The Good, Bad, & Ugly: How Social Media is Changing Travel Experience

Last week, I walked along The Great Wall of China. Having lived for more than twenty years in Asia, this (literal) summit of my time spent here had long been a dream, for both myself and my Hong Kong born husband. As he sagely reminded me, “It’s said that one is not truly Chinese until they have been to The Great Wall”. I guess about three to five thousand other folks got that memo, too, judging from the throngs that arrived at the Mutianyu site during our time there. Armed with iPhones, selfie sticks, state of the art SLR’s and so on, everyone, (including us), was attempting to chronicle the event.

I’d like to take a moment to dissect our Wall experience, to illustrate the many ways social media, (Facebook, Instagram, Skype, and so on), has changed our travel experience, in good ways and not so good. Here we go….

First Up, we had to be first up. Yes, as everyone knows, it’s important to try to be amongst the very first to arrive at your chosen Great Wall site, so as to achieve the best Instagramable shots. Knowing that the Badaling (closest to Beijing city proper), portion of The Wall would likely be more crowded, we opted to get up at 5AM,(instead of a leisurely vacation sleep-in), to catch our pre-arranged hire car to Mutianyu, a Wall site about an hour and a half from the city.

Now, let me say that I’m late to the Instagram game, I’ve only just started posting pics to this outrageously popular photo sharing site a few months back. I’m already hooked, though, as being the daughter of a career photojournalist, I’ve got it in my blood. So yeah, it was really a big part of my whole China, (if not Wall), experience to try to get THE SHOT.

And, I think I did:

However it did occur to me at the time, and many other times during my China trip, that I might be missing out on something important because I was searching for good photos, or things to write about.

As I passed other tourists, clearly travel bloggers, (they made no effort to conceal their contrived poses of jumping in the air, or assuming the ever popular back-to-camera, with arm outstretched Instagram pose), I felt a nagging need to put my cellphone away, to just take a real look around me, to soak in the historical and formidable beauty of not only The Great Wall, but also the steep ridges on which it was built.

Then a little further along The Wall, we encountered a small group of (presumably), German travelers, they looked to be in their late 20’s. A few were just outside of one of The Wall’s watch towers, a girl and two guys. I overheard the girl say, “I didn’t get my turn in that jump quite right, need to do it again”. Inside the tower, I saw one of the group approach another, (who was furiously clicking away on his iPhone), “…c’mon, we’ve got a lot more to cover here, so let’s move on! We can post to Facebook later.”

Which leads to the question, is the overwhelming need to get recognized becoming more important than just actually enjoying the experience?

(Don’t be so high and mighty here, we’ve all shared at least one vacay or food shot on Facebook.)

So, up along The Wall just a few metres farther along, I witnessed the ultimate in social media sharing: An American couple was actually live-Skyping with their family back home! They held the phone out, turning this way and that, to show all of the amazing angles and views. The folks in the States could be heard ooohing and ahhhing. There’s not a postcard in this world that can do that, and I thought to myself, “Jeez! Why didn’t I arrange for international data roaming??”

So, how do we reconcile with this? Is it inevitable that our travel experience has been changed forever? Will we ever again return to a simpler time, pre-cellphone, when we fumbled with our Kodak film, waited impatiently for our packet of pics to return from the Photomat, hoped they turned out?

Will we still wait excitedly for the (snail) mail, hoping for the small, shiny, colourful cardstock rectangle that will bring us news of loved ones in far-flung destinations, (then, proudly magnet it to the refrigerator door)?

Will we put the devices away, stop our Facebook and Instagram updates of travel fun and plates piled high with over the top meals? Can we stop trying to find – then share – the ultimate experience?

Probably not.

And, maybe we don’t want to.

That same morning, I was extremely lucky to capture another picture along The Great Wall. I’ve been pondering it quite a lot while writing this piece. Maybe this simple moment, between father and son, holds answers for us all. And yes, this one is probably THE SHOT.

* images are Author’s own, or aquired from free sources

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