel page go weeks without increase, only to increase 5k followers in one day. After several weeks of no growth, and finally some evident drop in follower count by about 2k, the account again jumped 5k in one day.
Is it really that unreasonable to think that all those likes and comments are also false? If that's the case, what are brands really paying for, anyhow? Are they aware of the epidemic? Are influencers aware that doing this while being paid according to your engagement statistics is the absolute definition of theft?
When the average traveler does this, they follow suit using unsavory tactics that cheapen our medium and the experience of travel. I'm sure you've noticed all those fetching "Awesome pic bro! 100!" comments that our and your feed are stuffed full of. It makes us want to puke, to be frank.
All the while, as you try and drive engagement to your page using legitimate activity on the platform, you're bombarded with the same overexposed photos of the same locations over and over - meanwhile wanting to rip your hair out. I catch myself so often thinking, "seriously, if I see one more picture of a girl leading her boyfriend (who is always off-frame) by the hand and into a waterfall, I'm going to punch myself in the face!"
This leads to the inevitable - apathy. Once you actually travel to a destination and see it without being literally painted over in Photoshop, without all of the fake stars inserted in the sky, and without all the other throngs of tourists who were just as moved as you were by the fake photos on Instagram (they're often Photoshopped out, too), you think to yourself, "meh - it isn't really that impressive."
Our experience of travel means less because we've been desensitized to real experience, instead traveling the world "virtually" - which is of course not a real experience.
Now, there are a multitude of issues with this, the first being that several places have, over the last decade, seen an unscalable increase in tourism, often destroying the fabric of what makes the experience to begin with. Places like the Yucatan Peninsula, Machu Picchu, and Iceland are getting beaten to death by tourists who aren't there to feel the power of the location, to revel in its history, or to explore the amazing cuisine.
They're there for likes.
Now, admittedly, we're part of the problem. As travel bloggers, every time you see one of our photos on Instagram it has an affect, and some of the places we've been to and chronicled are some of those same places that struggle with over-tourism. As much as we're there for the culture, to bring a location to you, and make it about the destination (you might notice how few of our pictures actually contain us in them), we know we aren't absolved.
Places battered by over-tourism like Venice and Barcelona have been vocal about the effect of tourism on their beautiful cities - where the constant influx has driven up home and rent prices, food prices, and decreased the overall livability for locals due to constant congestion. In Iceland, the massive increase in tourism has put an incredible strain on infrastructure, as well as led to a huge increase in the cost of living for locals.
Just alongside over-tourism, however, is something closely akin that frankly boils our blood.
You've seen it.
We've seen it.
While thumbing down your Instagram feed and spotting some stylishly-clad "influencer" in a 3rd-world country, pitching their sponsor and why you should "wear this" the next time you're in a shanty town in a war-torn village. It's sickening, and Instagram and social media are both full of it.
There is a social responsibility as a traveler, whether or not you have a voice, whether or not you have a blog, and regardless of your virality on social media.
The first goal as a traveler is to be Hippocratic in our exploration. Primum non nocere (in Latin: "first - do no harm"), as the oath says. As a traveler, and most certainly as someone with a level of notoriety or audience, the weight of responsibility is on you to never worsen the situation. Always leave a place better than you found it.
You're a vegan? That's great. It's an honorable way to be - I wish I had the discipline, in fact. However, maybe you don't need to travel to a small village in Argentina for your next Instagram photoshoot, all-the-while asking the local purveyors if they know of any farm-to-table restaurants. On the other hand - maybe you're a steak-lover? Awesome - there's nothing better than a good steak. However, maybe you want to bypass the filet if you're in Southern India where cows are considered sacred.
That's doing harm. That's being tone-deaf. It's so easy to simply respect the local culture, and make a decision beforehand on whether or not its a place that matches your ethical beliefs, and strongly consider if it's a place for you to travel.
Be considerate. Know a little about the customs and beliefs of where you're traveling, and do everything in your power to respect those customs held most dearly to the people that live there.
The Role of Social Media
With this being said, social media remains a tool of great importance. Our travels started because of the inspiration we received from blogs, just like ours. We were moved by some of the great content that was put out that chronicled the heart of a traveler, and want it really means to have a spirit of wanderlust.
Social media can be a tool for good. Hell, even Instagram can be a tool for good. Somewhere beneath the waves of self-aggrandizing douche-bags are people trying to bring awareness to social and climactic issues, people trying to use their platform, no matter how small, to change minds one at a time. If that's you? Keep on keeping on.
I do think that the pendulum always "swings back". I think it's even starting to. I know more and more influencers putting less influence on Instagram, or changing their methodology all-together to either disinclude social media or swearing to a style of complete sincerity. No second takes, no fluff, always real. People are starting to get sick of the bullshit, to be frank.
Is that you? Keep doing it. The world needs you. Tourism needs you.
Social media can still do great things. Tourism can bring money into places that need it. In fact, before Iceland was completely overrun by tourism, it was a huge factor in their ability to economically recover in 2008. Tourism can bring awareness to issues of animal rights, environmental health, or lack of resources.
Tourism can even fix those problems, and social media can be a major factor in that.
Additionally, social media can still inspire - and still does. However, what will the future of social media be in regard to travel? Will we lose our appreciation of truly remarkable places because we've already seen the lip-sticked version of it 1,000 times on Facebook? I hope not.
Yet, that's our responsibility as influencers. We have to give you the truth about places, about people, and to show you inspiration to seek out your own experiences.
What Can We Do?
I don't mean bloggers - I mean everyone. What can we, travelers, do to make sure that social media is a tool used for good, and that travel is something that serves its purpose to inspire, bring awareness, and to expand our sense of perspective?
- First, and most importantly, do no harm.
- When you travel, do so respectfully. Don't be loud. Don't draw attention to yourself. Don't stand out for the wrong reason. Have a sense of awareness.
- Do something. Pick up a little trash, even a wrapper, and put it in the garbage. Open the door for people in foreign countries - just, anything. Don't expect the red carpet to be rolled out for you, but rather seek out opportunities to serve, no matter how small.
- Learn how to say please, thank you, sorry, yes, and no in the host language wherever you travel.
- Don't think of travel in terms of a checklist. It isn't a competition.
- Be aware of local customs and traditions. You don't have to participate in things you don't agree with simply because the locals do (i.e. religious beliefs, dietary preferences, etc...), but don't offend those who practice those traditions.
- Always remember - destination first, you second. Don't put yourself before the people, places, or customs of your destination.
- Take photos - they're the best souvenirs you can get, and they're free! Share them on Instagram, share them however you want - but do it all with a level of sincerity.
Let us know if we missed anything, and what your thoughts are in the comments below. Thanks guys - keep traveling inspired!