In January 2015, I signed up to a little app called Instagram.
I remember vividly the joys of waking up in the morning, grabbing my phone from the bedside table, and scrolling down my feed to see what had happened in the Insta-sphere overnight. I would schedule when to upload my pictures with an almost neurotic zest, and the photo editing app VSCO became like second nature to me. Even in the days before the Ginger Passports, I followed an impressive selection of travel bloggers; some of my favourites were Lauren Bullen of @gypsea_lust, and the curated @dametraveler. I would be lying if I said that the jaw-dropping photography I saw through this platform didn’t in part inspire me to create my own travel blog.
Cut to late 2016.
“Why don’t you give that bloody thing a break for once?” asked my boyfriend as I was checking my phone for the umpteenth time to see who had liked my latest gram. It took me a moment to mentally pull away from the screen and engage with what he was saying.
He wasn’t exaggerating. I unwittingly seized any opportunity to disconnect from my immediate responsibilities and immerse myself in the app – a disconnection that is somewhat ironic, coming from a social application designed to facilitate connection. I didn’t pay him much heed at the time, but it wasn’t long before I began to really consider my participation in such a community. It wasn’t until it reached the point where I scrapped a potential trip to Portugal because I couldn’t find transport to a particular Insta-worthy location that I deleted the app in cold blood. My hard-earned followers and hours of arduous planning and aesthetic calculation circled down the drain.
Deleting Instagram was the best decision of my online life.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing from there. It took a wee while for me to adjust back to life in the slow lane. For several weeks after, I still couldn’t meet a friend for coffee without being distracted by which filter my chai latte would look best under. I remember panicking when I booked my flight to Madrid because my ticket said I was seated on the aisle, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to post epic views from out the window. It took me a decent five minutes before it dawned on me that I no longer had to bother with any of that stuff. But at the end of the day – and one and a half years later – I can sincerely say that I do not regret my decision to leave that community.
It seems that I’m not the only one harvesting bones to pick with the social media giant. Time magazine published an article in 2017 called ‘Why Instagram is the Worst Social Media For Mental Health‘, and I couldn’t agree with their findings more. Studies show that the psychological distress fostered by the app can lead to debilitating anxiety and depression. An individual in the article commented that, “Instagram easily makes girls and women feel as if their bodies aren’t good enough, as people add filters and edit their pictures in order for them to look ‘perfect’.”
This is where I segue into why I am denouncing Instagram. The main problem I have with it is that it paints an unrealistic portrait of life. In the context of travel bloggers, this means a feed saturated with photos of ‘contrived perfection’, to quote former internet celebrity Essena O’Neill. Success on Instagram for travel influencers has been reduced to a formula: devastatingly beautiful model + turned away from the camera + isolated location + heavy editing = triumph. Anything outside of this formula is far less likely to garner such a positive response.
If you’re unconvinced, just take a look at the grams below. These are some gorgeous snaps taken by Jessica Stein of Tuula Vintage, Nicola Easterby of Polkadot Passport, Brooke Saward of World of Wanderlust, and Kiersten Rich of the Blonde Abroad. They also happen to meet the criteria stated above.
These photographs do not represent the the reality of travel blogging, nor of these travel bloggers’ lives. But when all anyone sees is the final product, you can’t blame them for thinking that. You can’t blame anyone constantly inundated with this sort of media not to question their own life, and by extension, their own self-worth. In a social culture that thrives off conspicuous consumerism, how we present our lives can become a reflection of their value. Digital manipulation and selective presentation can be dangerous.
I want to make it very clear that I do not for one moment think that these Instagrammers have their success handed to them on a silver platter. Nor do I for one moment think that their work is shallow or meaningless. People simply don’t understand the hard work that goes into ‘making it’ in this industry. I follow all of the blogs and read all of the content produced by these women, and I cannot even begin to imagine the sheer amount of time, effort and money that goes into these pieces. I don’t just follow these women, I look up to these women – just not for the pretty pictures you’ll find on the ‘gram. If you want to further understand why, take a moment to read about Jessica’s experience raising a newborn daughter diagnosed with a rare chromosome disorder, Brooke’s take on sacrifice and personal values, Nicola’s advice on how we can stop letting animals be abused for tourism, and Kiersten’s guide on how you can volunteer abroad.
I am not here to drag these women down; I am here to offer a critique as to how Instagram removes pictures from their context, and purveys an exclusive, one-dimensional, one-size-fits-all view of traveling.
“I joined Instagram relatively recently, mainly to look at travel photos of places and people around the world… but was disappointed (by) how many of the photos seemed to follow a particular format. A thin, blonde, white girl stands in a floaty dress, her back to the viewer, in a seemingly preordained beautiful location. Off camera, a queue of other ‘influencers’ wait patiently to get the perfect shot.”
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett for the Guardian
Columnist and author Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is onto something. As she continues to write in her article on how Instagram is sucking the life and soul out of travel, “when most travel photographs on Instagram begin to look like fashion editorials, you have to wonder whether anyone is learning anything.” Call me old-fashioned, but I like to think that travel should be an opportunity first and foremost to educate yourself on life beyond your front gate. Only a privileged few even get the chance, so why would you waste it on somebody else’s aesthetic taste?
The psychology behind Instagram proves to be particularly interesting. An article by Wolf Millionaire outlined several cognitive mechanisms by which we might understand the addiction of this app. According to the article, Instagram activates the reward centres in our brains; by sharing our goings-on with our followers – and subsequently receiving positive feedback in the form of likes and comments – we are reinforcing the activity. The reciprocity effect comes into effect here, whereby we exploit the habit of returning favours to people who have helped us in some way. In the context of Instagram, this means that when we like someone’s picture, we eagerly anticipate that person liking one of ours back.
But that is not to say that all of these cognitive mechanisms are ultimately beneficial. Relative deprivation refers to the psychological phenomenon whereby we compare our lives to other people’s. This is an occurrence which wreaks havoc on our mental health when we forget that what we see on Instagram is the cherry pickings of people’s lives. For every envy-inducing photo of a stunning travel blogger posing beneath the Eiffel Tower, there are a dozen others where people kept walking into shot, the wind was blowing her hair into her face, or a cloud wasn’t cooperating (trust me, I’ve been there). This relative deprivation is possibly the biggest influence regarding why I decided to call it quits on Instagram; I didn’t even know I was committing it until I went cold turkey and realised that suddenly my life didn’t seem so drab anymore.
Recently, Instagram have also changed their presentation algorithms from a chronological system to one that favours the big guns in the industry over the underdogs. As Sara Melotti of Behind the Quest wrote, “What once used to be about content and originality is now reduced to some meaningless algorithm dynamics and who has the time and the cash to trick this system wins the game”. Some might argue that there is nothing wrong or unethical about this – after all, that’s just the nature of business. But does this mean we should continue to support this? Or should we protest against the implications? This raises another provocative question: whose responsibility is it to make a change? Should Instagram really bear the moral burden, or is it up to its users?
I am fully aware that Instagram is not just one of, but perhaps the most valuable tool by which to grow your brand. It is essentially a platform that has enjoyed a front row seat in the shift from traditional forms of advertising to something that blurs the lines between marketing and reality. If I decided to bite the bullet and create another Instagram account, I can almost guarantee that my follow count for the Ginger Passports would grow exponentially. I would probably gain more access to sponsorships and other resources that I could convert into the means to travel without breaking the bank and making other financial sacrifices. Nearly eighteen months on from when I launched this blog, I probably still wouldn’t be bending over backwards to try and secure business partnerships. Life would probably be a hell of a lot easier.
But life also isn’t lived under a filter.
As of the time of writing, my advertising is pretty humble. I rely on organic growth and the conviction that meaningful, thought-provoking content will convince readers to come back time and time again rather than closing the tab for good. I focus on creating content for my blog rather than social media so that I have the luxury and accommodation to actually communicate my thoughts and go beyond the aesthetic. I have made a conscious decision not to make myself a feature of this blog, but rather to showcase places and other people who I believe can make a bigger and better impact. At the end of the day, I am a writer.
Instagram is an incredible platform that holds the potential to introduce the world to unknown talent and artistry. However, it is also a tool that is used and abused. Sometimes I think that it’s sad how such a masterful invention is coupled with such harmful, negative side effects. Imagine the relationship we would have with Instagram if we all understood the implications and actively worked against them. But in practice, this would never happen, and so I am investing in what I personally believe to be a much better alternative: platforms that encourage discussion above all else.
Maybe abstaining from Instagram is going to be the downfall of my blog. Maybe abstaining from Instagram is the only thing holding me back. But I’ve made my bed, and – considering that it is something I wholeheartedly believe in – I guess I’d better lie in it.
There’s no filter for that.
If you’re hungry for another opinion piece, feast your eyes on Why I Hate the Word Wanderlust. It’s still one of my favourites to date.
Photographs courtesy of Unsplash
Let’s Get Social!
And don’t forget to subscribe to our behind-the-scenes email newsletter!