“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

How has Social Media Affected How we Travel ?

This is a big question. Look online and you will find a number of results questioning whether social media has “ruined” travel (in addition to other suggestions accusing social media of ruining marriages, friendships, privacy etc) alongside a  number of blog posts and opinion pieces trying to come to terms with the era of social travel. Whether hype, buzz, real concern, or otherwise, collectively, these pieces demonstrate the degree to which the travel experience has changed now that we carry the world around in our pockets, and try, in their own ways, to sum up what this change means to travel.

From this slew of articles, I have chosen the 4 pieces which to me best lead the way in describing what social travel is. Within these, the authors try to understand social travel by directly comparing it with the former, unconnected, travel era. The tone ranges from hopeful to disappointed but each does well in nutting out particular facets of travel experience and how they are changing as digital technology is added to the cross cultural immersion of travel.

Here they are (from oldest to newest):

1. How Social media Ruined backpacking through Europe  
Alexander Besant  The Globe and Mail   September 17th 2013

Besant kicked off the storm writing in late 2013. Catalysed by a recent trip to Europe with his father (who was something of travel junkie in his younger days), Besant compares his own and his father’s trips in the unconnected era with his experiences meeting (seemingly all younger) social travellers. Besant claims that social travellers are less involved with the destinations they visit. They know less about the sights they see and have less contact with locals. On the other hand, they are more connected with home, keeping up to date with “hometown gossip” even, and gaining more security from this connection.

Besant believes that because travellers were so isolated before they had to work harder, but experienced more in the form of “discovery and disappointment and chance connections”. Nowadays, given not only the Internet, but also mass tourism, experiences are more transactional, and constant connection with home negates any opportunity to travel “in any meaningful sense”, meaning, it seems, to disconnect from home and connect with the visited location.

What is this article saying about social tourism?
Besant situates social tourism within the wider paradigm of capitalist economic development (such as the formation of the euro zone). Social tourism, as a facet of mass tourism, makes it harder for tourists to experience alterity as they are constantly connected to home space which prohibits them from sinking into the destination.

In one sentence: Travel used to be harder but more rewarding, now, with the net, it is easier but more superficial.

2. Grand Tour of the Self
Timothy Egan  The New York Times  November 21st 2014

In this short opinion piece, Egan compares the behaviour of modern social tourists with practioners of the 19th century ‘grand tour’ – an extended multi-country soujourn undertaken by moneyed travellers to broaden their cultural horizons. Egan calls travel selfies a form of “digital narcissism” but notes that that practioners of the grand tour were also narcissistic: “No proper grand-tour rite of passage in 19th-century Europe was complete without a commissioned portrait of a dandified squire posing in a room with a view”. The difference, he notes, is that former travellers, while egotistical, were more apt to settle into the landscape and appreciate it for what it was, while modern travellers are so “ cocooned and isolated” by technology they are incapable of doing anything but contemplate their own selves in the foreign landscape (or, their dinner plates). Inasmuch they experience and learn less.

What is this article saying about social travel:
Travel is a self-agrandising experience, yet, Internet technology changes how we experience the landscape, and why we go to foreign places. The purpose of travel has gone from “from immersion and surprise to documentary one-upmanship.” Perhaps the main focus of social travel is to perform the self for the audience amidst the travelled to landscape: to document and brag about one’s events online and, presumably, to receive status in turn. Doing which, we have so many connections and opportunities on the Internet that it becomes almost impossible to focus on the physical moment, which despite the inherent posturing and preening of travel behaviour in general, was one major reason we went overseas: to look beyond our own borders.

In one sentence: Travel is egotistical, but with a clear head, it is rewarding, without which it starts to become base.

3. Are Travel Selfies Narcissistic?
Maria Lombard  CNN  April 17, 2015

Here, Lombard considers the reasons for taking selfies and other practices of narrativising travel both online and off and how tourist destinations can better facilitate these practices. While travellers have been recording travel for milinea in order to “…document that they came face-to-face with history and then, when possible, to share that experience with their network of friends, family and followers who could not physically be there.”  Now, travellers are able to share, and receive feedback instantly, where previously these two events (sharing and receiving feedback) were separated by weeks if not years. Instant sharing comes at odds with the cross-cultural experience of travel and the short-lived, peak moments of cultural difference and surprise which it is meant to entail. Why? Because, lured by the opportunity to “enhance social relations, demonstrate status and establish presence” via online activity, travellers effectively remove themselves mentally from the landscape they are visiting. Lomborg states: “Instead of living in the moment and observing, appreciating and gaining cultural insight while visiting new places, travelers are often more focused on taking the perfect selfie to share on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter and counting the number of likes and shares.”

What is this article saying about social travel?
The predisposition for social travellers to publicize their travel events online during a trip is neither particularly narcissistic nor is it a new phenomena. Travel has always involved performance strategies such as graffiti which helped the journeyer to create presence, and, perhaps, find normality in a foreign landscape. Travel sharing (online or off) could then be read as a strategy to cope with alterity.  Previously, however, the audience was seemingly a more distant and abstract concern of the traveller, but now our audience virtually rides along on our shoulder continually demanding our attention and removing us from the place at hand. Travel selfies, while not necessarily narcissistic, are perhaps somewhat cultural insensitive if they are used to fortify our own egos at the expense of learning about and attending to the place which is hosting us.

In one sentence: Travel sharing is an old practice, however, new venues opened by the Internet are seductive to our egos, and potentially, destructive to cross cultural experience.

4. Is Social Media Ruining Our Experience of Travel?
Jamie Jenkins The Boar April 30th 2016

This is a first-hand account of using social media during a journey and the implications it had upon the experience of journeying.  The author talks about a recent trip to Berlin and his time spent taking “excessive” amounts of photos in his quest for Instagram and Twitter likes. As the author demonstrates, the process of accruing likes does not only involve taking photos but also editing them for the online audience. The extent to which editing is performed may also mean that presented images no longer resemble physical experience.  The author states: “A camera may never lie, but a quick Valencia filter and brightness adjustment really can make a rainy day in Germany look like I had actually taken a trip to the Bahamas. My pictures were cropped and edited so much that my holiday snaps are nothing like the Berlin that I experienced.”

Finally, the author’s experiences travelling with social media are contrasted with an earlier non social media trip. The author finds that the images taken on this earlier trip more closely resemble his memory of the journey, and, thus, this earlier trip is remembered more fondly than his trip to Berlin where he feels like he travelled only to “impress other people”.

What is this article saying about social travel?

The author talks about seeing his trip to Berlin through “a fancy Instagram filter”. The consequences of which are that his travel is performed both online and in physical space for his audience. Here, the “pressure” of enacting a successful social media performance is reflected through physical behaviours by the traveller (such as continual photo taking) which cut into travel time and, ultimately, reduce the traveller’s individual experience. The experience of travelling with the online audience in tow makes the traveller more outwardly focused. However, it also interferes with, and perhaps prohibits, the traveller’s ability to experience the landscape on their own terms.

In one sentence: The currency of likes has the power to dramatically change our experience, perception, and memory, of travel – potentially robbing it of our own individual stamp.


CONCLUSIONS:

Connection to the Internet during travel experience makes it harder for us to experience the landscape on our own terms, and, seemingly, through our own eyes. The difference with former, unconnected travel is not that people are openly bragging about their travel experience, nor the purpose for doing which, nor even that we have mediums readily available out our fingertips to make our experiences public, rather, it is the degree to which we document our trips, the instant speed in which we are able to get feedback on our travel sharing, and, the engrossing relationship between the traveller and the screen through which experiences are cast.

It is interesting to compare the language through which un/connected travel is portrayed within the articles.

Unconnected: soak, lose ourselves, linger, living in the moment
Connected: cocoon, isolating, pressure

From this we get a clear image of Internet technology as a force that is inhibiting to the ‘spirit’ of travel. That is, the feeling of moving beyond one’s comfort zone into unfamiliar and, perhaps, transformative spaces. It will be interesting to see if travellers are able to balance technology use, and, let’s say, unscripted, spur of the moment travel. Or, if new applications or social media platforms will help in fomenting relationships with the visited landscape, rather than acting as a barrier between the traveller and it. Maybe with ubiquitous connectivity, unconnected travel will become a thing of the past and we’ll stop bemoaning its loss. Only time will tell, and I wonder what the next opinion pieces on social travel will say?