by Kathleen Goodwin
These days many forms of social media ask not only what you're doing, and who you're doing it with, but also where you're doing it. There is now a compulsion to make sure that almost every moment you share with your cadre of followers is “like” worthy not only for the sunset and the gaggle of friends, caught candidly in attractive mid-laughter, but also for the geotag. This shows that all of this spontaneous happiness was happening fashionably in Paris, or ironically in Bushwick, or maybe just earnestly in New Jersey but still it was happening somewhere, a place worth noting. Amongst social media obsessed millennials, location is every bit as important as all of the other details that are constantly on display. As a disclaimer, I am as guilty of geotagging as all of my peers, but I've only recently been reflecting on the way the practice adds another dimension to the pressures of social media.
I can't be sure that the popularity of geotagging is directly correlated to the rise in what Rebecca Mead at the New Yorker calls the “commodification of cultural experience” but the two are undoubtedly intertwined. Millennials, as a recent article in the Atlantic observed, are far more interested in travel than our parents and grandparents and are the fastest growing age-segment when it comes to expenditure on travel. While I can't argue that young people's exposure to a diversity of cultures is anything but beneficial, I find the way in which we consume travel to be troublesome. It was laughable the way my fellow recent grads and I co-experienced our intersecting European trips last summer via social media posts. Oversized beer in Prague? Check. Selfie with the Eiffel Tower? Check. Old Town Dubrovnick in the sunshine? Check. Of course, we were entirely aware that the photo we had just posted was only a slight variation on the one we had liked this morning and commented: “You're in Prague?! We'll be there tonight!!”
While I usually find the widespread criticism of millennials to be both sensationalist and over-generalized, it is clear to me that the way my generation is traveling the way we do a lot of things— quickly, loudly, and superficially. It is altogether unsurprising that the age bracket which is unable to complete a 500 word article without clicking on at least 4 other open tabs, is content to spend less than 48 hours in 5 consecutive cities and call it a vacation. The fact that all of the major landmarks in these cities are snapped with iPhones and instantly loaded onto social media is not just commonplace, it's expected. If a macaron is consumed on the Champs-Élysées and no one posts an Instagram of it, was it even eaten at all?
The issue with this attitude is that millennial travelers, myself included, are so focused on the cursory photo, and inherent social capital of shared experience that accompanies it, that they are missing what makes travel so fulfilling. This attitude mars the actual experience— how focused are you on the beautify of the Taj Mahal at sunrise if you're also trying to find the best angle to minimize the shadows the monument casts— but even more importantly, compromises the entire experience of being in a foreign place. If you're glued to your phone counting the “likes” and comments on your post, are you having a conversation with your rickshaw driver? Are you noticing what the people around you are wearing, eating, and speaking about?
One of the many benefits of travel is taking time away from your regular routine to figure out what you find important, and the sort of people and places you find to be truly moving. Many of us seem to be constructing an itinerary based on amassing a photo collection of quintessential sights—building up a profile of cultivated worldliness. Or arguably worse, there are those of us who expend sizeable energy trying to take photos of places and experiences that are curated to be unique— yet instantly recognizable—and therefore “like”able. As Daphne Merkin wrote in Glamour recently, “It's as though we can't decide the quality of our daily experiences without culling the crowd's opinion as to how they rate on an invisible but influential index.” The accompanying issue is the popularity of the “7 countries in 15 days” philosophy that is both the charm and curse of travel in places like Europe, southeast Asia and central America. If you're taking the vacation days and expense of travel at all, doesn't it makes sense to see (and be virtually seen) at as many cool places as possible? It does, to an extent, and low cost airfare and trains make it affordable and relatively easy to do so. However, I can say from having gone on trips like these, that you are missing part of what makes the essence of a place if you are only there for a few hours and a few photos and your motivation is more about showcasing the trip than the experience of the trip itself.
Travel is a formative experience for young people, no matter the shape it takes. I think anyone who can afford to travel outside the comfort zone of the place she was raised, be it to London or Lagos, should do so at any chance possible. I wouldn't argue that travelers should miss out on popular places like the Taj Mahal or the Louvre simply because visiting these places results in a “commodification” of experience. I wouldn't even advocate for people to stop taking photos of these places and posting them on social media, because knowing where in the world your scattered friends are is one of the best parts of living in a connected world. My overall argument is for the members of my generation to plan vacations, or more long-term trips, based on what they truly want to see, not on what they think their Instagram followers will be the most interested in seeing them see. In the same vein, perhaps it would be beneficial to wait to post until the end of the day, or even until the end of the trip, so that you are paying attention to the place you are visiting, rather than monitoring everyone else's opinion of the place.