Instead of being a liberating, mind-opening experience, travel in the age of influencers has become an exercise in arrogance.
Among the remaining pieces of photographic evidence of a hitchhiking trip through Turkey in 2005 is a photo of me lying in the back of the cab of a Turkish cargo truck wearing the same pink corduroy pants and blue sweater I’ve been wearing for months. My arms are folded over my stomach, my eyebrows are raised, and the background is gray. The picture is blurry, it was taken while the truck was in motion by my hitchhiking companion Amelia, who took the passenger seat for this part of the trajectory.
In other words, it’s not a picture that would hold any interest in the current age of social media—where Instagram, Facebook, and the like have taken over the realm of reality and turned existence into a marketing competition to see whose life it is. looks better on screen.
Travel influencers and other digital personalities spend all kinds of time, resources and photo editing tools to create images that are supposed to be spontaneous and organically charming. Often the images are accompanied by captions and hashtags emphasizing the expected perfection of it all.
Yet this photo of a Turkish truck, despite its rare simplicity and lack of aesthetic appeal, does much more for me personally than contemporary travel photos that are almost monotonous in their scenic vivacity. On the one hand, it takes me back to the days when you could just see and do things without obsessing over how to get the moment right for social media.
The value of that moment in 2005 wasn’t determined by the amount of Facebook likes, because I didn’t have Facebook or a phone then, and my experience and memory of hitchhiking wasn’t clouded by digital interference.
Looking at the photo now, it means so much more to me than its components—triggering memories of all the many Turkish trucks Amelia and I traveled in during our hitchhiking years, and all the roadside snacks we shared with truck drivers sitting on plastic stools around a portable stove.
I remember a hitchhiking trip to Syria where two complete strangers spent most of their day vouching for us to border officials to facilitate our entry into the country. And I remember we were passing through the Black Sea region of Turkey and Cappadocia, where a woman let us have a room in her guesthouse in exchange for a bag of hazelnuts that someone had given us.
These days, as any glance at the internet will confirm, Cappadocia is known for its “most Instagrammable places” and such appealing travel tips that question the very purpose of traveling in the first place.
After all, there is nothing magical or educational about going to another country to take the same selfie as everyone else. But capitalism is good at presenting empty homogeneity as happiness.
In the digital distraction that passes for a lifetime these days, a veritable industry has sprung up to accommodate a spectrum ranging from nano-influencers to mega-influencers. The latter category includes tourist “social media entrepreneurs” with millions of followers who boast about their own brands and hashtags and who tell you what outfits to buy for the perfect Santorini selfie.
Unfortunately, banal sells—and one popular travel influencer brand is capitalizing on the encouraging tagline, “Don’t waste a minute of your life!”
Really, there’s no better way to not waste your life than to binge on fabulous travel photos of glamorous people and feel miserable about yourself.
And the social media travel landscape is getting more dignified by the day. Last year, Forbes magazine stumbled upon a celebration of the “new trend in travel: influencer-curated trips” – which allow low-level individuals to accompany influencers on “photo-worthy” jaunts and experience a sort of “bucket list of itineraries, that you want to follow in your social media feeds”.
According to the 19th-century American author Mark Twain, travel is an antidote to “conceited” attitudes—a cure for “prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” But these days, influencer-guided travel seems to be little more than an exercise in conceit—pursuing an increasingly narrow-minded, insular, and selfie-oriented world view.
I guess I count myself lucky to be old enough to predate the Instagram-TikTok-YouTube era when make-believe was still possible – at least for those of us gifted with the obscene privilege of crossing international borders at will – that the Essence of the journey itself was not impossibly damaged.
In 2006, a year after the boring Turkish truck photo, Amelia and I spent several months hitchhiking around Lebanon – where, thanks to a 34-day murderous summer rampage by the US-backed Israeli military, the “photo-worthy” opportunities were rather few and rare.
But at least I learned something about how the world works.
Now, as perfect worldviews are increasingly commercialized and monetized, this is not the most ideal backdrop for humanity. And as an industry based on total falsity and reducing reality to empty images continues to thrive, it is time to get out of people’s influence.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.