Seeing the World Through Rose Colored Filters: Instagram and Tourism in 2013

by Sarah-Rose Marcus*

This article examines the role that the new social, technological medium has played in relation to tourism. My analysis focuses primarily on the photo-sharing application of Instagram and the ways that it has changed the modern tourist experience. My theoretical groundwork derives from Dean MacCannell’s 1976 book The Tourist, a New Theory of the Leisure Class. My aim is to provide both an update and an expansion of MacCannell’s discussion by applying his central concepts to contemporary functions of tourism. I will argue that photo-sharing sites have led to four major changes: 1) tourists’ participation in spreading new markers and attractions, 2) the accelerated temporality of tourism, 3) the collapse of tourists’ front regions and back regions and 4) tourists’ involvement in labor practices.

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Medium, Bias and the Shift from Photography to Social Media

When examining photography and social media, it is important to begin with MacCannell’s discussion of the model, influence and medium. For a cultural experience to take place, two parts must occur. The first part is the representation, which MacCannell calls the model. The second part is the influence, which is the “changed, created, intensified belief or feeling that is based on the model.”[1] The model is connected to the influence through a medium. An example of a medium that is central to the tourist cultural experience is photography. Since the inception of photography, members of society would view photographic images of tourist sites in media such as magazines, advertisements or travel journals. They would also learn about the tourist experience through the personal photographs that were shared by friends and family. As many scholars have articulated, tourists use photography as an “authenticating action” for evidence that they have visited specific places.[2]

Using the terms defined above, social networking sites can be considered as one of the most popular mediums used in 2013. For example, 27% of Internet users ages 18-29 participate in using the Instagram photo-sharing application.[3] Its community has grown to having 100 million monthly users as of February of 2013.[4] The application has shared 16 billion photographs total and currently shares an average of 45 million photographs per day.[5] Therefore, its function as a medium is highly influential as part of the average contemporary tourist’s experience.

It is necessary to point out the role that bias plays within the Instagram medium. As noted by MacCannell, mediums take the stance of appearing “neutral or disinterested.”[6] The point of a medium is to seem objective when transmitting information about a cultural model and its influence. Yet this implicit message masks the fact that Instagram’s functions have the power to impact one’s visual experience of representation.

One of Instagram’s most notable biases is its capacity to alter photographs. One way is through zooming and cropping a photograph. This allows users to focus on a specific object within the shot, giving the impression that a person was in closer contact with the object than they actually were. Cropping might also be used to cut out parts of a background that are not aesthetically pleasing and to help center the images of a photograph. Likewise, the application allows users to choose from 18 photograph filters before uploading an image. Each filter changes the look of the photograph and serves a unique function. For example, the filter “Hefe” gives the photograph a bronzed tint, which can help brighten up a landscape or make a person appear as if they have a tan. The filter “Lo-Fi” uses lighting to darken certain elements and saturate specific colors; users can apply it to make their food appear more appetizing or to highlight the colors of an object.

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Tourist Markers of Attractions, Cultural Rituals and Productions

In his chapter, “Sightseeing and Social Structure,” MacCannell articulates the structure of the tourist attraction. He defines a tourist attraction as “an empirical relationship between a tourist, a sight and a marker (a piece of information about a sight).”[7] A marker can take a number of forms, including travel guides, souvenir pamphlets, etc. For example, “The Charles Bridge” in Prague appears indistinguishable from all other bridges. However, a guidebook such as the one published by Frommer’s marks it as an important site by discussing the bridge’s significance to the history of Prague.

Today, tourists can participate in creating their own markers on social media. They can post photographs of sites and mark them with tagged descriptions, captions and location stamps. A popular marker on Instagram involves the cultural phenomenon of the hashtag, which contributes to a collective labeling of any specific subject. For example, if a user posts a photograph about London they might write “#London” to place their photograph within the London category.

Markers on social media have led to the proliferation of new tourist practices, rituals and traditions. A few examples of tourist practices that have become more popular through photographs on social media include: traveling to Munich for Springfest, traveling to Belgium for the “sensation white” concert, traveling to the John Lennon wall in Prague to take a “hippie” photo, etc. The repetition of these practices can help make an attraction “essential” for to gaining the full experience of a specific place.

Change in Temporality: The Acceleration of the Tourist Experience

The concept of an experience is based on the assumption that one can achieve a specific feeling through “direct, firsthand, involvement with some data.”[8] The term is one that “hides a short time span.”[9] For example, tourists strive to achieve the “Paris experience” through a quick visit to the Louvre and a short elevator ride up the Eiffel Tower. However, the temporality of the tourist experience has increased even more dramatically over the past 40 years. Technology can now provide tourists with the ability to capture photographs and share them during the moments they were taken. This changes the experience in two major ways:

Emphasis on Direct Time and Space

Before the Internet and the advent of digital cameras, the experience of tourism involved two distinct phases: the “during phase” and the “after phase.” The “during phase” involved the trip itself. In this phase, the tourists would visit the sites on their trips and would take photographs of them. They would pick and choose which moments to photograph because they would only have a certain amount of film to use up. During the “after phase,” the tourist spent time consciously recollecting the experiences of the trip. It would take the tourist at least a week to develop the photographs and to place them into a photo album or a slideshow. They would spend time arranging their photographs with whatever narrative or organization process that they wished. They would then show the albums or slideshows to friends over a period of several months.

Social media websites have caused tourists to emphasize the “during phase” of their trip. Sites such as Instagram mark the time that a photograph was posted and the location that the photograph was taken. As a result, many tourists feel pressure to post their photographs within those specific moments. They must also make sure that their photographs fit in with the digital narrative of their past photographs. For example, a tourist visiting Paris will post photos that are marked under the “Paris” location. After the end of the tourist’s vacation, the opportunity to share their pictures becomes limited. Once they return home, social media’s timestamp and location will not allow the tourist to add more pictures into their “Paris” narrative. Rather than having a thorough amount of time to relive their trip after it ends, the tourist is given brief time frames to send out memory bites of specific moments. These hashtags illustrate the fast pace of contemporary tourism and reinforce the fact that the tourist’s “during phase” is what is most important. Furthermore, they may then begin to remember certain sites and attractions as being more important because they were worthy of sharing online.

Retroactive Memory Bites: The Emergence of Overdue and Nostalgia Hashtags

A pattern has emerged among many Instagram users, who have taken to using hashtags that relate to “overdue” photographs. This means that users can upload pictures from the recent past with the understanding that they are obligated to add a hashtag that marks it in the “past” category, which includes using hashtags such as “#overdue” “#latergram,” or “#latepost.” This allows tourists to look back and post any final photographs that they have left out during the trip. It also gives them some time during the “after phase” to relive a few more moments. However, using these hashtags creates a specific memory category for the photograph. It implies that the photograph was important enough to be shared to the public but was not important enough to be shared at the time it was taken. The socially acceptable window for posting these kinds of pictures only lasts for about a week or so. For example, it would be inappropriate for me to currently post a photograph labeled “#overdue” from my trip to Barcelona last December.

Another new emergence has been the creation of the “nostalgia” hashtag. This type of hashtag is used when members upload pictures from a distant past. The practice has been labeled “#throwbackthursday,” or “#TBT,” because it has become a trend that occurs every Thursday. Indeed, the “#TBT” hashtag is the eighth most popular hashtag on Instagram.[10] This hashtag allows tourists to have a 24-hour window each week to evoke a specific memory of the place that they have visited. On the surface it would seem that tourists are holding onto a moment in time by resurfacing old images. However, weekly rituals such as this suggest that memory is short-lived.

Staged Intimacy, Authenticity and the Collapse of Tourists’ Front and Back Regions

In his analysis of tourism and authenticity, MacCannell discusses Erving Goffman’s notion of front regions and back regions. The front region is the area where someone’s social performance takes place, while the back region is where he or she retires between performances. It is important to note: “Under certain conditions it is difficult to separate front from back, and that these are sometimes transformed one into the other.”[11]

Before the advent of social media, the modern tourist would photograph front regions that related to public sites and objects of tourism. For example, a tourist of Paris might photograph the palace of Versailles, the view from the Eiffel Tower, the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and the stained glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle. It was much less common for tourists to document aspects of private life through photographs. If private life was photographed, it was probably shared with a limited number of people.

Social media use has complicated this distinction. It has become the norm for many users of social media to share photographs of their front regions that are disguised as back regions. This causes the performance of tourism to occur across moments and times that were once reserved for personal space. For the contemporary tourist, all aspects of their trip can become part of their front region. Below are several examples that have impacted the tourist experience:

The Backstage Setting

Tourists now document settings that typically used to be reserved for back regions. A common example of this is the photograph of the hotel room. It is now normal for the tourist to include their hotel room as part of their narrative on social media. For example, there are 119,552 photographs under the hashtag “#hotelroom.”[12] They will share an image of their hotel room to demonstrate to viewers how beautiful/big/spacious the room is, and it has become common to document the activity that occurs within these spaces, such as getting ready in front of the mirror, hanging out with friends or laying in bed. These disclosures portray a false notion to viewers that “being ‘one of them,’ or at one with ‘them,’ which means, in part, being permitted to share back regions with ‘them.’” [13]

Food Consumption and the Spread of “#Foodporn”

Another back region practice that has shifted into the front region is the documentation of food consumption. Food consumption used to be an act in which one could personally enjoy the pleasure of the food they were eating, but it has now become an act in which many people feel compelled to broadcast their food experience. Using the medium of social media, travelers’ food pictures are used as another way to perform the act of tourism.

The social media documentation of food that is “authentic” to places of tourism has become equally as important as documenting sights. The most popular practice of this on Instagram involves the hashtag of “#foodporn.” There are currently 14,059,829 photographs with the “#foodporn” hashtag.[14] These photographs involve pictures of one’s food before it is consumed. The food is often presented in a pretty and visually stimulating way. Tourists’ “#foodporn” pictures are often photographs of food that would be typically associated with the place of visit. For example, Paris “#foodporn” focuses on pictures of croissants, chocolate éclairs, crème brûlée and/or any type of French cheese; Florence “#foodporn” focuses on gelato, pasta and/or Italian cheese; and London #foodporn focuses on fish and chips.

The phrase “foodporn” possesses a necessarily voyeuristic connotation. It claims that the audience member is permitted to share the tourist’s personal moment in order “to see behind the others’ mere performances.”[15] However, it is in fact a performance providing “proof” that one has engaged in the entire tourist experience.

The “#Nofilter” Hashtag

As argued by MacCannell, modern tourists view nature as “a common source of thrills, something we must try to preserve.”[16] In 2013 people attempt to preserve nature by taking photographs of natural sites and sharing them online; these photographs could take the form of landscapes, beaches, oceans, lakes, ponds, mountains, skies, trees, sunsets, etc. A hashtag that users often write along with these photos is called “#nofilter,” which is the 42nd most popular Instagram hashtag to date, with a total of 29,154,242 tags.[17] The point of the “#nofilter” hashtag is to suggest that the place that is photographed is so beautiful that it does not need an Instagram filter.

This hashtag attempts to make a statement that one is sharing an “authentic and demystified experience.”[18] The photograph must be so sensational that viewers are left wondering whether or not a filter was used.

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Social Media and “Alienated Leisure”: Participatory Labor

MacCannell has theorized that modern society reflects a convergence of work and leisure. He asserts, “Modernity calls into question the necessity of the dirtily industrial version of work, advancing the idea that work should have other than economic rewards and leisure should be productive.”[19] For example, he describes the tourist’s interest in viewing work displays (such as factories, government offices, etc.) as an attempt “to grasp the division of labor as a phenomenon sui generis.”[20] Tourism began to involve a laborious process in which people felt pressure to return home with the best photographic evidence. Tourists worked to capture a perfect image by choosing specific lenses that they felt were most aesthetically pleasing and would also use props such as tripods in order to capture the best angle.

With the rising use of social media, the distinction between work and leisure has become even more blurred. The invention of smartphones allows tourists to take a near infinite amount of photographs; for example, my iPhone currently has 8,443 past images. The ability to quickly post an image onto a social network masks the fact that current tourists participate in labor practices as part of their experience.

The Labor of Leisure

As MacCannell has pointed out, tourism work displays depict human and machine labor by “displaying the two as inextricably linked.”[21] This claim can be extended to tourists’ own social media displays. When tourists use social media, their human labor becomes intertwined with the labor of their digital device.

A common social media leisure photo depicts the tourist relaxing on their vacation. This often includes a photograph outside a beach/pool, where the tourist shows their legs or feet as part of the shot. A typical caption involves a statement that ensures viewers that the tourist is on vacation, such as “chilling by the beach” or “living the life,” or using a hashtag such as “#vacation” or “#relax.”

Leisure photographs require labor in several ways. There is physical labor involved in setting up the actual photograph correctly to include all of the right elements of the shot. For example, the tourist must make sure that the photo uses the appropriate angle. This might involve taking several shots to ensure that the user has the best one. In addition, these photographs require labor on one’s technological device. On Instagram alone, this would involve zooming and cropping the photograph, choosing the best filter and choosing whether or not to include a frame for the photo. The photograph could also include the extra labor of using other applications on one’s device, such as using a photoshop application to make the sky or ocean bluer, using an application to make a collage or using a text application to write a message onto the photograph. For many users, these aspects of labor are often valued as being essential for creating the “perfect” Instagram post.

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Consumerist Labor Performances

Social media users contribute to labor by documenting their consumer practices. Users (often unknowingly) participate in helping businesses through their social media posts. It is now common to post photographs of one’s consumption at a specific store, mall, restaurant or bar; along with the photographs, users will tag the exact name and location of the place. The company of “MomentFeed” examined this phenomenon in a 2013 research project centered on restaurants and Instagram. During two weeks of December, the company tallied up a large number of Instagram photographs that were posted about brands; during those 17 days alone there were 4,899 posts about the Cheesecake Factory.[22]

The repetition of tourist photographs at specific sites of consumption helps to mark these places as part of the tourist experience, which can cause viewers to add these places to their tourist agenda. Some examples of tourist consumption practices that have become popular through images on social media include: taking an Instagram picture holding macaroons from Ladurée in Paris, taking an Instagram picture at an “ice bar” in Barcelona, and taking an Instagram picture at Harrods in London.

Seeing Past 2013: The Future of Mediated Tourism

The contemporary tourist consciousness has been heavily mediated by photo-sharing sites such as Instagram. This new medium has had the power to help transform social practices, cultural models and productions. It provides exciting ways for users to participate in a collective sharing process and to invite others along on their visual journeys. These new habits also raise some important questions about conceptions of personal memory, authenticity and leisure.

New channels of social media are likely to become important parts of our social lives in the near future. On June 20th, 2013, Instagram introduced a video function in which users can create 15-minute videos. This allows members to use 13 custom filters and to have the ability to edit frames and remove specific segments.[23] In addition, Twitter recently released the video-sharing application, Vine, in January of 2013, which allowed users to share short videos that are up to six seconds long.[24] As these mediums become normative aspects of modern communication, they may contribute to new models of cultural experiences.

As MacCannell points out, cultural productions can have the power to define the “scope, force and direction of civilization.”[25] Only time will tell how society’s digital practices may transform our vision of the modern world.

*Sarah-Rose Marcus is a second year M.A student at New York University’s department of Media, Culture and Communication. She studies how visual representations on the Internet intersect with conceptions of gender and cultural identity. Her past research has examined communication on social media sites including Instagram, Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter. She is also currently studying how teenagers use photographs to negotiate different facets of their identities across multiple social networking sites. 


[1] Dean MacCannell, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Schocken Books, 1976), 23.

[2] Cheryl Finley, “Authenticating Dungeons, Whitewashing Castles: The Former Sites of Slave Trade on the Ghanian Coast,” in Architecture and Tourism: Perception, Performance, and Place, ed. D. Medina Lasansky and Brian McLaren. (Oxford: Berg), 123.

[3] Lee Rainie, Joanna Brenner, and Kristen Purcell, “Photos and Videos as Social Currency Online,” Online Life in Pictures, September 13, 20, section 1, accessed July 04, 2013, http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Online-Pictures/Main-Findings/Online-Life-in-Pictures.aspx.

[4] “Our Story,” 2013, Instagram Press Center, accessed July 04, 2013, http://instagram.com/press.html.

[5] “Our Story.”

[6] MacCannell, The Tourist, 42.

[7] MacCannell, The Tourist, 41.

[8] MacCannell, The Tourist, 23.

[9] MacCannell, The Tourist, 23.

[10] “Top HashTags on Instagram,” Top Hashtags for Instagram and Twitter, December 19, 2012, section goes here, accessed September 22, 2013, http://top-hashtags.com/instagram/.

[11] MacCannell, The Tourist, 96.

[12] Instagram mobile application, accessed September 22, 2013.

[13] MacCannell, The Tourist, 94.

[14] Instagram mobile application, accessed September 22, 2013.

[15] MacCannell, The Tourist, 94.

[16] MacCannell, The Tourist, 81.

[17] “Top HashTags on Instagram.”

[18] MacCannell, The Tourist, 42.

[19] MacCannell, The Tourist, 8.

[20] MacCannell, The Tourist, 7.

[21] MacCannell, The Tourist, 42.

[22] Joergen Aaboe, “Restaurant Social Media Report: Instagram Front-runners for 2013,” Momentfeed.com, December 2013, accessed July 04, 2013, http://momentfeed.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/MomentFeed_Instagram_Report_Q1_2013.pdf.

[23] Christina Warren, “Mashable,” Mashable, June 20, 2013, accessed July 05, 2013, http://mashable.com/2013/06/20/instagram-video/.

[24] “Instagram, Vine, and the Evolution of Social Media.”

[25] MacCannell, The Tourist, 29.