Stephen Wilkes made the observation that “The act of sharing has become more important than the experience itself.” He made this statement in a TED talk in which he was telling about his work as a photographer. To achieve the affect he is looking for, he spends many hours in one location, shooting thousands of photos of tourist attractions. This gives him a lot of time to observe human behavior. While doing so, he noticed that people were using historic locations more as a backdrop for photos of themselves, rather than exploring the site.
I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. We’re unlikely to change it. I’m more interested in why this is the case. This hasn’t always been the way things are, but one thing we know about humans is that we don’t change much. Our motivations today are very similar to what people’s motivations were when the Bible was being written. It’s unlikely that the change in what people do at sites has anything to do with a change in people’s motivations.
Why do people share photos on Facebook and other social media sites? I believe it is because we crave social interaction. It isn’t that we really care if people know that we visited the Alamo, or the Statue of Liberty, or the restaurant down the street. The real reason we post about these visits is because we expect that someone is going to respond. Perhaps it is only a like, or maybe it is a simple statement like, “I didn’t know you were going there,” or maybe it triggers a lengthy conversation. Whatever the case, sharing results in social interaction.
Now, think about why people visited tourist sites prior to social media. We might think that they went to learn something, but maybe not. I remember going on trips as a kid and there were postcards everywhere. People used to say, “Send me a postcard.” Of course, they are collectable, but the purpose of sending a postcard is to say, “Look where I’m at.”
But think also about who visits tourist sites. You rarely see someone there alone, unless they are one of the local workers who has stopped there for lunch. Tourist sites are places to take a date, or to take the wife and kids, or to take relatives who are staying in town. We don’t go to these places to see the site, rather we go because they provide an opportunity for social interaction with the people who visit the site with us.
At the end of the day, it is all about social interaction, and it always has been. Of course, there are things we can do and learn while we are at various sites, but what we want to do is interact with other people. We might need to think about that. The next time we see someone with a selfie-stick, maybe we should go talk to them. That’s probably what they’re hoping for.