Social media has already taken our self-confidence, our attention spans, and our ability to be happy without external validation – and its next victim is our travel.
Having visited or lived in 10 countries in the last three years during internships and backpacking trips, I’ve been blessed to have explored some lively adventures and tranquil experiences – including things from taste-testing crickets at the Bangkok night markets to watching the sunset from mainland Greece.
Yet, I’ve also been able to rather bluntly critique the travel habits of myself and those around me, and my fear is that our infatuation with social media is undermining our ability to reap the benefits that travel has to offer.
In an attempt to not be a complete pessimist on the topic, however, I’ve included my personal recommendations for how to bring travel back to life.
Problem 1: “Pics or it didn’t happen”
The most obvious infiltration of technology into our travels can be seen at nearly every travel destination: our smartphones and cameras. In theory, the ability to capture memories on a camera and revisit them at other times and places is a seemingly beneficial capacity, though, unfortunately, it has been abused.
Last summer, I remember watching a World Cup soccer game in Dam Square, Amsterdam where fans from all over gathered. I can distinctly recall two British boys in front of me who so insisted on getting their perfect “post-worthy” pictures with their English flag waving amidst the crowd. While the rest of us were engaged in the match, exchanging high fives and conversation about our favorite teams, they spent their time taking what had to have been hundreds of pictures of each other and getting a rather rigorous thumb workout sifting through their not-quite-good-enough photos.
I think the phrase “Pics or it didn’t happen” can summarize the problem rather swiftly, and I think we’ve all been a little guilty of this while travelling. We’ve begun to prioritize gathering evidence – as artificial as it may be – of our travels over actually enjoying and learning from the new settings we’re in. After hiking to the top of a temple and being gifted an amazing view, the immediate mesmerizing reaction is quickly replaced by an urgent need to snap a post-worthy picture.
How can you possibly enjoy the view if your followers don’t know you were really there?
Solution: Taking pictures while travelling to share on social media and being fully engaged in your travel experiences are not necessarily mutually exclusive – but I think it’s easy for the former to undermine the latter. I’ve found that journaling instead of taking pictures allows me to be more present while travelling and to better personalize my memories.
Problem 2: Fitting the Mold of Social Media
Another problem with social media and travel is that we too often manipulate the portrayal of our experiences such that they will be admired by others. I think there’s a certain aesthetic that travelers seek to portray on social media. This manifests itself in specific forms (you know, the girl reaching back for the hand of the photographer), but it also comes in general themes, in which travel is consistently portrayed as blissful, beautiful and flawless, regardless of whether reality agrees. I went hiking with a girl in Spain who really struggled with the altitude and threw up several times on the way down. Sure enough, she later posted a picture to Instagram flexing and smiling at the top of the mountain with a caption suggesting just how serene the hike was.
Wouldn’t sharing an honest description of the grueling yet rewarding struggle to her followers be more productive than hiding behind a false confidence?
I’m convinced that the real editing on social media is the selection of the content we choose to share – though there’s plenty of photographical manipulation too. Travel is supposed to be about new experiences, both good and bad, and about growth, both euphoric and uncomfortable. But social media has convinced us that we need to construct picturesque highlight reels, and we merrily oblige by belittling or even hiding the less charming aspects of travel where the real value lies.
Solution: Social media is inherently unequipped to provide context and accuracy behind posts. If you want to really hear about someone’s travel experiences, have a conversation with them and ask about the joys and the struggles. I’ve also found that making photo books of my travels is a much better way to preserve and share my experiences with friends and family.
Problem 3: Letting go of Surprise and Serendipity
Travel should be about throwing ourselves into the unknown and authentically participating in a new environment. I fear, however, that social media is removing too many of the healthy unknowns and genuine experiences from travel.
My favorite weekend trip from these last three years was not my thoroughly planned trip to Germany, or my strictly itinerary-followed journey through Paris; it was my trip to a small town in northern Italy that I picked off the map with only some rough ideas of hikes to do. A plane, train, and two buses later, I met and stayed with a local family and asked for recommendations. I was not only advised of the best routes to follow during hikes, but also received other local advice on the best spots to grab some tasty minestrone and which direction storms tend to roll in from.
The surprises were exhilarating, and the experiences were genuine. Too often, however, if we want to travel somewhere, we’re overstimulated with a multitude of trip itineraries to follow from travel bloggers. And before we even pack our bags, we can see everything from the menus of restaurants we’ll visit to the exact views we will see at the summits of our hikes.
Solution: Don’t ruin the surprises! And don’t over-plan based on what’s available online. Of course, logistics planning and some basic safety research is necessary, but I’ve found that interacting with locals is a much better way to explore and prevent against simply replicating what other tourists have done.
We must make travel our own.
Travel is beautiful because of its unparalleled ability to expose us to new ways of life and promote interpersonal and self-growth. However, in order to bring travel back to life, it must be documented modestly, portrayed honestly, and remain unknown to a healthy degree.