Japan’s social media travel guide

Snaplace is a Japanese travel guide dedicated to indexing locations for social media photography. Drawing on the logic of the Japanese term “Instabae” インスタ映え which translates as “social media friendly”, the website has compiled a vast array of attractions both in Japan and internationally which have the capacity to assist self-presentation on social media. The site provides maps showing the location of  “instabae” sites as well as information on how to photograph for social media and how to present photographs online.

Snaplace uses maps with coloured icons to show social media friendly attractions:

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Map of the Japanese island of Kyushu with location preview.

The maps differentiate between 3 varieties of location. These are:

1. “Cool!” denotes locations where one can find hip or eye-catching subjects. These locations are reminiscent of Japanese celebrity-culture or current consumer trends and encompass places like resorts, architecture, concept hotels or restaurants, and eateries with showpiece menu items/ décor/ murals.

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2. “Haha!” are spots which have unique, quirky or sub-cultural subject matter. These are places which offer a strange or niche experiences such as unique business, venues with regional specialities, specialty restaurants/cafes or one of a kind tours/experiences.

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3. “Basic” comprises of more traditional sightseeing locations such as views, monuments, attractions and famous restaurants. These are iconic locations which are likely well-known or covered in traditional sightseeing guides. 

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The site is well-populated and easy to use. Clicking on a location provides a brief description of the site and may link to recent social media posts tagging this location. Aside from the index of locations found in the maps, there are different themed guides (e.g. 41 unique cafes/ Spots that look good in the rain) that assist in finding particular experiences. Clicking in on a location provides a variety of information about the site and how it suits social media. Take the “Cool!” location Good Town Bakehouse, a cafe in the fashionable Tokyo suburb of Shibuya (original in Japanese, English through Google Translate):

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In its location descriptions, information about the best angles or subjects for taking photos accompany a brief backstory on the location. Below which Instagram and Twitter feeds provide user content tagged at the location.

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From Instagram

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And Twitter  (with previews of different sites below)

Through the explicit focus on the social media representations/ representability of a location, and the wider context of the website (such as the guides for photography and online self-presentation), photographing, recording and sharing one’s visit are presented as key components of visitation. By combining the dictions of a travel guide and primer for online self-presentation, Snaplace supports  the consumptive mode of sightsharing.

To expand here, it might be interesting to consider Manovich’s (2017) 3 types of Instagram images which appear to share a correlation with the categorisations used by Snaplace:  Cool/Design, Haha/Casual, Basic/ Professional.

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Instabae インスタ映え

Shinjuku Station, in Tokyo, is the world’s busiest train station by commuter volume with some 3 and a half million passengers passing through daily. Within the station is a thin offshoot that allows commuters to move between the South and West exits at ground level rather than traverse the warren of subterranean passengers below. This slick thoroughfare is called the Mosaic Walk. Home to a smattering of stylish gift stores and restaurants it provides a glittering respite from the austere environment of the station proper. Some of the ways it does this are seasonal shop displays and the use of vibrant LED lighting, known in Japan as: イルミネーション “illuminations”.

Illuminations are part of a culture of night-viewing that occurs in Tokyo at places like Roppongi and Yokohama. Lights are arranged to create a pleasant atmosphere, and sometimes  form a dynamic show in which the colours change and dance. Illuminations complement the lightscape of the city by creating a focal point and/or background for photographs. In the case of the Mosaic Walk,  a tunnel of pale purple lights was used to create an enticing and evocative atmosphere. The author recounts:

On the other side of fashionable eateries and cosmetic stores, I noticed an inviting purple glow coming up in front of me. Rows of lights had been strung up overhead to create a sparkling lilac tunnel running the 30m length of a gently sloped down ramp. I found myself walking slower as I took in the scene, and, almost unthinkingly, pulling out my phone to snap a picture, as if not recording this sight would somehow be a lost opportunity. While some commuters continued to pass through the tunnel unfazed, many, especially young girls and couples, stopped in order to pose and take pictures. As I framed the vista on my phone screen I heard a young male commuter comment to his companion using the conspicuously articulated phrase: “Instabae”. What did this mysterious term mean? It undoubtedly pertained to the scene around us and its relationship to social media, but in what capacity exactly? In front of me, two or three groups shuffled around purposefully in order to catch a photo of themselves amidst the lurid background. Meanwhile, I adjusted my own screen in order to catch a suitable reminder…

In Japan “Instabae” has a meaning that is distinct from “social media boy/girlfriend” as it is used in English. In Japanese:

インスタ : Instagram  +   映え : to pleasantly stand out or be eye catching
=   インスタ映え : Instabae

Literally, “Instabae” means to be Instagram friendly. The term can be broadly applied to a place, person, thing or situation given its ability to draw attention on social media.

Commentators have noticed the relationship between Instabae and consumer trends, particularly as pertains to the demographic of young women. Recent news articles in Japan have discussed the rise in popularity of night pools as a focal point for social media photography (Japan Times, Aug 2; Mainichi, Sep 17). These articles explain how hotels and other venues have been promoting pools as a night time gathering for young people. Through the combination of attractive lighting, colourful pool toys and a lively, liminal atmosphere, the pools are an attractive place to take photos for social media.
Quotes from pool-goers read:

It feels like something out of the ordinary, and I’m happy if I can post something on social media and can get more followers,” 22-year-old college student (JT)

It’s just cool enough that I don’t have to worry about my makeup being ruined by sweat. Just tonight I’ve taken 500 pictures, and I’m going to post only one after careful selection,”  23-year-old woman (Maininchi)

From the articles it can be seen that the pools fulfill a role as an impressive setting for online self-presentation. It is interesting to consider, from a travel perspective, how often such settings need to be encountered and how motivated social media users are to find them. Indeed, the JT article provides statistics regarding young woman who have travelled, “for the express purpose of uploading images to social media.” Assisting in the pursuit of Instabae material is a travel website Snaplace https://snaplace.jp/ . Its description is roughly translated (by Google) as “Japan’s largest SNS shine tourist information service.” This website provides maps of locations where Instabae can be found and guides for how to take photos. This includes an explanation of 6 types of Instabae subjects: cute and colourful/ fashionable magazine style/ unusual or surprising/ unique / out of proportion/ relates a story.

I have talked about presentational places (places that complement online self-presentation) before, and these night pools look to fit the genre. The term “Instabae” suggests that there are certain common elements through which these locations are formed. It would be interesting to consider further what determines Instabae, particularly in regards to place.

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Mosaic Walk

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From Mainichi

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Japan Times

Tourist sights or sites?

This is an idea. In my thesis, I have unpacked the term ‘sightseeing’ from a semantic perspective, focusing particularly on the ‘-seeing’ part to compare the active and passive meanings of the verbs “seeing” and “watching” respectively. If tourists commonly spend extended periods of time at an attraction and during this time engage in different forms of interpretation and sense-making, such as photography, which extend beyond visual perception, ‘sight’,  why is it we never talk of ‘sightwatching’?

Afterwards, I thought it is also worth discussing the ‘sight-‘ part through a worthy homophone: ‘site’ (think Clifford (1997) with roots/ routes).

If tourism study has moved beyond the visual, as the performance turn contends, to focus more upon the tourists’ sensuous interactions with the terrain and texture of a destination, then it figures that the term sight should be replaced with something that reflects tourists’ embodied interaction with touristic places. Here, a reasonable choice is “site”. A “site” brings to mind a multilayered place which suggests participation, interaction, dynamism: a domain of happenings and human activity; while the predominantly ocular “sight” suggests somewhere to be encountered, visually, from a distance, a place that remains in some way aloof from the visitor. A site is a heterogenuous, participatory environment, home to varied forces and inputs; while a sight exists on a more singular plane, and is usually separated from the viewer, like a famous artwork or museum artefact, by a barrier: physical, invisible or by distance. The site exists at ground level and is ready to be accessed, interacted with and possibly affected by tourists; while the sight exists at a rarefied height and while visible, is not to be grasped by visitors in a physical sense. The site is responsive and mutable to visitor contact: it may be graffitied, dwelled within, rearranged, adapted; the sight is inert, it’s appearance is constructed for but not by visitors, chosen by professional tastemakers. The site is to be interacted with directly, it’s raison d’etre is to invite participation or activity of some kind; the sight can only be touched indirectly, through a representation or souvenir, usually those distributed by the governing body of the sight itself. The site may occur instantly and spontaneously, without prior planning or established rationale and may continue to live it’s (sometimes brief) life along this course; while the sight is always carefully framed in advance, its appearance concocted and controlled to display a deliberate, often fixed image. In sum, the site is a venue of activity; the sight, a distant, mediated image.

In this light, ‘site’ then becomes a much more suitable metaphor through which to locate touristic experience than ‘sight’. As such, to look at sitesharing, rather than sightsharing, takes the focus beyond what is seen: the distinct visual image a particular location provides for tourists and the consumption of an atmosphere created by things seen: postcards, souvenirs, vistas, and iconic images.  Instead “sitesharing” proposes the consumption of a multilayered location which tourists interact with across many fronts, be it the physical topology of the location that is experienced sensually, the virtual destination described across the cumulative tourist narratives online, the official destination configured through promotional material, polished copy and official destination hashtags, or the social matrix of the other visitors at this place: both ones encountered in person and in the online audience, through the talk and stories which accompany tourist experience. While sights still exist, take the presentational places like restaurants or bridges mentioned previously as examples of locations which have been  constructed to be impressive visual backdrops for tourists, the internet is making them more site-like. These places invite visitors to interact with the location even at the same as this interaction is directed toward particular focal points: feature walls, or particular photograph points. The virtual components of these locations are largely built by the narratives of amateur tourists so that the sites’ meaning may be constructed by the guests rather than prescribed by the location itself. Thus, rather than the distant sight, in this era of connected tourism, the matrix-like site, a place of happenings, is a more suitable metaphor for tourism studies.

A simple visual explanation? Here:

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Presentational place

16/10
Tallinn, Estonia

Today, walking in the old city of Tallinn, enchanted by the narrow cobblestone streets and tall brick buildings, my gaze drawn upwards by the spire of a church, I noticed a small spherical object floating lazily upwards. A balloon? But near colourless against the grey sky, and shifting shape, warbling, rippling in the wind, I realised it was a soccer ball sized bubble. What a strange thing. Adrift from its creator and soaring precariously upward above the city it was a pleasant sight, like a small detail placed carefully in the corner of a painting, a charming addition to the scene as a whole. A few more minutes of aimless sightseeing and I noticed another, not as strange this time – where there is one there should be two, it was scooting along at street level pursued gleefully by a small child wrapped up in a winter jacket. Soon after I found a cluster of the undulating orbs rushing toward me from the same direction. Swept by the wind, they phased between a bright rainbow of colours like excited squid. As the bubbles passed I spotted a gathered crowd and beyond that, their creator, like a conductor of sorts, with two large sticks aloft (fishing rods, it turns out) from which the bubbles vigorously emerged. The man was a street performer and peddled his bubble creations for tips. Small kids stood by enchanted, waiting eagerly for a chance to jump and strike the bubbles from the sky, and tourists waited also, with their phone or camera ready. The bubbles emerged from a sudsy apex at the meeting of the two sticks in a blaze of phosphorescent colour. Slick with detergent and fanned by the winter wind they billowed out quickly, reaching three metres of length in a second or two. A long multicoloured ribbon in carnivalesque colour. A psychedelic bottle blown of flimsy, airy, wavering glass. At times when the wind was less strong (or perhaps when the conductor moved his rods in a different manner) the bubbles likewise emerged differently, sometimes popping out concurrently in a burst of 10 or so globes ranging from tennis ball to swiss ball in size. Sometimes the conductor blew onto them gently and part of the outer wall would spill over into the centre to create a bubble within a bubble. Immediately brilliant, fluorescent, thick with detergent, a riot of colour, the bubbles lost some of their brilliance (evaporation?) if they lived long enough to find themselves swept along the street. But then it wasn’t long before a new batch emerged to delight the crowd, the conductor repeating the process every minute or so.

Whether purposefully or by chance, the man was set up on the very corner outside the Tallinn City Tourist Information Office. This was interesting to me as the bubbles contributed very obviously to what I have been thinking of lately as “presentational place”. That is a location which has been shaped specifically to facilitate online self-presentation. How did those bubbles do that? Because they were bright, cheerful, whimsical and inviting, they suited the type of image that people like to present online. In their dynamic, roving nature they were also interactive. Tourists waited with baited breath and chased them as they appeared, posing in front with a cheeky outstretched finger, or a mock hug, for a friend to snap. The bubbles moved with a rhythm and logic of their own (albeit one influenced by the breeze) and the tourists followed, a game in which one could never be sure of the outcome making it all the more enjoyable. The conductor had set up a small speaker playing feel-good pop music, encouraging the participation of those who stopped. Sometimes the bubbles had to be dodged or ducked. Riding the wind tunnel created by the building-lined street they swept along as if a natural part of the landscape, adding to the atmosphere and catching the attention of passersby. Kids lined up like stray dogs waiting for scraps, delighted if they were able to snatch one of the rippling shapes out of the air with a tiny pop of splattered detergent. Many people took photos, and these airy colourful globes surely added an eye-catching dimension to the snaps in which they appeared. Perhaps the conductor’s act had even been developed with tourist photography in mind? Perhaps it was requested by the Tourist Office? Was it just coincidence that the shiny yellow-pink gradient which shone from the bubbles so accurately evoked the colour scheme of the Instagram  icon on my phone? Perhaps so, but the connection was unmissable in my eyes.

There is nothing new about commercial places being designed to attract attention in order to provide a focal point for sightseeing and tourist photography. Take, for example, Wall Drug, an American roadside stop located in the small town of Wall, South Dakota which, for nearly a century, has utilised a heavy campaign of marketing on highway billboards to draw in tourists. The stop has offered a diverse range of promotional services such as free ice water, 5c coffee, historical exhibitions, and life-sized models of real (dinosaurs) and fantastical (jackalope) creatures to encourage tourists to stop. This disparate amalgam of atrractions and promotional strategies means that the site is famous for being, “nothing other than a celebrated place” (Franklin & Crang, 2001) with its appeal based on brand recognition and attention value. While the atmosphere at Wall Drug is famously kitschy and liable to change, its novelty and strong brand name meant that many tourists were eager to promote the location through word of mouth, bumper stickers or even home-made highway billboards, thus contributing to its ongoing success. Meanwhile, back in Estonia, the bubbles released by the conductor transformed the otherwise normal street corner into a “presentational place”, a backdrop against which online tourist photos could be taken. It can be seen that such a place also utilises attention value by deploying an interesting visual feature which adds value to tourists’ photos. In order to explore this idea of presentational place further, a good place to look is recent developments in the restaurant sector. Here, articles in the mainstream press explain how modern eateries are increasingly focusing on details such as lighting, camera angles and showpiece features or dishes which look good within the square Instagram frame in order to entice customers (Brown, Fast Company; Newton, The Verge). In a similar way to Wall Drug, these developments arguably come at the expense of substance, in this case, the food served in these eateries. As Brown highlights, in such a presentational place, what the meal tastes like is indeed less important than how good it looks:

“Of course that [taste] might not even matter. For a certain iPhone-wielding section of society, proof of purchase is the only thing that matters. …  Restaurant owners now understand that if they play their cards right, their customers will not only pay for a meal but beam their plates to hundreds or thousands of followers.”

As a good-looking meal translates into visual social media more easily than a good-tasting meal, restaurants’ preference may slide toward the former in order to secure the promotion of eaters. The same may be true of presentational places in an experiential sense, as long as a good photo can be produced, the rest of the experience may not matter as much. Where presentational places differ from the kitschy attractions of old, however, is that their boundaries are extended into the digital environment where promotion occurs largely at the hands of amateur users rather than the entity itself. Thanks to social media, physical places also have an virtual component (virtual place) formed at the junction of both professional and user-created representations. This consists of the place’s official website and social media channels (if it indeed has these), and, likely more substantively, of user created narratives such as images sorted by hashtags, personal narratives collated on a review site, blog posts, comments or personal messages. The networked nature of online place can mean massive exposure for the physical location (as happened with Trolltunga) which is great for businesses but sometimes hard to deal with given the realities of actual physical space (capacity limits, infrastructure, impact on adjacent properties).

What then is the consequence of presentational place for tourism? If places are designed to facilitate online self-presentation, then the logic of the online platforms where this presentation occurs then comes to imbue these tourist places and the social interactions that occur there. Online self-presentation is far from value neutral and is shaped by the platforms which host it and their imperatives as commercial entities. In visual social media, presentation takes a surface focus on the visible elements of a given scene. In the case of the restaurants above this is translated in customers seeking the Instagram-focussed imperatives of nice lighting, shiny colours, attention-grabbing features and murals or product packaging featuring pleasant, witty phrases. Such features are ‘taught’ to tourists by highly followed social media tastemakers and become repeated in the hermeneutic circle of representation, infiltrating the form of tourism as a whole. Thus, tourist performance and narratives must be seen as being shaped by the imperatives of social media platforms and the algorithims, economies, influencers, user cultures or platform practices through which these imperatives are enacted.

How does this relate to the bubble conductor? Perhaps he souped up the detergent to make the bubbles more vividly colourful to get more tips? Or, perhaps, like the rock ledge at Trolltunga he finds himself, by pure coincidence, to be something that looks good on Instagram and is helpless to the developing circle of representations produced by the tourists who visit? Either way we may understand that presentational places play an important role in ICT mediated tourism and will likely be increasingly sought after by tourists as important showpieces within the consumptive mode of sightsharing.

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The conductor with crowd participant (the author also had a go!)

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Bubble background

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Place enhanced

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Bubble filter

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A presentational place at Tallinn Airport. A cleverly designed environment (indeed, a gate) which invites the user to take a photo of a charming natural scene from a perspective that make it seem realistic. The rustic bridge and calm forest are then juxtaposed with the airline desks and (potentially open) door leading to the airplane. The interplay of distinct elements creates a fun and striking image which can be used on social media. Notice the request for tourists to “share your experience”  provided alongside the #visitestonia hashtag.  Eye-catching presentational places like this one are a staple of the sightsharing mode of touristic consumption and may be created as part of a promotional or business strategy.

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From the pink circle

From sightseeing to sightsharing

Looking back on my experiences at Trolltunga, I am convinced that travel is a vehicle for defining self. This idea is shaped by a variety of intersecting moments witnessed as part of my fieldwork. Below I shall try to explain them. Following which, I will also explain the way in which, catalysed by the integration of social media into the tourist experience, tourism (and the presentation of self entailed) shift from a consumptive mode based on physical presence toward one enacted through physical presence and the sharing of personal narratives travel narratives. In this new mode, simply visiting and viewing a tourist location does not satisfy tourists’ needs, value is achieved via the recognition of one’s exploits from others.

Trolltunga feels like a cross between a rugged mountain hike and mainstream tourist destination. The juxtaposition of these disparate elements on site, (personified in the contrast between specialist hikers and sightseeing tourists in groups) emphasised the value which the picture at the end holds as part of the touristic experience. People who seemingly weren’t interested in outdoors culture (or who were outdoors novices) looked out of place in the quite extreme conditions. Despite inadequate equipment (sneakers rather than hiking boots, umbrellas instead of rain gear, shopping bags substituted for backpacks) and moments of self-doubt, seen in strained faces or pained pauses on the side of the track, it felt like most people were determined to soldier on until the very end. While the views on the way are breathtaking in their own right, they cannot fully capture the the site’s iconic appeal. Inevitably it is the photo opportunity on the rock ledge at the end of the hike which defines Trolltunga. On the other side of the coin, I wondered why the seasoned hikers bothered with Trolltunga at all? Having met some, well-provisioned, and coming from very far away, to hike on such a crowded track. There must be many similar, more peaceful Norwegian mountain hikes available for keen hikers. Presumably, it is the photo opportunity that forms the common element which draws this broad range of people to the site. So, if the photo opportunity is such a strong motivator, then why? The rock ledge at Trolltunga is a “sublime stage” and is hence a powerful place for performances of self. The photographs captured at Trolltunga are valuable as artefacts for online self-presentation. Images from such a visually impressive (and, increasingly, famous) landscape can be used as an eye-catching showpiece that bolsters the online self through attention to the feat itself and the connotations which it alludes to and inspires in viewers. These connotational meanings can be shaped by the presentation of the photo (through elements such as the caption, tags, or comments), and also through the contextual background of Trolltunga. I would argue that travel material is frequently deployed within the identity construction project given its positive connotations of worldliness, exoticness, adventure and self-growth. The Trolltunga rock ledge presents a particularly striking travel image, which, given it’s stage-like quality is also well-suited for presenting the self. A perfect combination for social media.

Self performance has been approached in theory on tourism as a mode of creative, individualised consumption. Such theory supports a view of travel as a form of identity construction. Indeed, travel provides a liminal space which is well-suited to identity development via its connotations to the hero and personal transformation. The unfamiliar encountered in foreign scapes promises a respite from familiar environments and social interactions, and a window for change. Today, as travel is shared across online platforms and the audience follows touristic experiences almost in real-time, the identity construction project of the journey is further foregrounded. Identity construction is thus interwoven with how tourist places and events are consumed. The main mode of touristic consumption has so far been conceived of as sightseeing. Within sightseeing, consumption of the tourist destination is achieved by being physically present in the landscape, and, usually, obtaining some kind of momentos (such as photographs, postcards or souvenirs). The touristic destination is seen (and felt, tasted, smelled, heard etc) and at some point after told, preferably, with the use of items (photos, souvenirs, etc) from the location. Based on my experiences at Trolltunga, and considering the integration of ICTs into touristic experience as both a method, and, motivation for touristic consumption, I consider a new development in touristic consumption: “sightsharing”. As noted in the above account, travel stories are far from a new phenomena and these were an important facet of sightseeing. This sharing was, however, an accessory or residual benefit to the consumptive act of visiting the site. In the ICT era, the practice of storytelling is integrated within the act of consumption itself as tourists share narratives on site and in a way that is interactive, allowing for dynamic co-consumption of touristic experiences via ongoing exchanges of storytelling and feedback. With the social media audience available in this way, physical presence is no longer sufficient as a way of experiencing touristic place. Now social media adds value by providing a channel which amplifies the moment and allows for benefits like feedback and esteem. Thus, in sightsharing, travel stories are not only a motivation or goal of experience but a dimension of experience as self-presentation and feedback routines are interwoven throughout the journey and influence how it occurs. As a consequence, tourism experiences and landscapes themselves change shape as they are influenced by the possibilities available within online interactions.  I realised this in Trolltunga as I noticed a number of tourists undertaking the hike with props, or special outfits. Why else would you bother carting this extra weight on such a difficult hike unless the end photo was so important? Similarly, the turn-taking, and posing behaviours which take place at the ledge itself highlight the presentational nature of this place. With sighsharing, we will see the rise of Gopros, drones, tripods and other image capture tools as important elements of touristic experience and concomitantly a decline in more typical tourist souvenirs like postcards, models, magnets or t shirts which had complimented (or introduced) travel stories previously.

Within the sightseeing era, the expense and equipment necessary for analogue photography rendered photographic practice more deliberate and less spontaneous. Moreover, these images could not be shared until they had been printed and the audience encountered. The experience was being there first and foremost, with sharing a distant second. Within sightsharing, the portable, easy to use nature of smartphones facilitates photographic practice and allows people to engage in this behaviour whilst on the go as well as allowing potentially immediate sharing of images. Being there and sharing become one and the same, travel stories an automatic (or automated, i.e. geo-data) part of tourism. Sociotechnical developments including the increasing availability of smartphones, user-friendly editing software and internet access, and a culture of personal profiles and life-sharing fomented by social media platforms, drive the phenomena of sightsharing in which travellers share in order to consume. With the availability of info, narratives need to be personalised with the travellers’ own stamp, thus the trend of recording self image. Just being there, seeing the site, is no longer enough. Pics or it didn’t happen.

  Sightseeing Sightsharing
Mode of consumption Presence Story
Record of experience Momento (photo/ postcard/ souvenir) Personal image
Time of sharing Shared after experience Shared during experience
Benefit of sharing Static capital gain Dynamic, interactive capital gain
Theoretical context Tourist gaze Participatory culture/ Platform society
Tourists’ relationship with the touristic site Audience Performer

The sublime stage @ Trolltunga

Based on my observations, and considering the literature I have been reading which explains tourist practice in light of performance, I would like to assert five reasons why the rock ledge at Trolltunga is a sublime stage.

1. The tongue [Place]
Trolltunga means troll’s tongue. The rock ledge at this site, a (roughly) 20 x 4 metre rocky platform protruding out toward Ringesvaldt Lake does indeed resemble a giant tongue extended out into the crisp mountain air. This unique natural formation (and the photo opportunity it presents) provide much of the appeal of this destination and is as such one of the main factors contributing to its rapid growth. The size and shape of the rock ledge attracts visitors to walk out onto it. According to promotional texts, venturing out onto this precipice creates a sense of defying gravity as is the sheer drop on three sides and the 700m or so of empty space below. As Fjord Norway [a] describes it:

Imagine the feeling when standing, perhaps sitting out there at the tip, almost floating between the sky and the water, an almost surreal and truly sensational feeling.

Indeed, the flatness and apparent stability of the rock platform do make it so that the ledge can be conquered by the average person. It’s flat, platform-like shape does also allow a great space for poses which may be easily photographed from surrounding viewpoints.

2. Aura [Authenticity]
 Drawing on the work of Walter Benjamin, tourism scholars have discussed the role “aura” in contributing to the authenticity of a location and thus its attractiveness as a touristic destination (McCannell, 1976; Rickly-Boyd, 2012).  Aura is a subjective and abstract phenomenon that is shaped by the positive attributes of a given thing, such as uniqueness, reputation or impressiveness. Thus, Benjamin (2008, cited in Rickly-Boyd, 2012, p.270) defines aura as a: “strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance however near it may be.” At Trolltunga, the dramatic natural formations and complex layering of colours and light create a stunning visual effect. The hike and site are largely ‘natural’, there are few man-made structures and these are low key in nature. The impressive visual aspect and wild nature coalesce in a feeling of wonder that is accessible yet elusive in its grandeur. This feeling, in combination with the physical exertion needed to visit, likely contribute to a heightened existential awareness on the part of the visitors, emphasising the auratic nature of this site. Aura is rare and thus valuable to tourists as it creates a powerful environment for performances of self. Interestingly, MacCannell (1976) points to the Grand Canyon (a site with significant parallels to Trolltunga) as an example of an auratic tourist location.

3. Private performance [Control and choreography]
The space at Trolltunga has developed implicit rules for tourist conduct based on both environmental factors at the site and the shared goals of tourists. Environmental factors include the hazardous nature of this site, in particular the steep drop-off from the rock ledge and surrounding areas. The dangerous nature of this site was highlighted in the fatal fall of an Australian tourist in 2015. In the time since this accident, promotional strategies of DMOs such as Fjord Norway have shifted from promoting the photographic opportunities at the rock, highlighted through text like “If you want a lot of likes on Facebook you should go walking in a picture postcard”, or, photographs of travellers performing impressive stunts (see: Walker Rettberg, 2015), toward a more responsible outlook emphasising responsible hiking practice as a key part of visiting, for example: “CONSIDER CAREFULLY WHETHER YOU ARE IN GOOD ENOUGH SHAPE AND HAVE THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT BEFORE SETTING OUT” (Fjord Norway b). The rapid growth of the site in recent years, based largely but by no means exclusively on amateur promotion on social media, means that visitor numbers have seen significant increases year after year. A high percentage of visitors intend to share photos from the site on social media (90%, according to a study by Evers [2016]) meaning that during peak times within the hiking season tourists must line up so that they can have their own photographic moment at the ledge. This practice is not only safety-oriented, it also ensures that tourists are able to take a private photo which features only chosen participants and does not contain unknown others. Estimated wait time at lunchtime on the day the author visited was one hour and a half hours. This significant demand for photos means that visitors may only have a limited timeframe on the rock ledge in which to conduct photographic performances, or else risk violating the turn-taking rules. However, such a process ensures that, for a short period of time, the tourists may use the ledge like a stage in order to engage in a private performance. Indeed, the fact that many tourists choose to carry props (such as flags or personally significant items), or costumes, despite the 10 or 15km hike to the ledge, highlights the explicit nature of the site as a stage for presentations of self.

4. Onlookers [Audience]
The rock ledge at Trolltunga has an atmosphere that is at once transcendent and intimate. Visitors occupy a private, auratic space amidst grand nature, yet, this brief occupation is in most cases subject to the regulations of turn-taking and cooperation (that said, there are times when the site is less busy, and the processes may not be in effect). Thus, performances on the rock ledge are commonly viewed by a significant audience of other tourists surrounding the ledge, both those waiting in line and others resting or camping. Indeed, this is a common scenario for touristic sites in which posing or other behaviours are regulated by the “disciplinary gaze” of onlookers (Edensor, 2000; 2001). Significantly, while standing on the tongue, tourists commonly face this gallery of onlookers for photographs. This means that performers are likely conscious of the unknown audience who may view their performance, both those on-site, and, by extension, online.  Thus, the audience, and in particular, the unknown imagined audience forms an explicit context for the performances which take place on the tongue.

5. Materialisation [Representation]
Performances are recorded and materialised through the visual practices of photography and video (as well as accompanying text). Such materialisation seeks to capture the extraordinary nature of the site and the tourists’ proximity to it in order to open avenues for social capital (Crang, 1999). These representations are based on previously consumed materials and serve to create the template for future performances (i.e. the hermeneutic cycle of representation). Through the narrative process, certain behaviours or trends ascend within representation and thus create the pedagogical model through which the site is experienced and which edify the sense of the “stage” present at the location.
Conclusion:
The five elements presented above in square brackets i.e. place, authenticity, control & choreography, audience, and representation, characterise the nature of the “sublime stage” present at Trolltunga. These elements are discussed in order to highlight the fact that any landscape feature (built or natural) may potentially comprise a stage for touristic performance if it satisfies some, or all, of the criteria discussed above (or, if it provides other outcomes valuable to the presentation of self). Tourism is a socially shaped yet personal activity meaning that tourists are free to impute personal significance to any location. This explains why there were numerous photos being taken on the way to Trolltunga in addition to those being taken on the ledge itself.  Tourists’ self-presentation thus takes place in a way that is flexible and contingent, however, which at the same time likely prioritises certain areas as backgrounds for performance given the particular characteristics they may add to that performance (e.g. aura, scenery, alterity, … ). Tourists’ knowledge of touristic sites and conduct, as well as that of the cultures and economies of social media (i.e. the “selfie gaze”) provides a frame through which to identify relevant stages for touristic performance within the travelled-to landscape.

References:

Crang, M. (1999) ‘Knowing, tourism and practices of vision.’, in Leisure/tourism geographies : practices and geographical knowledge. London: Routledge, pp. 238-257. Critical geographies. (3).

Edensor, T. (2000). Staging tourism: Tourists as Performers. Annals of Tourism Research, 27, 322-344. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0160-7383(99)00082-1

Edensor, T. (2001). Performing tourism, staging tourism: (Re)producing tourist space and practice. Tourist Studies, 1(1), 59–81.

Evers, A. B. M. (2016). Transforming a Norwegian Landscape into an Iconic Tourist Attraction: The Trolltunga Experience [Unpublished Masters Thesis]. University of Stavanger.

Fjord Norway (a). Trolltunga. Retrieved from: https://www.fjordnorway.com/top-attractions/trolltunga/himmelstigen

Fjord Norway (b). Things to do: Trolltunga. Retrieved from: https://www.fjordnorway.com/things-to-do/trolltunga-p958013

MacCannell, D. (1976). The tourist: A new theory of the leisure class. Shocken books: New York, NY.

Rickly-Boyd, J. (2012). Aura & authenticity: A Benjaminian approach to tourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 39(1), 269–289. doi:10.1016/j.annals.2011.05.003

Rettberg, J. W. (2015, Sept. 23). More people are killed by tourist brochures than by sharks. Retrieved from: http://jilltxt.net/?p=4347

 

Reflections on Image and Place @ Trolltunga

Saturday 12.08

Trolltunga features prominently in promotional material from DMOs in Norway. Indeed, it is often found on the cover or in double page spreads. These images refer almost exclusively to the rock ledge and the unique photo opportunity that exists there. From my experiences, it did seem that the rock ledge at Trolltunga was the current star of Norwegian tourism. Its image kept popping up throughout the trip: on postcards and brochures, a glossy canvas in the restaurant at our hotel, in a slideshow at the rental car office… Throughout the trip, we (I), felt its presence: something worthwhile, something we should go and do…

The image the rock ledge at Trolltunga sits within the context of wider Norwegian Tourism. Fjords are an iconic image of Norway. This distinctive landscape underpins Norway’s destination image as “powered by nature”.  Fjords and glaciers have been popular destinations in Norway for a long time. The ‘discovery route’ developed for continental tourists was popular in the early c20th as tourists moved by passenger liner or horse and cart along the Hardanger Fjord.  Industrialisation ended this tourist rush as industry and pollution tarnished the views. Yet, in the later half of the c20th, Norwegian tourism was reinvigorated by new forms of excursion like cruises and self-driving tours as supported by the growth of destinations like Bergen, Trollstigen, the Lofoten islands and the North Cape. In recent years, hiking has ascended as a more active way of experiencing the Norwegian landscape. An example of this can be seen in Pulpit Rock (Preikestolen) near Stavanger. Much like Trolltunga, this impressive rock platform is accessed via a strenuous hike. The sites of Pulpit Rock and Trolltunga are quite similar, yet there are salient differences. The hike at Pulpit Rock is considerably shorter and the rock platform is much larger and flatter. The ‘iconic’ images of these sites reproduce these differences. Images of Pulpit Rock usually show a heterogenous group of visitors (from a quick browse of Google image search, around 20-40 people), or, if the subject is alone, the foreground is much shorter than at Trolltunga and thus the image less impressive. In contrast, images of Trolltunga usually feature a single traveller or a small intimate group on the rock ledge and generally do not show unknown others. Saliently, Trolltunga has a turn-taking system ensuring that tourists can get a photo by themselves or with chosen others on the ledge (someone in line may take this shot for them). This system is undoubtedly safety-oriented given the rock ledge’s narrow profile and steep drop-off, however, it likely responds to the photographic opportunities presented by this space as well. The catwalk-like shape of the rock ledge at Trolltunga, combined with the magnificent view in the background creates a unique space for photographs which is simultaneously intimate and transcendent. The ledge at Trolltunga is thus a stage; a space of self-performance where a single actor or group of actors enact a monologue or dialogue for the (online) audience. Owing to the wide reach of Trolltunga images in both social and mainstream media, tourists may perform a self that is concocted in advance, one that is imagined as tickets are booked and finalised during packing when costume and props are decided upon. Digital photography and social media are an explicit context for this performance, and, thus, for the site as a whole. The arduous nature of the journey (a 20-30 km return hike done either in one day or combined with overnight camping) adds legitimacy to the traveller’s chosen performance on the rock ledge (and is often mentioned in comments). Travellers’ self performance is thus earned not merely self-proclaimed.

The image of Trolltunga in promotional materials, foregrounding, but perhaps underplaying, the challenging nature of the hike, portrays the rock ledge as a space where identity is constructed. The active nature of hiking supports traveller’s self-presentation, allowing them to assert self-image through choices in performance, capture and display. The arduous hike, and self-transformational nature of tourism itself, add credibility to the performance at Trolltunga. The performative space of the rock ledge builds on the context of Norweigan nature tourism as a whole including sites like Pulpit Rock. Indeed, one should not miss the symbolism that a pulpit is indeed a kind of stage. This symbolism is enhanced by the physical shape of the ledge at Trolltunga and furthermore the construction of touristic place by tourists themselves (i.e. turn-taking) which is shaped by the pedagogical and performative background of social media. While the spatial and interpersonal relationships at Trolltunga have a predominantly harmonius nature at present (excepting rescues, accidents), it is worth considering how sustainable this atmosphere is considering growing tourist numbers, and whether there will need to be any changes in this place (the path, for example, or other amenities) as tourist numbers grow. If so, what effects would these have on this “natural”, challenging experience?

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1) “Powered by Nature” from Visit Norway homepage

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2) A modernised version of the “Discovery Route” promotion at a hotel in Hardanger region

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3) Visual your improved self, while enjoying our complementary buffet breakfast! Oslo airport hotel.

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4) Promotional materials and postcards

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5) Trolltunga vs Pulpit Rock as presented in Fjord Norway brochure. Full page image below. Notice the intimate vs shared nature of the rock platform.

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