Travelling in the Digital Age

Has social media made us anti-social? An honest insight into the world of 21st-century travel...

Feature by Izzy Gray | 05 Jun 2015

In March this year, the Musee d’Orsay in Paris decided to lift its ban on photography. Some say it was a decision made after the pressure of public demand; others would argue that it was made in haste, after the culture minister Fleur Pellerin made a bit of a faux-pas by breaking with policy and uploading a cheeky shot of a rather nice Bonnard onto her Instagram account (#oops).

Either way, it was a move that would prove controversial, and after visiting the gallery myself last month, I was left wondering whether it may be a decision officials would come to regret.

The problem? Selfies. That’s right; selfies.

Now I’m not an art snob by any means, nor am I averse to the odd moment of iPhone portraiture; I do, however, think that there is a time and a place for selfies, and a prestigious art gallery it is not such a place.

As I stood in the Post Impressionist room, I found myself staring not at the artwork, but at a swarm of tourists whose behaviour had caught my eye.

I watched, entranced, as one by one they repeated the same, monotonous process: finding a painting they vaguely recognised and throwing a cursory glance at the name plaque, before promptly turning their back on the said artwork, outstretching their arm to find the most flattering angle (of their own features, I should add, not the painting) and finally, a quick sort of the hair before SNAP!... another addition to the Facebook timeline was born.

I was speechless. Here we were, standing in one of the most renowned galleries in the world, surrounded by some of the most significant creations in modern art, close enough to see the bloody brushstrokes, and people were more interested in their own reflections than their environment.

I looked around the room, hoping to find reassurance that what I had observed was just an anomaly; the more I searched, however, the more evident the scale of the problem became.

At every recognisable painting, three or more would-be photographers hovered like vultures waiting to swoop on a rotting carcass. For every moment of silent contemplation that was had, another was interrupted by the sounds of shutters snapping. With every frustrated member of staff who tutted and tsk’d, another retreated to a dark corner in defeat. I got the distinct impression that they were fighting a losing battle, and their faces said it all: 'Welcome to the Orsay, the epicentre of 21st-century narcissism.'

For me, the tipping point came after a near collision between the elbow of a surly American lady and my left eye as she jostled her way into the prime selfie stance.

'I’m sorry,' I felt like snapping. 'Am I spoiling your view of you?'

I held back, but somewhere in the distance I’m sure Gauguin would have been spinning in his grave.

It was only three years since I had last visited the gallery, and yet so much had changed in that time. People had changed. It was as though selfie fever had swept across a whole generation, and I was standing in the midst of an epidemic.

I watched as those around me moved like drones, their functions mechanical, their impulses guided by the light which shone like beacons from the screens of their smartphones. I couldn’t help but feel a little sad.

'Has social media changed us that much?' I wondered. 'Has our obsession with selfies made us selfish travellers?'

“I can’t but feel a little sentimental as I think back to how travelling must have been before smartphones and Twitter feeds”

The truth is, things have changed. We live in a digital age, and things are constantly evolving. What was once considered an ironic display of self-promotion has now become standard and accepted behaviour. The way we interact with others has changed, and so it’s no wonder that the way we interact with the world around us will change too.

While technology has certainly made travelling easier, it’s also enabled a generation to visit sights across the world without really visiting them. By that, I mean the people who will spend hundreds of pounds travelling to Giza, only to spend an hour at the foot of the pyramids, and then dedicate half of that time to tweeting about how truly #amazeballs the experience was (slash is).

With the pressures of social media always lingering at the back of our minds, we feel compelled (and I say ‘we’ because we’re all guilty of it…) to share our experiences as and when they happen, as though somehow if we didn’t, it would change the fact that they had actually happened at all – which is crazy, if you think about it.

And then there’s the social aspect of it all, the fact that when we bury our noses into our devices, we close ourselves off from those around us, whether they are friends, family or strangers. Because social media is a relatively new phenomenon, the research into its sociological implications is only just beginning to emerge; already the results are worrying, with one recent study by Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University identifying a clear link between selfies and the breakdown of relationships.

It seems a little ironic that social media could be making us more antisocial, and yet the evidence is stacking up. It’s an issue I became aware of when backpacking two years ago. Before setting off on my round-the-world trip, I’d built up a pretty romantic notion of what it would be like staying in hostels, with visions of late nights spent around bonfires and impromptu road trips coming to mind. In reality, it wasn’t quite like that.

I’m not saying that I didn’t have a great time, or that I struggled to meet people on the whole, but I don’t think it’s exactly a coincidence that the best hostels I stayed at were the ones which didn’t offer free WiFi.

Where once, backpackers would have congregated in common rooms, sharing tales and advice over boxes of cheap wine, now they bickered over PCs, or hid themselves behind the familiar screens of their tablets. Of course, there were those who genuinely preferred their own company, but there were also those who lacked confidence and struggled with homesickness, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether their daily obsession with messaging friends back home was helping the problem or compounding it.

I’ll never forget a conversation I overheard between a young Scottish girl and her mother back home:

“I want to come back. I’m so lonely,” she sniffled into her laptop screen.

“Of course you’re not,” cooed her mother. “You’ve been having a wonderful time. I’ve seen all your photos.”

“I haven’t made any friends."

“That’s not true. I’ve seen you tagged with lots of other people.”

“Yes. You’ve seen me tagged, but I haven’t made any friends.”

The poor girl wanted to go home, and yet her own mother, misguided by the façade of her Facebook page, had no idea.

It made me so sad that we, as a society, feel the need to maintain our happiest appearances online, when often we can in reality be feeling anything but. We seek comfort in online validation, and yet it’s virtual. Beneath it all, we’re still human, and somewhere down the line, the cracks will begin to show. This lass learned the hard way that you can Instagram all you like, but there’s no filter for real, bitter loneliness.

Travelling is tough. It’s one of the most exhausting, overwhelming and testing things a person can do, and there should be no shame in admitting that. It’d be really refreshing to read a genuinely honest timeline narrative, yet somehow I think ‘I’m lonely and miss home’ is about as likely a status update as an admission of having a mosquito bite the size of Vesuvius upon your buttcheek… true story…

Travelling in the digital age certainly has its challenges, but it’s not all bad. In fact, many would argue that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Who would have thought, twenty years ago, that you’d be able to book a hostel at the touch of a button? That within seconds, you could compare flight prices from around the world, and plan your entire route without even leaving your sofa? That a phone could replace a map?

The advances in online communication have made travelling easier, cheaper, faster and more accessible; they’ve inspired a generation to plan, to share ideas and explore the world in a way never before imagined. They’ve also enabled us to keep in touch with friends and family back home, to let them know that we’re OK, to be able to see their faces when we’re feeling low.

And yet, I can’t but feel a little sentimental as I think back to how travelling must have been before smartphones and Twitter feeds. Would it really have been so bad to just rock up in a town, with nothing but the bag upon your back and a map in your hand? To send a postcard rather than the occasional ‘like’? To get lost once in a while? To choose a hotel without reading reviews first? OK, maybe TripAdvisor can stay…

I suppose like all things it’s about getting the balance right. By all means, tweet about a place, just don’t forget to enjoy it too. Don’t be afraid to head off the beaten track, and do things you haven’t read about in six different blogs first. Be considerate. Meet others, meet travellers, meet the locals, but don’t be afraid to have private moments too. Don’t go to a gallery and act like a wanker.

And don’t forget to take a few mental pictures too. You’ll be surprised how long they last.