Thursday, 12 December 2013

Around the world in 80 hashtags

Amanda Parks

Earlier this year, I decided to leave the safety and predictability of day-to-day life and embark on an undefined overseas adventure. I wanted absolute freedom to see, do, relax, reflect and absorb everything without a pre-determined expiration date staring at me like the stamp on a milk carton. Aside from some bookmarked dates and destinations, my slate was clean. Maybe I’d travel for 3 months or 4, or 6 or more, before growing up and returning to work. My approach was admittedly indulgent, but it was the one I needed to ensure my travel bug was sufficiently fed.

When I told various friends and colleagues about my plan I was surprised by how many asked if I’d write a travel blog. There were several reasons why my answer was no. For one, I’d always disliked the sound of the word blog and I didn’t want to be a blogger [Editor’s note: no offence taken]. More importantly, I had a sneaking suspicion that if I committed to writing a blog it would ultimately detract from, rather than add to, the experience I sought. I knew I’d feel pressured to package my days into posts that would be interesting, funny or somehow read-worthy, with the result that I’d spend hours staring at my laptop and poring over words and photos when I’d rather spend those hours staring at the ocean and pouring a deliciously refreshing drink.

The reality is that blogging, sharing, posting, commenting, tagging, and hashtagging have become so prevalent, so expected, that I felt rebellious for choosing to be a relatively quiet traveller. Why wasn’t I updating my Facebook status upon arriving in each place? Why hadn’t I joined Instagram to tell my travel tales through daily photos? Why did I take 4 months to send my first real update to a relatively small list of friends and family (by old-school email, no less)?

Let me be clear - I didn’t entirely boycott social media while travelling. I did post some Facebook updates and photos, and I reaped great benefits that arose solely because of my participation in social media. For example, I chose certain travel destinations after being inspired by friends’ photos, and I met up with friendly faces in foreign places simply because one of us had posted something on Facebook that told the other where we were. Social media can undoubtedly connect and benefit its users (travellers or not) in incredible ways.

But what I feared was getting dragged over to the dark side, the point at which we shift our focus too far away from the live experience and we become preoccupied, too occupied, with how we will capture it, tag it, post it and wait for the “likes” to filter in.

At one point during my trip, I was one of what felt like 5,000 people packed into London’s Sloane Square to watch a large screen on which Andy Murray was seeking to become the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years. Last year, he lost in the final and cried. This year, he was hoping to do neither. The pressure on him was monumental, as was the tension that hung over the crowd. When Murray finally won the eruption was incredible: people cheered and clapped and jumped and hugged and did whatever victory dance they could manage on the tiny piece of pavement they’d claimed as their own for the last 4 hours. It was one of those spine-tingling live sporting moments that you’re thrilled to be part of and leaves you feeling like you’ve made a new best friend in the stranger beside you... and it was a moment that I shared with my phone. Ashamed as I am to admit it, I was one of those people who couldn’t clap, jump or hug my human friends beside me because I was busy holding my digital friend above the sea of flailing arms trying to “capture the moment”. While I’m glad to have caught some great footage (which I have actually watched since), the moment would’ve been better if I’d just lived it. I caught myself wondering almost immediately: was this what the dark side felt like?

A photo finish
Happily, my travels involved very few moments like that one and, for the most part, I did what I’d hoped to do when I decided not to blog: I saw, I did, I relaxed, I reflected and I absorbed and I didn’t feel tied to a gadget while doing so.

About a month after that day in Sloane Square, I overheard a brief but brilliant exchange between two friends which, I think, reflects an increasingly unhealthy addiction to social media and the tools that feed it (arguably most striking in its younger users, but the older ones aren’t immune; certain grown-up world leaders have, after all, just been roasted for taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service). After logging into his Facebook account in a hostel foyer, Traveller #1 exclaimed “This is an epic photo, how can I only have 5 likes?!” and traveller #2 replied “Who cares?”. Indeed, who does care? When we post things, who are we posting them for? Should getting only 5 likes or 3 likes (or, horror of horrors, no likes) make our epic travel photo seem any less epic to us?

Social media undoubtedly has its place, but the trick is to ensure it’s used for the right reasons and without letting it detract from our real-life experiences. Because, in the end, the live show is always better than the recording.

Photograph by Amanda Parks.

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