Is Instagram Ruining Backpacker Culture?

Instagram and travel are inextricably tied. There’s just something about exotic locations that make for Insta magic. I like to imagine Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker in The Social Network saying, “Gazing at a weathered door frame isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? Gazing at a weathered door frame in Mozambique.”

Of course, travelers have been experimenting with highly stylized photos of door frames (and their own feet and extreme flower closeups) for generations. But never before have your cousin’s gap year snapshots had the potential of making her famous (or wealthy).

On a recent trip to Colombia, I was struck by the country’s surplus of perfect beaches. On these beaches, groups of friends smiled for photos, just as vagabonding pals have done since the advent of the camera. But after the group shots came solo pictures. These were more practiced — long sessions with one person situated alone near the waterline, posed to highlight their curves. Once the first round was taken, the model would check the photos, talk to the photographer, readjust, fuss over details, and retake.

As I admit to noticing this, it makes me feel like I was creeping — but these self-styled Insta celebrities are literally everywhere. You can’t ignore them.

Back at the various hostels we visited, I saw something even more discomfiting: everyone on their phones. Granted, I’m 36 — which is roughly 7 billion in hostel years — but every time I entered a common room, I kept thinking, “This is weird, right? It’s so quiet.”

I was traveling with my younger cousins and they noticed it, too — though they didn’t have any “back in my day” comparisons to make. In the early 2000s, hostels were where we played Uno and invented drinking games. We talked incessantly. In 2016, I felt hesitant to say anything to anyone — they all looked so busy scrolling through feeds, editing, and typing @ responses. (Strange Instagram phenomenon: you can just tell when someone is using the app vs. emailing family.)

The exchange of ideas and cultures that had made me love hostels so much was gone.

So what? Time moves on, things change. Besides, we all have the right to spend our trips however we want, right? It’s vacation — if it’s fun, it’s fine. We don’t need the 30-something at the hostel telling us to get off his (proverbial) lawn.

All true. It’s a free world and I’m not here to suggest anti-Instagram legislation. But it’s still worth asking ourselves a few tough questions: If we’re Instagramming all the time, are we really living in the moment (which has always been one of backpacking’s big selling points)? Are we there? Or are we more focused on documentation than experience?

Again, this dilemma isn’t new. Instagram just makes it all so easy and immediate. This story that National Book Award winner M.T. Anderson shared with me via email illustrates the photographer’s existential dilemma nicely (and it occurred in a pre-Instagram world):

We got up one morning at about four to be driven out into the middle of nowhere to see the remains of a Buddhist monastery reputedly stuck in the Taklamakan Desert. It was there, for sure, though it was now really just two big honeycombed lumps — one of them the remains of a massive stupa. And while we were there, in this ancient site, the sun began to rise. But I wasn’t there, in a sense, standing by the relict remains of the Buddha while the sun came up. I was trying to get the perfect picture of the sun — which is fucking hard, as you know — trying to work out back-lighting and just the right angle of incidence.

It was like I wasn’t there at all, because I was spending so much time producing this, in a way, that I’m typing now: the moment at which I TELL THE STORY to someone else, in words or pictures, and it becomes a primeval scene of spiritual contact. I was not “in the moment”: I was already living retrospectively, with the future view of the present scarfing down the present itself.

I did get a kick-ass picture of the sun, however.

Now, with the real-time gratification that Instagram offers, the issues Anderson wrote about are even more potent. Not only are we consumed by taking pictures, we’re also distracted by cropping them, editing them, sharing them, and monitoring feedback. It’s a problem everyone has to trouble over for themselves, of course. But if you’re not thinking about it at all, it just might ruin your trip without you noticing. The mode of storytelling ends up defining the experience until you don’t have anything worth telling about in the first place.

You end up obsessing over “getting the shot” rather than living the moment.

Look, no one is trying to take your right to spend hours focused on Instagram from you. Do what you want, it’s your trip. But also, know that you’re doing it. Because someone at the hostel on a phone — typing and scrolling — looks “busy.” No one is going to talk to that person or show them the sort of spontaneous kindness that makes backpacking so magical. Which means you may not be as charmed by your actual travels as you are by the photos in your feed — leaving you more eager to hit the road, but more listless once you land.

M.T. Anderson nailed this point at the end of our email exchange:

This is always the thing for the 1st world traveler, though… What the theorists would call our addiction to specularity, to being the presence that can see and record. We believe somehow that it is our natural privilege to be the viewer – but of course, when we’re traveling, we’re being viewed and judged, too, all the time – and our obsession with viewing and recording has its own cost, because we’re always stage-directing a story about us, gathering images, calculating, rather than living a moment where something just happens to us and – my god – we’re there, and alive.

Backpackers have always agreed that the people you meet on the road make the trip. I’m not here to tell you what to do, but I do worry — if we’re all focused on filters and likes, will we have time to meet anyone worth remembering?