CLASH OF COMMENTS: Does social media dictate how and why people travel?

Image: Maria Kalinowska

YES – Dan Hall

ALL THE WORLD’S a news feed. At least, that’s how it seems to so many wide-eyed travellers who will tell you that what they really want from life, is to ‘have as many new experiences as possible’. We are lucky to live in a world that is unprecedentedly accessible to travellers all over the globe. But on this hemisphere, at least, I think what your average young traveller etherized by wanderlust is really after is the ability to show other people what an interesting and cultured and bohemian person they are, relegating the experience of being somewhere different to a secondary concern. So while air fares have cheapened, so has the value of travelling abroad at all. Here is a selfie of me at Macchu Pichu, and what you really should be paying attention to is the fact that it’s me here, the ancient Incan city being just another serviceable back drop for my vanity, as exchangeable
in its Instagrammable value as the Berlin Wall.
It doesn’t matter about being in the aura of the place itself, but that its cultural cache could seek out an unusually high yield of likes on social media.
The idea that travelling now is more about vanity than curiosity is not a new phenomenon. In the 17th Century, Pascal wrote: “We would not take a sea voyage if we could not talk to others about it, or for the sole pleasure of seeing without hope of ever communicating it.” We’ve always wanted to bore others about our travels. What’s new is that this vain impulse has a new anxiety attached to it – we have to see all of it before we die.
Experiences aren’t an end in themselves anymore. Now the cultural emphasis is much more on collecting and displaying them, and he who has the biggest collection wins. Or, at least, he who has the most ‘liked’ collection wins. Like so many other things for our generation, we know what we want much better than we know why we want it.
I might be tempted to say that the ultimate symbol of this attitude is the selfie-stick: the now ubiquitous narcissist’s sceptre on sale at any ruined tourist destination the world over. But I think even more emblematic of the idea of collecting ‘experiences’ merely for the sake accruing social capital is actually the scratch map.
If you’re not familiar with the concept, a scratch map is a map of the world where each country is covered in a foil film that you scratch off (like a scratch card) when you’ve been there.
According to its product description on amazon.com (which modern travellers are more interested in than the Amazon rainforst), the scratch map is ‘the perfect way to show off where you’ve been travelling while livening up your wall’. This catches the exhibitionism at the heart of voluntouristic ‘gap yah’ type travelling, and it also orders the vast complexity of Earth into a target to be reached, a mere menu of amusements, a long listicle of life.
NO – Maria Kalinowska
IN A WORLD where social media slots itself into people’s every waking moment, it is no wonder that it has become part of the travel experience.
Social media is filled with people who have gone on ‘gap yahs’, not having to worry about money, and it may seem like they’re just ticking off global attractions. Nevertheless, this is not the overall attitude of modern travel. Featuring in one’s own travel photos is not narcissism, not a ‘look at me in this place’. It acts on the ‘I can’t believe I’m here, let me take a picture so I can remember this moment’ feeling.
Travelling is an intense experience, with life passing at 100 miles an hour. Taking and posting photos on social media is a way to separate each individual, exciting moment.
Sharing photos does not undermine the experience of the moment that photo was taken. Photos are, after all, visual memories. What is negative about sharing them and inspiring others to travel through photography? The accusation that travel photography is superficial undermines people’s experiences. Why is it sociably acceptable to share photos of other experiences, such as a new job, but not travelling, when for some that is the most important part of their life?
Meeting new people, taking pictures together and connecting on social media means you can keep in touch with them in a unique way. As much as we want to, we cannot always stay in contact with the people that we meet on our travels, thanks to busy lifestyles and time zones. Social media keeps us informed about their lives and it makes it easier to meet your travelling friends again. There have been times when I’ve been travelling and noticed through social media that one of the people I met on a previous trip was nearby and I was able to organise an impromptu meet-up.
Some might say that social media dictates the destination of the moment, and it may look that way, when similar photographs crop up again and again. How many times has Machu Picchu appeared on your newsfeed? This is because Machu Picchu is truly amazing. It makes sense that people travel there and take pictures. Who wouldn’t want to capture that memory?
There are certainly people out there who seek aesthetic photos in amazing places solely for vanity’s sake, but there are also those for whom travelling is a lifestyle. When those sorts of people look at their scratch map, they see the experiences and memories attached to each place they have been. Social media similarly allows them the luxury of looking back, revelling in nostalgia and reliving the most exciting parts of their travels.
From the earliest days, people documented the places they visited, as a memory for themselves but also so that they could recount their experiences to others; to enlighten and inspire people. So maybe we’re just the Marco Polos of Instagram?

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