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August 13, 2018 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

To Gram or not to Gram?

It was a travel journal written by my dad in 1985, recording the journey he and my mum took in a Ford Escort van around continental Europe, that made me wonder about the ways in which we now use Instagram to capture and share our life adventures. During their travels, methods to get in touch with those back home were very limited. A pay phone call and a few postcards per month were their only links to friends and family on the other side of the world. The internet was non-existent. “Google” was a term not yet invented. So my parents relied on paper maps, travel books, and a whole lot of luck to figure out which direction to take, and where to find the best places to eat and explore.
The only handheld aspect of their journey was them holding each others hands, as they strolled along foreign shores and streets, discovering hidden treats.
90% of each day was spent exploring. The other 10% of a day was spent reading books, chatting, and listening to tapes.
A film camera, with a precious amount of film rolls, was the only way they could capture a moment. So only the special places were recorded… eventually to be printed out and put into a big red leather album, that 7 year old me would soon discover. Snuggled between their arms, I listened and looked as they told me all about their travels.
You see, as young adventurers, wanting to discover things about ourselves and the world around us, we’ve always taken photos to capture these special moments of travel. We’ve always wanted a way to be able to look back on those momentous times and share them with the people we love.
But now Instagram is changing the way we travel. We aim to collect moments, not for the purpose of a desire to explore and remember, but through a desire to curate a wanderlust inducing feed. It appears as if people are getting more gratification from the likes their shared photos receive, than from the moment of discovery itself.
With an average of 80 million photos shared each day by over 500 million active users, Instagram is quickly becoming the most popular social media platform. An increasing amount of these photos are of people sharing their adventures and travels, in turn inspiring others to seek out these beautiful places and attractions and share their own photos too.

Technology allows us to share how we are interacting with the world with a much larger and more diverse audience, and because of this Instagram is quickly turning once-hidden gems into viral sensations. People are clambering and queuing just to get a picture taken at this newly iconic “must see” place.
We once used to want to go to attractions to admire them. Now we want to just photograph them and share this with the world. To collect places and tick them off a list. Travelling is losing meaning.
The growing desire to do this is having many controversial negative effects. Take the 15th century ruins of Machu Picchu. There used to be a limit of 2,500 visitors a day, enforced by Peruvian tourism authorities under the government’s initiative, and at UNESCO’s request. However, with the advent of social media, it’s becoming a more popular destination. This limit broken in 2014 with 1.2 million people visiting that year, regulations unable to hold the tourists back. People on the other side of the world are seeing grand Machu Picchu on their phone screens, sparking within them a desire to visit there too.
Another famously Instagrammed place, the Greek island of Santorini, is becoming drowned by the amount of cruise ship visitors — so much so that they had to cap visitor numbers too.
Iceland is becoming popular too. In 2016, the number of American tourists to Iceland outnumbered the entire Icelandic population. And what comes from all these travellers, is thousands of more photos, shared with the world, inspiring more people to visit these places.

New Zealand’s natural beauty is also feeling the effects of tourists flocking to the ‘gram. In 2015, the tourism board in Wanaka invited numerous social media influencers to visit and share their stories online, with the hashtag #LoveWanaka, in what’s known as an Instameet. The following year, Wanaka saw a 14% increase in tourism in the area. Data from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment showed this to be the fastest tourism growth in New Zealand, and a large reason for this was because of the power of imagery shared on Instagram. A typical Wanaka photo shared on Instagram is the tree in the middle of the lake. This tree is in fact New Zealand’s most photographed tree; there are 20,000 posts on Instagram of #thatwanakatree. However, signs have had to be put up now, warning people not to climb the fragile tree that grows within Lake Wanaka’s waters. People wanting to take a selfie with the tree were damaging it beyond repair.

But what is the reason behind this mad desire to share, like, and scroll? Is there a science to it? After a few hundred emails sent out to almost every psychology lecturer in the country, I gathered some answers…

Why do we use Instagram?


To start off, we use social media for two main inter-related psychological reasons. Sam Stronge, from Auckland University, says one is connection. As it says in its name, social media is inherently social, it enables us to connect with other people, whether they are strangers or our closest friends and family.

It’s a tool of connection like nothing we’ve seen before. The closest thing to it back in the day would have been writing to a pen-pal in another country, says Matt Crawford from Victoria University. Now it’s become normal behaviour to use Instagram to form communities, stay in touch, and make us feel like we belong to something. We can get instantaneous feedback and connection from friends and followers all over the world. Niki Harre, also from Auckland University, said that many people enjoy the flow of social media, as it allows a state of open engagement for constant connection. It makes us feel alive and a part of something. Sharing a photo and getting a like is us showing we have something to offer to the world and it’s wanted.
Stronge said that the other psychological reason behind Instagram use is self-presentation. It is human nature to care and worry about what others think about us, and so we are all motivated to present ourselves in a positive way. Social media provides a useful platform to fulfil this desire. Crawford said posting is away to express ourselves and tell the world: “This is who I am.” He noted too though, that this posting for self-expression involves a certain level of impression management. We want to be liked; that’s why we post things that we hope will make us look good.

Sharing photos of our travels and life adventures clearly links to these two motives of connection and self presentation. Crawford pointed out that we get to share our lives with family and friends who are not in these moments with us. It’s a generous and open impulse to share our experiences with others, said Harre. Plus the desire to be liked and connect with others means we post photos in order to show that we are exciting, fun, adventurous, and outgoing; “I am a fun person doing fun things in fun places.”

What keeps us addicted?
What keeps us drawn in and addicted, said Harre, could be the randomness of likes. They aren’t predictable, so after posting a photo we’re more likely to always keep checking our phones to see if a post has drawn the attention we are hoping to see. Crawford noted this variable interval reinforcement schedule could motivate an obsessive checking of your phone.
Crawford said receiving likes and comments from shared photos links in to the reward centres of the brain, sparking the activation of dopamine. Getting likes feels rewarding, and the brain likes this, so it seeks to get that reward again and again. This can be different for different people though.
Furthermore, Todd Jones from Victoria University said that outside of likes and comments on Instagram, people may not receive many other positive comments about themselves. Instagram is a system that provides an opportunity to compliment and get compliments in return, also producing dopamine. How many compliments have you given today in person versus through commenting on posts online?

So is using Instagram healthy for us?
Crawford said there is neither a yes or no blanket statement. It all comes down to how we use and approach it, and how it impacts on the non-online parts of our lives. Stronge said that if you’re using it positively — posting photos of your life and connecting with others — then you tend to feel positive emotions from it.
However, if you use it passively, and end up scrolling through your feed, you tend to feel more negative emotions. According to Stronge, this is because you’re only looking at what other people are doing, and rather than engaging and making connections, you are only engaging in social comparison.
Of course, there’s the Instagram trend to post only the good things too, so it’s very easy to feel like your life is average compared to others. Rather than connecting, people then feel disconnected, not good enough, and lonely. Harre says she felt Instagram can be overwhelming — like being at a shopping mall where you are surrounded by options and you don’t know where to look.
Similarly, Crawford said if your self-worth ends up becoming dependent on the numbers of followers that you have and the amount of likes you receive, Instagram use could be problematic. Also, if you’re hooked to Instagram a majority of your time — posting selfies and photos of your every waking moment — it negatively disrupts your ability to engage with the actual people in your life, work and studies. At the end of the day it all comes down to moderation.


Is using Instagram healthy for the world?
Fear of missing out is a big driver to behind the need and want to see these popular places that people are sharing on Instagram, said Stronge. Harre said people want to be where the action is, especially young people, as this an extremely important time in our lives where we are growing, finding our identity, and seeking new experiences. Crawford noted that going to these popular places is also about connections; “oh look we’ve both been to the same place.” These places become trendy to go and visit. Social norms and trends are very powerful as we tend to conform to them in a relatively mindless manner, he said.

Final thoughts
Instagram is a marvellous tool. It allows us to create a visual journal of our lives and to express ourselves. In an increasingly urban world, where we are trapped inside all day typing away in front of our laptops, it is becoming more important than ever to reconnect with nature. Instagram is inspiring us. Through looking at photos of people travelling and exploring, we are inspired to make some memories of our own.
But the challenge is to use Instagram to present your honest, raw, and real self. Get lost in your own beautiful life rather than getting lost living in others highlight reels. And when you are out there exploring and adventuring, be prepared, and respect the places you travel to. Leave only footprints.
Something I try and do more often than not these days is to leave my phone behind in the car when I’ve reached my adventure destination. If I know the view will be pretty I might take along my old film camera instead. With the knowledge of only having a few precious takes on the film, rather than a mass of expendable storage on my phone, I find myself looking for the little beautiful things in my surroundings and capturing these. I capture sweet candid shots of my friends rather than staged portraits. The desire to constantly check my phone dissolves, as I find myself becoming lost in the moment.
This is something I dare you to try. Rather than always taking the indoors out with you, how about putting the phone aside. I think, rather than looking at a scene through your screen and wondering about how to take that perfect Insta worthy shot, we could choose to travel mindfully, just like our parents would have once upon a time.
So I dare you to leave the phone behind. Just sit back, enjoy the company and enjoy the beauty of the moment, for all we really have is now.


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