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On Technology: Turning Instagram Into a Radically Unfiltered Travel Guide


Credit Photo illustration by Adam Ferriss. Source photograph from Getty Images.

When I was a kid, “Quantum Leap” was one of my favorite TV shows. Its conceit was ludicrous, but in a way that allowed for maximum entertainment: A time-travel experiment gone awry forces the handsome Dr. Sam Beckett to “leap” among different bodies at various points in history. Each episode began with Beckett waking up in a new situation and piecing together the mystery of his surroundings. The show didn’t shy away from serious themes: In one, he wakes up in the body of a woman who has just been raped; in another, he wakes up in the body of a black man in Alabama in the 1950s. “Quantum Leap” has stayed with me all these years, I think, because it offered my young, impressionable mind a framework for normal travel. Arriving in a new place — even if it’s in the same dimension — can be disjointing and chaotic, because each new destination is governed by an invisible set of rules.

Traditional guidebooks have never quite done it for me. Too often they seem to be aimed at a certain type of comfortable, middle-class traveler. And I happen to know intimately that the authors weren’t always the most informed: One of my first paid writing jobs was for a travel-book company, where I penned florid prose about sea turtles in Costa Rica a full three years before I ever set foot in the country.

The rise of the social web promised a new era of personalization for globe-trotting. But like many things born online, as popularity of the new tools increased, efficiency and usefulness began to decrease. Brands and businesses quickly set to figuring out how to manipulate and game the services, and they soon succeeded. Yelp, for example, lost credibility after it was revealed that the company solicited people to write fake reviews. Foursquare’s recommendations were initially a wealth of insider tips, but advertisers often bought their way into the recommendations, giving chains priority over local businesses. TripAdvisor has a slightly different problem: Its ambit is so broad that its recommendations have come to represent a safe median, a poll of polls. It’s great for making sure a restaurant you want to eat in won’t give you dysentery, but less so for identifying adventures or local secrets.

Each of these shortcomings is different, but they amount to the same problem: These tools have come to replicate the biases and generic quality of the one-size-fits-all travel guides they were meant to replace. And as the vis­ual web matured, this problem seemed to be replicating itself yet again. Tourist boards flew popular Instagrammers to their idyllic locations and paid them to post impossibly stunning photographs to attract other world trekkers. Locations that may have once been hidden gems, like New Zealand’s South Island, became hot spots — a boon for the local economy but bad for reliable reviews.

When people talk about how the internet has changed the way we travel, they typically lament the way our compulsion to document removes us, somehow, from the actual experience. In an article for Backchannel on Medium earlier this year called “Instagram Is Ruining Vacation,” Mary Pilon wrote about social-media dependency and how the “fight for the perfect Instagram” was influencing where — and how — people decided to spend their time. “At times, it felt like destinations were morphing into mere photo sets,” she writes about tourist behavior on a trip to Angkor Wat.

But that same urge to share has created what is, for me, the best travel resource on the web: using location-based searches on social-media apps, especially Insta­gram, to drop in, like Dr. Beckett, to different destinations. Looking at the raw feed of geotagged posts offers a graphic map in real time, which you can comb through to make your own guidebook. I like to think of it as akin to a surf cam. But instead of tuning in to see if the waves are too mushy, feeds give a feel for a place that you can use to decide if a place feels fun and seems safe — whatever that means to you. And this has become my compass, my way of navigating the world. Rather than obsessing over travel sites or print guides or bothering friends for recommendations, I check a new city or town’s location tag right before I get there and see which recent posts are most popular. What I see there is wildly unfiltered, refracted through multiple perspectives — and much more revealing than any other guide.

Before I went to Senegal in March, I spent two days watching the location tags for Gorée Island, a landmark famous for its horrible history. It was there that captured Africans were imprisoned before being shipped to the Americas to be sold into slavery. The feed on the Gorée Island location tag was cluttered with tourists’ selfies. Worried that such cluelessness would ruin the experience and heighten the impact of the island’s historical trauma, I decided to see the island some other time and have dinner with a friend and her family at their home instead.


Location tags and other features of social media let you examine a place from as many perspectives as there are users. Credit Photo illustration by Adam Ferriss. Source photograph from Getty Images.

This approach also affords a window into cultural insights I might not get other­wise. The year before, in Morocco, a group of friends and I were unsure how best to dress when walking around a small town outside Tangier — we wanted to be especially respectful because we were visiting during Ramadan — so we browsed local Instagram posts until we had a sense of what was appropriate. In Puerto Rico, I was eager to experience the Afro-Caribbean culture, so I scanned tags on Instagram until I sighted brown and black bodies in the location tag for Piñones, a beach outpost where families swim in the sea and vendors sell cold coconuts and alcapurrias, fritters stuffed with crab and cheese. It was one of the highlights of the trip.

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