During my American road trip over summer, I encountered a lot of amazing sights that had a lasting impact and stayed in my mind. But one thing I didn’t expect to have encountered so regularly on this predominantly rural-based trip was the overbearing presence of social technology amongst what I now call ‘techno-travellers’.
One day, my friend and I were walking the popular ‘Hidden Lake Overlook’ Trail in Glacier National Park. I couldn’t believe the number of ipads I saw being wapped out. As we turned back from the end point, no longer able to tolerate the constant sounds of clicking and sights of crowding, a man said to his friend: “You know you’re too close to civilisation when you see an ipad.” I couldn’t agree with him more. The travel paparazzi had arrived and were relentless in their pursuit of taking a thousand photos of the same image. Thankfully, we were able to escape the tourists after noticing a steep rocky path to the left. From its clear formation, the path must have been trodden a few times before, but few tourists were ascending it then. A few people would look over at us as curiously as we made our way over to it, but they did not follow. Perhaps their sense of adventure was restricted to only those areas photographed and written about online and in magazines. We scrambled to the top on all fours, only to be greeted to our complete surprise by the sight of a snow kingdom on the other side of the hill. Finally we were alone, in peace, and the techno-travellers had no idea what they were missing.
Of course there is nothing wrong with wanting to take a photo of something beautiful and unique. But when one is surrounded by electronic devices so capable of connecting with a million others around the world near a natural wonder that is so far away from these millions, it feels a little intrusive. People are so snap-happy that one wonders whether they have really taken the time to appreciate what they are seeing. There is a difference between looking/seeing and observing/appreciating. Are these people simply just wanting to take pretty pictures that will earn them an extra follower on Pinterest or ‘like’ on Facebook? The rush to upload their photos straight onto social media makes you think so.
It’s because of my irritation by the growing social media-habits of travellers that I will probably never make a living as a travel blogger. For starters, I like food too much to withhold eating it until I’ve taken a zillion photos of it beforehand. I also don’t believe I fit in with the blogging ‘game’. I find that the ‘competition’ for publicity between travel bloggers makes it quite an unfriendly world. I can’t stand it when I follow a travel blogger on Twitter (after they’ve followed me) and they then unfollow me, simply because they were just looking to boost their stats with extra followers. And then there’s the messages requesting that I now follow someone’s Facebook/Pinterest/Instagram accounts. If I want to look at your photos or read your blog, I will find it myself when I wish. In fairness, most of these messages are automated, but if anything that just makes it worse. The whole ‘Thanks for following, you’re awesome! Let’s share more stories together’ is completely fake. There are some really kind and helpful travel bloggers out there who are also successful, but many are so pre-occupied with their own success that they let this stop them acting like genuine human beings with a soul.
This was particularly evident in Yellowstone. At the Lower Canyon Falls, a group of what I would describe as either ‘serious tourists’ or ‘travel bloggers’ clustered against a fence with their huge cameras, leaning out a far as they could to get a shot of a nesting bird. They looked like addicted bank-robbers desperately reaching out to grab at notes of money flying away from them. Occasionally the photographers would step back to add an extra part to their camera, clinking on various pieces so that it looked like they were loading a machine-gun. They would scowl at those who tried to take their place or briefly blocked their view to have one quick look, and hogged the area with a snobby air that made one feel almost intimidated to go over and have a look themselves. I wonder how they would have reacted if someone in a wheelchair had approached the viewpoint…Travel should be accessible to everyone and not a competition, but some people add a hierarchy of entitlement through their behaviour, and it’s often related to the use of technology – ‘I write a blog and have a big fancy camera, therefore I must have priority viewing.’
‘We played with marbles and climbed tall trees; now kids can’t play without batteries’. This message was written on signs approaching a town called Panguitch in Utah. It perfectly addressed the problem of society’s obsession with digital technology and social media. People are losing their adventurous spirit in favour of an online social life and evening of inactive escapism with the gang of ‘Game of Thrones’. Meanwhile, travellers might say “Oh I didn’t go inside that building or climb that mountain…but I got a photo of it so it’s okay!” They’ll say that they’ve ‘done’ a country when they’ve only seen an eighth of it. By sticking to the guidebook and always photographing what they think will be most popular, travellers and bloggers threaten the unique charm and untouched beauty of an area, and miss out on other surprises or less conventional sights that are just as stunning.
Travel bloggers are in danger of becoming too concerned with the stats that they start to alienate the real reason they started a blog in the first place: to talk about travel. Occasionally my spam folder will have comments from scammers with dodgy web addresses, talking about SEO services and saying that I don’t have enough key words highlighted in my post and that because I don’t use so-and-so here and this-and-that there, my ranking on Google will be lower. Frankly, I couldn’t care less about these picky details. I started a blog because I love to travel and I love to write and wanted to share my experiences with friends. The fact that strangers from all over the world find and read and follow my blog is humbling. However, I don’t intend to spend my life in front of my computer, downloading various plug-ins and spending money on various schemes to make my followers grow even more. I read an article where a guy said he’d got in $36,000 of debt just so he could make his blog a huge hit and never have to work in an office again…Where was his logic? I’ve also read that some bloggers actually pay for followers, not caring whether they read their blog or not, but just wanting to boost their chances of being sponsored by a travel company so that they can travel the world for less. Where is their integrity?
Too much mixing with technology threatens the traditional elements we associate with travel: the temporary isolation from others we know; the subsequent engagement with others we meet; the requirement for map-reading skills; the use of our brains to make decisions when something goes wrong; the anticipation of seeing all of someone’s photos a few weeks later when they return (rather than a few everyday that leave you wondering why they made a huge thing of saying good-bye before going away to a foreign land, when they’ve practically never left). We don’t even see a photo of a place in its genuine form anymore; instead it’s photo-shopped to the max in order to make it as perfect as possible and what it is assumed people want to see. But ‘perfection’ doesn’t mean the same to everyone. What’s wrong with simply seeing something in its true form and avoiding the creation of high expectations that may very well end up being disappointed?
Wi-fi was used once during the whole three weeks of our trip, simply to look up a ferry schedule (and create a birthday event to take place three days after the trip ended). The escapism was wonderful and not once was it wondered what gossip was being missed out on from Facebook. If people spend their whole life staring at their phone or through their camera lens, they’ll miss what’s on the other side of their screen and that ‘most-recommended’ area that it looks at. And as the photos show, the other side can be pretty cool.
Some other travellers agree with me – hurrah!
‘Confessions: Sunday Social Reflection Talk’ by we12travel