To paraphrase Hamlet: To be seen or not to be seen ― that is the modern day question...
I’m standing at the top of a mountain overlooking a village in rural Japan. I can see little houses, a river, trees, and an old man working in his garden. But wait, there’s something missing from this scene. I take out my phone and take a photo. No, that won’t do. I take 10 more. Then I Instagram, Facebook, Tweet and Snapchat. Oh, why not? I also take a short video to put on YouTube - just in case. Now I can relax. I sit down under a tree, unwrap a rice ball, and take a few moments to survey the scene of beauty around me. But I can’t quite relax yet - I need to check if I have any likes on Facebook or cute hearts on Instagram. None? Why not? Why did this not register with my target audience (my friends)?
I’m exaggerating but this is not a complete parody. It seems to be the norm for a lot of travellers. We don’t seem to be creating our lives these days – just curating. I recently watched a woman film herself with a selfie-stick as she walked around the ruins of an ancient fort in Sans Sebastian, Spain. The place was dripping in history and the view was spectacular. But she wasn’t looking at the turquoise ocean or the old terracotta-tiled houses below – she was looking at her camera. I, in turn, took a video of her and put it on my Instagram. (As an aside, last year I gave my uncle a ‘selfie-stick’ for Christmas as I knew he liked photography. He unwrapped it and said: “Oh, a selfish stick!”)
Hi-Fi or Nashville?
What are we missing by viewing life through a social media lens? I’m not the first person to ask that question but I’ll also admit I’m part of the ‘problem’. I take photos of beautiful or quirky scenes and appreciate them just for their social media potential. I’ll debate between ‘Hi-Fi’ and ‘Nashville’ before choosing a filter on Instagram. Then I’ll hashtag my photos to increase my ‘audience’. Slowly, I have become one of those people and I dislike myself for it.
I do think it gives me a sense of purpose though. Without recording my experience, I feel my holiday is less meaningful. That feeling is probably heightened by being a journalist but I don’t think I’m alone. Social media ‘platforms’ are beginning to shape our travel plans. I Instagram, therefore I am. There’s an uneasy feeling that these holiday shots we post are a form of bragging. ‘I am here. Look at me!’
I remember a usually upbeat colleague of mine going through his Facebook feed one day during a quiet afternoon at work. “I’m so depressed. Everyone’s going to the most amazing places and having the most amazing time,” he said, sighing. Except they’re probably not. One photo reflects one moment in a day. People don’t tend to post a photo of the time when they got into a fight in Moscow with their taxi driver. Or when they had an argument with a friend in Rome over how to get to their hotel. We prefer to forget those moments and not acknowledge them as part of the travel experience. But later, in retrospect, it’s often those experiences that we share around the dinner table, not the pleasant but forgettable days of sight-seeing.
Take the day that I got more ‘likes’ than usual for a picture I’d posted on Instagram. I’d gone to a temple in rural Japan and spent the day climbing hundreds of steps to see what turned out to be a rather underwhelming temple. I had seen a lot of temples by that point and was a bit templed-out. I was among crowds of people ― couples, friends and families and while not lonely –- I was aware of my ‘alone-ness’. It just happened to be one of those days when I experienced a certain travel-melancholia. It happens. Walking back from the temple to the train station in the early evening, an older Japanese man stared at me and yelled “Gaijin” to his wife as I passed by. Gaijin roughly translates as foreigner or outsider in Japanese and is not the friendliest of terms. I wanted to say: “I understand what you’re saying. Don’t forget some Gaijin can understand Japanese!” But I didn’t. I was suddenly very aware of being ‘the other’ - of being the outsider. And it’s good to feel that sometimes. That shakes the traveller, you or me, out of our arrogance. We do not fit in here. We are outsiders looking in.
That evening, going back on the train, I posted a photo of an ice-cream with colourful little sugary baubles on it and was surprised by how many of my ‘followers’ liked it. Maybe some people just really like ice-cream. Either way, that ice-cream did not sum up my day and I felt like a bit of a fraud. Of course, that experience hasn’t stopped me using social media. I can see the benefits too – ‘connecting’ with friends overseas, taking photos to remember the beauty of that moment, sharing our experiences of new places. We want to remember the good parts of travelling and social media helps us do that. But let’s not forget that’s only one aspect of travel. Is that photo you just posted as important as being there in that moment and in that place? To paraphrase Hamlet: To be seen or not to be seen – that is the modern day question.