obsessively recording and sharing our vacations

At Blogher yesterday, the issue of “addiction” emerged in the keynote. A woman in the audience noted that she twitched for the first day of vacation because she desperately wanted to tweet the things she was seeing and witnessing, like the bald eagle flying by. On stage, the conversation turned so that we talked more generally about being able to take a technology free vacation, but I want to address the tendency to tweet the things we see directly for a moment.

It seems as though humans absolutely LOVE to 1) record the minutia of their lives; 2) (over-) share the details of their experiences. And for some reason, each new technology seems to get used by people to do precisely this. I really wouldn’t be surprised if we found a cave painting that outlined what the dwellers ate for breakfast. So why are we so offended when people use the internet to do this?

Let’s talk about that vacation for a second. Why is it so wrong that people tweet their experiences when it seems to be so right that they spend their vacations stuck behind their fancy new camera recording every moment? Personally, I’m more frustrated by those trying to capture the perfect shot than those who mull over the perfect 140 character version of the event before quickly pumping it into their iPhone. Those behind the camera are far less present than those mulling over the language to express the moment. Yet, somehow, we accept one as the epitome of the vacation while the other is a rupture of it. Why is this?

Then there’s sharing. Sharing recordings of vacation events is also not particularly new. Sure, usually those who were vacationing waited until AFTER the vacation to share, but that was more a matter of practicalities. If you needed to get the film processed, you had to wait till you got home. But sharing events is a part of bonding, whether its an oral accounting of those events or a sharing of the recordings of it. One value of sharing records is the ability to share in a way that goes back to that time period.

For example, my grandfather has this brilliant album from the early 1940s when he first came to the States to train American pilots for the war. I’m fascinated by what he recorded – and what he didn’t. The album is filled with images of 1940s Georgia and Texas, young British men goofing off before facing their most harrowing hour back in Europe. (My grandfather was a bomber pilot; he lost most of his friends and was shot down himself.) What I particularly love about this album is his little drawings, the white pencil on black background that makes it clear that he put this album together to really record this period in time, a period that he thought would be his only trip to America. I can page through this album forever.

We like when people share their records. Until we don’t. Cuz we also know that there is the notion of Too Much. There are only so many baby photos you can take of a baby that’s not related to you before you scream Too Much. There are only so many home videos that you can take until you scream Too Much. And there are only so many vacation photos you can take until you scream Too Much.

Y’see… the ease with which we can record and share today means that there are too many people around us who push our Too Much limits. There was something beautiful about only being able to photograph 24/36 images on the entire vacation. I can stomach 24/36 images of anyone’s vacation. But who in their right mind thinks that I want to sift through 1000s of photos just because they were able to take them? Hrmfpt I say.

Can we please have a moment of silence for the power of constraint? Kthx. The issue with recording and sharing in contemporary society is that is far far far too easy to go overboard. This is where we struggle to find balance. Just because you can share every detail doesn’t mean you necessarily should. Just because you can record every moment of your day doesn’t mean you should. Part of the problem is that the technology doesn’t force you to think about your audience. When your mother brings out the photographs of your childhood, she can watch you squirm when you’ve had enough (usually after the third photo). She may ignore you, but she knows. But what does it mean that we are unable to see – and thus able to ignore – our audience online? When people bitch about folks sharing what they ate for breakfast, they’re noting that this kind of sharing of minutia is clearly ignorant of the annoyed audience in preference for the ability to record everything.

We keep building technologies that allow us to do what we like to do better, faster, more efficiently. The practices of recording and sharing are not new and we seem to love technologies that aid in these practices. As for vacation… well, recording and sharing vacations are also not new even if the newfangled technology allows us to do this better, faster, more efficiently. And, personally, I’m totally with the audience member who expressed the need to put away the technology (including the camera!) and be in the moment. But I should also take a moment to highlight that there are very good psychological reasons for wanting to record and share our vacations.

The processes of recording and sharing help make things “real” by expanding their significance in our lives. These are tools to aid us in building memories. We forget most moments in our lives, but when we record and share, we take the steps to solidify these memories. Vacation is a luxury and it’s (usually) filled with happy times that we want to remember. So when we record and share, we seek to keep these memories close. I cannot fault people for wanting to do this (especially in a country where people get so little vacation on average). I understand the desire to just be present on vacation, but I also understand why people are so determined to lock down these memories and contribute positive stories to the information flow of their friendships. I can’t fault them for this, even if I’d prefer that we all took a break and just enjoyed the moment. So before we mock those who are documenting their memories through the crazy new technologies, let’s also recognize that this is just one in a long line of recording and sharing tools. And, I would argue, not the most annoying one yet.

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24 thoughts on “obsessively recording and sharing our vacations

  1. Lazygal

    Thank you! I’ve felt this way for ages re: my parents obsessive photo taking (“hey look – here’s Mom & the [insert Michelin five-star view/monument/building]” just is Too Much for me, ditto “look! [niece/nephew] took a step… and another step”). Maybe they’ll listen to you, because I’m getting no where.

  2. Lee Provoost

    As always, there is an upside to the medallion: you DON’T have to watch it, contrary to the traditional photographs from your aunt where there is no escape.

    It’s a simple opt-in / opt-out mechanism that shifts the “responsibility” to find a balance to the viewer. To me, the benefits that come with the new technology outweigh the disadvantages.

  3. Jesper Juul

    I am sure you are right that we accept excessive photography simply because we are used to it, but we are skeptical of holiday tweeting simply because it is new.

    Yet: Isn’t tweeting a little different in that it implies a reaching out to all the people who are not are somewhere else than where you are? Hence holiday tweeting can be interpreted as a lack of willingness to relax and focus on the place you are in and the people you are with?

  4. Colie

    I like to update FB in the lull. So I post pics typically when at home and have continued the trend on my current vacation. In the last 48 hours I have posted about 10-15 pics, 5-8 updates, and posted on a few individuals walls. Now I gave taken WAY more pics than I have posted but photography is a hobby of mine. I also find Yelp helpful in the unknown so I have done 9 reviews thus far (usually with pics) to add to the collection of knowledge.

    Maybe there are some that update every give minutes… but not only are updates a way to update friends/family, but it will also help me when we get home and I am trying to recall how we spent that 10 days and $1000’s!!!

  5. Esme Vos

    Please write a post on why people feel helpless against “Too Much”.

    If a person I’m following on Twitter posts too frequently on subjects I don’t care about, I just stop following her. If a Facebook friend posts too much, I block his posts. I have gone on holiday many times and completely switched off – no TV, no Internet, no phone. I have also refrained from taking photos in certain locations just because I find taking photos a hassle. I want just be in the moment and enjoy the transience of the experience. Somehow, it makes those moments so sweet, so precious.

  6. Martin G.

    I agree that mediation-in-the-moment is a problem, but would like to add that for a minority of people, the camera is a way of being in the moment. As I went from being an amateur to being a not-bad hobby/very occasionally professional photographer, that was the biggest thing that changed for me. The camera became a tool for seeing the moment for what it was, rather than a way of capturing it. The capturing of the image now shares the stage with the other feeling.

    But re: the Too Much-Threshold, it brought to mind Clay Shirky’s idea of “it’s not information overload – it’s filter failure”. Before, you were trapped in the social situation of “here, look at my baby picture album”. Now it’s just that you scroll past the album when it pops up in your Facebook feed or your Flickr contacts page or whatever.

  7. Ms. Jen

    Two verbs / actions that often get forgotten with using the mass uploader function on any number of photo services: Edit and Curate.

    I went through a period when I had to upload Everything. Now I pick a photo or two a day to upload and occasionally will post a set of 10-12.

    By edit and curate, it is not just limiting the numbers of something (photos, video, tweets, words), but it is also the act of choosing what image/words will best tell the story or describe. Twitter forces us to use our words choice-fully, it would be interesting if there were a service that would have use limit our imagery to the equivalent of 140 char.


  8. Eric

    I appreciate your conclusion, and think it’s spot on (in balance with Lee Provoost’s point). The motivation’s I’m aware of in my own sharing are just what you mention: 1) helping myself to remember (because I apparently have a horrible memory anyway) and 2) involving friends and family in what I’m doing because I wish they could be there and want their vicarious participation.

    Of course, there is always too much, and I think each new technology will find people “over sharing” for a while until they are able to find the right balance for that technology. In my case, though, it’s been the reverse. I used to share very little on Twitter or Facebook. Only recently have I increased what I share, as I find friends and family commenting more frequently on my updates. So, for me at least, it is precisely the response from my “audience” that is encouraging me to share more.

    One final (admittedly niggling) point. I don’t feel that photography, at least when it means more than random clicking with a phone or pocket camera, is necessarily more distant than other forms of recording/sharing an experience. Engaged, thoughtful photography often makes me feel more involved, and creates greater memories for me (even without reference to the actual photos), than when I just wander through an experience without a camera. This isn’t always the case, but often.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this post!

  9. Kevin Makice

    While this perspective clearly applies to all forms of social media, I’m going to respond in the context of Twitter. I feel justified doing so because of the focus on the “I don’t care what you had for breakfast” complaint, a very common critique of Twitter by both members and those who have never tweeted.

    From the very beginning, the appeal of Twitter for me has been this oft-attacked level of minutia. I think those that complain the most about such content come from a different media perspective, like blogging, where such things are considered too low and meaningless to share. Other than being in the room with the other person, however, Twitter is quite possibly the only interaction capable of bringing this information to me. When I see someone tweeting about their breakfast, that is the image that I conjure up: proximity. Closeness. Intimacy.

    Twitter may be great for finding business and project partners, or sharing information among a previously-unknown community of practice, but it is also undeniably a means of insight into the thoughts and experiences of other people. When we think about how relationships are formed and maintained, it is this throwaway information that turns out to be most valuable in lowering barriers. When I meet that other person, knowing they had a crappy meeting or a satisfying brunch will help me connect in a way linksharing won’t.

    I am not oblivious to my audience, but I hate to call them that. “Audience” brings to mine lecturers or performers on stage, separating me from the greater them and implying I’m more important. When I tweet, I’m not performing. I’m trying to share parts of myself (including links and direct conversation). People can choose to respond or not. If they get to annoyed, they can quietly unfollow. If they do, that relationship probably won’t advance far enough to know what it means when I start craving Pop-Tarts, my comfort food.

    One final point: Tweets are also a footprint. Taken together (at a clip of about 10 a day), they are the most comprehensive diary I’ve ever been able to maintain, covering at least some aspect of the past 1000 days I’ve been alive. There is always the fear of a Krapp’s last tape scenario, of course, but I think we have not yet seen the value Twitter and other social media footprints are silently creating for a reflective society. We look at a great application like TwitScoop and think how great it is that we can know what is going on in the world by analyzing what the masses are tweeting at that moment. We might also, one day, have an app that does the same for individual tweet histories, exposing our own experiences in a new light and allowing us to know ourselves. Maybe remembering what you had for breakfast is key.

    Thanks for the great post. As always, very thought-provoking.

  10. Sebastien Marion

    Bill Gates announced Saturday that he had excused himself from Facebook due to the distraction and effort it presented. I am wondering what filters you might apply, Dana? Do you have limits to the the numbers of feeds, pipes, newsletters, friends, and how does this conflict with accomplishing some of the goals we set for ourselves?

  11. kethryvis

    The word for me is “interaction.” Here’s what i mean.

    i feel like all of this hyper-connectedness is actually disconnecting us. In January i fell off the net. i stopped posting to LJ, i left IRC, i stopped updating FaceBook, Ravelry, anything social-media Web 2.0 related. Since that time, the dozens of people who have friended me on these various forums have barely contacted me. A handful have (i’d say half a dozen, most of whom aren’t even local to me), but from the rest there has been silence. And of those who have contacted me, the majority just want me to start updating again. i feel like they don’t actually want to interact with me, they just want to casually know what i’m up to which to me are two totally different things.

    This means that our connection is all push and no pull. It’s a one-way connection and i have a big problem with that.

    Now wrt vacation Twitting…

    Before when friends went on vacation, i got a chance to miss having them around, and wondering what they were up to. When they got home, we’d all meet for dinner and share around photos and hear the stories. i really enjoyed that, and hearing the stories from them with all the vocal inflections, diagrams, and silly faces were always a joy.

    When i went to Rome, i did a nightly photo dump and long post to LJ. When i came home, i had nothing to share other than odd souvenirs. Four years later, i can’t tell you any good stories about my time in Rome. i haven’t had to retell them a million times; i posted them once and forgot them.

    When i went to Burning Man last year, i didn’t use the available Wifi, and instead waited until i came home. i did a photo dump, but didn’t do any LJ recap postings. i can tell you so so many stories from that period, moreso than i could tell you at the same point after i got home from Rome. This is because i’ve told the stories, over and over again.

    i would rather see my friends home from vacation and hear the stories from them instead of reading them in 140 character bursts over the course of the time they’re gone. i’d get a better sense of what they saw, what they did, what they *experienced* than i would in these tiny bursts of very little information (i’m also twitter-biased, i hate the damned site, so that could color me a bit!). those facial expressions, those tones of voice, they ad so much to the story and they connect me so much better with the teller than any number of text messages ever could.

    Just my two cents, pick any currency. Great post, and i join in your moment of silence for the power of constraint. It is the thing that frustrates me most about all of this online communication.

  12. epc

    Technology used to impose a need for curation & editing of what we brought back from vacation. Film rolls only had, what 36 pictures max (the stupid disc cameras only did 15 I recall). You could take slides if you wanted more flexibility in showing what happened on vacation, slides were cheaper to develop. In either case, if you were putting together an album of photos or a carousel of slides you had to go through each one by one and make a conscious decision to include each one (and your albums & carousels had their own constraints).

    Now you can just ⌘-A and upload everything. There’s no thought, no conscious decisions required to broadcast what we’ve seen or done.

    As an aside: the typekey setup seems hosed.

  13. Pablo

    Evan Williams wrote in an email to ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick, “As you know, there are lots of different ways to use Twitter. Many people fall into the trap that you should follow all or most people back out of a sense of politeness or so-called engagement with the community. But the fact is, having more followers does not give you more time in the day (as much as I’d like to sell that). At a certain point, you’re not actually reading any more tweets by following more people — you’re just dipping into the stream somewhat randomly and missing a whole lot of what people say.”

    “That’s fine, but I believe people will generally get more value out of Twitter by dropping the symmetrical relationship expectation and simply curating their following list based on the information and people they want to tune in to.”

    After I read this, minutia be damned, I unfollowed anyone who didn’t tweet the goods.

  14. Ben Chun

    I’m amused that the very next item in my reader is a post from a couple (one of whom is a colleague) on a year-long, around-the-world trip. The title of the post is “Day 30”.

  15. Tasha

    On our recent 3 week holiday, we had internet sporadically and tended to upload a few pictures every couple of days, because of limited bandwidth/speeds in the hotels. Quite a few friends viewed these photos on Facebook and commented, but when we got home I’ve been scrapbooking these photos and more and adding context you cant get with a photo of a random building or temple, whatever. I think there is benefits to having access to technology on vacation, i mostly used the internet to check my emails (as it was over the end of semester and xmas break) for necessary communication, to email my parents we were safe and having fun, and to keep the ‘casually curious’ masses at bay.

    I know scrapbooks have the same “TMI” factor, as do slides and videos, but i think people are getting better (or maybe consistent) at evading looking at them for extended periods of time, or maybe thats why scrapbooking has taken off so much recently, its the art of making your otherwise boring photos (especially when you’re dealing with thousands potentially) interesting, and they usually come with a story.

    Good work Danah, as always. 😀

  16. AJ Cann

    Surely the reason some perceive a problem with tweeting on vacation is that that view Twitter as “work” rather than lifestyle. For me, there are no vacations (until I finally check out 🙂

  17. Thomas Lawrence

    So, how can we use social media to flag that we were bored by content? A bored audience is the audience least likely to engage with the content in any way, after all, so waiting for comments or email that say “this article was boring” is clearly self-defeating.

    It would be nice if it was possile to track how far users got with a piece of content – how many users only made it to the first paragraph of a blog post, for instance – but it’d be invasive and/or require tech that isn’t widespread yet.

    Television media uses focus-group audiences with dials to measure engagement, but that doesn’t seem practical either (I imagine a Digg-style website where users record their level of engagement throughout a piece of content). A more simple measure might work (I imagine a site called ReadToTheEnd.com or TL;DR.com , where users simply answer a yes/no question based on whether or not they got to the end).

    Perhaps the best measure is simply to observe a lack of engagement and assume that anything that hasn’t engaged anyone (in the form of comments, email, trackbacks, Diggs, whatever) was probably pretty boring.

  18. Gabriel Green

    Does anyone think it is interesting that this article is an opinion piece about opinions?

    It’s like meta-data in a social context.

  19. S

    The disdain of observing people who tweet their vacations not only arises from observing the act of tweeting but also how much time is invested in anticipating and addressing the tweet responses. At what point does tweeting or waiting for a response from a tweet become more fulfilling than enjoying the time of vacation?

  20. Hadass Eviatar

    Enjoyed this, as always, danah. Thanks so much for helping me feel better about my photo-viewing habits – yes I will go through 50 pix on a friend’s site, but not 200. I’ve tried to edit and filter what I post (and yes, I waited until I got home to post!).

    I probably would have tweeted from vacation if I’d had convenient access. But I hope not Too Much ;-).

    Thanks so much, as always, for your clear-sighted, eloquent words!

  21. Barbara Miller

    I like the connection between twitter and social grooming. Studies of nonhuman primates demonstrate that social grooming has many positive effects on well-being and its absence has negative effects. It’s also important in restoring relationships in post-conflict situations. Anthropologists Robin Dunbar (UK) and Robert Sussman (US), among others, have published important findings on the functions of social grooming among nomn-human primates. Does anyone know of studies demonstrating positive health/mental health effects of twitter on humans? Barbara

  22. ERic

    Your posting reminds me of, triggers my memory of, something said recently: when you buy something it can be either fantastic or crappy but invariably over time it becomes an ‘oh that thing’ akin to a wooden spoon, and taken for granted or disposed of. So we buy something else, in blue. This lack of everlasting satiation is what consumerism is built upon I guess.

    In contrast, trips which are life experiences – new life data! – can either suck royally or be instantly great but the memories and experience always over time becomes great and fantastic regardless of how it was at the time. For example: “Remember that hotel room with a dripping ceiling and scurrying cockroaches!” “Yeah wasn’t that great! That time I broke my ankle, and you puked for two days!” “I loved that trip!”. Trips become fantastic. It is no wonder people go overboard.

    SNS are interesting because they are in this zone of experience context, while the remainder of the WWW is largely about consuming… and so is largely forgettable.

  23. Lee Provoost

    Just noticed that I commented to this blog a half a year ago. Many things have changed since then, moved to London and work now for a company that is highly focused on this topic. The thing that I learned is that the excessive production of information is an absolute gold mine of data. The problem is that we get an overflow of data, kind of a “signal noise”, which makes the whole data set useless for the average person that tunes in. So the challenge for us is to develop tools and find ways to extract only the meaningful data to you in your given context. This applies both for private life (for instance I tune out certain apps and certain people in Facebook to make my data stream more relevant for me) and in professional life (carefully selected activity streams in my Enterprise 2.0 app).

    We still have a long way to go, but in the meanwhile I bought a 30 yr old Polaroid SX-70 camera which basically forces me to think like 10 times before I take that one picture. With a cost of 3 pounds per polaroid, you produce far less but much more precious pictures than with the DSLR camera 🙂

    let me come back in another 6 months here

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