What does travel look like in the era of social media? Does it mean we travel more deeply, with greater insights into the destination? Or are we now merely skimming the surface?
Social media has undoubtedly changed the way we travel. Like the video camera and camera before it, social media has added a new, henceforth unrealized dimension to the travel experience – travel as personal advertisement. Presently, the accent has shifted to the traveller. The trip is more about us than the place.
Not that long ago slideshows, vacation home movies and Polaroid’s were commonplace. Each, enabled travellers to relive memories, to bring the immediacy of travel home and to commemorate the experience with a tangible memento of the most personal kind.
Today, the selfie and selfie stick, the GoPro, and the multi-second video are considered, if not an indispensable accompaniment and product of travel, at least, a reasonably acceptable way to capture a trip. Visit any major monument in any major site in the world and the scene is all too similar. There will be people leaping into the air for the requisite action shot, a few will be holding perfectly formed soft serve cones before iconic architecture, others will be giggling at their phones, while a few will be filming the panorama in vertigo-inducing circles to broadcast to their followers.
A proliferation of snapshots and videos instantly uploaded, liked and commented on has shifted the paradigm of travel. It is now, overwhelmingly, if social media is to believed, about envy, aspiration and validation. An immodest checklist mentality prevails: “85 countries and counting;” “Just visited my 35 country;” “Youngest/Oldest person to visit every country in the world.” Sometimes the results verge on the ridiculous. A stopover to one of the most culturally distinct islands in the world, with a history, a local language and cuisine that have spawned legions of books, academic papers and even a Nobel Prize, garners nothing more than a few snapshots and a tick on the all important checklist of countries visited.
This is nothing new – even a few generations ago, when the world was not a global village, travellers were keen to brag about where they had been. What has changed in the interim is the scale, the size of the audience and the monetization.
As the media have changed so too the pace. Whereas writers and photographers were trusted sources, distilling the essence of a place into languid prose, and arresting photos, today’s travellers allegedly turn to a few seconds of video that will only ever be viewed for a few hours before fading into the ether of the internet or, to staged and styled photos among the millions we see each day, to inspire them to travel. In an incredibly short span of time, new media has eclipsed old, often with absurd consequences.
Recently, the head of a travel commission wrote that she was away with “very important media.” Naturally, the accustomed glossy New York stalwarts came to mind, only to later discover the VIPs were “social media content creators.” Our attention spans are shrinking. Immediacy trumps longevity. Reach trumps thought.
It is not just tourism organizations that have taken notice and conferred relevance if not preference to all things social media, to some degree so have we all. Social media informs the way most of us travel. The expectation of accessibility, the ease of connectivity and the widespread acceptance of gadgets (including smartphones) means that interacting on a device while abroad is now a social norm.
Whenever I travel I too will be directing Instagram-worthy snaps, shooting short video or responding to requests. Social media has changed the way I travel. It has made my office mobile, but it has also robbed me of that crux of travel – immersion. I have become less susceptible to the transformative power of travel because I am preoccupied by a virtual world. I have often found lately, that instead of simply admiring a sunset, or enjoying my food or laying down to rest beneath a palm tree, I am interacting with my device.
A few months ago, I met someone who had broken her camera and had not yet found a replacement. “I really miss my camera,” she said, before adding, “but it has been good in some ways. It forces me to be in the moment.”
Today, there are more travellers than at any other time in human history, but how many of us have really been anywhere?
This original article first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of City Style and Living Magazine.