On the flight back from Sydney, I met 4 young Singaporean ladies. They were a talkative, bubbly bunch with a mean age of about 25. Being independent travellers, they had rented a car and explored the charming bays and beaches along the coastline of New South Wales completely on their own. I was quite impressed at first, but when I saw their photos, I realised what this “travelling” was all about. For the few days between the time they landed in and departed from Sydney, they have been “exploring” the coast of New South Wales looking for beautifully furnished hotel rooms, posh restaurants and roadside lookout points … to do selfies and portraits.
Oblivious to the local culture and what the people were doing, they seemed to have gone all out on a mission to hunt for the most charming selfie backgrounds. All they cared about, in every picture they took, was whether they looked good in the picture. Yes, they posed holding glasses of wine, but they knew nothing about the wine. Yes, they posed in front of a hotel with a rich and tortuous history, but they couldn’t be bothered with the history. Of course, they also took many pictures of food, but after dozens of fancy dishes decorated and embellished beyond recognition, even they had trouble identifying what was what.
Almost every picture in their phones was a selfie with a cute facial expression or a soft-focused portrait of them striking polished poses obviously learned from Instagram stars. To me, it didn’t seem to matter if they had visited Australia or Africa. The trip had little to do with the place they had visited and what they thought or felt about the people and place. It had everything to do with them. It’s all about them, their faces, their poses, they numerous outfits crammed into monstrous suitcases. The one thing that surprised me was their humility and friendliness. On the plane that night, there were other similar groups of 2,3,4 very fashionably-dressed young ladies who were not so humble and friendly. I wondered if they were all on the same mission. While these girls were not exactly Instagram stars, they are not to be trifled with for they have tens of thousands of followers – enough to put a seasoned writer like me to shame. Calling them shallow will only make me look like sour grapes. Like it or not, these women have become today’s influencers on the travel scene. They are the ones getting paid and sponsored for their trip reports.
I have a library of Lonely Planet titles. Before portals like Trip Advisor, that was one of the best places to go to for practical information and travelling tips. For those who want poetry and romance, there was also a time when travel writers like Pico Iyer and Paul Theroux told engaging travellers’ tales that inspired many romantic wanderers and armchair travellers. I myself was inspired to go backpacking by local pioneer Ng Wai Choy. In his heyday, Mr Ng was arguably Singapore’s best-known Chinese travel writer with hordes of adoring fans. Like all genres of writing, writing about travel and places isn’t easy. Even without using words, a photo-essay or a coffee-table book would require illustrative and informative images which Instagram stars are turning into selfie backgrounds.
But the job of providing knowledge and information has become less and less valuable when the internet is bursting at the seams with information. Everybody gets travel information online these days. It’s free, it’s quick and it’s updated, sometimes even in real time. As a consumer of travel information myself, I regard that as a good thing. Not surprisingly, however, the business of providing travel information in book form is fast going bust. What about the fate of romantic travel writers? Do people still want to get on the same dreamy page with writers who wax lyrical about the sound of the birds and the seas, the sweetness of roses, milk and honey, the ravishing beauties running barefoot on wet sand mirrored by the receding waves? Frankly I’m not so sure if this genre would perish before I do. These days, folks have become too smart and too cynical to fall under the spell of even the most talented writers.
The inescapable fact is, people who work with words will find it harder and harder to get paid for their effort in an age when information (including fake news) is free and people (even ladies) only have the time and patience to “read” images of women flaunting their outfits or their lack of clothing. Again, I’m not against all that virtual “exhibitionism and voyeurism”, but shouldn’t we also read authors who have something to say in the form of words?
Not long after writing this post, an Instagram scandal involving Singaporean photographer Daryl Aiden Yow broke.