It’s a modern-day conundrum: if I don’t post a picture of myself somewhere, did I actually go there? Last October, I traveled back home to Vancouver to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving with my family. Yet I spent more time trying to curate an Instagram post commemorating the trip than talking with my parents.
When my cousins from Canada came to visit me here in Los Angeles last August, we planned our trip around what would be Instagram-worthy: Santa Monica Pier, The Broad and famous food venues. We were obsessed with documenting how much fun we were having through our Instagram and Snapchat stories, or rather how much fun our followers thought we should be having. In the age of Instagram and social media, travel has become detached from its substance and distilled into aesthetics.
Before social media, I never understood the glamour of travel. When my mom was my age, she left the Philippines to work as a maid in Singapore, and later a nanny in Canada, sending a portion of each paycheck back to her family. At age 20, my dad was just starting his U.S. Navy career. He spent most of my childhood stationed across the Pacific, from Japan to Diego Garcia. For my family and many others, travel was about sacrifice and family — the Philippines’ largest export is their people, with more than 10 million Filipinos working abroad.
Every time I go back home for break, I can see the hurt and confusion in my mom’s eyes. She doesn’t have to say it, but I know what she means — “Why did you go so far for college, Kristine? Your father and I traveled the world and left our families behind so that you wouldn’t have to.”
Like my peers, I had fallen in love with travel — or the idea that other people knew I traveled. My Instagram feed was filled with photos of my friends, classmates, celebrities or people I didn’t know smiling in beautiful locations across the world. I didn’t see myself as narcissistic for constantly posting photos of myself if everyone else was doing the same. If I wanted to keep up and get “likes,” I knew I had to post regularly and document everywhere photo-worthy I went.
The ability to travel is a status symbol. While the majority of young people can’t afford constant airfare and luxurious hotels, social media deludes us into thinking we can — and should — all aspire to live such lavish lives. We don’t see all the work that goes into creating each photo. Brands pay travel influencers to pose in photogenic locales; travel influencer Lauren Bullen has over two million followers on Instagram and makes up to $7,500 per post. The rest of us have to pay our own, but the likes are worth the price.
I use social media validation to compensate for my own guilt around travel. Because travel was always about family, if I went anywhere out of curiosity or for fun, I could hear in my head my mom shaming me for wasting money. I sold the idea to my parents of studying abroad next semester in Dublin, Ireland by phrasing it as an opportunity to visit extended family in nearby London and Belfast, not a chance to explore a new country.
Not all travel destinations are equal; everyone wants to take pictures at the same handful of places. Traveling today is just checking places off of a list. When the Museum of Ice Cream (MOIC), a photoshoot set disguised as a hip immersive museum, opened in LA, it was the “it” place to be seen at — even Beyoncé was there. But behind the millennial pink walls, giant gummy bear statues and a pool of rainbow sprinkles, the museum experience was empty. I thought it would redefine the concepts of museums and get people interested in immersive art, but the MOIC only came to life in photographs. I smiled just for the camera, not myself. People liked my pictures on Instagram and told me how “cool” I was now when nothing about me had changed. I was cool by association.
Traveling can help people grow to be more open-minded and tolerant of other cultures, but social media’s idea of travel is a facade of growth. I’m not interacting with locals, learning about another culture, or pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. For my cousins, LA was a one-dimensional photo backdrop.
By exploring other places, you’re supposed to explore who you are. I don’t think everyone who captions their vacation photo #wanderlust is concerned with their introspective journey to find themselves. People post pictures to make others think that they’re cultured and well-rounded. If everyone is taking pictures at the same few curated locations, then we’re not finding ourselves, we’re molding ourselves to fit the same cookie-cutter shape.
Instead of traveling solely for the photos, take advantage of the opportunity to go beyond your Instagram recommended page. There’s nothing wrong with traveling the globe and enjoying yourself, then posting pictures later. But if the only thing you remember from your trip is the photos you took, you’ve wasted your time.
Kristine White is a junior English major. She can be reached at email@example.com.