Connecting Hashtags, History and Human Nature
We’ve all done it: you’re on holiday, visiting some historic landmark or trendy restaurant. You get whoever you’re with or a kindly stranger to take a picture (or several) of you. You’re surrounded by other people doing exactly the same thing, sometimes even forming loose queues to get a turn taking photos at the best spot.
I’m guilty of this too. When my sister and I visited Barcelona in January (before anyone was really aware of the risks of travelling and coronavirus in Europe), we visited all the places you’re supposed to: the Gothic Quarter, Montjuïc, Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell. All of which were suitably stunning. We took hundreds of photos, a handful of which I posted on social media. I even made the one of me sitting at Parc Güell my profile picture.
What you can’t see in that cropped image, however, is the many other tourists all standing in the same area, taking essentially the same photo, with the same background and likely posting it to their social media: #ParcGuell. Look, I was here!
But does this impulse to constantly share our travels and lives online really make us a generation of vain narcissists, more interested in our phones than reality? Or is this just the 21st century, digital version of a human behaviour that’s actually pretty old?
Back in the Good Old Days…
The desire to commemorate your presence at a particular location is hardly new. Cave people were into it as well: as Yuval Noah Harari explains in his book Sapiens (which is an amazing read about the history of humankind), people have been deliberately creating evidence of themselves for a long time. Harari opens the book with an image of a handprint from the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in France, which is estimated to be about 30,000 years old: ‘somebody tried to say, “I was here!”’
Later in the book, Harari also includes an image of the Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands), located in Argentina. The handprints date back approximately 9,000-13,000 years and, although we really have no way of knowing why their creators painted them, they do seem to express the same sentiment as the modern day Instagram post.
It’s the same impulse, just expressed through different mediums: one is painting, one is digital photography. The collection of handprints is the prehistoric equivalent of people taking the same photo and using the same hashtag or location tag: Look, I was here too!
This desire to create evidence of your existence within a wider history has always been there, just adapted or expressed differently depending on the available technology. The same thing can be seen with the development of photography way back in the 1800s. People switched from wanting their portraits painted to having their photographs taken. This led to the weird Victorian tradition of mourning photography. As this BBC article puts it:
‘Photographs of loved ones taken after they died may seem morbid to modern sensibilities. But in Victorian England, they became a way of commemorating the dead and blunting the sharpness of grief.’Bethan Bell, BBC
Yup, you read that right: the Victorians used to take photos of people AFTER they had died, sometimes even staged ones with the rest of the family standing around the deceased. And as the technology progressed, it became a lot more affordable than previous methods of portraiture, leading to even more photographs:
‘The first successful form of photography, the daguerreotype – a small, highly detailed picture on polished silver – was an expensive luxury, but not nearly as costly as having a portrait painted, which previously had been the only way of permanently preserving someone’s image.’Bethan Bell, BBC
Or how about people carving their names into stones, park benches or trees? Or sharpie scrawled signatures on public toilets? Or people who leave padlocks on bridges? Build miniature rock towers on beaches? The list is endless.
The impulse to leave a handprint on a wall, to take a photograph with a dead relative and to share your holiday pictures on social media is ultimately the same thing: Look, we were here! We existed! It’s a way of including yourself in history, of leaving a footprint behind for other people to see.
The Social ME-dia Generation
So what does this mean for us, right now? Great, our ancestors also had crippling FOMO and a desire to record everything too? We’re all narcissistic, but its just being human not social media!
I guess. But this shouldn’t stop us from really thinking about the effects this behaviour has both culturally and environmentally.
Firstly, social media creates an ideal image of life, but it doesn’t really reflect our reality. Hardly ground-breaking stuff, I know, but even though most people know that social media is exaggerated, filtered and edited it still affects our mental health and our expectations for our own lives. Seeing all these beautiful locations on Instagram makes us feel like we’re missing out if we’ve not also been there, seen that, got the gram.
This leads into point number two: the effects of so-called Instagram tourism, and the destructive impact this can have on fragile ecosystems and overcrowded locations. We may not be leaving a painted handprint on the wall, but we are definitely leaving more than just a digital footprint behind when we visit these locations and share the photographs on social media.
As Carrie Miller explores in the National Geographic article How Instagram is Changing Travel, the effects of Instagram tourism and influencer marketing within the travel industry have been too successful in some cases:
‘what happens if something resonates with too many people? Perhaps the darkest underbelly of Instagram is when it opens the door for overcrowding, environmental degradation, and dangerous stunts.’
She provides the example of a glass-bottom bridge in China, opened in August 2016:
‘Within the first few days, thousands of tourists swarmed the bridge, eager to capture mind-bending photos. After just 13 days, the bridge was forced to close due to overcrowding.‘
This is hardly an isolated incident: before Covid-19 and global travel restrictions, numerous cities across the globe were complaining of experiencing too much tourism, including Barcelona and Amsterdam. It’s not that these places want tourism to disappear completely – the current situation exempt, a lot of these cities have historically benefited financially from tourism and many jobs and businesses depend on it. But excessive tourism, overcrowding and the anti-social behaviour that sometimes ensues are certainly massive issues.
When the world went into lockdown earlier this year and international tourism all but halted, people started sharing pictures of the effect this had on typically tourist-filled places. In Venice, the canal waters became clearer and more blue. This article in The Atlantic shows photos of landmark locations, such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, that were left largely empty in March during some of the tightest lockdown measures.
The on-going effects of coronavirus have fundamentally disrupted how we think about international travel, tourism and social interactions. It’s time to start reflecting on our relationship with travel and ‘social ME-dia’ tourism moving forward.
The Future of Hashtags and Tourism
This whole situation has demonstrated the massive influence we have on the places we visit, just as social media has a massive influence on us. Hashtags have an impact: using one with a photo can do good – for instance, giving more exposure to small businesses you might visit or connecting you to new people with similar interests – but it can also contribute to global issues with overtourism and mental health.
Going forward into a post-pandemic world – whatever that may look like and whenever that may be – its time we all started thinking a lot more about where and when we travel, how we behave when we’re there and how we share it on social media. I don’t think travel is going to disappear forever, but how we engage with hashtags and aspirational travel content needs to adapt to our changing climate and virus-vulnerable societies. We have to preserve our environment and histories for future generations. That way, humans of the future can look back at our selfies and identical holiday pictures the same way we look back at those cave handprints: Look, someone else was here once too!