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With great influence comes great responsibility

Instagram influence on Mass tourism

Despite being a fiery Italian (at least half of me is), I very rarely publish angry posts on Instagram. It might happen on Facebook, where I still keep my private life and my friends separated from the rest of the world. But not on other platforms.

Today though, I woke up to fellow Instagramers from London promoting an app they are featured in (by the way, with no full disclosure about their involvement). And what I saw made me run to my keyboard to start typing.

The problem

The app itself seems almost innocuous and even a cool idea to some. It points out exact locations where to shoot that insta-worthy photo (#instarepeat I would say) and even best time and gear to use (imprecisely). It doesn’t have the most appealing design in my opinion, but there doesn’t seem to be anything worthy of a rant. Soon after I posted my rant in my Instagram stories, both the co-founder and the CEO of the agency behind the app got in touch with me. They highlighted all the good intentions they had with the app. And frankly, I believe them and I’m glad they partner with Leave No Trace in their project.
If anything, their guilty is superficiality.

We already have big corporations like Facebook telling the rest of the world they can’t be held responsible for how people (mis)use their platform. And they can tell it as much as they want but in the eyes of the world they are. They have a huge responsibility on how the world is turning ugly in this day and age.
The app owners have not said this to me, but I’m telling them here why I hold them responsible. And we’ll talk about this in our future conversations.

Even if your goal is to help create or learn how to improve your photography, and inspire to travel to beautiful destinations, you have a responsibility for what happens when users turn to the dark side.
And I’m talking about the dark side of mass tourism, which already misuses Instagram itself.

Mass tourism

This app doesn’t have a big entry barrier: it’s free for all and available in several countries so anybody can use it. There are features you can unlock but it seems entirely usable without paying an extra.
Now imagine, in the AppStore (so even if you don’t download the app) you can see a screenshot that tells you about a natural event. It occurs in one small spot in a nature reserve and at a very specific time. Now, all that have seen it can organise and go there at the exact same time. A flock of buses filled with hordes of irresponsible tourists can now drive to this place all at the same time. They deposit the masses of people whose only interest is to take the exact same photo, and in less than 1 hour all travel back. These people might step onto where they shouldn’t, disturb animals not used to hundreds of screaming bipeds, leave plastic or else behind, etc. I’m not generalising: I have seen this happen. And more than once.

An image in my article on Instagram influence on mass tourism

I have seen tourists take selfies in front of Auschwitz or Mandela’s prison. Tourists pat penguins in South Africa despite the sign at arm length explicitly telling not to. Animals trapped in plastic left on Georgian trails… And look at what happened in Thailand. An entire ecosystem destroyed, perhaps with no chance of restoration (according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it can take up to 10,000 years for a coral reef to form from a group of larvae).

Ease of access

Now, is this information not accessible otherwise? Or course it is, but there are things we should not aim to make easy in this world.
It’s all good that the internet gave us immediate access to bags of information, connections, etc. But Earth survived million years without that, while for our actions in the last few decades we are now all talking about the risks of climate change, preserving the planet for future generations etc, etc.
And our actions as travellers have as big an impact as pollution from industries. So ease of access to information can be an absolute blessing, but in some cases we need to rethink it.

When I travel and post photos on Instagram myself, I tag the location so I actually share information too. I travel a lot (this blog started before I went full circle around the world), and this already makes me feel guilty for the pollution I cause. But if I’m in a place that needs preserving, I either don’t post at all or provide only very generic information.
I believe it helps keeping tourism “slow”, as people need at least to make an effort to find the location.

Even in Design, when we talk about User Experience we very much understand that some interactions actually need friction. That a frictionless and easy behaviour is not necessarily the best outcome.
And so, to be able to experience the planet for many more years to come, we need to set boundaries. Maybe some places need to be left unreachable, or maybe we need to simply limit access to a sustainable amount.

Cities

And is this only related to Nature? How about cities?
I’m glad you asked.

There is a global sentiment against tourists in several cities around the world. One of the reasons is that now house owners prefer to invest in having AirBnb guests in their houses rather than renters. They can make more money and have less restrictions or laws to abide by. Which has skyrocketed rents and pushed citizens out of their own cities.
It might not have a direct visible impact to recommend to more and more people to visit the beautiful locations of a city. But ease of access to the rest of the world has made life harder to people already living there.
Even when more tourism could be beneficial to the economy of some countries, it’s the people who live there who are paying the price.

Instagram (well, all social media)

I believe you are seeing my point now. This is all I have to say about the app for now. But of course I need to have a few words about the so-called influencers as well.

There is a lot that people do for mere vanity, without really even thinking about the consequences. In the reach for popularity, the social currency of this era, people forget their responsibilities. Maybe even be as superficial as say that whatever happens on Instagram stays on Instagram. But this is not the case.

Instagram “influencers” have a reach that goes far beyond the 2 seconds it takes to look and like their post. And the more followers they have the bigger the responsibility.

To cause all I said, only to be featured and have their names seen, is a very irresponsible thing.
They’ll add some extra followers to their profile. And kill the planet for that.

Well, congrats.


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