Why Travel Influencers Make Me Cringe
And Why Anthony Bordain was the polar opposite of Instagram traveler cliches.
For a few months last year, I lived in Colombia after college as a digital nomad videographer.
Scrolling Instagram for companies to pitch videos for, I inevitably ran into travel vlogger influencers like this guy:
“I was like, just so stuck with my life… so I just leeftttt and travellleddd because life is about living fully and not following the joneses and chasing material thingssss…. adversity is the stuff that makes you stronger…. So be strong, take those risks and just growww and quit your 9–5 to travel.”
I can’t be the only one rolling my eyes, can I?
Now don’t get me wrong. The reason why I dislike influencer-style travel accounts is not that they hawk bad advice. In fact, taken on its own in isolation, the advice is sometimes solid.
“Take risks because it makes you grow” — yup, philosophers have been saying this for centuries.
“Travel makes you find yourself” — Yup, you’re taking your mind away from default mode and have space for novelty.
It’s that smug, self-obsessive talk encouraging you to follow your dreams while the influencer rides his wave runner into a Jamaican sunset that turns well-meaning advice into mush.
In other words, influencers take sound advice and tarnish it by universalizing its applicability to everyone and cliche-ing the hell out of it.
It’s their lack of nuance and context, delivered in such an “aesthetic” and marketable way that pisses me off.
The tone of many of these videos/captions comes across as if the influencer is saying something truly PROFOUND AND NEW, a piece of advice that most people NEVER talk about and which implicates the influencer as “brilliant” in his comment sections.
But it’s not just that- many people don’t need to “take risssks” and “find themselves” in travel because a lot of people are more or less content with their families, community, religion, and life’s smaller pleasures like food, conversation, and connection that they can find at home.
Let me present an alternative “influencer” on travel. Anthony Bordain. This guy is my hero because he lacks bullshit — he doesn’t dish out flowery advice or platitudes about the places he visits.
Bordain lets the people on the ground talk about their culture themselves and then shoots the shit with them about universal quirks and customs that all men/women/people can bond over… things that old men relaxing on park benches across the world can appreciate, like corrupt politicians, trying to understand the opposite sex, how good food often leads to good sex, etc..
He makes fun of hipsters, life hackers, hippies, hustle bros, and all of the microcosms of western culture that distills life and travel into an ideological or marketable goal with its own preconceived ideas of what constitutes a ‘authentic ’ or ‘good’ experience.
The hipster craves aesthetic, the life-hacker nonstop self-development, and the hippie “authenticity”.
Travel influencers are like a mix of these three. Their pages/videos/blogs are impeccably curated (aesthetic), full of advice (self-development), and packed with exotic, lesser-known spots (“authentic”).
But Bordain? Bordain craves whatever. Whatever and wherever he can find good conversation, food, and experiences to laugh and connection about.
In a world where people like Bordain exist as a source of subtle and genuine advice, I can’t understand why so many viewers eat up these cheap travel posts and comment on how their minds are blown: wow what a great life, wow I am so inspired!!!
Are you seriously “inspired” by a dude who flew to Peru and shot some videos with his drone and voiced it over with some cliche lines about living fully?
Call me crazy, but when well off 20-somethings jet around the entire world telling people to “push themselves” I can’t help but want to punch them in the face.
The types of people I’m usually inspired by — and that I assume most humans are inspired by — are those that make deep sacrifices for something greater than themselves. Real and consequential risk-taking, in other words. Like a witness defending a stranger who is being harassed by a drunk or a woman running for election in a country where militants will likely murder her and her family for challenging the backward status quo.
I’ve never taken a risk that approximates this in my life. I’ve simply been lucky/privileged enough to never have to.
I too like the “challenges” of solo travel: talking to strangers, getting lost, lonely, blistered and sunburned in an attempt for adventure and self-growth. But if I’m being honest with myself, these experiences are way more fun and light-heartedly scary/difficult than they are deeply challenging,
That’s why I don’t think of solo travel as something admirable. It’s slightly challenging, adventurous, and maybe tiny bit bold to depart from the miserably cliché “9–5” thing* for a little while, but it’s not noteworthy enough to warrant a soaring video with a dramatic soundtrack challenging you to be the best person you can be. At the end of the day you’re just doing it because you like it, not because it is an inherently genuine and good thing everyone should be converted to try. So be real about it and don’t attach such lofty meanings to it.
I’ve read some travel bloggers who report coming back home and getting frustrated at the indifference many people had about their travels. They’re excited to tell their friends their truly wild stories: hidden hikes, fast romances, befriending locals, I-almost-died tales. Yet their friends seem only vaguely interested and are quick to go back to stories about the neighborhood bar or guys/girls they’ve been chasing since college.
This isn’t because people suck and just want to talk about themselves. It’s because these travel experiences just aren’t very rare or interesting anymore in our globalized world. Most people would experience the same “insane stories” you did if they wanted to backpack abroad and spent a week in a popular hostel.
This remote living thing –working or traveling on your own schedule — certainly comes with its own set of challenges. But none of them even remotely approximate real challenges that many people face in the developing countries they visit, like having to work three menial jobs to pay for sick loved ones or the extortion fees local gangs are extracting from their neighborhood.
This might sound like a rant, but my point isn’t to rip on all people who make travel content. There’s a sizeable amount of amazing channels out there that are void of bullshit.
My message is simply to call out the industry’s larger emphasis on inspiration and dramatizing the glory of it all. Solo travel | Quitting your 9–5 | Living in the moment is fine and dandy, but it’s not brave or inspirational.
The motivational crap that influencers hawk is really just a way for them to attract more eyeballs and clicks because it overhypes their lifestyles.
At the end of the day, we travel because it’s a fun break from work and it can teach us a thing or two. The growth that we experience from this break comes from the privilege of being able to be idle for weeks at a time, not because we’re uniquely brave or strong for leaving the status quo.
That’s not to say that the personal growth we get from traveling is undeserved or “fake”. Even a short backpacking stint can help lessen someone's social anxiety, anxiety, worries, or whatever shit they deal with back home. Going abroad helps because it puts our minds out of default-mode through a radical introduction of new scenery, culture, and free time.
What I’m saying, however, is that this growth shouldn’t be mistaken for glory. It doesn’t deserve the soaring soundtrack and cliches when there are countless other people who are actually struggling and pushing themselves in ways that are infinitely more admirable.
Travel videographers are not unlike the “Instagram Moms/Models” who pretend to have their life put together with impeccable daily routines/habits. In reality, these women are just attractive and good at marketing.
Their job is to incite inspire other women to be as “cool”, “collected”, or “aesthetic” as them, so that they click through the affiliate links on their captions or sign up for the poster’s “life courses”.
Like the mom-fluencer, the travel influencer, when he brands himself, incites feelings of inadequacy amongst corporate twenty/thirty-somethings, and funnels them toward courses and consulting that teaches them how they can embark on the same course to be just as self-reliant, entrepreneurial, and content as him.
These influencers never think of themselves like this, though… they tend to justify criticism by telling themselves they are: 1) Unique/Authentic… (they are different from other influencers) and 2) They are inspiring people and literally improving lives. So why stop?
But here’s the thing — 9/5 life, as it currently exists in the States, isn’t inherently evil or bad. The amount of different jobs under ‘9–5’ is staggering, as are the vast differences in how the 200 million working adults in the United States feel about their relationship to work.
So here’s the gist of it- watching a 45-second drone montage over Bali about seizing the moment while you’re sitting in an office unsure about your job can certainly make you believe the entire system in the states is rotten and that the entire travel/nomad thing is awesome. It’s an understandable judgment to make in such a moment of boredom and listlessness, but when you zoom out of ti as a neutral observer it becomes clear that the travel influencer’s core message misses the bigger picture understanding of what work/life is like for everyone across the world.