Touristic Performances of Instagram “Influencers” as Hegemonic World-Ordering
Once an exception or unusual event in social life, travel has now become the norm in the West, insofar as it has become a sort of duty or obligation to those hoping to “expand their horizons” through interactions with cultures unlike their own. This age of mobility constructs not only the individuals who want to keep up with the trend, but also the economies, cultures, politics, and social relations surrounding them. Indeed, since the rise of globalization beginning in the sixteenth century, the world is less structured around boundaries of nation-states and increasingly shaped through the control of large technological systems and flows.1 Tourism has been particularly vital to our understanding of the world, and performances of all kinds have been created to satisfy a growing market of intercultural and international, as well as intracultural and intranational tourists.2. In conjunction with an unprecedented interconnectivity granted by the Internet and by social media, one can interact with “the other” without leaving home, further shaping how such interactions are portrayed, disseminated, and understood.
This paper examines how social media acts as a stage for touristic performances that construct a certain world order. By identifying formal through-lines of Instagram posts from seven prominent travel influencers, I analyze how such accounts repeat recognizable signs through which to construct and consume global cultures. In doing so, I problematize the pro-globalization rhetoric that imagines social media as an a-territorial, egalitarian space and instead argue that social media is shaped by the powers of Western imperialism and heteronormativity. Indeed, Instagram “influencers” order and structure the global world through this very frame.
Tourism on Instagram as World Ordering
Globalism and capitalism emerged in the sixteenth century, expanding hand-in-hand with the machines of slavery and colonialism. Richard Schechner, a founder of the performance studies discipline, defined globalization in his seminal 2002 textbook, Performance Studies, as the “worldwide interconnection and interdependency of systems across borders and cultures.”3 According to Schechner, the goal of globalization is to integrate all systems—information, economic, military, ideological, social, political, and cultural—along the lines of “high performance,” attempting to eventually bring all subsystems into harmony and under control. Globalization has its supporters and opponents, but for the purposes of this paper, the establishment of mobility and circulation in the name of capital are most important to our understanding of its impact on tourism. In their 2015 book, Privileged Mobilities, Mekonnen Tesfahuney and Katarina Schough argue that this “mobility order” is a regulatory apparatus necessary to the project of capitalism and globalism, in that it promotes movement that contribute to the maximization of gain but simultaneously redirects movements that do not.4 The mobility order executes its goals—an unceasing movement of people, goods, capital, and information—through instrumentalizing existing systems and technologies in place. This way, power is exercised subtly, and perhaps insidiously.
Instagram has become one of today’s most powerful technologies used in the process of both (a) circulating capital and (b) structuring understandings of a global world order. As of September 2017, eight-hundred million users were on Instagram, a number heavily concentrated in the United States.5 Unsurprisingly, social media has a substantial impact on how Americans travel: According to MMGY Global, a data-driven travel and hospitality marketing firm, more than a third of travelers in 2017 reported choosing a destination based partially or primarily on social media research, and 58 percent of millennial travelers documented their trips on social media networks themselves.6 Companies in the tourism industry and beyond are well aware of this phenomenon, and they work with popular users, covering their expenses in exchange for positive posts. The industry has also ventured into creating “influencer-led experiences,” such as a “storytelling workshop” co-hosted by a hotel and a lifestyle website in Marrakech.7 Theoretically, anyone with the means to create an Instagram account has access to a stage on which he or she can enact performances that construct his or her self. But the emergence of travel influencers on the platform and their lucrative collaborations with tourism industries make it apparent that some “performers” are perceived as more valuable than others. With few exceptions, the most esteemed ambassadors are those that are most recognizably mobile: they are white, Western, and attractive.
In this paper, I analyze posts from seven prominent Instagram accounts that adhere to this profile, with an added characteristic: expressed heterosexuality and heteronormativity. Each account documents the travels of a young, white, and attractive heterosexual couple, bright-eyed by their desire to see the world in the name of “discovering” themselves. With followings ranging from 135 thousand to 4.4 million, these accounts have an undeniable influence on shaping understandings of the cultures they document. Though little scholarship has theorized social media’s role in world ordering, I attempt to do so by examining these accounts as performances that construct simulacra and further the authority of Western hedonism and heteronormativity. Before conducting formal analyses of these accounts, it is helpful to lay out a theoretical framework that (a) operates through the analytic of intercultural performance, (b) frames the Instagram tourist as a recognizable and valuable personage, and (c) understands their posts as contributing to a Western-oriented simulacra.
In Performance Studies: an Introduction, Schechner defines “intercultural” as “between or among two or more cultures,” rather than, say, nations.8 Intercultural performances can emphasize what connects or is shared or what separates or is unique; an intercultural performance may be harmonic, dissonant, or both. He argues that intercultural performance must be studied alongside globalization, as the two are connected through colonial and imperialist structures and the increased “contact” that proliferated from them. Though the term suggests an equal collaboration or critical reflection between cultures, I am not suggesting that the Instagram accounts in question embody this exchange. Instead, this paper treats intercultural performance as a helpful analytic through which to examine the reproductions of hegemony on social media networks. Much as colonialism and imperialism were once understood to be morally virtuous projects of exchange, tourism is often framed as a peaceful practice that develops mutual understandings of cultures.9 This abstract innocence is only heightened on social media networks, whose a-territorial nature lends itself to an imagined immunity from hegemony, endangering the possibility of widespread critical analyses.
But who is the tourist? It is important to look into the tacit ideas of the tourist as subject, as assumptions about who exactly the tourist is impact how those circulating in the industry understand each other and themselves. Mekonnen Tesfahuney conceptualizes the ideal or normative tourist subject through the “species” homo touristicus, a “model figure created by the activities of the tourist order: categorization, identification, sorting, welcoming, inclusion, rejection, modification, reprimand, confirmation, and reception.”10 The homo touristicus embodies three main characteristics. First, the tourist is white. This tacit assumption can be traced to the classical meaning of the subject—the sensible, sovereign, and free individual—who originates in tandem with enlightenment, modernity, and capitalism.11 Under the hegemonic view that uses whiteness as a normative quality for humanity, the creation of the tourist subject also controls who will remain “exotic” and “authentic.” Second, the tourist is a stranger, someone who holds short-lived and fleeting ties to places, people, and features. She operates under the paradox of seeking the “extraordinary” to gain meaningful insights into herself, and moves through a series of “non-places” without the promise of return.12 Lastly, the tourist is a hedonist, a seeker of packaged and standardized pleasure whose “change in place becomes a justification for a change in morals.”13
Tesfahuney’s discussion of homo touristicus does a thorough job of examining how the tourist’s subjecthood is constructed in her relation to material spaces she physically travels through. What it lacks, though, is an analysis of how this subjectivity shifts when translated onto the internet, into advertisements, and within Instagram feeds. To place the homo touristicus in this paper’s media-and image-based context, I want to add the characteristics of beautiful, heterosexual, and in love to the ideal tourist’s subjectivity. I argue these characteristics are nearly essential to the success of the Instagram tourist’s performance, as they maximize potential romanticization on part of consumers and commodification on part of various industries. Indeed, much like Hollywood actors or commercial models, the ideal Instagram tourist is often considered beautiful by Western standards. Both the men and women are thin and tan, with long, blonde-brown hair and slim faces. They are oftentimes overtly heterosexual, expressed through the gender performances in photos with their partners. Interestingly, touristic narratives of adventure, hedonism, and mobility mesh well with the framework of heterosexual and heteronormative relationships. Lone female travelers are often warned of danger inflicted by other men, and lone male travelers of not experiencing the same level of hospitality that women often receive. The traveling heteronormative couple solves this problem: The man protects, provides, and mobilizes the couple, while the woman embodies the aesthetic symbol of the hedonism granted to those “liberated” from the drudgery of daily life—sexually, economically, and temporally. Lastly, the ideal Instagram tourist is in love, and reveals it through documenting intimacy. The sense of discovery and romance between individuals who are “in love” reflects the desired relationship or outcome between tourist and destination. By being intimate with another individual, one learns about the self; likewise, when seeking another (or an Other) culture, the tourist does so with a hope to discover something new about the self.
Finally, this paper understands the posts made by travel Instagram influencers as part of a wider simulacra. As defined by Jean Baudrillard in his 1981 essay, “Simulacra and Simulation,” simulacra are copies that depict things that either had no original to begin with, or that no longer have an original. Baudrillard, who wanted to examine how signs and symbols construct an understanding of a shared existence, argued that simulacra did not conceal the truth, but rather, was the only truth—a hyperreal that concealed that there was no truth.14 In other words, the map precedes the territory, as the material limitations of the map (a) construct our real understanding of the territory, but also (b) allow us to believe it represents something more “real” outside of it:
“Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the ‘real’ country, all of ‘real America,’ which is Disneyland. . . . Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.”15
Instagram, in this context, functions in similar ways. Audiences imagine photos of a Western couple feeding camels as not necessarily real, but rather brackets of the real—a small peek or highlight chosen by the user that inevitably leaves out an array of other experiences, both meaningful and mundane. The audience then follows these accounts and/or travels to these places to seek out the “real” excluded from bracketing required by social media, but due to their initial offset as a consumer of simulacra, are continually fed the same breed of simulated experiences. The photo of a Western couple feeding camels was never rooted in anything “real,” per se, but was rather developed through the signs and simulacra that came before it, creating an entirely separate order of symbols and images that look a lot like the portfolio of these seven Instagram accounts. Indeed, for the eager tourist, for the scroller of Instagram feeds, it is this impossible search for the more “real”—the quotidian, meaningful stuff that falls outside of the highlight reel—that keeps the globalized, capitalist mobility order churning.
Orientalism, Hedonism, Heteronorm-ativity, and Site-Specificity on-Feed
The aim of this section is to conduct analyses of formal through-lines in posts made by seven prominent travel influencers on Instagram: @doyoutravel, @eljackson, @finduslost, @muradosmann, @saltinourhair, @sergeykbn, and @swedishnomad. This limited selection was chosen from “top influencer” lists online, and all embody most if not all of the characteristics of my and Tesfahuney’s homo touristicus hybrid. Of course, this group does not come close to representing Instagram’s influence on tourism in its entirety; rather, it embodies a specific genre of accounts notable for their interconnectivity and reach, amassing 8.3 million followers as a whole. As I will make clear in this section, these influencers produce strikingly similar images, creating a recognizable system of signs on their feeds that create knowledge of the cultures they depict. Though endless similarities can be found within their photographs, I have grouped what I find to be the most striking similarities into four categories: Orientalizing images that situate Eastern culture in non-places of deserts, camels, and hookah; hedonistic images that illustrate a pleasurable and mobile “good life” through food and drink; heteronormative images that either present a male gaze, profess love between heterosexual subjects, or perform binary gender roles; and site-specific images that feature the same locations through the same type of photo.
The Orientalizing images on these accounts mostly take place in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but also in Morocco and Egypt. The photos tend to emphasize the foreignness of the “frontier,” framing the Instagrammer as a pioneer in an otherwise barren land. They are usually situated in deserts, among camels, with hookah, or tea. As for cultural context, there is none; rather, the Instagrammers exist in an exotic non-place where a lack of people connotes “tapping in” to an ephemeral space where they can “discover” the world and themselves. Indeed, it is rare to find Arab people in these photos, but extraordinarily more common to find recognizable tropes such as pyramids, camels, and head scarfs. Consider @doyoutravel’s image of hookah before the Abu Dhabi skyline or @finduslost’s image of tea in Scarabeo Camp in Morocco: two posts that place the tourist couples in a sort of “front row seat to the earth,” equipped with exotic pillow arrangements that reflect the trope of Arabs always sitting on the floor. In other images, the Instagrammers are seen befriending a camel, and yet simultaneously taming, or conquering, it—perhaps a reflection of the desired relationship between Western tourist and Eastern destination. Symbols such as @sergeykbn’s head scarf or the Great Pyramids behind @doyoutravel attempt at a certain visual authenticity, implying an effort to shed parts of their Western aesthetic and embrace that of the Other. Several posts use the desert landscape as a frame hyper-focused on the free individual running toward an endless horizon, such as @saltinourhair’s image in the Sahara, depicting a lone woman amongst sand dunes, captioned, “No better place to wander.” Indeed, many captions use words such as “play,” “wander,” and “explore” to describe the user’s raison d’être in the desert, framing the site as a personal playground. Other images, like that of @sergeykbn’s girlfriend, focus clearly on her billowing, pink dress and flowing, long hair, using the desert as a simple vehicle for her individual beauty. Though Arab people certainly do not sit in the middle of deserts smoking hookah and riding camels all day, it is difficult to derive an alternative interpretation from these photos. Their erasure of context, history, and culture reproduce hegemonic ideas of the Arab world as a stage for the Westerner’s self-discovery and as a site of his adventure. Further, the visual tropes used to convey these ideas lock the Arab world into an exotic antiquity that provides no insight into how Arab people live day-to-day.
Hedonistic images emphasize pleasure and indulgence justified by the tourists’ change in place and in a lifting of morale. They often portray the “good life” through elaborate food and drink spreads, and frame indulgence as a reward for liberating themselves from the drudgery of daily life. Acting also as an assertion of refined taste, these images wholly rely on its subjects being beautiful and white—the normative yardstick against which mobility and taste are measured, as discussed in the previous section. All seven accounts in this case study have posted photos of food spreads placed strictly next to pools, and oftentimes in Bali, exemplified well in @swedishnomad’s jovial fruit exchange. An undeniably impractical method of eating (I cringe at the thought of @sergeykbn’s soggy croisants), these photos epitomize a situation contrived for the purpose of taking a photo. Poolside food spreads combine the aesthetics of self-care, leisure, and indulgence, providing the perfect antithesis to the banality of office life within the kind of “oases” mentioned by @doyoutravel’s shout-out to Four Seasons in Bali. Captions for these photos often reveal a certain disbelief in wanting or having it any other way, reflecting a tone-deafness to alternative financial or cultural situations. A post featuring @eljackson’s girlfriend, smiling from the seat of the couple’s RV, reads, “It’s crazy how you can travel to the other side of the world and skip the rest of the winter season to begin your summer adventures,” a sentiment reserved for those who have the means to live a constantly mobile life. Quit your day job! Pack your bags! Book a flight!, these photos seem to say, but who has the ability to do that? Who, in the context of world travel, is the ideal carefree hedonist? In line with a whole canon of young, beautiful, and white people, these Instagrammers join the ranks, reproducing hegemonic associations between being white and acting carefree.
The overwhelming number of heteronormative images on these accounts provides rich opportunities to analyze popular travel as a performatively heterosexual activity. As discussed in the previous section, the heterosexual couple solves the dangers of traveling on one’s own and maximizes the romanticization and commodification of the Instagrammers’ identities—as individuals, as a couple, and as ideal representatives of homo touristicus. On a visual platform like Instagram, the heteronormative relationship is almost always expressed through a sexualized male gaze, exemplified well through images of @sergeykbn’s girlfriend and @doyoutravel’s girlfriend (and sponsored watch!) on the beach. This type of image is immediately recognizable: taken by a reclining man, the bottom-half of the image is often filled with his legs and/or crotch. The woman, seen from no more than a few meters away, is framed as someone simultaneously sexually liberated and objectified, as the photos emphasize her nudity and beauty, her mobility and hedonism. The man’s legs and/or crotch assert his presence as he watches over the woman, reclined for the potential pleasure that she will provide him. Often taken near the ocean or in bedrooms (baths have a prominent indoor presence, seen in @finduslost’s post in a Hard Rock hotel), these photos fuse the pleasure of traveling with the pleasure of sex, and rely on heteronormative tropes to achieve this effect. Another common posture seen on Instagram is that of a woman leading a man forward by taking his hand. These are so common and recognizable that @muradomann’s entire account is filled with only these photos, and has amassed 4.3 million followers from it. Seen also in @gypsea_lust’s photo at a waterfall in Bali and @saltinourhair’s photo in Turkey, these are taken from a male perspective that frames the woman as both a seducer and liberator, someone who will guide him through a sexual, emotional, and physical journey, and be his reward once liberation is achieved. Both posts, it should be noted, are also sponsored by watch brands.
Other photos perform more overt, binary gender roles. Men are seen swimming with sharks in the Philippines (or supposedly “about to jump in”—in @doyoutravel and @eljackson’s cases), as an assertion of bravery and strength among the dangerous and the unknown. This can be read as a metaphor for travel, as women are often advised to travel with men who can protect them from dangerous situations (usually inflicted by other men). Other posts share “sweet” or “intimate” moments between lovers through articulating binary gender roles. A photo posted by @eljackson explains his girlfriend’s happiness by stating, “there’s something in those flowers that women need in their life,” and @gypsea_lust, a woman, describes a quotidian situation wherein her boyfriend orders pizza and she orders salad. These are likely meant to be seen as “relatable” and “sweet” to a wider, heteronormative audience, but reinforce normative gender roles to young men and women, and further the assumption that heteronormativity is what is both normal and valuable. A final, essential component to these accounts are posts that profess love for their significant others, equipped with romantic photos and clichéd captions such as @swedishnomad’s “You stole my heart, but I’ll let you keep it” and @gyspea_lust’s “Always sweeping me off my feet.” This can also be seen as reflecting an ideal travel experience, as the discovery and romance between a couple mimics the desire to seek another culture to discover something new about the self. Indeed, under the guise of heteronormativity, traveling the world is presented as a romantic, fulfilling, leisurely, and sexy experience.
Lastly, the site-specific images illustrate how Instagram influences where people travel and how they document their travels. A post by @swedishnomad at the Fok Cheong Building in Hong Kong explicitly states finding the building in the photo through Instagram, with the caption, “I find inspiration daily from IG.” Other image-based destinations, such as underwater restaurants, the hot air balloons in Cappadocia, Turkey, and the blue and white buildings in Santorini, Greece, pop up again and again on travel influencers’ feeds. My research led me to even more popular destinations, such as Cinque Terre in Italy and the Sovena Jani resort in Bali. Not only do these Instagrammers travel to the same places; they also take strikingly similar photos at the destinations themselves. This is a potent example of Instagram’s world-ordering, as these site-specific photos prove that what is seen on Instagram impacts what we do in the physical world. It does not only reflect a situation—it produces a situation. In other words, tourism “is not in society; it is society, in that it orders and structures society and constitutes territorial states and Eurocentric geographic imaginations.”16
The machine of capitalist colonialism that emerged in the sixteenth century has not dissolved—it has taken a different form, and has adapted its technology to meet modern-day needs. Like any popular technology of any given age, Instagram has been instrumentalized by many corners of the power dynamics spectrum, in both beneficial and insidious ways. In this discussion, I attempted to show how the social media platform is used to exhibit Western-centric ideals that maximize the profits of an inherently capitalist tourism industry, flirting with the pockets and imaginations of users in a seemingly intimate setting. Benign and even useful at its surface, the phenomenon of Instagram travel influencers has darker implications: because whether by liking, sharing, or “believing” these images, or by emulating these travel experiences, followers give tacit approval of the Instagrammer’s colonialist-tinged, capitalist-funded performances. Absolving this breed of tourism as adventure and self-discovery is akin to an age-old casting of imperialism as mutually beneficial exchange. Social media—and the poolside fruit platters that come with it—need not be taken lightly.
- Katarina Schough and Mekonnen Tesfahuney, Privileged Mobilities: Tourism as World Ordering (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016), 19.
- Richard Schechner, Performance Studies: an Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2013), 290
- Schechner, Performance Studies, 263.
- Schough and Tesfahuney, Privileged Mobilities, 21.
- “Number of monthly active Instagram users from January 2013 to September 2017” Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/253577/number-of-monthly-active-instagram-users/.
- MMGY Global’s Portrait of American Travellers 2018” MMGY Global, 2018, https://www.mmgyglobal.com/services/research/portrait-of-american-travelers.
- “The Art of Storytelling and Other Tales…” Mr. and Mrs. Smith, 2018, https://www.mrandmrssmith.com/write-on-atelier-dore-and-mr-and-mrs-smith-get-creative-in-marrakech.
- Schechner, Performance Studies, 263.
- Schough and Tesfahuney, Privileged Mobilities, 24.
- Schough and Tesfahuney, Privileged Mobilities, 98.
- Schough and Tesfahuney, Privileged Mobilities, 99.
- Schough and Tesfahuney, Privileged Mobilities, 102.
- Schough and Tesfahuney, Privileged Mobilities, 102.
- Jean Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulations,” trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman in Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), 1.
- Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulations,” 6.
- Schough and Tesfahuney, Privileged Mobilities, 65