Why We Overshare: Social Media, Voyeurism, and Travel
You know what I’m talking about. We’re exploring a far-flung location, eating a fantastic meal, climbing a mountain. But we’re not alone; our hundreds (thousands?) of Facebook/Twitter/Instagram followers are right there with us, liking and commenting and lamenting that we are doing something so much cooler and exciting than they are. We feel validated. We feel cool. We feel connected. But why are we really sharing these photos and updates? What impact does sharing them through rose-colored glasses (or Instagram filters) have on our in-the-moment experiences, and on the people who are “living vicariously” through us? We share and overshare–a phenomenon that has sneaked up on us all in recent years, and I think it deserves a critical eye.
When I studied abroad, Facebook was still in its (relative) infancy, and Twitter and Instagram had yet to even be conceived. Few of us had smart phones, and even if we did they certainly weren’t smart enough to function abroad.
So when I spent 2006-2007 in France, my experience with social media and travel was unrecognizable to what it is today. Sharing photos on Facebook was a relatively private experience, as much as anything on Facebook is private. My friends and family would leave a comment now and then, and I felt like they cared about me and missed me. Although, when I returned home, I was slightly dismayed to realize that since many of them had already seen my photos, they weren’t as interested in re-living my stories with me as I had hoped.
Fast-forward to 2011, when, after a long travel drought, I was off to exciting South Africa! I was so thrilled to be traveling again, and eager to share my adventures with friends and family. I posted over 200 photos to Facebook (yes, I was one of THOSE people). And I forgot that now I wasn’t just connected with my college friends and my family members, but with everyone else who had ever requested me as a friend. And without changing my privacy settings, people I hadn’t seen or spoken to since high school were seeing my photos.
I thought, “I haven’t spoken to you in years and we’re not actually friends in real life, and yet you know all about this trip I just took.”
I ran into one of these acquaintances when I returned home for a visit, and she said, “Oh, I just loved your photos from South Africa! It looked like such a great trip!” And I thought, “I haven’t spoken to you in years and we’re not actually friends in real life, and yet you know all about this trip I just took.” I was seriously creeped out. I promptly changed my settings and friend groups so that only those closest to me could see my photos.
But this had planted a seed of doubt and discomfort in me regarding social media and travel. I realized that I was only sharing my travels superficially; people could consume my photos without hearing the stories behind them, and assume things about my trip (or me) that may not be true. It’s all fine and well to see me feeding a giraffe in Jo-burg, or appreciate my photo of a glorious sunset in Cape Town; but did you know how profoundly I was affected by what I learned about race in South Africa? I couldn’t take a photo of that.
One acquaintance assumed I was living (and I quote) this “exciting, perfect life,” but she didn’t know how deeply I valued my travels, and how much I considered them a true honor and privilege. Although we are all guilty of Facebook-stalking and occasionally succumbing to morbid voyeurism, I realized how unsettling it is to be on the receiving end.
Working with college-age students studying abroad, I see the same thing perpetuated on a daily basis. Feeling isolated, students would post and share, about anything and everything. Family and friends back home would comment, like, and cheer on the poster for having such adventures. I wish I could count the number of times I saw the comment “I’m so jealous!”
I realized that I was only sharing my travels superficially; people could consume my photos without hearing the stories behind them, and assume things about my trip (or me) that may not be true.
And this makes the traveler feel good. We want to be special. We want to do cool things. And we want the world to know about it, which is fine. But what is not fine is becoming dependent on the sort of superficial validation that social media provides. As Carolyn Gregoire aptly claims in this Huffington Post article, “Counting Facebook likes — and taking them, on some level, as an indication of self-worth — turns our basic drive for personal growth into a game of acquiring more and more markers of social status. ” This is exactly what I see happening on social media every day, and is especially true of travel, which only adds to “status.”
I worry that by sharing our own travels, and even in virtually “consuming” the travels of others, in such a voyeuristic way, we cheapen the experience for all. This also can exoticize travel, and set unrealistic expectations for travelers-to-be. It’s only natural to want to share the insta-filtered and uber-romantic elephant ride in Jaipur; but the truth is you also spent one decidedly un-romantic evening becoming well acquainted with the hotel toilet. Of course you don’t have a picture of THAT, nor would you share it if you did, but the point is that we share such carefully cultivated and rose-tinted versions of our travels, no wonder people are jealous and get the wrong impression!
Finally, when I went to China and Korea in 2014, I instituted a new personal policy for social media and traveling. This was in part because I knew I wouldn’t have access to Facebook in China, but mostly because I wanted to share my trip on MY terms. I posted before I left, letting people know where I was going, and that if they wanted to follow my travels they could read my blog.
I was fine with people seeing my pictures that way, because at least then they had the option to read the stories behind the photos, the highs as well as the lows, the frustrations and lessons learned. Those who cared to follow along with me got a thoughtful, funny, and real version of my trip, and writing frequently helped me to process everything I was experiencing. Really, a win-win!
To only share the pretty bits, and to rely on the resulting responses for personal validation, undermines the whole purpose of traveling in the first place: to learn, to explore, to become more confident and independent.
I won’t pretend that it’s easy to resist the urge to share my adventures instantly, and to feel a little boost every time someone likes or comments. I am as guilty of it as anyone else, and I am positive that some of my posts, especially the older ones, are prime examples of how NOT to talk about travel on social media.
The point of this piece, though, is not that we should not share our travel stories and photos. It is only natural to share, and it is only natural for others to be curious. But we can and must control the content of what we share. To only share the pretty bits, and to rely on the resulting responses for personal validation, undermines the whole purpose of traveling in the first place: to learn, to explore, to become more confident and independent. You know your trip was awesome; no amount of likes will change that.