Roger Marolt: We are witnessing the devaluation of pictures
Independence Pass was a shindig of shutterbugs this weekend: cars tucked willy-nilly into roadside barrow ditches, children doing cartwheels on the yellow center stripe around a blind curve while teenage siblings struck poses in the parking lot and parents framed artsy pictures beneath bright aspen canopies at the Weller Lake trailhead. I’m sure hot dog vendors could have made a killing with a little forethought. But, who could have predicted it?
I have never seen so many leaf peepers. Hasn’t anyone heard this is offseason? The leaves are beautiful, but not any more stunning than they have been for the past hundred autumns. Why are so many more people coming to see them now? I think it is for fear of missing out. Sightseeing has become a game and everyone is keeping score.
The good news is that people aren’t sitting at home wasting time with social media. The bad is that they’ve hit the roads for it. I don’t think people today are more eager to drive four hours to gawk at leaves than ever before, but I do think they care a whole lot more about getting that one perfect shot of them to beat all on Instagram.
You’ve heard of eco-tourism. Service trips are popular. Vacations can be about religion, recreation, adventure and culture. There is ethnic and historic travel to consider. Fitness or a spa anyone? Remember when people climbed a mountain just because it was there? I’m telling you, what we witnessed last weekend in the mountains is the new top draw. It is lookey-me tourism! Dumb as it sounds, it appears people are packing up and flocking here primarily to get the perfect social media visual post. Trips will not be judged for success until all likes are tallied.
It might be a shift in why people visit places. The old way to travel was to head out to spots that interested you and, hopefully, discover something intangibly satisfying you could take away. It was enough to come home with stories and memories, or simply returning refreshed and invigorated. Now, it’s not so much about what you get out of it, but making sure as many people as possible believe they missed out. For this purpose, strangers and vague acquaintances serve better since, not knowing you well, they are more gullible. All likes count the same and everyone seems to be counting.
I’m not complaining, mind you. I’m observing. If sharing pictures on smartphones is the new driver of tourism, I want to know. More specifically, I want to know when the end is near. What does it mean for a place like Aspen, when nobody really cares about a place like Aspen except to pass through to snap a few quick photos and then rush to the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot to share them after some clever editing and tagging?
Sooner or later we are going to get sick of looking at each other’s pictures on our phones and pretending to like them only so that the world of posters and posers will like us back. It’s really not that fun when you think about it. We’d all be richer if digital photos in cyberspace were actually worth a dime a dozen.
I refuse to believe that inciting envy through photos — staged, enhanced and touched-up — will end up being something we knit into the cozy quilt of life to warm our souls over the long haul. There can’t be lasting joy in making others feel inadequate. We do not become better versions of ourselves proportionately to the number of anonymous followers who “heart” that we spent last week on Waikiki Beach. Eventually we will ask ourselves, “Is this really all there is?” Give me the old days when I at least knew for certain the daily grind was a common authentic experience.
One thing the golden leaves remind me strongly of each fall is the outdoor education trip I took with my eighth-grade classmates to the Outward Bound camp in Marble. For many Aspen kids, that local rite of passage vividly stands out. There aren’t many pictures from that week, but we have stories and memories that forever come up. When they do, we remember that the shared experience is more transformative than the solo. A highlight of that trip was spending 24 hours completely alone but together at the same time in the wilderness. You can’t describe what that is like, and that’s why we keep trying to.
This is not a wholly unique experience. When hardship, struggle, real fear and even tragedy bring us together, we suddenly get it. We need to get away so that we can get together, not separate ourselves in a constant competition of oneupmanship. Maybe the turning point will come when we finally realize that a word from the heart is worth a thousand pictures.
Roger Marolt thinks Instagram may be the starter’s gun for the rat race. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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