Into the Wild

Struggling With Our Social Media Obsession

One of the most talked-about trends in travel today is how the pursuit of beauty, or, more baldly, the pursuit of social media cachet, might be destroying the world’s most amazing places.

Ever since the invention of the camera, people have enjoyed taking photographs. Lots of them. That’s nothing new. But where, in the past, you had to work really hard to find an audience willing to look at your vacation photos, now, in the age of social media, the audience is virtually everywhere. The photograph is no longer just a personal memento, it is also a product to be shared with and immediately validated by the masses.

For many, the urge to take the perfect photo can be overpowering — it can literally be the deciding factor between whether or not to stop at an attraction, or whether to even find it enjoyable. The photo of the attraction becomes as important as the attraction itself.

It’s an obsession. It’s an addiction. It’s changing the way people travel, and the change isn’t always harmless.

Matera
Matera, Italy

When the Crowds Come to Matera

Let’s take a step back.

After the ancient Italian city of Matera was named one of two European Capitals of Culture for 2019, an honor that comes with a guaranteed influx of travelers for events and workshops, the president of the town’s organizing committee told the New York Times, “I will be brutal: We do not want tourists.”

Because to some, “tourists” means a flood of careless voyeurs swinging selfie sticks and wreaking havoc in pursuit of shallow experiences. As Matera’s Salvatore Adduce put it, “It should not be, ‘Let’s see a church and eat pasta and try those crunchy red peppers and leave a few pieces of plastic behind.’”

Matera proposed something of an alternative, selling year-long passes to their events, hoping to attract more responsible, more-invested visitors, the type who would engage in a dialogue with the city. These visitors are, to Mr. Adduce, “temporary cultural inhabitants” having “an experience that will change their lives.”

It’s something of an ideal, and perhaps we should all aspire to it. But when it comes to unthinking tourist zombies overrunning a place, there’s likely no end in sight. In fact, the problem only seems to get worse with every year, with one factor seemingly always right at the heart of the matter:

Social media.

Delta Lake
Jackson Hole News & Guide put together a typical collection of the #DeltaLake hashtag.

The Dangers of the Geotag

In 2018, the travel and tourism board of Jackson Hole, Wyoming launched a campaign: stop geo-tagging your photos.

A geotag pinpoints a location. So when influencers — any social media user with a large following — started posting from a once-obscure spot in the Grand Tetons, called Delta Lake, and adding geotags, they were essentially including a treasure map. Their followers followed, and suddenly a backcountry gem became a must-see attraction.

Besides an increase of injuries on the makeshift trail and hard-to-quantify effects on the landscape, some lamented the sheer transformation of a fortress of solitude into a hotspot of Instagrammers, many using the lake as nothing more than a picturesque greenscreen to sell their products.

And so a campaign was born, its aim to beg the public to stop identifying the gorgeous places they find. And to keep the hidden gems hidden. Because too many people ruin a place.

As one ad put it: “Tag locations responsibly. Keep Jackson Hole Wild.”

SuperBloom
A super bloom sees a burst of wildflowers bloom amid the desert.

The Shallow Culture of Instagram Travel

Tourist traps aren’t new — but places that were once shielded from crowds by distance or sheer obscurity can now be discovered in an instant. And besides the overwhelming numbers, the new travelers aren’t always doing their research.

In California, a “super bloom” (exactly what it sounds like: a super duper bloom of wildflowers) attracted thousands of tourists around the state this past spring.

With them came reports of overwhelming traffic and trampled plant life, spurred by pursuit of the perfect photos. Local reports cited one mayor’s acknowledgement that “social media buzz” had brought attention to the phenomenon that “no one could have anticipated,” as residents raged over the inconsiderate onslaught.

Geotag
Public Lands Hate You encourages personal responsibility in the wilderness while shaming offenders.

The incident might be the perfect illustration of what happens when ill-prepared Instagram photographers descend on a natural wonder without proper respect for their environment. As surely as pollution, destruction, and traffic, it also comes with backlash. This is the internet, after all.

One Instagram account, Public Lands Hate You, began reposting particularly egregious instances of Instagrammers acting irresponsibly, the curator using vigilante justice — by way of public shaming — to push back against a “marked increase of disrespect towards the land.” In an interview with Jezebel, the curator of the account explained their intention:

“I came to the realization that this is part of the problem; so many of these public lands now, people see pictures of them and they want to go. And they might not have the background to know how to go to that area and treat it with respect.”

Yellowstone
Yellowstone

Death By Selfie

If there’s any jarring statistic that bolds and underlines the need for more mindful travelers, it’s the rise in selfie deaths. According to one study, selfies killed no fewer than 259 people between 2011 and 2017.

One high profile story had an American tourist plummeting to his death while taking cliff-selfies in Australia. In another, a man attempting to get the perfect shot at the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona was gored to death after leaving the protected area. And at one point in 2016, the hashtag #BisonSelfie trended so much it made the papers — the implications of which should be more than obvious.

As of May, every month in 2019 had seen someone seriously hurt or killed in pursuit of a selfie.

Yellowstone Buffalo
Do not take a #BisonSelfie.

According to USA Today, “the U.S. Forest Service now warns against bear selfies or photos with wild bears in the background” and “Yellowstone has created a list of places not to take selfies, such as next to a geyser or on the edge of a canyon.”

Even a place as seemingly inaccessible for casual travelers as Everest is not immune to the trend. In a high profile and tragic story from Nepal, a “surge of inexperienced climbers” led to arguably preventable deaths as lines to the summit caused delays and climbers ran out of oxygen. As one reporter wrote: “Veteran mountaineers who recently summited described a ‘Lord of the Flies’ atmosphere with mobs of people in huge down jackets precariously perched at the top, pushing and shoving to take selfies.”

Everest
Mount Everest

Do the Right Thing

That not even Everest is safe from the hordes gives more credence than ever to what Mr. Adduce of Matera meant when he eschewed typical tourists in favor of those seeking a more significant connection on their travels. It’s important to consider what you hope to get out of an experience, and to reevaluate your goals if your only answer is the validation that comes from a nice picture. But even if that is your priority, there are responsible ways to go about it.

In their social media guidelines, wilderness nonprofit Leave No Trace implores travelers to consider the full consequences of their actions. They list rules like “think before you geotag,” and they encourage influencers to be mindful of their message. They also suggest a directive that seems to have nothing to do with social media at all: “Give back to the places you love.” Invest your time, volunteer, get involved.

And if you find yourself in a place of unspoiled beauty, be smart, and always do the right thing.

 

17 Comments
  1. A unique travel experience is made up of visual and other senses auditory olfactory
    and emotional .So often I see people wanting to photograph instead of living and feeling the experience.

    For me the latter are the most enduring and precious memories .One is sharing a Greek coffee with generous ferry crew at dawn between mainland Greece and Corfu ( 1976) I can still smell the bitter coffee and see the sun coming up over Albania.No photo !

  2. A similar experience happened to me before the advent of social media. I visited Egypt for the purpose of experiencing the pyramids. Overall, it was an amazing honeymoon that ended with a river cruise down the Nile and a train ride into Alexandria. However, the moment I had been waiting for, the viewing of the pyramids, was sort of a letdown with a carnival type atmosphere including merchants selling trinkets and masses of tour busses surrounding the pyramids like Custer’s last stand. I realize that I was part of the problem, but still, just an observation that the planet is getting smaller. In terms of pictures, take a quick snap for memory’s sake and then move on.

  3. Wonderful article; we were fortunate enough to just visit Matera and spend two weeks in the surrounding towns.
    We watched people knock into each other with selfie sticks and almost plummet off the side of cliffs and old remains.
    We witnessed people of all ages insist that their travel companions take multiple shots of them in completely staged and inauthentic poses; yelling that the photo was not “instragramable enough”. They did not seem to actually look at their surroundings nor take it in, but rather obsess only about their own appearance in the photos taken and then move to next spot they deemed worthy of posting.

    When did the narcissist become highly lauded and nature take a sad backseat?

  4. Thanks for a great piece. As we try to find relevance in the world, social media has taken the place of actual experiences. I think some people find it hard to imagine that a simple post from a place that should remain pristine for the next traveler or even generation can somehow change that place. Your article illustrates that very well.

    Now if we can just convince people to act as Mr. Adduce suggests, stop and become ‘temporary cultural inhabitants’ we actually might begin to have meaningful dialog amongst people who have differing languages or views. What a concept. Actual dialog and not an anonymous post on social media…..Hmmm

  5. Once upon a time, my husband and I traveled to Greece for a 2 week holiday and inadvertently left our camera at home (pre-cell phone era). It was very liberating. We bought a few postcards, but mostly were simply completely immersed in the experience of being there. I think my memories of that trip maybe more vivid than any for which I have a photographic record.

  6. I recently took a small group tour in regional Spain during which one of my fello-travellers racked up more than 10000 photos in two weeks. She saw the whole region through the viewfinder of her camera and although she saw everything she didn’t experience very much at all.

  7. My wife and I lived in the city of Oaxaca, Mexico for two stays of eight week durations in 2003 + 20004. We rented apartments and went to Spanish lessons and hired a Mexican tutor to learn more Spanish and we made Mexican friends who were happy to share their culture with us. We traveled to the Coast of Oaxaca and stayed at a place there for a week. We traveled by boat to see a place that was raising Crocodiles from eggs to about 12″ in length before they were released as more would survive to maturity as they were protected from predators. We traveled to Chiapas and visited a Zoo outside of Tuxla and visited other small towns with a Mayan guide who explained to us the Mayan Culture and beliefs. We visited and explored San Cristobal De las Casas and Pelenque a Mayan Ruin about one hour from Guatemala. I believe travel is broadening in your understanding of the greate world we live in. Other cultures have much wisdom which we can benefit from . To visit a place just to take selfies is to me a selfish experience. My memories of places and peoples gives me pleasure to think about! Making connections with those who have different cultures is very rewarding and to see how other people live that is different to your experiences is a reward in of itself! Buying things is a fleeting temporary action whereas traveling and making meaningful connections will give you wonderful memories that will last a lifetime.

  8. I totally disagree. This is a “positive” problem. Instead of antagonizing your clients, adjust with the flow. This is 2019. Let the travel agencies or the tourists make bookings/ clearance in advance. There will be a limited/ controlled number of people and at the same time, the gems will remain gems as access is “limited”. Also, modify your brochure or online ” activities to do/see while there”.
    But you better be well sure what you wish for when you say “no to tourists”.

  9. Loved this! I would also add that this should apply to people. Personally, I’ve spent an unforgettable evening with great Paco de Lucia and his band members. While everyone was approaching him for photos, I was there in owe with his presence, soaking every little thing of this amazing chance. I felt so rich, and still do, for this precious few hours. I also felt that my connection to the moment was way greater than of those who were obsessed with their phones and photos, and Paco seemed very aware of that, and showed genuine interest in me as a person.

  10. My husband and I have been travelling around for the past 6 months. We travelled for 10 months about 4 years ago, and in that space of time things have changed dramatically. Although this time we have come to countries that more tourists visit I guess.
    People are queueing for hours to get photos or selfies. We wanted to visit an island but changed our mind as weren’t prepared to spend half the day queueing to just see some natural beauty. Social media has definitely changed things and has also given people unrealistic expectations.
    I love photography and nature/wildlife, it’s very rare I would take a photo of myself. In japan people are videoing themselves with selfie sticks just walking around. It’s absolutely nuts!
    I will now remove all my geotags!

  11. An inspiring article that challenges the present status quo of callous consumerism and insensitivity to cultures, nature and aesthetics. Brilliant insights into the human mind and superficial constructs influenced by commercial interests. A superb expose of the degeneration of society into mindless zombies..!

  12. These people have a responsibility to practice and promote a culture of leaving everyplace one visits better than they found it. This is not difficult as there is trash everywhere to be pickup. I guarantee that when a local observes a tourist picking up trash instead of leaving it the selfies will be of little concern and the tourist welcomed.

  13. I work in tourism, in East Africa famous for its stunning wildlife and scenery, yet I have seen so many people only see things through their phone, never look up to take in the whole view, never see the realty, only photograph the experience-not participate in it, who are just ticking boxes, who get photos not memories…. it’s very sad.

  14. Excellent article and points of view. Even though selfies are not one of my favourite hobbies but after reading this educating piece of reflexion I am decided to change my mind regarding traveling and appreciating the new places. Thanks a lot.

  15. When me and the wife travel, we forget to take our pictures. If the trip is expensive, and we know that coming back is improbable, we take some pictures if we see a breathtaking landscape or an architectural marvel, but all in all, most of the time, we end up just savoring every moment of the experience.

    I have friends who boast about travelling, but all they do are checking in and doing selfies. I pity them, because we return with memories and experiences, while all they are left with, is a shallow sense of self.

Have something to add?

Your email address is only used for our verification process to help reduce spam comments
and will not be shared, published or stored for any other purpose.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.