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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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!
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?