Gazing out over the picturesque expanse of Lisbon from my hotel’s rooftop bar, its pastel-shaded, higgledy piggledy buildings interspersed with verdant trees, I try to take it all in.
The sky, amber-hued as the sun sets; the Tagus river and accompanying Ponte 25 de Abril bridge, sparkling roguishly in the distance; the storybook-perfect Castelo St Jorge, set high upon a hill in all its glory. I look, and look and look – but I don’t reach for my smartphone.
Yes, ladies and gentleman – I may be the only travel writer on the planet who doesn’t have Instagram. I’m not alone but I’m certainly in the minority if a hasty Twitter poll is anything to go by; of 57 respondents, 82 percent claimed to be on the ’gram.
Friends and colleagues never fail to meet my app absenteeism with disbelief. “But you go to all those amazing places!” they say. “It’s such a waste!”
My standard response is a curt, “I don’t like taking photos or looking at other people’s.” Which usually stumps them.
They’re right in one respect. I do get the opportunity to visit some phenomenal spots – luxury hotels with infinity pools, white sand beaches lapped by cobalt waves, Michelin-starred restaurants with tasting menus so damn good I feel drunk on decadence. (Do you hate me yet?)
Much of it is Insta-heaven, just begging to be caught, captioned and catapulted onto the internet’s favourite photo-sharing platform. But, while I obviously love heading out into the world to explore and experience, I haven’t the slightest desire to distil each destination into one staged shot, timed to perfection and filtered beyond all recognition. That doesn’t feel like telling the story of a place to me.
By its very nature, Instagram demands that users pick and choose what to show (and show off). Inevitably it’s the ugly, the uncomfortable or the just plain boring aspects of travel – and of life – that get edited out. Journalists are, first and foremost, storytellers, and the idea of highlighting only the bright and shiny parts of somewhere – the parts guaranteed to garner those all-important likes – doesn’t sit quite right with me.
It probably (read definitely) sounds pretentious, but the most exciting aspect of travelling for me is the act of wrestling each fresh place into language: how to best describe the colour of those leaves? The taste of that dessert? The feel of that breeze? How to extract the essence of each experience in all its gritty, gorgeous reality? A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a thousand words can reflect a trip in a way one over-saturated image cannot.
Travel influencers also have a lot to answer for when it comes to promoting “bad behaviour” to get the money shot – just this summer, influencer Elisabeth Brentano, otherwise known as Elizabeth on the Road, started her petition “Encouraging the social media generation to behave more responsibly outdoors”, calling for individuals to understand the negative impact their actions can have on the planet.
Of course, that’s only half the story. Truth time: what really freaks me out about Instagram is the idea of how closely tied my fragile ego would be to my travels.
It would be nice to think that, when we post things on social media, it’s done merely for the pleasure of sharing our lives and connecting with others; we just want to be part of that big, beautiful conversation.
It would be nice – but it wouldn’t be true. For most of us, it’s the endorphin rush of seeing those numbers climb – follows, likes, shares, comments – that keeps us coming back for more. Whether we like it or not, we are all approval junkies for whom those figures are inherently bound up in our self-worth.
In the era of the ubiquitous selfie, how could you not associate thousands of likes with the idea that thousands of people like you? And, conversely, that a dearth of interactions means you’re essentially an online pariah?
It happens on every platform, but Instagram is one of the worst offenders when it comes to filtering the realness out of real life and making us feel our value can be measured numerically.
To be frank, I just don’t think I could hack it. I can already see how things would go – here’s me enjoying that Lisbon skyline. Here’s me honing the shot to find the best angle, filtering it so the buildings really pop, cropping out the messy table in front of me. Here’s me posting it. And, several hours later, here’s me checking it, and rechecking it, and rechecking it, ad infinitum, to see how many interactions I’ve had.
I ignore the sweeping landscape before me; I ignore the cocktail in my glass; I even ignore the person sitting opposite me. I don’t need a crystal ball to see my inescapable Instagram future.
Instead, free from such constraints, I’m able to live – not just in the moment, but in the place. I devour the view with my eyes, rather than observing it second-hand through a screen. I savour each sip of the velvety espresso martini in my hand. I talk and listen and laugh with my companion, who is far more deserving of my attention than a collection of strangers online.
And that will always be worth more to me than a million meaningless pats on the back from people who don’t know me: the chance to turn outwards to see the world, rather than turning inwards so the world sees me.
-Helen Coffey for Independent