A few months ago, I went to a dinner at a cute little restaurant in SoHo that has since closed, hosted by a man launching a Yelp-like app that he hoped his guests might help promote. We went around the table to introduce ourselves. I went first (I was invited through Flung), then the manager of the place’s sister restaurant in Brooklyn, then an upstart food Instagrammer. Finally, a woman who seemed to be 40, but a young 40, took her turn.
“I don’t know, I guess I’m an influencer,” she said. She seemed uncomfortable with the term, using it only for lack of a better descriptor. By influencer, she meant she is a person who makes a living by posting photos on Instagram. I didn’t know then that among influencers, it’s not the thing to admit that you are an influencer. Like with Fight Club and hipsters.
When I got home, I looked up her Instagram account. She takes photos mostly of fanciful urban street scenes in New York and Europe, and of bespoke café interiors. Her bio lists three focuses: lifestyle, food, and travel. She has 181,000 followers, as of this writing.
This Instagram account encapsulates a new kind of force in the travel industry. An army of such influencers now command as much attention as any glossy magazine or bestselling travel memoir.
In her captions, this particular influencer says things like, “’Don’t go through life, grow through life,’” and “’Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.’” She seems to be perpetually quoting something or someone, mostly without attribution. Her own words, when she uses them, tend toward a shallow version of sincerity. She often posits questions to her followers. Do you remember your first car and what was it? What’s the weather like where you are? What song do you like to start your day with? Who still has their holiday decorations up? These are things that a real adult asks real people who have taken the time to follow her account. What’s more, they answer her with enthusiasm in the comments.
A way with words is obviously not the point here. Instagram is a visual medium, so fair enough. But what is the point, then, if not thoughtful communication?
The Path To Peak Influencer
It could be helpful here to look at why Instagram took off so spectacularly in the first place. To be sure, it inspires unique behavior among the social media. Facebook doesn’t encourage curation in the same way, and neither Twitter nor Snapchat demand much care at all from each individual post. Pinterest is not a place for creating original content, but for sharing content found elsewhere. From the beginning, the person behind the successful Instagram account understood that quality beat quantity in this space. The beauty of Instagram is that even so, the decimated attention spans of the average internet user can appreciate that quality. Just as the most successful tweets cram an abundance of humor or wit into very few words, the most successful Instagram posts display an abundance of visual charm in a single, quickly viewable image.
Advances in camera technology and photo editing software over the past decade helped the barrier to entry for producing professional-grade photographs evaporate. Influencers took advantage, and emerged out of this formulation.
They took to the world’s cities wielding iPhones and DSLRs, and certain tropes emerged: the backs of be-hatted female heads facing an interesting street scene, cute pairs of shoes on exotic tiled floors, cappuccinos relaxing at the edge of corner café tables, room service breakfast shot on the bed from overhead, storefronts shot straight on, flowers in urban settings. Exposure was high, saturation was low.
And then, out in nature, the opposite. Moody tones, misty mornings, a pop of red for contrast, perhaps. A single tall waterfall in the distance, a foreground dock narrowing out into a lake, glassy morning water reflecting the landscape upside down, the front of a kayak doing the same thing the dock did, a hiker on a cliff’s edge. The backs of be-hatted female heads show up here, too.
A visual language developed, in which the tropes became familiar signifiers of a perfect day, or even life. Those who became influencers were the ones who were best at cultivating aspiration in their photos—not just showing a beautiful place from an intriguing angle, but showing a version of perfection that viewers of their photos could long for.
The aspirational element of travel is not new, of course. We see old photos of Brigitte Bardot in the South of France and we feel in a quite visceral way that living such glamour would bring us happiness. And no one could seriously posit that before social media emerged, publications like Conde Nast Traveler didn’t traffic in aspiration. From the outset, that magazine—founded by Sir Harold Evans—hired writers from a certain upper-class set to document their high-end understanding of the traveling life.
By providing a platform to any traveler who could create compelling enough images, then, Instagram democratized the travel expert. Counterintuitively, it has also made it into something less attainable. Travel writers used to hide behind the page. The travel influencer, on the other hand, often appears in the story. It’s no coincidence, the dominance of attractive women in the world of influencers. (See @helloemilie, @theblondeabroad and @voyage_provocateur for examples.) Travel writers used to cover Brigitte Bardot. Now they are Brigitte Bardot.
Today, we have arrived at peak influencer. A search on Google Trends shows that the past two years have seen an explosion of searches for the term. In 2016, marketers spent at least $570 million on campaigns with Instagram influencers, according to the digital research firm eMarketer. My question now involves the extent to which influencers, and the newfound power they wield, have changed travel on the consumer level.
Celebrities use Instagram liberally, of course. Selena Gomez, the reigning leader, has 121 million followers all to herself. And we should remember that some corners of the app, like the one where the account of National Geographic Travel resides (with 18.1 million followers), carry on an admirable tradition of travel journalism, one that presents the awesomeness of this earth in a way that is faithful to both the places depicted and to the facts that can lead to a deeper understanding of those places.
But I am more interested in influencers whose power is derived from Instagram, not those who exploit an already-existing platform via their accounts. I’m interested in Murad Osmann, who famously photographs his girlfriend leading him by the hand to landmarks around the world. His signature photos and accompanying #followmeto hashtag have garnered him 4.6 million followers and a slew of imitators; I’m interested in Lauren Bullen, a blond who travels the world with her boyfriend, Jack Morris, to the tune of 1.7 million and 2.1 million followers, respectively (traveling couples, you’ll notice before long, are a nauseating trend on Instagram); I’m maybe most interested in the sprawling middle pool of career Insta-travelers with somewhere between 10,000 and 200,000 followers, like the one I opened this essay with.
Aspiring To Non-Places
Influencers mythologize things that are merely pleasant. Because they are not journalists, an element of fantasy can creep in to their work; often, it dominates completely. Instagram does not reflect reality so much as it whisks users away from it and into a world seen, often literally, through a rose-colored lens. Instagram has become the natural home for what I’ll call teacup sensibilities—dainty, evocative of lolling afternoons, Renoir-esque.
The effect, as Philip Lopate writes in his famous essay, “Against Joie de Vivre,” involves “formalizing the informal to bring sticky sacramental sanctity to the baguette, wine, and cheese.” He was talking about French people in the 1980s, but how many times have you seen a baguette, wine, and cheese elevated to sacramental sanctity on Instagram?
And yet, I see a good photo of, say, a French countryside picnic and am, in spite of myself, struck with a longing—to climb that same mountain wearing that same cute hat, or sip a cappuccino in that spot, or partake in that countryside picnic with its local baguette, wine, and cheese. If I don’t follow through on that longing to imagine what attendance at that picnic would actually be like, or to think too much about what the girl in the hat’s day looks like, in practice, the longing sticks. How did she get to that mountain range in that hat, in that dress and those shoes, looking so fresh, is a question that ruins the whole game.
The most successful influencers understand that leaving something to the imagination, in fact, makes for a better Instagram; it heightens the longing. Travel photos with people in them do better than those without, but photos with people in them but whose faces we can’t see do best of all. Hence, the #followmeto structure, and the girl obscured by her hat. Without the face, the viewer can latch onto the photo as an idea, and then apply that idea to her own life. The viewer can daydream herself into the picture. When the face appears, on the other hand, the viewer is just looking at someone else’s travel snap, and the personal myth-making is shattered.
Influencers aren’t bound by the limitations of reality. For them, the world can be dominated by any hue they so choose, as saturated or desaturated as their tastes dictate. They can manipulate the setting itself with impunity. The influencer fashions the world to fit into his or her individual aesthetic.
Take the account of Local Milk, which is attached to the blog and travel offerings of a Tennessee woman named Beth Kirby. I’ve been a fan of her photography for a while, mostly because of the way she plays with light and shadow. Local Milk, as of this writing, has 783,000 followers on Instagram. To put that in some perspective, the circulation of Conde Nast Traveler in 2014, the most recent year I could find numbers for, was 813,505. The magazine has 1.3 million Instagram followers.
The dominant palate of Kirby’s photos is grey, punctuated by hushed blush pinks, brasses, the greens of nature slightly desaturated. This palate holds no matter where in the world she shows up with her camera, whether Kyoto, Paris, Marrakech, or her hometown of Chattanooga. She makes all of these places look beautiful, but she also makes them look like her world, not the world we actually exist in.
This is similar, but not identical, to the concept of “AirSpace,” so defined in an excellent essay in The Verge by Kyle Chayka in which he gives name to the creeping homogenization of hip spaces around the world. Chayka focuses on AirBnb rentals, but rightly pins the trend’s origins in social media, notably Instagram. “It’s possible to travel around the world and never leave AirSpace,” he writes, “and some people don’t.” Which is in part how an influencer can go to New York and London and Tokyo and end up with a feed featuring photos that look the same.
In naming AirSpace, Chayka draws from, among others, a French anthropologist named Marc Augé, who wrote a book in 1995 titled Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. Augé writes of airports, malls, and chain hotels, and how they are all the same, no matter the city, no matter the continent. But in his understanding of it, we don’t aspire to non-places, but accept them for the sake of convenience in a fast-paced world. In fact, he writes, “Place becomes a refuge to the habitué of non-places.” In other words, we might travel to an interesting, authentic place in order to escape the monotony of the non-places. In today’s Instagram era, though, we seek out a stylized homogeneity when we travel. We travel through the non-places to get to AirSpace—or Local Milk’s space—from whence we have just come.
The homogenization starts with the images, but it extends to the way we talk about places on Instagram. Local Milk’s Beth Kirby writes as well as photographs, often in the form of long captions right on Instagram. She’s a writer prone to elaborate metaphors and descriptive lists, but she’s alright. She speaks perceptibly to fellow adults, at least. Others write with a sentiment that would belong more appropriately to a third-grader, yet to develop a sense of nuance, much less skepticism. It’s Lopate’s “sticky sacramental sanctity” in word form.
I’m reminded here a recent New Yorker article that documents the rise of a single hashtag, #vanlife, coined by an off-the-grid guy named Foster Huntington, who has a book of the same name forthcoming. The article’s author, Rachel Monroe, travels for a few days with a couple who runs the @wheresmyofficenow Instagram account (168,000 followers). They live in a van, and work in it too, as the handle would suggest.
“Vanlife is a vehicle for personal transformation because of the time and space it affords to clearly see ourselves. And with clarity we burn society’s road map and draw our own,” reads part of one post’s caption. I gag, but followers of that account react with comments on the post like, “Brave sister,” “When we let our light shine we give others permission to do the same,” and, “Sweet and powerful sister.” This is sticky, and sacramental, and sanctimonious as hell. Vanlife does, quite literally, involve a vehicle. But the rest of it is a bad self-help book. (And all self-help books are bad.)
Authenticity as Commodity
As Monroe writes in the New Yorker article, “Attaching a name (and a hashtag) to the phenomenon [of Vanlife] has also enabled people who would otherwise just be rootless wanderers to make their travels into a kind of product.” What they’ve done, really, is commodify the thing they sought out in order to escape the commodification of their lives. They commodified living free. It’s a cooler job, but it’s a job, tethered to the pull of cold hard cash like any other.
This kind of contradiction is rampant across Instagram, nowhere more so than in any post that deals in the concept of authenticity. In this corner, the photos are so styled, so staged; patently inauthentic even as they espouse living authentically. #liveauthentic is, in fact, one of the hashtags commonly attached to them.
I happen to believe that the harder we try for authenticity in travel, the more inauthentic our experience is likely to become. I’m thinking here of the way when we go to exotic places, we tend to fetishize the local way of life and force some kind of inspirational takeaway onto it. The simpler the locals’ lives, the more we project onto them an ideal of pure living. Never mind their lack of advanced medical care or even safe drinking water. Never mind that concrete-block hut they live in.
I’m also thinking of how we pay often thousands of dollars to go to exotic ocean fronts or mountaintop cliffs to do yoga—yoga, by the way, being the ultimate in cultural appropriation. This activity has nothing to do with the nearby culture, or with broadening one’s horizons, and everything to do with the weird luxury that yoga has become. On Instagram, it has everything to do with an attractive woman striking an attractive pose in an attractive setting that frames her well—becoming along the way a form of conspicuous consumption.
I’m thinking of crowds—how we as travelers are inexplicably drawn to them, how we travel to a place and go where the other tourists are, which newsflash, is the very place the locals either avoid mightily or can’t afford. Think Times Square in New York, or the cafes near the Louvre in Paris, on the one hand—both places heartily avoided by residents of those cities.
On the other, think about the beachfront resorts you like to stay in. I stayed at the Viceroy (now the Four Seasons) on the very expensive Caribbean island of Anguilla once. The setting was pretty stunning, with the resort perched on a cliff, sandwiched by an exquisite beach on each side. At its restaurants, bars, pools and adjacent beaches, locals were nowhere to be found, hotel staff aside. The locals live mostly in or near The Valley, the island’s capital, located in the center of the island. That’s where you would find your authenticity, were you in fact looking for it.
The presumption running through all of these Instagram trends holds that traveling is a priori a positive activity and means living authentically. This is where critical thought dies, and where travel actually becomes devalued in all ways except as a branding tool, both personal and for businesses. “The search for an identity is one of the most wholesale phony ideas we’ve ever been sold,” the author Zadie Smith said in an interview once. That feels relevant—that all of us are running around the world checking Instagram and latching onto highly manipulated imagery to give us our sense of ourselves, getting sticky and sacramental about it and spending money to achieve that supposed identity.
Before we blame Instagram for an entirely new set of problems, let’s remember that globalization has been working on us with a slow burn for hundreds of years now, and that as far back as all of our lifetimes, travelers have been annoying everyone around them with their tendency to gather at the same points abroad, and to engage in excessive picture-taking once there. In A Room with a View, E.M. Forster ridicules the English tradition at the turn of the 20th century of going to Italy only to follow the Baedeker guidebook to the letter once there. Today, of course, there are so many travelers. Because of the rising global middle class and the relative affordability of air travel, travel has become accessible to more people.
More travelers means more interest in travel, means more of a market for influencers. In the Instagram era, this often manifests as the Instagram-influenced person planning a trip based on the aesthetic she has experienced on the social medium, whether it’s that of Local Milk or some other account, or most likely, an amalgam of all the influencers that come into her feed. When she gets where she’s going, she strives to capture the perfect image to broadcast to her own followers. Lost in all the staging and the posing is any true sense of place.