We’ve all seen it. You arrive at the Taj Mahal or the Louvre, filled with pure anticipation to see a world-famous landmark for the first time. Yet when you finally reach the perfect spot for your long-awaited view you get hit in the head with a selfie stick. As you inch your way into the mass of fellow tourists, craning your neck to get a peek, you are rudely shoved aside by an Instagram wannabe star who elbows you in the ribs to get their winning shot. Disheartened, you step aside being engulfed in the swarm of people beside you.

Welcome to the distorted world of social media, a world filled with Instagram influencers who are literally falling to their death to get that perfect shot or buying their followers, comments and likes on some underground website to reach their dreams of becoming a wealthy, world-famous star.

Sound familiar?

Sadly it does. In a world where social media has the ability to make a nobody suddenly rich and famous or even a  7 year old child bringing in $22 million on YouTube reviewing toys, it seems like everyone wants a piece of the pie these days.

But the obsession with social media comes with a huge price. Not only to our sanity but to the way we view and see the world. Here are some of the problems we face and how we can survive online without jeopardizing our soul.

Contributing to Overtourism

One downfall of social media is its influence on overtourism in already popular, ecologically or culturally sensitive places around the world. Think about Iceland, Machu Pichu, Angkor Wat and beaches in Southeast Asia filled with trash and being trampled almost to death, and it is heartbreaking. Even once far-flung destinations such as Myanmar and Palawan in the Philippines have become Instagram sweethearts  with millions of pretty posts. The world is your oyster and up for grabs for anyone with a cellphone and a social media account. However, the surge in tourism for that instagram-worthy photo of that popular place does not come without a price.

A recent article in AFAR states:  Social media is increasingly taking its toll on some of the world’s most photogenic locations, with growing numbers of Instagram-inspired travelers causing concerns about site crowding and conservation. Recently, hugely popular destinations have implemented new rules aimed at combatting overtourism. Just this year, Machu Picchu introduced a stricter ticketing system and Venice announced a visitor tax. Now, an extremely recognizable natural landmark in the United States has joined the expanding list. For the first time ever, travelers must pay an entrance fee to visit Horseshoe Bend, a regularly photographed spot in Arizona’s Glen Canyon National Recreation Area where the Colorado River takes a dramatic U-shaped turn.

Esteemed travel bloggers such as The Expert Vagabond also question Instagram and Social Media’s role in hurting travel. In his thought-provoking piece, Matt states that “Instagram has become a publicly accessible bucket-list of places you NEED to visit, fueling a FOMO (fear of missing out) attitude. We’re trying too hard to impress everyone with our list”. I couldn’t agree more.

Isn’t it wonderful to have a view like this all to yourself? Photo credit: Pexels

Many prominent journalists and publications are also speaking out about the negative impact of overtourism :

In a recent piece published by Yale University, Some countries are trying to control the boom, with a few closing popular destinations to allow damaged areas to heal”. Thailand’s famous Maya Bay – which was hardly known before the 2000 film starting Leonardo DiCaprio, has been closed indefinitely hoping that its damaged corals will heal.

All the way from the beaches of Bali, Ha Long Bay in Vietnam to once unknown islands in the Philippines, overtourism is threatening the very places we love and are wanting to see. And tragically little is being done to control or stop it. The threat and negative impact to the environment, culture and overall wellbeing of a destination is at risk. Randy Durband, chief executive officer of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council bluntly states: “I would argue that tourism has not only been badly managed in general, it’s not been managed at all”. And social media is not helping. The more and more people see those incredible shots of a place, the more they gravitate towards going there.

Per Tourism Review News, in such popular tourist destinations such as Iceland “officials are asking visitors to ‘please skip’ some of the most Instagram-popular and overcrowded spots like Reykjavik’s blue lagoon. 2 million tourists arrived in Iceland last year, in contrast to the country’s population of less than 350,000. Much of the increase is attributed to social media”.

Rude Tourism

Another unwanted impact is darn right rude tourism in which travel influencers are behaving badly. This can range from disrespect for the people and place they are visiting to simply trying to use their influence to get a free ride.  I will never forget last summer when we were in Paris and my mom, sister, niece, daughter and I waited in line an hour so we could get a front row seat on the Bateaux Mouches for our tour of the monuments along the Seine. I was so excited to finally show my daughter all the sights of a city I lived in and loved when I was younger. However, my joy turned into anger and eventually disgust as an entire group of selfie sticks and even a twenty-something Italian man stood directly in front of our view taping a live YouTube video the entire boat ride! What was supposed to be a memorable experience turned into a disaster. Tant pis. 

Crowds at the Eiffel Tour. Photo credit: Pexels

Dangers of the shot

Not only are travelers being rude, they are even risking their own lives taking risky shots on the edge of a cliff or disturbing shots with dangerous animals (or also even harming animals by taking selfish selfies holding a wild animal, feeding it or riding it in an unethical manner).

In a recent article in National Geographic, “How Instagram is Changing the Way We Travel” James Draven opens with the tragic news:

In October 2018, a husband and wife fell to their deaths from an unfenced overlook in Yosemite National Park, just a month after a man died at an 800ft waterfall in the same park. In July 2018, a US tourist fell around 60ft from a whale-watching spot in Sydney, only six weeks after a man in his 30s fell from the same ledge. All of these deaths occurred, reportedly, while taking selfies. There are many more examples of accidental deaths while trying to capture shots for social media feeds.

Not to mention the story of the beautiful infamous Taiwanese bikini climber who rose to fame and success by climbing some of the highest peaks in a bikini and tragically died after falling into a ravine. While she was admirably bringing exposure to female solo climbing there are questions surrounding her death. Due to poor weather, rescuers couldn’t arrive until 43 hours after her distress call and by that time it was too late.

Standing on the edge of life or death for the perfect shot. Is it worth it? Photo credit: Pexels

Playing with our Heads

If you are like most of us, it is natural to check out the “likes” after you post on social media. We can pretend we don’t care but the reality is that most of us do. It is only human. Humans want and sometimes crave to be liked. Yet social media is playing with our heads and sometimes leading to unhealthy situations like depression, anxiety and even in rare cases suicide. It is hard not to care when you are comparing yourself with an often fake reality. Hyper-posed model-like shots of travelers wearing the perfect outfit at the perfect angle becomes a distorted reality of what travel is like. Influencer mom bloggers posting photos of their perfect household, perfectly groomed children and perfect meals online when it really takes hours to set up for the photo shoot is simply not real. Yet people view them, like them and compare themselves against this falsehood and it makes us feel bad.

With over “Three billion people, around 40% of the world’s population, using online social media – spending an average of two hours every day sharing, liking, tweeting and updating on these platforms (according to a report compiled by Hootsuite and We Are Social and published by The Next Web), it is no wonder we all are feeling a bit sick. As a mother of two young teens, I often worry about the mental health of my own children when they eventually discover social media and start using it. As a blogger, I too get caught up in this phenomena. I compare myself to other bloggers and feel bad when a post isn’t well received or liked. I try my best to just be me, to be authentic and myself  but that doesn’t always help me succeed as a writer. I constantly battle with why I even bother to post on Instagram but then remind myself why I’m doing it. Not to become famous or to be liked or to get free trips but to make connections with other travelers I find inspiring and also hope that maybe someone out there will be inspired by me. At the end of the day, isn’t that what matters?

Buying Followers, Likes and Comments

Finally the ugly behind the scenes truth. Photographer Trey Radcliff, the creative mind behind the #1 travel photography blog StuckInCustoms.com has released a new book “How to Fake Your Way into Getting Rich on Instagram: Influencer Fraud, Selfies, Anxiety, Ego and Mass Delusional Behavior” in which he exposes the big scam being done by many “influencers” online. What kind of world do we live in where there is a big black market online where you can buy likes, comments and followers for Instagram and then turn around and make tons of money online? Influencers such as Kylie Jenner makes $1 million per post on Instagram yet are all the likes, comments and followers in her account real? (Hint: You will have to read Trey’s book to find out or if you don’t want to dive into all 356 pages of how people can and do trick the system, then simply watch this interview). The sad thing is that some brands don’t seem to be paying all that much attention to real versus fake followers. The problem is fake likes and comments are not real and only an illusion of influence. They will not generate more sales. But do the marketing executives who can tell their boss that their “influencer” got zillions of likes on a post for the brand even care if that number is fake? I wonder what will happen if Instagram decides to go to a “hide your likes” model.

 

Changing the Way we Travel and See a Place

Perhaps the most important issue of all is that social media is changing the way we travel and see a place. Instead of seeking out all the beauty and mystery in the world and being curious, we are too caught up in getting the perfect shot and hitting send, and not seeking out all the wonderful things about travel in the first place.

Andrew Evans, a prominent travel writer, TV host, and author who has completed over 40 assignments for National Geographic simply states: “What influencers have done is to take the whole world and remap it into whatever is #instagrammable and toss the rest”. His recent TEDx Talk title “How to Be a Bad Influencer” identifies the ugly truth in “the latest iteration of imperialism” that leads to “irresponsible travel behavior.”

“Because now everyone is looking for Instagram-worthy selfie spots, […] we’ve destroyed iconic travel destinations,” he said. “We’ve downgraded and cheapened what I love most about travel, which is real connections with real people in real places.” – Andrew Evans

Isn’t that the sad truth.

I’m guilty of it too! Looking back to my trip to Tanzania in 2015, I had the incredible opportunity to stay in a Maasai community all by myself where I got to learn how to bead with Mary. However, I never posted this unflattering photo of me on Instagram. My thought was who wants to see a 45-year-old woman in poor light in a not-so-great photo taken from my cellphone. Yet this memory of the afternoon I spent with Mary learning to bead jewelry was one of my travel bests. What a pity!

Mkuru Training Camp Maasai Tanzania

Me and Mary learning how to bead

 

So with all this depressing news, what can we do?

As much as I often want to just shut down all of my social media accounts and throw up my arms in frustration, I can’t. You simply can’t run a business (or a blog) without social media. So putting the negative things aside, it is important to remember that there are actually a lot of incredibly positive things about social media. Think of the connections you make with fellow travelers and also the ability to inspire, create and show off the incredible beauty and diversity of the world. For those who don’t have the luxury of traveling, you can be an armchair traveler and learn more about the world through the impressive array of photos and stories found online.

It is also important to remember that of course not all are fakes. There are plenty of truly amazing, real and authentic influencers out there doing a lot of great things on social media. Some are even changing the world!

So instead of giving up, we can choose to be more mindful with our own use of social media. If you are like me, you may not have a huge social media following and that is ok. If my social media is used as a way to offer some inspiration in how me as a traveler sees the world, then it is a success regardless of my small following. Instead of becoming so obsessed with the numbers, the comments and the likes, we can focus on being our authentic selves. When we travel, we can choose a place to visit because we truly want to see it. We can put our phones away. Connect with the beauty of the world around us and the people too. We can go back to what travel was like before cellphones. Like how it was in 1993 when I lived in France for nine months and only have a handful of crappy photos (because digital cameras weren’t even around) and a series of handwritten journals and memories of what travel used to be like before all this nonsense. We could go back to what travel used to be like before social media, iPhones and selfie sticks. Wouldn’t that be grand?

40 comments

  1. Wise words :”we can focus on being our authentic selves. When we travel, we can choose a place to visit because we truly want to see it. We can put our phones away. Connect with the beauty of the world around us and the people too. “

    1. Oh thanks Sue! Yes, to be in the moment and truly there connecting with what makes travel so incredibly magical.

  2. Agree with everything you say Nicole. I have posted less than I used to but for me one of the great pleasures that keeps me going is connecting with like-minded fellow bloggers, and of course one of my favourite’s as you know is yourself together with your always inspiring “thirdeyemom” :-).

    1. Oh thank you so much Andrew! Yes, I look at the amazing friends I’ve connected with through my blog, facebook, twitter and even IG and that is what it is all about. To be inspired! 🙂

  3. Yes, yes, yes and HELL yes! I’ve thought the same and discussed the same over and over. Just 3 days ago I got majorly pissed off with a guy harassing a wild fur seal pup for a close up selfie and I’ve been frustrated with crowds and selfie sticks time and time again. I still travel for me only but I’ve definitely started disconnecting less and taking more photos for posting purposes than I used to. I’ve also seen my anxiety rise as my social media use has accelerated over the past few years – causation or correlation, the jury is still out but the weight of evidence is growing. When I climbed Kilimanjaro in Feb, my phone was disconnected for a week and it’s the most in-the-moment I’ve been in a long time. And I was truly happy.

    1. Yay! So glad you can relate! When I see people being disrespectful with their photos whether it be to humans, animals or a place, I get so mad. A few times I’ve spoken up yet I wish I had the courage to do it me. As for anxiety with social media, yes it is real and true. I made a promise to just cut back on IG a year or so ago. My likes, comments and following greatly decreased but I realized I could not spend hours a day liking, commenting and doing whatever to get noticed. It was making me miserable. Now I just look at it once a week or so. I don’t have a big following but that is ok. My happiness and wellbeing is much more important. As for being disconnected, YES!!! My favorite times in life! It is the most freeing feeling ever. In fact, when I travel I just take photos and notes. I don’t constantly post online or write at all but do it all when I get home. I want to be in the moment while I’m there. That is what makes travel so grand!

  4. This is a very excellent article Nicole. And very necessary. I’ve seen what you’re talking about – tourists who are obviously only interested in getting the selfie and not remotely in the place they’re visiting. It’s madness. And sad. Have I also been guilty of wanting the likes and the followers and comments – of course! But I’m much more interested in the places I”m visiting, in the experience. And I know you are too. Those people who die taking selfies – I call that Darwinian. Sad, but Darwinian none-the-less.
    Alison

    1. Thank you Alison. I was a little nervous when I hit the “publish” button worried about backlash. The worst fear is someone saying what do I have to say about it and rant about it when I am just a so and so. (I’ve gotten that kind of comment before where a woman literally called me ugly, jealous and a bad person for writing about being blond in China and standing out). I agree, it is only human to look at our likes and compare ourselves. We all do it. It is hard not to. But that is part of the beast isn’t it? Thanks as always for your incredible support. You are my inspiration you know! 🙂

  5. Nicole, this has to be one of your best posts! I, too have pondered the many thought provoking questions you asked. Do you remember when you wrote a post about the dangers of Sunday Funday in San Juan del Sur? I posted it on a Nicaragua Facebook expat forum…without comment…and was kicked off the forum for posting it. As I recall, you got many hateful and threatening comments, too.
    After the revolution in Nicaragua last April, tourism came to a halt. I lost many social media friends, mainly expat business owners in Nicaragua, who objected to me posting the U.S. Embassy travel warnings. I was blamed for the lack of tourism.
    Thanks for this article and keep on doing what you do! We will soon be on the road again, as compassionate and culturally attuned travelers, not tourists. Hugs.

    1. Oh thank you Debbie! That means so incredibly much. I spent the entire day yesterday researching and writing this. I realized how much it has been bothering me and the post is just the tip of the iceberg. What you are saying in your comment is an entirely new area. The bullying you get online! Yes I will never forget what happened when I wrote that post. How I was called a whore, a bitch and awful human being by a man who never ever met me! I can only imagine what you have received online speaking out! It is sad but it takes a lot of courage too so I commend you for speaking out and telling it like it is to the world about what is going on in Nicaragua. Takes a lot of guts. Hugs to you too. Hope we meet up again someday.

    1. Glad you enjoyed! I do too which is why I spent all yesterday researching it and writing it. Another thing I didn’t comment on is the algorithms on IG which drive me nuts. I wish it flowed in chronological order of the posts and not based on algorithms. I miss out a lot seeing people I follows posts and vice versa. Two years ago I spent an hour a day on IG and it was my best year as I had on average 300-500 likes a post (for me that is big). After three months, I noticed I felt down spending so much time on a screen commenting and liking. It felt like it was something I had to do and I didn’t like it. So I quit and noticed right away that with the same amount of followers my likes declined greatly once I wasn’t spending time on IG (my posts went back in the algorithm). I’m fine with it now as I rarely go on IG because I just don’t want to spend my time there. I’d rather write and read blog posts. But it really is too bad that it has to be determined by IG what we see and how. I ended up going in and greatly reducing who I follow because I realized that if I want to be able to really engage with who I follow, I can’t follow a ton. Of course I got tons of unfollowers but at the end of the day I realize that I want to use it to be inspired and connected. If I only have a handful of followers that is ok. But yes it all does mess with your head and I don’t have to worry about using IG to make money. If you do, then to compete you probably have to do some of these things or you are out of luck.

  6. I have sooooooo many thoughts on this, but I can’t even bear to type them all. Many of my reactions are cynical (about the topic, not you or your take on it), and I’m not normally the cynical type. I am so exasperated with many forms of social media and, unlike many of my online friends, I’ve backed way off. The only reason I have clung to my blog (“clung” = posting about once a quarter these days, it seems!) is that I really care about a number of the people I’ve met through the blog (like you!), and I don’t want to lose that community. (To me there’s nothing community-like about Instagram or Facebook or Snapchat or a few others; I find them competitive and grasping and the roots of some of the horrid behaviors you mention.) But even with the blog, I am so tired. I can’t imagine why anyone needs another post on the Tiger’s Nest or Hawaii or Italy or wherever I go.

    But to respond to your main question, yes, I think these platforms are changing the way we travel, and it is very disturbing. The hordes of people on the Charles Bridge in Prague, all with their awful selfie sticks in my face, were a tipping point for me. I wanted to shove them all off the bridge … (speaking of bad manners – haha) … and the people who take risks like posing on the edges of canyons or skyscrapers or airplane wings (seriously, just read this one) are just idiots who make responsible travelers look bad. The litter and trampling are heartbreaking. The oneupmanship is a game I choose not to play.

    Well, I guess I just spewed more than I thought I would. The topic enrages me, and I’m glad you put it out there. Maybe someone will examine his or her behavior in light of it.

    1. I’m so glad that this post is stirring up the pot! I had a hard time even writing it as there is so much more I want to say. I think if I wasn’t a blogger who depended upon getting my word out then I would never even have any social media accounts. I get so frustrated about it all but when I look back at the 8 years I’ve blogged and the opportunities (trips to Kenya, Haiti, and more all because of my blog and sadly getting those posts pushed out there meaning I have to use social media to have my voice heard) and friendships and connections (even better!) I’ve made, I could never give it up. As for you, I LOVE your voice and yes there are tons and tons of fellow travel writers out there. The market is swamped yet I still believe strongly in the unique authentic voice and that is what I long to read and try to create. I love your authentic voice on travel and that does matter. I began my blog because I was so depressed about all the sad news and wanted to create something positive. Something that hopefully would at times even be inspiring. That is what keeps me going! Anyway, thanks for all your thoughts and your last comment at the end sums it all up best. Yes, that is our hope. 🙂

  7. Excellent post. A friend and I traveled to Moab after Christmas and we were sad to see the hoards of rude, selfie takers who just wanted a photo of themselves in every scenic spot. To me, it seemed that they weren’t there to enjoy the beauty or soak in the serenity but see how many pics of themselves they could take. It is a sad truth that the places we enjoy visiting will eventually require tickets and or reservations too see popular places.

    1. Thanks! Yes I am finding it really frustrating when I am visiting places and it is so overwhelmed with people taking selfies. The selfie sticks are the worst! I agree it is sad the impact it is doing to travel, life and our wellbeing.

  8. Ugh- the word “influencer” makes me cringe and the fact that someone can make a lot of money as one is disturbing to me beyond belief. I had a talk with my kids who all follow various people on various platforms and told them to think about the word “influencer”- some random person is such a part of your life that they can influence it?! Much of it is so vapid and narcissistic. And the travel thing is horrible! It’s crazy how crowds have increased so dramatically the last few years. In fact, I try to go to places on the off-season because I can’t handle hordes of people.

    Now, get off my lawn! haha!

    1. Yes I agree. It is especially important to talk with our kids who are at the influential age and remind them that a lot of these people are not real. I am glad that so far both of my kids aren’t on social media but I imagine it will change as they enter high school. We talk a lot about this stuff at home as I worry so much about the negative impact of social media on our children!

  9. Very well written and eloquently put. I do so many times feel like shutting my social media account. I have stopped using Facebook for awhile. These platforms are breeding grounds for jealousy , unhealthy competition, negativity and gossip. Yet. I have connected with very many fellow travellers and bloggers and like minded people. I find writing a blog very helpful in unraveling my mind and finding my own space in the noisy world. I completely agree with you these photos creating an imbalance in the ecology and making some places to be crowd controlled. We should travel to places we can relate and do things which give us joy. I travelled with a few friends in late 90s, I have no photos from that trip, but it is one of memorable trips of my life.I am not saying don’t take photos, I am just saying there are many ways of making memories.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! Yes, I agree that a lot of these social sites are just plain old unhealthy. I even notice at times I feel worse when I’m on it and am very mindful of my use of it. I don’t know what the answer is to the over tourism and social media phenomena yet hoping it dies down over time as people move onto something else. At least we can hope!

  10. It’s fantastic to see how much this post has resonated with your readers — and please add me to the pile of people saying, “Oh hell yes.” I can’t blame Instagram and Facebook directly for ruining travel, because it’s still the individual travelers who are choosing to use the selfie sticks and broadcast themselves live instead of actually enjoying the experience. But it really is annoying and frustrating when someone else’s selfie obsession ruins YOUR ability to enjoy the moment, as that Italian videographer did on the Bateau Mouche. But what can one do, other than the occasional playful photobomb? Sigh.

    1. Yay, I am too very glad that this post has generated so much thought-provoking comments. It is such a bizarre world we live in today. It makes me so sad but yet we ourselves can make the difference by opting out of that kind of behavior. And yes I did photobomb that guys video. I felt a little bad but he was so rude! 🙂

      1. Aw, don’t feel too bad — sometimes a little lighthearted photobombing is the perfect way to send the message that, “Hey, there are other people on the planet with you.” I still smile when I think about the lovely young woman who was taking incessant selfies while in line for the bathroom at the Louvre and wonder if she ever noticed the woman in the background (me) making gargoyle faces. 🙂

  11. Your last paragraph resonated with me deeply. Life was so different when we travelled simply for the sake of travelling, when we had no need or desire to impress anyone. But we can’t turn back time can we? All we can do is try our best to travel authentically and not get lost or caught up in the comparison game. A wonderful thought provoking post Nicole and a topic that’s been on my mind too lately. Thank you for writing it so articulately here. Your blog is fabulous and you are making a difference to those of us who truly care about the travel and more than just the likes. To me it’s always been about the connections and writing from the heart. Great post.

    1. Thank you so much Miriam for reading and commenting! I have really enjoyed the conversation around this post. Yes, it is kind of a sad world we live in. It is hard to turn it off at times but I stay here and connected exactly because of the amazing people like you that I have met through the blog and online. 🙂

  12. Great post. I do think Instagram changes the way we travel and see the world. When the capturing of selfies while travelling becomes more important than the experience of travelling, something is not quite right, in my opinion. Nothing wrong with selfies in itself, but it often becomes to absurd. And then you have the craving for likes and followers and so on. What’s left of the experience?

    1. Thanks so much for the comment Otto! This is a subject that could go on for pages. I’m thinking a lot more about society as a whole and how glued we all are to our phones. It concerns me greatly with future generations and has become hard to raise my own kids in such a technology driven world. I’m glad mine aren’t on social media yet but I know it is coming and also a good time for me to talk to them more about real “influencers”. Hope all is well with you!

    2. Thanks Otto! This topic has actually been on my mind more and more even since I wrote the post. I’m thinking of how hard it is to raise my own kids in such a technology driven world where people are so consumed by their phones. I am glad my own kids aren’t on social media yet but know they eventually will be. It will be a good learning opportunity for me to talk to them about all these issues. Hope you are doing well!

  13. “As you inch your way into the mass of fellow tourists, craning your neck to get a peek, you are rudely shoved aside by an Instagram wannabe star who elbows you in the ribs to get their winning shot”.
    Your piece held my attention from the start. At times, I am saddened by some of the selfie shots posted on Instagram or other social media sites. But, it has woven itself so tight around today’s lifestyle.

    1. Thank you so much for reading my post. Yes, it is a very different world out there today. I often find myself nostalgic about my youth and the days of travel before cellphones, computers and other distractions. When we had to get lost and figure it out. Find out way and learn from the locals. I feel like so many travelers are missing out but I guess in a way it is their own loss.

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