The problem with #instatravel

The problem with #instatravel

Part of taking this blog in a direction that felt more authentic for me involves not posting on Instagram. It might seem counter-intuitive for someone who loves photography to hate Instagram, but for me, the cons far outweigh the pros. I did follow some amazing photographers on Insta, whose pictures I appreciated seeing, but any efforts to use the app in a more measured always devolved into random scrolling and stalking. I don’t think Instagram had a positive effect on my Internet usage. I also don’t think that Instagram has had a positive impact on the travel sphere.

It feels like a bit of a dick move to bang on about authenticity being the most important thing when travelling or discussing that travel. I mean, what does it mean to be authentic? Surely as soon as you start overthinking your decisions from any perspective, you’ve started curating your choices too? Making decisions based on appearing as worldly and enlightened as possible is inauthentic and inaccessible in its own way.

But with 40% of young people surveyed citing ‘Instagrammability’ as their top priority when choosing their next destination, you can’t ignore that a few heavily edited, curated pictures have become the primary travel driver for a lot of people. And that seems worth exploring.

Obviously, part of this change is probably overstated. It’s not as if, prior to the advent of Instagram, people cracked out the atlas and picked a random point on the map. As with so many things, the people around you often provide valuable inspiration. It can be smart to make travel choices based on the decisions of people you trust, who can offer destination-specific tips, budgeting advice and give you an honest sense of what a place is like.

Here lies the bulk of the problem; prior to global platforms being introduced, lots of experience was offered from a first-hand perspective, something that has all but disintegrated. Social media was first introduced as a way to keep up with your nearest and dearest but has morphed into a way of following the personal lives of people you’ve never met but you somehow believe you can trust like a friend. This often means that you’re lacking valuable context and backstory.

It becomes entirely about how things look in a tiny snapshot rather than about reality. When you see an overly filtered, carefully curated, totally unrealistic shot of a thin white woman sipping a coconut on a white sand beach it tells you almost nothing what that place is like and how she got there. Unfortunately, when you actually travel, it is unfiltered. Even the most glamorous of beach destinations mean that sand ends up in places that sand should never go.

You also miss out on a lot of important perspectives when you only take travel tips and inspiration from the white, wealthy and able, characteristics that are heavily over-represented on Instagram in general. As with everything in life, not everyone travels on a level playing field. Travelling while black, Muslim, fat, disabled, LGBTQ+ or as a member of any number of marginalised groups comes with its own set of unique challenges, challenges that tend to be ignored by major travel influencers, who often pride themselves on making travel – literally the processing of opening your eyes to different cultures, languages and ethnicities – depoliticised.

Instagram is not positioned as the place for addressing the financial, logistical and political realities of planning a trip, especially an expensive, international one. It would be fair to argue that Instagram perhaps isn’t the platform for these discussions, except that, as I’ve mentioned, 40% of people are using a trip’s Instagam potential as the most important factor when travel planning so these discussions need to happening there. At best, people might end up disappointed, and at worst, a desperate desire to get the shot has resulted in death or serious injury for a few eager Instagrammers.

I’ve even heard of an app that tells you where to go and when to be there to get the best shots in certain notable locations. You get the same photos as everyone else in the same places. Where’s the fun in that? Where’s your perspective? What’s the point of travelling somewhere amazing only to spend your time trying to get the same, impersonal, staged shots as everyone else with an iPhone and a self-esteem complex?

Seeking out the same pictures as everyone else also has the effect of making the backdrop largely inconsequential. Instagram travel shots tend to be centred around the traveller rather than the destination – these posts are made to advertise, not educate. They are designed, I assume, to help you imagine yourself in those photos and help make it easier to put in your card number and drop some serious dollar on an international flight, so you too can have photos that suggest you are somehow a more attractive, more worldly, better person for having been there and looked good while doing so.

It just doesn’t feel like it means anything or does anything that positive for you or the perception of travel. It feels done for likes, followers, small-scale Internet validation and, for some, the potential of making some cash by monetising yourself somewhere down the line. And the real problem with this is that it doesn’t actually make you happy! Making decisions – especially expensive decisions like where to take a big trip – based on what other people will think doesn’t tend to make people happy, especially when the bulk of people who will potentially like those photos on social media are people you don’t know personally or only know peripherally and therefore whose opinions are largely irrelevant in the long-term. Basing your choices on the opinions of people who don’t matter to you is a recipe for unhappiness. The locus for your identity becomes not only external but rooted in people who you barely know and therefore, ultimately, mean nothing to you.

The Instagram phenomenon doesn’t just affect the individual user. Social media is causing spectacular overtourism, to the point that Iceland and Barcelona are desperately trying to limit visitors. When somewhere gets big on the Internet, people book flights in droves. This means that there will be more familiar restaurants, recognisable foods and people who look and live like you because everyone is going to the same places to take the same pictures and the marks of mass tourism follow, diluting true cultural exchange and pissing off locals. It’s boring, it’s a limited view on the world and your great fortune in having the opportunity to see it. It doesn’t stretch you. You don’t learn much, except that without a shitload of filters and perfect natural lighting those places aren’t always as photogenic as you think. Your expectations are sky-high because the reason that photo has been posted is not to open your eyes to the possibility of the world but to sell you something, to sell you a future where you too could be as a thin, tanned and blonde as that Insta model who never shows her face and just stands on the beach looking banging in a bikini, surreptitiously tagging the country’s tourism board in the post. And, if you use that link to book your flights, she might just get a small commission. But yes, you should definitely go. It will look just like the pictures. Well, I mean, your pictures will look just like her pictures, if you buy her presets – only $19.99 (yes, I have spent too much time on the Internet. This is why I deleted Instagram in the first place).

I know, I know. I’m a dick. There’s no perfect way to choose a destination and you aren’t ‘better’ for having chosen somewhere off the beaten path or less touristed, especially because the courage and experience to do so tends to come have from having travelled before, often extensively, a luxury that most people haven’t had. Social media does bring you the world, in its own way. But it often brings you a cleaned up, cropped, manufactured version of an activity that is hugely enjoyable but often messy, stressful, expensive and never looks like the set of a Vogue photoshoot. As with almost everything, a little more honesty and transparency would likely go a long way.

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