Oh, no. No, no, no.
That’s my reaction, all too often these days, when I go on social media.
I’m sure we all have seen it.
The photo of a travel blogger or ‘travel influencer’ in their cutest or most striking pose, wearing a short summer dress or going shirtless with beer in hand…while standing on the streets of an impoverished, war-torn village in Africa or in front of a run down shack on a dirt road in India.
The photo is oh so perfect, oh so worthy of being shared across all social media platforms, and naturally, worth many, many ‘likes’.
But wait a minute…what about the very real people living with very real struggles behind the crumbling walls and bent tin doors?
When such photos are posted, is the traveler even aware that these people exist?
Once upon a time, the focus was on the beauty, the eye-opening moments and the education of travel. Now, that focus has simply been replaced by the heavily filtered ‘beauty’ of our ourselves. Everyone wants the attention to be on them, not the actual destination.
And there really isn’t much value in such infatuation with ourselves while traveling. Instead, it’s remarkably tone deaf and disrespectful to those places we visit.
All it does is show a lack of awareness about our surroundings, which doesn’t match the supposedly positive and life-changing aspects of travel – the sharing, interacting, learning – that we travel bloggers and influencers claim to promote.
Those ‘things’ are now only good enough to be used as a pretty backdrop for photos and stories about ourselves.
Where is the learning?
Look on any travel-related blog or social media profile. We all say that learning or education is one of the main, if not the main, reasons we travel in the first place. We all say it’s to interact with local cultures and people and to hopefully challenge and better ourselves and the world by doing so.
But in many cases, that learning and genuine interaction is nowhere to be found.
In my experience, learning is not rooted in selfish pursuits. Learning is not using or ignoring the difficulties and struggles of others for our personal gain (doesn’t that rusted shack with a family of 6 barely surviving inside look great behind my kapotasana yoga pose?).
Genuine interaction isn’t a photo of a pre-planned handshake in pre-planned, picture-perfect clothes, with a pre-planned smile or forced expression of interest.
And a casual mention of the surrounding reality – perhaps the devastation, the intense history or the general struggles of those that live there – in a two or three line caption next to our IG or FB photo…that’s not education.
This village was bombed. The people now live among the rubble. So sad 🙁 But look at my gown!
Umm…yes, again, what about those people around you? The people right there in the houses in the background of your photo?
The world is not a movie set or a playground for us to stomp all over for our selfish desires just because we’re privileged enough to afford plane tickets.
Such activity really has no lasting impact on humanity. It certainly doesn’t encourage others to travel around the world learning, affecting change and being a positive force. It encourages others to travel around the world completely ignoring their surroundings, because the most important thing is getting the best photo of yourself.
I get it. It’s business for some. It’s a way to get attention and that attention turns into money or free travel and so on. But again, where’s the real value?
And if it is business, it shouldn’t be hidden behind a disguise of learning, as so many do.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking photos of ourselves. I take them all the time. But I also try, like most bloggers, to provide some value and to not make everything I do all about myself. That doesn’t represent how I think travel, or social media, should be.
And I don’t think I’m alone.
My friend Jodi Ettenberg, from the popular blog LegalNomads, summed it up quite well by saying…
“We are all imperfect, but that’s what makes us human. And that’s what social media should reflect: our collective imperfection. As travel writers, we should be setting an example by sharing what lies outside the glossy sheen of filters. It’s less photogenic, but it’s where the magic happens. And overall that makes it more aspirational, more raw, and more real. We owe it to our readers not to share some false, idealized version of ourselves. The good and the bad, the stories that get you thinking — that’s where you add value to the world in this space.”
This is travel
I know what you might be thinking. This is a bit too much. The times have changed, it’s the way things work now. It’s better to shrug it off or laugh it off and then carry on doing what we each feel is right.
At the same time, this is why travel blogging and travel influencing is a little messy these days. It’s why more and more people tell me, “I stopped reading travel blogs.” I keep hearing the same reasons. There’s too much fluff and useless content, too little authenticity. It’s about showing off and trying to earn money, not about the actual benefits of travel. It’s no longer about helping others travel. Travel bloggers seem quite entitled and cocky. And so on.
Perhaps I’m struggling with this because I’ve seen the change happen over the years and I remember when travel took on a very different meaning. There indeed was a time when it wasn’t about ‘look at me’ and was all about ‘look at this place, here’s what’s going on’ instead.
After all, travel is without a doubt an awesome and life-changing endeavor. I’m talking about the moments shared with people that you otherwise would never have come into contact with. I’m talking about the genuine exchanges, the handshakes and hugs, the laughter and meals eaten together, the stories about a place directly from the mouths of those who call it home. It’s all about the authentic cultural activities that might not make for a pretty photo but sure as hell make for an education like no other. It’s all of the above, and the influence this has on our own lives.
Just typing that paragraph gets my heart pumping and my skin tingling.
That’s what needs to be shared. That’s travel.
Focusing on ourselves first and foremost while ignoring the destinations, people and potential education around us – in other words, a lack of awareness – is not.
“As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful.” – Anthony Bourdain