Over the last decade, Instagram has changed how people approach travel — and not always for the best.
While many use the platform as a source of inspiration, people using Instagram to show off their vacations have made travel feel like a popularity contest.
For many Instagrammers, travel is more about getting pretty pictures than actually exploring places.
Their carefully posed photos can be deceptive and create unrealistic standards, with people drawn to the same photogenic spots to get more likes and follows.
People flocking to the same places they keep seeing on Instagram has also led to overtourism and pollution in some places.
One of the worst travel experiences of my life was visiting Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
I spent the day in a seemingly endless line in the sun to get on a packed bus, only to get in another line for another bus, before practically sitting underneath the statue with hundreds of people, too crammed to see anything. That didn't stop everyone around me from spreading their arms like Christ himself to get a photo for Instagram. The only pictures I took were of them.
The best stories from my travels used to be the least glamorous. Like the time my car broke down on an Australian road trip and I spent a week in a tiny town called Yass. Or that time I slept in a barn full of bats, and survived going through a too-low overpass in a rented RV.
But in 2020, when it feels like practically everyone is on Instagram — the app boasts a billion users — travel isn't about seeing places or trying new things. It's about getting the perfect picture and making your friends jealous.
Even during the pandemic, digital nomads with curated Instagram feeds are on the rise. And with COVID-19 vaccines on the horizon, more people are making travel plans again. When they travel, their vacation photos are sure to be all over Instagram.
With many Instagram users going to the same places, it's no wonder many of their travel photos look the same
Norway's Trolltunga has become an Instagram hot spot. Sophie-Claire Hoeller/Insider
Ever gotten déja vu scrolling through Instagram? Often, photos show the same destinations, even the same poses: pretty girls in colorful dresses that happen to match their surroundings, and men staring off into the distance like rugged explorers when they've barely looked around.
Emma Agnes Sheffer, a filmmaker and artist living in Alaska, launched Insta Repeat in 2018, an Instagram account that collects similar images from around the app and turns them into collages, exposing the repetitiveness of travel photography.
Sheffer said popular shots include someone in the wilderness, a picture of someone's hand holding something, the front of a kayak, or the view from a tent. They can also feature specific places, like Horseshoe Bend in Arizona and Multnomah Falls in Oregon.
"I could write a manual on where to go and what photographs to take to have this aesthetic of Instagram," Sheffer told Insider. "It's very prescriptive, there could be a checklist."
Sheffer doesn't think people are copying each other on purpose, but that certain aesthetics just seep into the common consciousness.
Sara Melotti, a fashion and travel photographer who went viral in 2017 for exposing how influencers inflate their follower numbers, says "originality doesn't pay on Instagram."
Posts that have been done before tend to do well, she said. "I can't explain it," she added. "What's so cool about something you've seen a million times?"
Melotti, who has worked as a photographer since 2012, said that "Instagram created a monster," and that she often misses out on work opportunities because her following is smaller than that of other creatives, even if their work might be inferior.
Sheffer likens Instagram, with its likes and followers, to a popularity contest where everyone is trying to fit in.
"Look at high school," she said. "It's not like the popular kids are super weird and unique, usually. I'm not dissing anybody, but we in Western civilization want to fit in and that's how you get popular." The monetization of Instagram posts, she added, only makes things worse.
Pulling the same poses in the same places, Instagrammers have homogenized travel — and they're ruining some destinations they visit
The act of people traveling to get the perfect Instagram has led to some disingenuous practices that serve as a reminder not to believe everything you see on the app.
At the Gates of Heaven in Bali, an Instagram hot spot, visitors found that the reflective lake seen in many photos at the temple doesn't actually exist — it's an illusion created by a man holding a mirror under the phone. Still, people want the photo, whether it's real or not, and will stand in line for hours to get it.
And those beautiful photos of people swinging over a jungle in Bali? Also the result of a huge line, as well as a $35 fee for a push.
Influencers often get up before sunrise to get a perfect (and unrealistically empty) shot of whatever famous attraction they're visiting. Then, they edit their photos beyond recognition — some go as far as erasing crowds and adding clouds that aren't there. The real world just can't compete.
Still, people flocking to the same destinations has its pros. After all, getting featured on Instagram can be a good thing for many places in need of tourism money.
But it can also lead to serious issues like overtourism and pollution.
Some spots simply can't handle their Instagram fame, which has ruined a number of destinations that aren't equipped to handle tons of visitors.
Maya Bay in Thailand closed in 2019 because of overtourism; so did Boracay in the Philippines for a few months; and Hanoi's famous "train street" had to shut down because of the selfie-taking tourists it attracted. Destinations like Tulum in Mexico have also fallen victim to their popularity; the uber-hip spot has recently struggled with overtourism and pollution.
Perfect Instagram posts have created pressure when traveling — and sucked the spontaneity out of it
Thomas Kohnstamm, author of the 2008 book "Do Travel Writers go to Hell?," thinks beautiful travel photos can make us as insecure as images of someone's six-pack, if not more so.
"Maybe it's more heightened when you're specifically looking at travel because you may not be able to completely change your house or change how you look, but on a trip you have this short amount of time to try to do it right," he said, speaking of the pressure to attain perfection.
Kohnstamm says "there's not a lot of room for randomness" anymore when traveling.
"There's something really beautiful about going on a trip and stumbling your way into some serendipitous situations that maybe you wouldn't have if you have your eyes on your phone the whole time trying to game every situation to find the best deal, the best place," he said.
Today, with information readily available online, there's more choice — and pressure to find the best of everything.
"Before, when there was less information, it encouraged more spontaneity," he said.
While I don't like to plan ahead much on trips, I've also fallen victim to overzealous researching, especially when it comes to restaurants; I want to eat only the best meals when I travel, and will
spend hours looking for them.
While this has led to some epic meals, I sometimes think back to my gap year in the mid-2000s, when iPhones were still just a twinkle in Steve Jobs' eyes and I relied on my eyes and ears to figure out where to eat rather than 27 open tabs comparing near-identical taquerias. A mediocre meal wouldn't have been a big deal in the past, but now it feels like a personal failure.
With many Instagram influencers posting what looks like the perfect travel experience, Melotti suggests travel has become a new status symbol in recent years.
"Everybody wants to show that they're traveling, but maybe they don't give a s--- about traveling," she said.
"If you don't travel because of curiosity, what's the point of going somewhere just to take a picture? To show you were there? You're just fulfilling your ego," she added. "I've seen a lot of travelers that are not traveling because they care about discovering a country or learning about it, they just go there to get a picture, being disrespectful, not even trying the local food. What's the point?"
While bragging about trips goes back to people whipping out dusty boxes of slides at dinner parties, such displays still allowed people to be in the moment while traveling. Now, there's pressure, especially with Instagram stories, to share glimpses of your amazing vacation in real-time.
"You're trying to impress other people with how wonderful an experience you're having, but then it takes away from you actually just having that experience," Kohnstamm said.
"People are planning their outfits for when they travel, and specific pictures. It's crazy," travel blogger Dr. Kiona, who prefers not to publish her last name for privacy reasons, told Insider. "I'll have conversations with them and they're like, 'Oh yeah, when I go there, I'm going to post this content.' That was never a conversation before."
It's not all bad, but I miss the simpler, social media-free days of traveling
I love Instagram just as much as the next person. I love looking at pretty pictures and getting wanderlust. But I also know when to put my phone away and just enjoy the moment. I like to think I travel for food and culture, not photo ops and likes.
Without trying to sound like a grumpy older millennial shaking her fist at the next generation, I do miss the simpler days of social media-free travel. Sure, it was dirtier, grimier, less filtered, and in many ways more difficult, but it was also genuine.