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Who are the selfie gaze tourists?

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What tourism firms, destinations, policy makers and tourists alike need to know about the bright and the dark side of the use of social media in tourism.

In her recent article at Conversation, Professor Marianna Sigala identified the risks of the selfie gaze tourists and highlighted the need for further research in the area as well as the need to educate tourists in a more mindful use of social media. 

The following article further elaborates on this position by summarizing several critical related research studies and identifying the implications of the selfie gaze tourists for tourism firms, tourism destinations and policymakers alike.

Tourism has always been a risky service to buy: one has to commit, before he/she sees and experience the product; there is no sample to try before paying neither a return policy; you may get your money back, but you will never get back the time and emotional effort you invested for a tourism destination or experience that did not meet your preferences or standards. And, even if the destination is nice, is it the trendy and fashionable place to be that you will not be embarrassed to share your tourism experiences with your peers? Hence, it is not surprising that people increasingly more and more rely on social media content and networks to identify, evaluate and select their preferred tourism destination and suppliers. The mantra “In TripAdvisor I trust” is evident everywhere: online customer reviews and travelers’ User-Generated-Content UGC (i.e. photos, videos, comments, blogs) are number one source of information used, specifically amongst the millennials, for choosing a travel destination. UGC is perceived as much more credible and reliable source of information than photos produced by destinations and hotels themselves after they have cleaned up and tidy their places. 

But social media have gained popularity not only because they save time and reduce the purchase risk of travelers when searching for travel information and planning their trip. The penetration of smart phones as interwoven, universal and normalized aspect of our everyday lives (specifically in adolescents and millennials) have created the ‘always on” tourists, who use their devices to share tourism experiences on the spot and real time. Indeed, identifying, searching and sharing tourism experiences and information are identified as the two top major ways in which social media have transformed tourism.

Social media usage has also altered what people do before, during and after their trip. Traveling planning takes place and changes while traveling at or being at the destination. People start driving without have a pre-determined plan of where they are going and how long they will stay. Bookings and cancelations of hotels, restaurants and attractions happen during the trip at a spontaneous level through mobile devices. But mobile phones are not only the ‘external brain’ and a helpful travel assistance. Their passionate and continuous use even when on holidays, has made tourists to anthropormorphise their devices, by attributing them human characteristics and perceiving them as personal travel companions. Research findings simply reconfirm the spill over effects of the daily life passionate use of mobile phones while being on holidays or during other leisure activities such as attending festivals. It seems that habit and daily routines heavily influence intentions and level of use of social media, which in turn normalize this behavior in all aspects of life. Basically, from what we wear, where and what we eat, how we engage in and perform in social and family relations and nowadays why, where we travel and what we do while traveling is heavily determined by what others share on social media and what we wish to share on social media for self-promotion and branding ourselves. 

Moreover, what people used to do after the trip (i.e. share pictures and word of mouth), they now do it while still being at the destination or restaurant and even before having experienced their meal or be immersed and experienced the place where they are. Sometimes, this is because experiencing the place is not even the motivating reason for several tourists to travel to a destination; instead the reason for traveling to the destination is for taking a selfie and posting it on social media to prove to everyone that they are there in order to increase their ego and self-impression. These selfie gaze tourists see and experience the destination only through their cameras and the comments and feedback that they receive to their posts; in this vein, their satisfaction does not depend on the quality of the destination and experience, but on how well they do on managing impressions and collecting likes and positive comments.As receiving a ‘social return’ for your trip is a major motivator to travel, it is not surprising that the most important thing millennials consider when choosing a holiday destination is how Instagrammable it is.

Overall, the social media have significantly changed the way people not only consume but also produce and communicate/share travel information, which in turn influence the way tourists both select and experience destinations. The human need to enhance one’s identity/image through online posts as well as the illusion/syndrome that ‘everyone is watching ME” have also changed the way people ‘consume’ places in terms of what they see and perform at a destination, how they interact with landmarks, what they are ‘forced’ to externalize and communicate as ‘socially desired’ and self-enhancing emotions and touristic behaviours. This is because online profiles and posts have to be carefully managed by tourists to highlight positive attributes, socially desirously experiences and present a more idealized self. In addition, visual consumption becomes a way to consume/experience a place by framing, interpreting and setting it up for public debates and negotiation. The selfie gaze tourists do not only participate in touristic photography but they also set it up and create it. Selfie-gaze tourists engage in the performance of various intimate relations (hugging family members) and facial expressions to externalize emotions (duck face). Selfie-gaze tourists wish to hide these stylized performances of the self to convince the others that the camera captured candid, intimate moments reflecting their (virtual) reality.

Thus, gone are the days, that destinations had control of their image making and communication. Once used as a travel memory, social media have converted personal photography to a significant source of travel inspiration and the most popular way of online communication, self-expression and identity formation, resulting in a constant reformation of the destination image.

According to data from Google Trends, searches for the term selfie were up eight times in 2014 over the previous year, leading the Internet search giant to dub it “The Year of the Selfie”. Instagram hosts over 220 million photographs hashtagged with #selfie and over 330 million hashtagged with #me. People go to such trouble to get the perfect picture of themselves - creating at least a moment that is artificial - in their quest for an image of authenticity. Tourists get killed, get condemned by prists or arrested by police for insulting local culture and people, or disturb local nature. EU countries have banned selfies at major landmarks such as Tour Eifel, while attractions and museums ban the use of selfie sticks for the physical protection of other tourists.

In the quest of self-promotion and the search of an idealized tourism experience, tourists are not ‘ashamed’ to share fake and unrealistic information (i.e. check-in on Facebook to places they have never been, smile in front of cameras at major landmarks that have no idea what they represent, and pretend happiness even if staying at a crappy hotels, positively exaggerating for some experiences while presenting bad experiences as positive, simply because they do not want to admit that their travel choice was not good enough). Although this deviant online behavior biases and dilutes others in their travel decisions, tourists continue doing it by using excuses that normalise this behaviour and distance its consequences from their identity formation, such as ‘this does not harm anyone’, ‘others do worse things’, ‘this is what everybody does anyway’. So, the once credible UGC, has become a widely known fake and illusionary travel experience. And more strangely, although everyone is critical and knows about the ‘fake’ nature of selfies, they all take selfies and use them as a social comparison and decision-mechanism. The existence of this selfie -bias and selfie-paradox is explained as a being way to satisfy a psychological need; people perceive their own selfie behavior as self-ironic and only half-committed, which in turn allows them to fulfil self-presentational needs without feeling narcissistic.

Tourism firms and destinations have tapped into the valuable currency of the social shareability of selfies in order to exploit the selfie-gaze tourists as co-marketers and co-distributors of their brand. The 1888 Hotel in Sydney has been designed with Instagram in mind by making its lobby and rooms picture-ready and selfie-taking. Hotels offer chauffeured selfie excursions with wi-fi luxury connected cars or create selfie posts allowing tourists to take and instantly post their selfies. Targeting the selfie-mad Japanese market, Tourism Australia this week launched a campaign promising an opportunity to take the “World’s Largest Selfie”. The GIGA Selfie platforms and mobile apps allow users to create and share a long-range “destination selfie. The Lehigh valley has managed to increase tourism visitation has armed all its local residents as marketers by initiating a crowdsourcing campaign (#LiftyourspiritsDLV) inviting them to share selfies showing them doing cool stuff at popular places. Tourism marketers spend more and more of their marketing budget on influencer marketing, a strategy referring to the use of celebrities and opinion leaders to post favorable content for a brand. Influencer marketing has increased from US $10 to $15 billion in 2017, over a third of marketers now spend over $500,000 a year on influencer marketing, $255 million are spent per month just for Instagram posts by influencers, almost half (48%) of recently surveyed marketers expect their influencer marketing budgets to increase in 2017 (Influencermarketinghub.com, 2017).

So, what is the psychological meaning and explanation to this selfie-tourist behavior? Research shows that it is not age, but the Dark Triad of personality traits – narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy – that push people to pursue selfie glory regardless of the result. What extends one-self such as social sharing, can become a pathogenic passion and addiction. The selfie-gaze tourists also lead to conspicuous consumption in which tourists travel to destinations and perform experiences in front of the camera to display economic power and attain or maintain social status. The notion of ‘doubling’, where tourists are simultaneously present in two spaces to continue maintain social-family relations at home and perform themselves for experiencing and sharing their selfie at the destination, creates digital stress, waste time and mental efforts in not experiencing the destination, stress in being in contactable, loss of the feeling of getting lost and experiencing the unexpected.

Can we stop and deny the existence and increase of the selfie-gaze tourists? Of course, we cannot go against and delete basic human needs or deny the functional benefits of technology. We cannot also disregard that social media can afford people to build and maintain social networks, relations and collaborations. This use of social media should not however lead to detrimental effects to the extent that more social media use relates to more ‘unhappy’ people, simply because they use social media for making social comparisons with selfies and users’ content that reflect idealized selves, superficial relations and performed emotions simply because self-photography has turned out to become a mechanism for enhancing ones’ sociality and identity marketability. What we need instead is a serious ‘education’ of tourists and citizens for a mindful use of social media in order to ensure that technology use does not negatively influence their psychological, mental, emotional or even physical well being.

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