Consequences of caring

Something more personal today: the mental struggles of trying to be an ethical travel influencer.

 

Lately, I’ve been paralyzed. Not physically, mentally.

When I began Lost With Purpose in 2016, I just wanted to share useful information for travelers with a sprinkling of stories.

As I sought more readers for my blog and ways to actually make a living while traveling, I learned of the (supposed) importance of social media. Finding followers meant sinking into a shallow world of staged glamor or adventure, cliché imitation, and the backs of people’s heads.

That world is frustrating, as many of you know. Though there are always outliers, social media rewards conforming to trends, not challenging them. Following the formula—girl in pretty place looking into the distance—gained me followers. Inserting my face into my stories got me views. But what the most popular influencers do—obscuring places with their faces, using cultures as props, prioritizing aesthetics over living in the present—I couldn’t do it. I can’t do it. Not enough. 

My frustration’s (first) peak smoothed as I was introduced to responsible travel, orientalism and modern colonialism, and ethical photography. By then I had “enough” followers, I didn’t HAVE to keep up clichés—why not aspire to be a more ethical travel influencer? I could start using my platforms to periodically share more educational content or critical ideas, instead of spouting sparkly travel fluff all day.

Read: Paradise naught, the privilege of being a tourist

For a few years, that worked. I could juggle the joys of travel with more pointed thoughts when the time was right. But then the pandemic came and travel stopped; first for a month, then three months, then more than a year, then… ? Fueled by feelings of futility, frustration, and despair, I found myself reading and sharing little BUT critique. Of behaviors, of systems, of power.

At first, it felt purposeful. Constructive, despite a painfully dull day-to-day existence.

But the more I shared, the more there was to share. Eventually, it overwhelmed me.

Person walking in a black jacket on a gray snowy day in the Begijnhof of Leuven, Belgium

Nothing like bright pandemic winter days in Leuven, Belgium to take your mind off things, eh eh? (… sarcasm)

A downside of trying to be a more active and ethical travel influencer: 24/7 misery

Every time I post about an issue, more messages arrive bearing violence, offense, trauma, suffering. Each message merits attention, each crisis deserves more awareness and care. And I do care. I do want to help, but I don’t know how. If I shared every f*cked up thing to slide into my messages, my feeds would be a constant flow of suffering. Yet deciding not to share feels like saying Actually, eh. This isn’t worthy of my time. And that’s assuming sharing makes any kind of difference.

Oher messages harshly critique my views, question authority I often don’t have, gaslight me when I do have authority, or scorn my concern for one issue and silence on another. The most charmingly disagreeable characters even go so far as to threaten me, stalk me, or even attempt to ruin my little blogging business.

I’ve learned to brush things off to an extent, but when it’s something you genuinely care about… it hits different. Negativity builds.  I’m just a person on the internet who cares about people and wants to make use of the strange platform she’s on, but trying to do so often feels like an endless downwards slope. The simple task of going through my inbox causes my mind to seethe with dark thoughts and existential questions, anxiously bound together by guilt that may or may not be deserved.

Why do I choose to post about the protests in Myanmar, but not the Filipina New Yorker brutally assaulted in my home country?

How come I made content for the farmer protests but not the occupation of Kashmir? Kashmiris but not Rohingyas or Hazaras? India but not Afghanistan? Foreign countries but not the US?

Who am I to address colonial travel content as a Western travel blogger who’s done the same in the past?

Should I really spend time critiquing colonialism in travel when I could be talking about the still ongoing human rights abuses in Yemen or Palestine?

Why didn’t I reshare more videos of elephants being abused, dogs starving to death, or leopards being attacked instead of sharing stories of my own dog?

Who am I to talk about discrimination in foreign countries when US police shoot people like Christian Penn or Brionna Taylor or Andres Guardado every day? Who am I to talk about racism in the US if I don’t even live there anymore and many of my followers aren’t from there?

Am I actually just taking up other people’s space by discussing issues beyond my realm of expertise?

Even if I was to go back to just posting about travel, is encouraging travel selfish and destructive in a time when many of us are facing futures or living realities where water isn’t a given, food is a luxury, and disaster is always on the horizon?

Thoughts swirl, ideas form, yet all I’m left with is mental paralysis.

Rays of light breaking through clouds over Wallonia, Belgium

A glimmer of hope? Nah, just epic weather in the Wallonia region of Belgium.

The missing ingredient

In darkness, there’s always a sliver of light. I recently shared these concerns and other frustrations with my Patreon supporters. They rose to the occasion as always, offering all kinds of support, encouragement, and advice. (I love you all, by the way.)

Several of them pointed out how lately, because of the pandemic, my content lacks a key ingredient: joy. It sounds so simple, but after more than a year of lost lives and suffering souls, failed travel plans and impossible goals, I think many of you know what it’s like to forget about joy.

For days, I’ve pondered how to respond to that realization. Now, I again sit at a crossroads.

On one hand, I agree that about the need to seek and share more positivity, for the mental well-being of both my followers and myself. I began blogging because travel makes me happy, because it brings me joy to help others. That’s still the case. But over the last year, I got too caught up in anger at irresponsible pandemic travelers and polarizing movements to really register the kindness in my inboxes still thanking, encouraging, and inspiring despite my relentless frustrations.

On the other hand, I still wonder if social media is all just a distraction from pursuing more meaningful work. Every hour spent crafting captions and responding to comments (… and getting sucked into doom scrolling) is an hour that could be used to support activists doing work on the ground. Every hour that I spend in a rage about something offensive another influencer has done is an hour I’m distracted while interacting with people or places I love.

Joy would certainly make for better content, but should I be cooking up content at all?

Me in a plague doctor mask making a peace sign in a spring forest in Tervuren, Belgium

Time to try something different. And also survive.

What’s the plan, then?

No one ever really knows what comes next, especially not in pandemic times. But that doesn’t mean we can’t keep growing. Also, if I don’t do something my mind is going to melt from infinite pandemic uncertainty.

Rather than rely on my iNfLuEnCeR status to hopefully affect change, it’s time to spend more time on actionable projects not dependent on shouting into the digital void. Some changes are already in process: I’ve volunteered my marketing skills for a climate change organization. Root Network, the sustainable tourism organization several Pakistani women and I founded in 2020, is officially getting registered and we’re working on our next tourism project. Helping travelers is still one of my top priorities, so you can count on me continuing to blog here.

Social media… I’m less sure. In the short term, more joyful posts are coming—spring is encouraging—and I’ve decided to try only sharing content about people trying to solve critical issues. The long run is less certain. Some days I want to quit social media, but I can’t ignore the privilege of having a platform that can influence thousands of people every day, nor the reality of how inextricable it is from contemporary culture. Though many people on social media erode my faith in humanity, someone always comes and restores it.

I’ve never been one for grand plans while traveling, and the way I approach life is largely the same: submit to impulses, do what feels important, and see what happens. 

Seems like a reasonable plan for now.

 

What do you think? Is social media really such a valuable tool for motivating people to “do good”?

Alex Reynolds

American by birth, British by passport, Filipina by appearance. Addicted to ice cream. Enjoys climbing trees, dislikes falling out. Has great fondness for goats which is usually not reciprocated.

More about Alex

10 thoughts on “Consequences of caring

    Nina says:

    I think in today’s world, social media is valuable in terms of motivating others to do good, especially so younger people. I’m almost 40, but even I sometimes turn to social media for information before I try, say, the papers or another source of information. Today’s kids just use the internet differently than our generation did, and that’s fine. I believe that social media can be used to do good. It’s not all bad necessarily.

    Agreed! It has so much potential—in the kinds of content it makes accessible, in the kinds of people it connects who otherwise may never cross paths. Unfortunately, reaching that value sometimes feels like navigating a minefield of negativity, haha.

    Isabelle says:

    Look Alex we don’t know each other (I follow you for a while now, though).

    But I know how it feels like to care. And caring in a world full of misery can bring you down easily if you don’t have enough healthy cooping mechanisms. And being stripped of most things that bring you joy during this shitshow of a pandemic isn’t helpful. You have my deepest compassion in feeling swirled up and paralized by all of it.

    I struggle myself to decide whether social Media is one of the biggest break through in connection people all over the World or just a giant data Kraken pushing us into an ocean of comparison and dissatisfaction.

    All I know is that I really enjoy your content. You helped me understand a lot of things about ethical travel, colonialism and all kinds of other issues. And I am able to make better choices for myself and others BECAUSE of your content. I think what you do is important because your unfeigned opinion is an antidote to all these filtered realities.

    Also, I like looking at your dorky face and your epic shoots a lot.
    So thank you for your work. I know you’re doing the best you can. Here is some Internet love for you ❤️

    Aw, thanks for the love Isabelle! Heh, I do enjoy the idea of social media as a giant digital kraken sucking us down into an ocean of negativity. You’re not wrong.

    It’s true that coping mechanisms are key. Something that a lot of us are struggling with at the moment because of the pandemic. At least now there’s light at the end of the tunnel (or, it seems that way sometimes) and the promise of change is present. It makes coping with all of the other shit a bit easier, though most problems won’t magically go away once the pandemic is over.

    I appreciate your taking the time to share this, and also look at my other content, dorky poses and all! I hope you’re taking care wherever you are in the world.

    Milana says:

    Your posts do offer something different and following you I have learned a lot. I love the insight you offer, but what should come first to you is how you feel and what brings you joy, like you said. Social media really is a double-edged sword. Thank you for what you do.

    Thank you for this message! Personal well-being definitely comes first—the tricky part is making sure we don’t become too self-absorbed in the process.

    Erika says:

    I really appreciate what you’ve shared in this post. I, too, struggle with social media and have gotten frustrated with the fact that success often seems associated with being beautiful and living an ‘enviable lifestyle’. I really dislike Instagram. My qualms with the platform are extensive. And though I have an account, I post infrequently and do not put any weight on it as a measure of success. I find that I am much happier when I’m not worried about posting constantly and gaining/engaging followers. Of course, I never really built up a massive following, so I imagine it would be more difficult to abandon the platform with your level of success.

    Anyways, I really appreciate the care with which you address the places and people you encounter. It doesn’t go unnoticed.

    I think you take the right approach—though aiming for business success changes the dynamics, if something makes you really miserable… should you be doing it? Instagram isn’t exactly lucrative for many of us, too—focusing energy on blogs is wiser for most travel creators, I think.

    Strategy ponderings aside, it’s always encouraging to know efforts are acknowledged. Thanks, Erika.

    Michelle says:

    Hi Alex, thanks for your thoughtfulness over the past several years. I’ve mostly read the blog posts as I try to avoid social media (despite being a child of the 90s too!) but I appreciate the effort to carve your own path on the internet, as far as it allows.
    Social media can be alluring as a “platform” but its capability to affect change is dwarfed by its power as an echo chamber. I for one would celebrate any forays you take onto the offline (or at least off-social-media) world. Keep writing about them too, your voice really comes through in longer form!

    “its capability to affect change is dwarfed by its power as an echo chamber” — you articulated that far more gracefully! Thanks for being one of the few to take the time to read through blog posts – I’m a bookworm biased toward longer written word but the world is pushing hard and fast in the other direction. Alas! It’s always nice to have company in our slow but thoughtful corner 🙂

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