May 14, 2022 • 7M

Couchfish: Instagram’s grandparent

Stones in glass houses etcetera.

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Stuart McDonald
The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
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Riding home this morning from Medewi in West Bali, I pulled up at a pretty spot, took a photo and posted it to Instagram and Twitter. It took all of 30 seconds.

Getting to where I took the photo was a little more involved. I’d spent 45 minutes dancing between farting buses and belching trucks travelling east along Bali’s coastal thoroughfare. Without traffic, it’s a pretty and scenic ride. Having it without traffic is rare indeed.

I can’t even get the horizon straight—back to influencer school for me. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

A little east of Balian, the main road turns inland for a looping route through Tabanan, but I scooted off that quick smart onto a backway that for a large part is devoid of traffic. Devoid of traffic because it’s a tiny road not ideal for cars (though some do drive it) and impassable for trucks.

It’s a beautiful ride, looping and weaving among Tabanan Regency’s rolling hills of rice. At high points, you have the Indian Ocean to one side, volcanoes to the other. In between, vast terraces of rice as far as the eye can see.

I have an Insta-puppy. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I didn’t go there specifically to take a photo, but almost every time I ride through I take one, it is that beautiful. Photo taken, I often post it to social media. I wouldn’t classify myself as an influencer, but in doing this, I guess, in theory, I qualify.

There are lots of hatin’ on influencers, including a decent dose from me. They’re variably described as vacuous and self-centred braggarts who care more for having themselves in the right light than wherever they’re standing. There’s some truth to this, and as I’ve written before if you’re in the business of apportioning blame for overtourism’s worst excesses, these social photoshop practitioners of “Insta-tourism” belong on your radar.

Bought breakfast here, 10,000 rupiah, better share it. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

A common refrain is they put more effort—and time—into getting “the right shot” than they do understanding or soaking up the location. That whole jump out of the SUV, spend 30 minutes shooting off a virtual handful of rolls, then jump back in to roll onto the next shoot thing. Oh, and stuff face—must Instagram your favourite meals. The night is lost, pouring over the laptop, finessing the tan lines and cropping out other tourists—beautifying the real. Then they’re beamed online, generating rapture from their throngs of fans—most of whom they’ve never met.

Before you know it, they’re back on the plane to Portugal, Senegal or Hawaii.

A while ago I wrote, as a part of a larger post, a brief history of the postcard. If Instagram had parents, the aerogramme and postcard would be them.

Said breakfast. People were mostly curious about the purple thing. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

If I cast my mind back to my pre-internet travels, I dedicated a not-insignificant amount of time to writing postcards and aerogrammes. Recipients included family and friends back home, and new friends made on the road, Poste Restante was my home away from home. More often than not I’d seek out a postcard illustrating somewhere I’d been, be it the World Trade Center, the Themes, Taj Mahal or Ko Wherever in Thailand. I’d never be in the photo of course, but I’d make the photo about me on the flip side. Proof of life, but also proof I’d been there—humble bragging and all.

Yet I can’t remember ever reading much hatin’ on postcard-writers. People never pulled me up for spending hours in a cafe postcard bragging to all and sundry, nor for spending too long in the trinket shop sorting through postcards, trying to find the one that mimicked the view I had experienced. I never got a talking to for not spending more time soaking up culture and less time writing “wish you were here” without meaning it.

And yet, today these are all common Insta-gripes.

This one I actually took twice, as in the first photo I missed the plastic bag. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I don’t know, is this an old(er) people thing? Is it “Millenial Shaming”? Young people today I tell ya, back in my day blah blah, please get off my lawn etcetera. To be honest, I’m thankful there was no social media when I started out, as there were no shortage of idiocies along the way that would have well qualified me for some online derision—I still manage it even now I guess.

Much is made of how Instagram is a one-way vehicle, it’s all about the practitioner, then the location, the consumer a distant third. But that’s not so different to postcards, and who hasn’t had at least some joy in seeing a magnificent photo in their feed? It can get the feet itching just as much as a postcard did. Who didn’t look at the photo first before flipping it to read the asinine scrawling? Who didn’t on occasion think, “My God, I have to go there in my lifetime—just not with the postcard author”? See, just like Instagram.

If I was a real influencer, I’d have timed this better for sunset—and got the horizon straight. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Of course, the one difference is the audience—which can amount to sometimes tens- or hundreds- of thousands of people. That said, more reach can equate to more joy, more feet itching, more thoughtfulness—okay, maybe that last one is a stretch. Having a greater audience need not be a bad thing—even if you have no idea who most of them are. It can even be a power for good—really!

Instagramming is just one outlet for this kind of thing—I didn’t send my postcards to tens of thousands of people I’d never met—I took up travel writing to satisfy that need instead. And travel writing, well, it’s older than postcards themselves—dare I say it’s Instagram’s grandparent.


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