“Pressure” in Online Travel Photography

Reporting on connected tourism trends in a report commissioned by the Singapore Tourism Board, We Are Social’s Simon Kemp reflects on the “pressure” felt by social media users within image sharing platforms such as Instagram to produce high quality content in order to stand out from a crowd of mixed amateur and professional content. To alleviate this pressure, Kemp suggests that destinations provide directions so that tourists can find the best angles of a particular scene or even go so far as to provide on-site professional photographers to assist tourists in phototaking. While these tips may indeed help tourists to collect memorable and shareworthy snaps, will it not be just a matter of time until feeds are well stocked with these special angles and slick packaging, and the pressure to find something new fills in once again?
This phenomena of social media induced pressure to create and share is well worth investigating. Visit an internationally famous tourist site, or prowl the travel blogosphere and you will find evidence of the increasingly dysfunctional relationship between social media using tourists and the destinations they visit. Take the selfie stick, a metonym for online photography, banned from numerous destinations and the bearer of stigmatised names like “narcisstick”, yet still quite popular, and indeed, useful, for capturing travel images. Notice also the changing standards of behaviour and experience of connected tourists who view the travelled to landscape in terms of photo opportunities and fail to connect with local ambience. Online, numerous voices opine that the need to constantly capture and share is ruining the experience of the journey. The compulsion to document one’s trip does, moreover, change the dynamics of tourist space. Photographic practices including the physical movement of the photographer and the scope of their lens do indeed take up a significant amount of space, and, with more and more people engaged in this behaviour, and valuable capital on the line, the activity starts to rub antagonistically with other tourists and locals. Not surprisingly, photography related accidents and fatalities are on the rise.

So where does this pressure to document and share come from? The imperative of travel photography to capture and record exotic experience is well covered (Sontag 1977, Urry 1990), but what affect does the addition of an online audience virtually tagging along (Urry 2002) with the journeyer add? In a study of the photographic practices of young Korean tourists, Lo & McKercher (2015) report 3 principal reasons for tourist photography: aide memoire, relationship management and impression management/self presentation. It can be seen that these last two motivations have come to the fore as the audience sits on our shoulder while we have our overseas experiences. In the era of social media, tourist experience is an effective vehicle for making assertions about what type of person one is given travel’s positive connotations with cosmopolitanism, wisdom and adventure. While on the one hand, published images are shared within the frame of the users’ profile, images do also end up in a wider menagerie of similarly tagged content. Over time online travel photos end up in competition against the content of other users and against one’s own previous creations (Dinhopl & Gretzel 2016). This competition is scored via the metrics of social media success: likes, follows and shares. The bar is set high. Or perhaps more correctly, it is set by tourism tastemakers. A recent article in The New York Times recounts the way in which Instagram, like basically all popular social media platforms, has been hijacked as a promotional tool by industry: “Tourist boards flew popular Instagrammers to their idyllic locations and paid them to post impossibly stunning photographs to attract other world trekkers.” In such an environment of performance and reward users strive to “again and again present the self as extraordinary and different” (Dinhopl & Gretzel, 2016) in a game of “social comparison” (Lo & McKercher, 2015).

The consequences of tourists online performance may easily ripple out into the wider world. Recounting a recent trip to Angkor Wat, reporter Mary Pilon recounts, “the fight for the perfect Instagram” taking place amongst the mob of technology equipped tourists jostling to snap the ideal picture of the famous monument at dawn. Looking further into this phenomena of compulsively documenting and sharing our travel experience, Pilon explores the subject with well followed Instatraveller, Annie He. Here He describes the palpable “pull to share” created by her 60, 000+ followers and the fact that this pull, and the rewards it offers, has led her to cross her personal safety thresholds in the name of a satisfying snap.  What then happens when this threshold is crossed time and time again by users competing in a tournament of what writer, Timothy Egan has called, “documentary one-upmanship.”

A recent blog post by Internet scholar, Jill Walker Rettberg brings to light the way one destination marketing organizations’ promotion of a picturesque cliff outcrop in Norway that was stated to be able to garner, “an avalanche of likes” if shared on social media, preceded, and indirectly contributed to, the fatality of a traveller engaged in photographing this site. This tragic example highlights the disjunctive relationship between destination marketing organisations, connected tourists and destinations/ hosts at this time in which picturesque travel experience is promoted to the point of jepordising personal safety. The “pressure” felt by tourists to successfully document their travel online contributes to this problem and as such merits further investigation. In my opinion, it would also be fair to say that the repercussions of our relentless image quest do indeed go beyond physical consequences and potentially damage the intercultural exchange within touristic “contact zones” (Pratt, 1992) as tourists are too preoccupied with chronicling their trip to notice the space around them. It would be interesting then to see how the increasing volume of photographic activity is accommodated by tourist spaces and how it is operates within the social reality of particular sites. This could include things like investigating how tourist photography at a destination is viewed by the people who live there, as well as business and tourist operators, and tourists themselves. Another point of inquiry would be investigating the processes through which travel photography occurs and the factors which influence this such as the interplay between what the traveller says and portrays online and their physical experiences.

The trend of recording and sharing one’s travel moments online shows no signs of stopping – rather it is demonstrating that it is it’s own mode of tourist experience, a ‘digital gaze’ (Dinhopl & Gretzel, 2016). Here, increased knowledge about the practice of recording travel online will lead to ideas on how to better structure tourism to accommodate travel recording behaviour in a sustainable way. This could be through interventions in physical tourist space, online publishing communities or the “hermeneutic circle” (Urry, 1992) of travel recording.

Cover Image reblogged from Wall Street Journal A Traveler’s Guide to Social Media


Is Social Media Ruining Travel: What I Think

Has social media ruined travel? Take a look at the results on Google and you can see that this is something of a hot button issue. All that aside, however, this question does inevitably lead to the thought that, now that we travel with myriad information and social relationships in our pockets, how can we be expected to really sink into and interact with the landscapes that we visit while travelling?  I have looked at some insightful perspectives on this question in a post here.

Now, I’d like to take the opportunity to put down what I think about social media and travel, looking particularly at how connectivity changes how travel is told. My first overseas travel adventure occurred in the era of unconnected travel, and I thought that by comparing this and my current trip, I might gain an image of how travel is different today owing to connectivity.

with and without 2

I carry a lot more devices now. Each device has accessories and cumulatively these are weighty. While devices are multi-functional and have the potential to replace other items in one’s backpack (books are a great example here. Wang & Fesenmaier 2013, p.6), many electronic devices are expensive, fragile and needy (i.e. electricity), and thus potentially limit movement (remote areas where one is exposed to the elements and electricity is not constant, for example, become less appealing). While I have more information and entertainment than previously, devices add weight to my backpack and restrict my movement.

Where I use: With the spread of wireless networks Internet usage is much more convenient. With my own device I can use the Internet at my leisure, and, I tend to record travel in a private space such as a hotel room. This suggests more time outside the travelled-to landscape.

How often I use: Much more often. Experiences are shared closer to the event, giving the audience the ability to respond to my narrative closer to the time of experience.

What platforms: I have more platforms where I record travel now and there is a shift from private to more public sharing. The way I record travel is more dynamic with images a principal part of travel sharing.
Finally, the million dollar question: is social media ruining travel? A lot of the arguments seem to position social media at odds with the ‘spirit’ of travel (the experience of going to foreign lands, broadening one’s horizons and growing as a person) based on the reasoning that, with connection, we don’t necessarily move beyond our home space even after a physical journey. Looking at the way I used social media on my recent trip, I can see that the practice of travel recording is much more front and centre compared to ten years ago. Travel recording takes more of my time and bag space and I am more likely to remain in zones of connectivity as I travel. I spend more time online and thanks to the spread of wireless networks, I update and monitor my narrative on a daily basis as I move about. My travel stories are now more public and audience feedback received closer to the event. This wider audience provides a new source of inspiration to go out and have experiences, however, the process of sharing (i.e things like preparing my devices or using the Internet in my hotel room) does also limit the amount of time I can spend in the landscape.

Many of my travel experiences have been shared online and are remembered more fondly as I relive this experience in conversations with friends, family or strangers. When travelling, I also need to be aware, however, of how much time I spend on social media and when to limit this in order to allow space for me to appreciate the places I am visiting. While I am undoubtedly more connected, and, many times, take a ‘home’ state of mind into the landscape (thinking about a recent conversation or upcoming post), it is worth remembering that, in the face of the varied physical landscapes and aleatory sensory encounters of travel, connection is not everpresent, or all-powerful: signals wane, batteries die, devices go walkabout, conversations and news feeds get boring. I still travel to experience new things and though I may share experiences with others more often, this doesn’t necessarily negate the personal significance of these events. Social media use hasn’t ruined my experience of travel. It has, however, greatly increased the records of the places I go to and the time I spend making these. This means more memories for when I’m old but perhaps a slower pace of travel as I spend more time recording and sharing.

What do you think?