The purpose of this post, friends, is to share with you my thoughts on WHY social media is just gosh-darn fucking awful and how Instagram in particular can completely ruin your travel experience if you let it.
But before we get into that, let me run you through my own experiences with social media.
In 2019, I deleted Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat from my phone. Whilst this may have been a questionable business decision for somebody working largely in the travel space, it has been an absolute slam dunk of a win for my mental health, my time, and my travel experiences…
Sure, I check my Instagram maybe once a week from my desktop to respond to any messages I have but that’s about it. I don’t run my own Instagram account anymore – somebody else posts all the pictures for me and I approve captions once a month in a sexy Google sheet. I very rarely make Instagram stories these days although I probably will again next time I’m on a real adventure in Pakistan.
The point is – I’m not on social media these days. I have none of the apps downloaded on my phone and I am DARN happy with the results…
No longer do I find my finger obsessively compulsively reaching for Instagram on my phone. No longer am I wasting my time looking at something through a camera lens rather than actually experiencing it. No longer do I find myself triggered by irritating or sexy folks alike when scrolling through social media.
It was not always like this – I will admit that, once upon a time, I was addicted to social media. You see friends, I was kinda a big deal on this little thing called Snapchat. I was snapping all of my adventures as I hitchhiked through Europe and Iran. Suffice to say, a broke backpacker who is also humorously gifted (If I say so myself), traveling the way that I was, in the places that I was, it was fairly unique on social media at the time. My story interested people. I met a cool chick in Iran, we got married in a crazy ceremony and then hitchhiked and camped our way around the Middle East – it was fairly out there. People enjoyed it. I enjoyed making the stories. I was pretty good at making the stories, but it cost me.
It cost me my time, my emotional energy and ultimately it made me anxious when I didn’t have signal to upload stuff….
For me, that’s not what travel is about. I travel for my growth, my experience, I shouldn’t give a shit about diligently reporting everything I am doing on social media. I didn’t enjoy the time sink and the fact that, before I knew it, I was getting a dopamine hit every time I got a DM from a stranger. It was a really weird dynamic and it was easy to write it off as ‘growing my career’ but ultimately I made the right call and quit social media.
I won back time, energy and reduced my anxiety. I stopped being chained to my phone and that meant I could focus my energy on things that really did matter – like my own travel experience and building up my tour company, Epic Backpacker Tours.
So bear with me friend – because I’m going to explain to you why social media is just noise that glues us to our smartphones and distracts us from the reality that we’re living right now.
Ultimately, when you are on your phone whilst traveling, trying to capture the perfect snap or make the perfect story it’s like you are always viewing your life through a window: a muted experience that puts an invisible barrier between you, other people and this wonderful world
Instagram is the worst culprit in my opinion. When you’re a travel blogger, it may feel like something you HAVE to do. It isn’t. Fuck instagram, you can be successful without it. Alright rant over…
But wait, this rant ain’t over, there’s more…
Instagram has a huge influence on where we travel
Instagram is the go-to app if you’re looking for holiday inspo. Many people are now choosing their trip destinations based on how “instagrammable” they are. Pakistan really took off after a few big influencers went on (tame as fuck, yeah I’m judging, sue me) organised trips to Pakistan. Some of these folks spent literally just 10 days in Pakistan simply shuttling around the most touristy spots. One of them even launched their own ‘adventure tours’ to Pakistan after a whopping ten days experience in the country… Irresponsible as fuck. Anyway, I digress…
Have you seen certain destinations like Iceland, Dubrovnik (Croatia), Bali (Indonesia), Cinque Terre (Italy) and Santorini (Greece) absolutely blow up recently? That’s “thanks” to Instagram. It took a few viral posts and suddenly they have become everyone’s top travel destination.
This explosive social media popularity has caused these destinations to become completely overcrowded. Many places, like Cinque Terre and Iceland, have been forced to start putting restrictions on their number of visitors.
Why Instagram is terrible for tourism
Focusing all travel in one spot is unsustainable, but local governments and tourism boards are not necessarily trying to rein in the horde of visitors. Often they lean into it because short-term, it does bring more money to the region. The downsides?
Prices in the town skyrocket so locals have to move to outer suburbs as their apartments get turned into hotels and AirBnBs.
Historical landmarks can get damaged through vandalism and sheer volume of people traipsing over them. (Did you know that Machu Picchu is slowly sinking because too many people visit it every year?)
These places become so dependent on tourism that if that stream ever ends, the local economy will be in deep shit. I witnessed this first hand in Bali, where I currently live, as when Corona hit more than 90% of locals were suddenly out of a job as everybody here works in the tourism industry.
Worst of all, destinations start catering to the Instagram crowd because going viral is free advertisement, and entire venues, cafés and experiences are built just to please the picture-takers. This takes away from the authenticity of the destination and steepens the slide… more and more folks end up viewing a place through their phone instead of taking a second to stop, pause, breath, smell, see, feel, connect with your surroundings…
There is nothing worse than chasing an instagrammable destination. Tourists flock to these famous places with no interest in the history or culture; many only come for the pretty picture. The whole point of travelling is to step out of your comfort zone, to learn, to grow, to experience something new. When you travel with just Instagram in mind, your experience becomes shallow and surface-level.
Travel influencers are often cunts
Yeah. Yee-fucking-haw! Fuck those guys.
The reason many of these places become so famous is thanks to influencers.
Travel influencers are often cunts. Fact. You see my friends, when you spend your whole day reading DMs about how amazing and inspiring you are – it can go to your head (as well as suck up all your time). I’ve witnessed first hand some friends who made it big on social media and well – we ain’t friends anymore. One girl in particular would be glued to her phone the entire time and only interact with those around her when filming something for Instagram. It’s all just so fake.
IG models pretending to be travellers pose in ridiculous outfits on their luxury holidays and try to convince you that that’s what travelling looks like. It doesn’t. They are selling a lie, something that is unattainable to most people – luxury travel – which by the way these influencers are not paying for, they are getting these trips, that hotel, that outfit, in exchange for giving positive, biased as fuck, unreal as fuck, coverage.
The bottom line is that that travel influencers often blur the edges of expectation for their audiences – this will mean that when folks hit the road they may be disappointed it doesn’t live up to their expectations from IG.
When I first hit the road (two years in India at 19, with no phone) – I slept rough, I ate beans almost every day (the farts were next level), I worked random gigs, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and I learnt NEW SHIT. At no point did I look glamorous. It was glorious.
But Will, shouldn’t you just let other people live their lives?
Yeah. I should. You’re right. But part of my self-designed job is to tell it how it is and this is a post for any folks out there who are feeling pressured by social media to look perfect and to share perfect
holidays travels online to make their friends what exactly? Jealous? Impressed? None of it is good, people. Just relax, don’t feed the social media beast. It simply isn’t healthy. Travel for you and you alone.
Travel influencer photos are usually the very definition of pretty on the outside, empty on the inside. Because of the high production value, these are the photos that are the most popular on the travel side of Instagram, meaning that they become the norm and the goal that other travel accounts try to emulate to get visibility. The result? Loads of travel content that looks identical, drowning out more niche creators with genuinely helpful content and creating a very narrow, unrealistic image of travel and travellers.
Travel influencers don’t represent travel in an approachable, relatable way. They cater to a fantasy that sets the bar for other Instagram users really high. Smaller creators struggle to get any visibility, and regular travellers start acting like influencers to get more likes for their photos.
And here’s something really important you need to know – this shit is addictive. Posting on Instagram in search of validation is a dangerous game. According to CNBC, a study showed that Instagram does more damage to its users’ mental health than other social media apps because its visual nature “may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people”.
If high numbers of comments and likes can make you feel proud of yourself, that feeling of self-worth disappears right when your newest photo gets less likes than usual. It becomes a small-scale addiction to check if you have any new notifications, and Instagram feeds right into it.
How Instagram is ruining your trip
Are you in a toxic relationship with Instagram? Many folks do unfortunately use it to inflate their self-esteem, the problem is that simply by spending more time on social media you get anxious seeing everyone else living their perfect lives on the app, and you quickly forget that IG is just a highlight reel, a lot of which is not even real.
Focusing on Instagram is the quickest way to ruin your trip and I’m here to tell you why.
Social media apps get in the way of real connections
When I first started backpacking, no one had smartphones. I had to talk to people on the street to find out how to get to where I was going. I tended to jump into an internet cafe once a month to line up the next round of Couchsurfing hosts. It was a simpler time. I never looked up restaurant reviews but just walked to the first place that looked decent, and without Google Translator, some of the time I had no clue what the hell I was eating.
In short: Travelling was so much more adventurous before smartphones, and it made you get out of your shell. I was a REALLY painfully shy and awkward person growing up. Traveling broke, with nothing to separate me from my surroundings, was the best experience I ever had as it forced me to step out of my comfort zone, talk to new people and learn new skills.
At hostels, you could just walk into the common room and strike up a conversation, and making friends was so much easier. Now everyone’s on their phones and approaching them becomes intimidating. Many folks have a nervous tic where as SOON as they are alone they go onto their phones, this is a real shame (and something I used to do as well, so I do get it).
I’m sure many folks would RATHER talk to somebody than be on their phone but by putting your phone between yourself and the world, you send out the message that you don’t want people to approach you. People also use their smartphones as social shields: whenever they feel awkward or anxious in company, they pull out their phones to mindlessly scroll just to look busy rather than strike up conversations.
Now here’s the horrible plot twist: when so many travellers are on their phones that it becomes hard to talk to them, we’re forced to also take out our phones and turn to social media apps like Facebook groups, Couchsurfing hangouts or Tinder in search of connection with our fellow humans – instead of making friends in real life.
Experiencing travel through your phone is shallow and unrewarding
We use Instagram to share moments from our lives that we think our friends and family would like to see (or we just like to self-indulgently flaunt). The problem is that Instagram usually doesn’t enable us to share – it forces us. Pics or it didn’t happen, right?
Worrying about getting the perfect picture for Instagram detaches you from living in the moment. Those perfect influencer shots usually take hours of work. Do you really want to waste thirty minutes just framing yourself perfectly with the view instead of taking a happy snapshot?
Those pictures do turn out beautiful. But they are not real.
Trying to imitate these chicks in pretty dresses is only going to get you anxious and stressed on your adventure. You’re not capturing your holiday as it’s happening anymore, you’re creating fake moments so that you can photograph them. I’m never going to be a super hot blonde chick on a yacht gazing into the distant horizon with a wide-brimmed hat. Gosh-darn it! One day Will, one day…
The point is – don’t give social media that kind of power over you… Don’t let it sculpt your travel expectations, your experiences, your social interactions, your self esteem. It just isn’t healthy, or necessary.
Being on your phone all the time also puts a barrier between you and your authentic travel experience. Are you truly experiencing a destination if you’re viewing it through a constricted lens? How about this – come off your phone for a whole day – see if you can do it, whilst traveling. I bet you’ll have fun 🙂 I bet you’ll feel refreshed.
I periodically like to ensure that I am spending time OFF my phone. I have a system in place to make sure I am never on my phone first thing in the morning or last thing at night. Since I’ve deleted social media off my phone, it’s all become a lot easier….
Having said that – there is a way “to Instagram” right.
Instagram might be a terrible, toxic platform by default – but your experience on it is much what you make it. I understand that most people reading this will likely NOT want to delete social media, that’s a personal choice and I’m not judging on that.
The purpose of this post though is to get you to consider how much of yourself you give to apps… Perhaps you could try a couple of days a week when traveling where you don’t take your phone out or you delete your crack-apps (whatever it is – Tinder / Instagram / BBC news) for a couple of days. I truly believe that it’s important to take SOME steps to cut down phone use, get more out of your travel experience and reduce phone use related anxiety.
Instagram is still a great tool for travel planning and inspiration if you know where to look. Find people that have something a little bit different to share..
Find folks that have similar interest to you: people who’ve hiked the trail you want to try out, people who’ve travelled in the countries you dream about, people who are making travelling on a 10-dollar-per-day budget work.
Seek out diverse creators that talk about social issues, ethics and politics of travelling, experiences travelling as a woman, POC, queer person… Instagram can be a wonderful platform for learning.
It’s easy to get caught up in the social media games. These apps are designed by SMART PEOPLE to be as ADDICTIVE AS POSSIBLE. Don’t fall for it fool! Sure, there’s ways to use the app without it being horribly unhealthy – But basically that involves creating rules around your usage, around who you follow and how much control you’ll let your phone have over where and how you travel. It can be done, I am sure. Here’s some final thoughts on making sure that Instagram and other social media platforms do not ruin your travel experience…
How to spend less time on your phone and live your trip up to the max
- Leave your phone at home for the day
- Set up a screen-time limit (you can do this on your phone or specifically for some apps like Instagram and TikTok)
- Go somewhere random that’s not IG famous: the best way to ask locals for recommendations is NOT “What do tourists like to do here?” but “What do YOU like to do?”
- Delete social media apps for the day
- Limit yourself to a number of photos you can take per day
- OR challenge yourself and don’t take any photos of yourself at all
- Don’t post on IG during the trip at all, only after
- Use travel blogs (pick me, pick me!) for trip planning instead of IG
- Take a digital detox even before the trip (trust me, once you get past the first withdrawal symptoms and realise how little you need Instagram, it becomes a habit)
- Turn off notifications to stop yourself from checking in every time you hear that annoying ping
- Unfollow people: if influencers make you feel bad for not “living your best life”, just cut that shit out of your life
Or, you know, just delete the fucking app.