The summer before eighth grade, I was preparing for my first trip abroad. I’d been selected to join People to People, an organization founded by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 that sends student ambassadors to foreign countries to learn about other cultures. The goal, as Eisenhower laid it out, was to “promote peace through understanding.”
I chose to embark on a two-week journey to Japan. With the exception of a weekend hockey tournament in Montreal, I’d never stepped foot outside the U.S. before, so the prospect of spending half a month on the other side of the world made me anxious, to say the least. I spent the weeks leading up to my departure triple-checking my packing list to ensure that I had all of the necessities — a toothbrush, a rain jacket, hiking boots for Mount Fuji, gifts for the family I’d be staying with in the coastal town of Ishikawa… and of course, a brand new digital camera to document my trip.
With high school on the horizon, my parents had finally allowed me to join Facebook, that buzzing social media site that was all the rage back in 2009. I was excited for my trip, sure, but to be honest, I was even more thrilled to get home, plug my camera into the computer, upload all of my photos from Japan, and post them for my envious friends to see. I guess I could tell them about the trip, but for some reason, I also needed them to see all the cool places I’d been.
Maybe it was because of all that anticipation that I became so devastated when, on one of the final days of the trip, I found that all 500 of the photos I’d taken had been erased from the memory card. On the long bus ride to Kyoto, the city from which we’d be departing back to the States, I frantically turned my camera on and off, over and over again, hoping that it was just some weird glitch and that my pictures would reappear.
But they never did. After spending two weeks in Japan, I had nothing to show for it — nothing to post when I returned home.
That was 2009. If I thought social media influenced the way people traveled back then, I wouldn’t have been able to fathom where we’d be just a decade later.
It’s no secret that modern travel is, in part, defined by online documentation. We visit exotic locations because just the right photo might earn us a lot of likes. We weigh our potential journeys based on how Instagrammable they are, how many followers they might attract. The travel industry is now dominated by social media — it’s in my very job description to find interesting adventurers to write about, and often, the first step in my search is to open up a browser and go to Instagram.
But is social media actually affecting the way we interpret our experiences abroad?
New research from the NYU Stern School of Business says it is. In a recent study, a group of NYU researchers analyzed the effects of taking photos with the specific intention of posting them online. Using data from five different experiments that instructed participants to take pictures with a range of “photo-taking goals,” they found that photography with the goal of social sharing causes people to engage with their experiences less, and thus, enjoy those experiences less, too.
“This is because of what we call self-presentational concern,” explained Alixandra Barasch, an NYU professor and one of the authors of the paper. “People are worried or anxious about how their photos are going to make them look to others, which, in turn, makes them less engaged in the experience and then, ultimately, it decreases how much they are able to enjoy said experience.”
Participants who took photos with a “share-goal” were more likely to recall their experiences from a third-person perspective, which could suggest that they were considering how their experiences would be evaluated by observers or followers, and that they would be less likely to reflect deeply on their experiences abroad. Perhaps most importantly, the “photo-sharing” participants reported less of a desire to repeat the experience or recommend it to peers.
Barasch is quick to point out that overall, photo-taking is beneficial to our travel experiences. It’s only when our intention is to share them that we start to see negative effects.
“Photography can really enhance the enjoyment of experiences that aren’t as engaging because it causes you to search the visual field and notice things in your environment. Here, we’re showing a boundary condition of that, how the positive effects of photos can really be undermined if you take photos with a goal of sharing them.”
So what should we take away from this study?
Honestly, the fact that social media impacts the way we experience new places is probably something you’ve already come to realize, even if you don’t have the data to back it up. We all know that social media, like chocolate and booze, is something best enjoyed in small doses. If we become too obsessed with presentation, likes, and follows, we’re not going to enjoy the present moment — something we should always be focusing on, especially while traveling.
Personally, I don’t consider myself a heavy social media user (note my meager 30 posts and 231 followers on Instagram). But even I feel that little rush of dopamine when I take a photo I know is going to be a knockout post. Even I became devastated when my memory card was inexplicably erased, leaving me with nothing to upload to Facebook when I returned home.
On that bus ride to Kyoto in 2009, I moved through the usual stages of grief, first denying that the photos were gone and assuming that they had to somehow be retrievable, then becoming angry, and then bargaining — What if I could go back and make a copy of the photos? How could I have been so stupid?
When I pushed through the depression, however, and found myself at a stage of acceptance, I felt a weight fall from my shoulders. Yes, my photos were gone. Yes, I wouldn’t have much to “share” with the world when I returned home. But I still had one more day left in Japan, one more day of new sounds and smells and experiences.
One more day to enjoy the exhilarating world around me.
Header image by Thibaud Poirier