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.
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.
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?
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.