Dear Instagram influencers of the world, it’s time to crack open some vinos and have a quick chat.
But first, before we get any deeper into the sassy realness of this post, I’d like to start things off with a quick introduction. Hi, I’m Christina. I’m the full-time travel blogger behind @happytowander, and half of Slaying Social alongside Lia from @practicalwanderlust. Our goal is to empower travel content creators with the resources they need to make the world a better place.
… which is why today, I’d like to address how sometimes we’re all the actual worst on Instagram.
No, I don’t mean “the worst” as in our photos are blurry, we’ve chosen the wrong hashtags or our twirly dresses aren’t flouncy enough. No, I’m talking about something a little more serious: that for better or worse, Instagram has transformed many of us into actual role models with unparalleled power to shape the ways others interact with our world… and sometimes we don’t take this role seriously enough.
“Why should we care?!” you might wonder. “Why can’t you leave me alone in my vortex of candid laughter and photogenic hats?!” Well, the reason we need to talk about this is because Instagram has power. Just look at recent examples like the sunflower field that was forced to shut down thanks to a viral photo that created too much buzz… and even that new account @insta_repeat that shows how much replication and repetition happens on the platform. The truth is, Instagram gives power to regular folks like you and me to shape the world, and whether your follower count is 500, 5000 or 5 million, it’s important to use this power wisely.
And that, my friends, is a missing piece of the puzzle that is too often ignored.
[dramatic trailer voice] … Until now.
Problematic Instagram Influencer Habits We Need to Stop ASAP
The point of this post is to point out some common Instagram behaviours that are problematic, and explain why they might be worth a second thought.
Quick disclaimer: the intention of this post isn’t to shame, attack or belittle. That’s what mother-in-laws are for. Eyyyyyyy. Rather, the goal of these ramblings is simply to make you pause for a second and take a more critical look at the way we as influencers behave on our social media platforms. Think of it as an open discussion filled with awkward jokes to take the edge off, like tequila but with less regret.
Acknowledging that Rome wasn’t built in a day, we’re starting off with really basic and simple things… so those of you already sharpening your pitchforks in the back, ready to be like “well if you REALLY CARED, you would [insert large, daunting task here]… no. Stahp it. Stahp it, Becky. You’re the reason why people are scared to try.
Anyways, let’s be clear: this post isn’t a typical tongue-in-cheek bashfest of Instagram cliches like mountain-top gown wearing, or the basic pursuit of colourful walls. (And honestly, we have no judgement to cast on what you choose to wear for your photos).
No, this post is strictly about things that are 1) easily corrected and 2) black and white wrong. I beg you to at least skim it.
Please comment below! Are there any problematic behaviours that you think we influencers need to stop? Please chime in with a comment – I’d love to hear from you. And if you feel any of these points resonate with you, please share this post, even with one person or two that you think would enjoy the read. Change starts here. (Can somebody get that on a tote bag?)
Instagram Influencer Bad Habit #1: Reckless wildlife selfies
People do stupid, reckless things for the gram (you’ll see this as a recurring theme throughout this article… and in life, tbh).
I, for instance, am often caught in weather-inappropriate outfits and have been spotted climbing up to precarious viewpoints for a good photo. Such incidents have, perhaps, in the past resulted in some inappropriate flashing and a handful of traumatized children.
BUT I digress.
One troubling trend in the world of Instagram is the quest to get the perfect photo with wildlife in tow… but what’s the big problem here?
Well, taking a starfish out of the water for a photo means you could be killing that starfish. And holding animals that don’t want to be held, just for the sake of a photo? Well, that can be causing them significant distress and harm – more than you realize.
You might even be fuelling businesses built on abusing animals for tourist selfies (like the infamous Thai Tiger Temple, now shut down for being fifty shades of terrible). While there aren’t a lot of hard stats out there linking Instagram with an explosion of reckless wildlife selfies, the platform itself is taking active measures to educate users about animal abuse. Did you know that Instagram is now even hiding wildlife selfies and informing people who search up hashtags like #koalaselfie or #slothselfie that they could be contributing to animal abuse? It’s serious, it’s real, and you can check it like I did in two seconds:
So why is it important that we as travel influencers stop posting this kind of content then? It’s simple: not only would we be directly contributing to the endangerment of that wildlife in particular, our adorable animal selfies encourage people to want their own, and so the cycle continues.
Your action items: Think twice before posing with animals or better yet, educate yourself before your trip on best practices around local wildlife and do your best to educate your audience about it too using your own platforms.
Why this is the easiest change ever: Okay, it might be tough to see all these adorable critters and not be able to get that sweet photo with them, but just remember: at the end of the day, if you truly love them, you’d set them free. *silent tear *
Instagram Influencer Bad Habit #2: Trespassing for the gram
I mean, out of all bad Instagram influencer habits, this might be the most baffling, not just because it’s common, but because it’s commonly flaunted too.
The amount of times I’ve read a caption that went something like “omg totally took this from a rooftop we weren’t supposed to and the lady got mad and yelled at us for being on her roof, but like, #forthegram and some ppl have no chill. smh”
The worst part is, often Instagram influencers will act as if trespassing has no consequences. BUT as this article, suitably titled “People are literally dying for the perfect insta pic” outlines, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. From getting arrested (like this insta model who apparently got caught trespassing and then proceeded to spit and bite at the police) to people getting run over by actual trains, we now live in a world so fuelled by the “#forthegram” mentality that common sense often escapes us… with real consequences attached to them.
I have personally gotten wrapped up in this too, both for curiosity sake and for photos’ sake. Sometimes it’s tempting to see what’s past the fence, or get that shot that you know would be perfect. And I totally hear you – the rules can seem silly sometimes, but think about it this way: just because you know how to enter a certain spot safely or visit respectfully doesn’t mean others will. I’ve never written guides on visiting “risky” places because if even one person got hurt (or worse) following my advice, I would honestly just crumple into a ball of angst and cry forever.
So that’s the point – our actions and content have an impact on others. I mean, I just watched a YouTube video that was titled something similar to “trespassing for Instagram” and the comments were flooded with things like “you are my goals” and “love a queen that risks it for the gram”.
Yikes. Followers can be impressionable, and just because you trespassed and came out unscathed doesn’t necessarily mean that others will. Remember that.
Your action item: Stop glorifying trespassing for the gram… you never know who’s watching or listening (like the police maybe… lulz). You probably shouldn’t be trespassing anyway, but at the very least don’t be posting and sharing those experiences.
Why this is the easiest change ever: We’re pretty much just asking you to not break the law…
Instagram Influencer Bad Habit #3: Epic(ally illegal) drone shots
Next up – intrepid drone pilots, this one’s for you.
Sooo, let’s state the obvious: drone laws are in place for a reason. They could be safety reasons, to make sure you don’t… you know, drop your drone on someone’s head. Or, they could be wilderness reasons, to protect fuzzy, adorable lil creatures in the area. Just because you won’t get caught or “there’s no one around” doesn’t mean you should do it.
As a drone owner (heh… drone-r) myself, nothing bothers me more than seeing people rake in glory for droning in totally illegal places. The problem here is not only that you’re breaking the rules, but that you’re encouraging others to do the same. When in a position of “influence”, your illegal droning creates a ripple effect where others think they can get away with the exact same thing
… Just think of the guy who flew a drone over the Coliseum and got arrested, or the guy who flew a drone over the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh (where his drone was spotted by the Queen Mother of Cambodia, doing her evening exercises at the time). CLEARLY, sometimes in the world of droning, common sense and cultural respect is thrown out the window.
So, think twice before capturing illegal drone content. It could have far more damaging effects than you realize.
Your action items: Play fair. Follow the drone rules in place, or at the very least, don’t publically post your illegally captured drone footage.
Why this is the easiest change ever: Again, we’re literally just asking you to obey the law….
Instagram Influencer Bad Habit #4: Being a self-proclaimed “gypsy”
Alright, this is one we’ve all surely come across.
Regardless of how common it is, the mega-liberal use of ‘gypsy’ in the world of travel media needs to stop. No ifs, ands or buts, the word gypsy is a racial slur. It just is. This article from the Mindful Mermaid sums up why it is so problematic.
In a nutshell though, the word gypsy has been used as a racial slur against Roma people around the world for centuries, and appropriating it to mean “I’m a fun free spirit who likes to wear braids and travel” is not only rather tone deaf, but non-sensical.
Having lived and travelled in Europe for a few years now (where gypsy is literally never used as a positive term), I am baffled when bloggers and influencers throw the term around, dotting whimsical bios, captions and even usernames. I like to naively believe it’s simply lack of awareness or education, soooo here’s the fix: hi! Gypsy is a bad word to use! You should probably stop using it! I don’t know how “gypsy soul” has became so synonymous with pretty, Bohemian Coachella dream girls, but it’s a problematic word that needs to go away.
Your action item: Stop using the word gypsy to describe your bohemian travel-loving soul, and if you see a fellow influencer doing it, take time to ask them if they know where that word comes from or whether they realize it’s an offensive term for some.
Why this is the easiest change ever: We’re genuinely just asking you to cut ONE word from your vocabulary.
Instagram Influencer Bad Habit #5: Cute cocktail pics and boomerangs…. with straws
Unless you’ve just awakened from a coma, or have otherwise been living under a social media-proof rock, you’ll know that public enemy #1 lately has been single use plastic, namely, that darn plastic straw. While this issue has been largely simplified on social media (for additional perspective, I highly recommend you read this article about how the straw ban is problematic for those with disabilities), the fact remains that single use plastics are still considered normal, everyday parts of our lives… and influencers can often be part of the problem.
Think about it this way: while that cute lil boomerang of you slamming cocktails with your squad might seem like a harmless tribute to Friyay, there’s a much bigger issue underlying these snaps: they’re not only an endorsement of single use plastics, but serve to continually normalize their use, and by extension make people think (even on a subconscious level) that using straws and other plastics is fine and dandy and not at all terrible for the environment.
Your action items: Buy reusable straws. Say no to straws in your drinks (if you don’t need one). Even if you DO use plastic (we’re all human – it happens), don’t immortalize it by sharing it in a post or story.
Why this is the easiest change ever: Is having that plastic straw in your story really that important? Imagine if drink/drink pics WITHOUT plastic straws became the norm – what a world that would be.
Instagram Influencer Bad Habit #6: Permission-less Photography
I don’t want to get into the messy business of how photography is used to perpetuate stereotypes and all that (after all, even Nat Geo famously apologized for their decades of racist coverage this past year).
BUT, this is something we see all too often on Instagram pages: contextless photos of “local people”, often (whether intentionally or not) reinforcing a stereotype about that place. Often, said photos might have been taken without permission, and that is where lies the major problem. Think about how you would feel if a stranger photographed you without your knowledge or consent, then shared it online with thousands of people around the world….
Or even with permission… Asking to take someone’s photograph is one thing, but putting it on social media for tens of thousands of people is a different story.
“But what about my art?! Street photography is so REAL, man”
I get it. Sometimes these candid captures are stunning to look at. But there are greater problems and factors at play here than mere aesthetics and “Art”. For example, certain cultures associate having a photo taken of them with losing a piece of their soul. You don’t want to take someone’s soul without consent, do you? If you’re after candids, maybe get someone’s permission after-the-fact. Otherwise, ask permission first.
NOTE: Crowd shots or photos where you can’t clearly recognize someone’s face are generally fine to post. When in doubt, spend a little time editing any clearly identifiable faces to be slightly blurry… we’re mostly talking about photos where someone is the primary focus.
Remember this about whoever is standing #InFrame: they are human beings too, and not just props for your next Instagram photo. Photographing and publishing photos of people without their consent deprives them of their basic right over their own image. Don’t be that person.
Your action items: Before sharing your photos of “locals” on all your platforms for the world to see, think to yourself: did I get permission? Do I have this individual’s consent to share their image with the world? Would this person be unhappy if I posted it? Etc.
Why this is the easiest change ever: All we’re asking is you get someone’s consent before you post their picture. It seems like basic manners tbh.
Instagram Influencer Bad Habit #7: The casual use of “Spirit Animal” & “Tribe”
I’ve been guilty of this one, and (honestly) still used these terms until very recently. Sometimes words become such a common part of our vernacular that we don’t stop to think about their origins. One might argue that “gypsy” (as discussed above) is one such word. Spirit animal and tribe are others.
As this article from Spiral Nature sums up, “The problem is that the continued use of the phrase is a part of the cultural appropriation of Indigenous culture that seeks to commodify and erase the realities of Indigenous people.”
Put simply, spirit animals and tribes are massively important parts of Native culture, and to reduce their importance to an emoji, cutesy caption, or internet punchline is straight-up cultural appropriation.
Your action item: Stop using the terms spirit animal and tribe, and if you notice other influencers using it, take the time to educate them on why the terms are problematic. Instead of “spirit animal,” how about “patronus?” It conveys the same idea AND you get nerd bonus points. As for tribe, there are roughly a zillion words describing groups of related things to choose from. Side note, did you know that a group of pugs is called a “grumble” of pugs?! Yes, really!
Why this is the easiest change ever: Again, we’re just asking you to cut out…. Two words. You can do it. I believe in you.
Instagram Influencer Bad Habit #8: Selfies with children, especially “local ones”
I love cute kids as much as the next person. I mean, do baby shoes make me want to wet myself from excitement? Abso-freakin-lutely… But there’s a very compelling reason why we should maybe avoid posting photos of children on social media: quite simply, kids aren’t really capable of informed consent.
When you lure kids into your selfie with the promise of fun puppy filters and incessant attention, do they fully understand that their images are going to be out there in cyberspace forever? Do they get that this fun little photo is going to be shown to hundreds, thousands, even millions of people? Probably not.
And yes, this does matter. There are even cases of kids trying to sue their parents for all the humiliating baby photos of them on Facebook.
This issue is especially pertinent in the case of foreign children when you’re travelling. I’m sure we’ve all seen photos taken by eager travellers who are in a foreign country and yenno, innocently volunteering or playing with kids (and posting about it). And kids are cute right? So what’s the problem?
Well, getting deeply into the “white saviour complex” and neocolonialism is totally outside the scope of this lil article, but this article sums it up well when they say photos “can perpetuate stereotypes and rob the subject of dignity or privacy. A seemingly innocent selfie with African kids, for example, can perpetuate the idea that only Western aid, charity and intervention can “save the world,” … These children are portrayed as helpless and pitiful … while the volunteer is made out to be the superhero who will rescue them from their misery.”
For a fun laugh that takes this idea to the extreme, check out @barbiesavior on Instagram.
So, remember: kids are cute, but they’re not yet old or mature enough to knowingly consent to their photo being blasted on social media. Moreover, photos with foreign kids can mean you unknowingly contributing to stereotyping and a lot of other complicated issues. While your intention may have never been negative, there’s no refuting that the consequences can be.
Your action item: Stop posting photos with children.
Why this is the easiest change ever: You can take the photos, just think twice before posting them. It’s a pretty simple change, doncha think?
Alright, have some wine. *pours you oversized glass *
Thank you for putting up with me, your friendly neighbourhood blabbermouth.
In conclusion, if you get defensive or feel weird reading this post, I urge you to question why it is you feel that way. Did it hit a nerve because you’ve been guilty of these behaviours (as we all have)? Is it because you are only just realizing the problematic nature of these behaviours? Or is my wordy sentence structure making your eyes bleed?
Regardless, remember that the ultimate goal here is open discussion.
Because at the end of the day, we’re not just influencers, we’re role models, no matter how large or small the audience. In this industry of ours, it’s easy to get SO caught up in chasing higher numbers that you forget how much of an impact you already have. But whether it’s ten followers or a million, your voice and your behaviour have the ability to shape the behaviour of others.
Which is why it’s oh so important for us to realize when our actions might be problematic. I mean… *hands up* I can admit I’m guilty of many of these, and continue to catch myself doing things I shouldn’t. (Like eating five peoples’ worth of Nutella each morning, but that’s another issue) The most important thing is that you educate yourself, realize you’re not immune to mistakes, and take corrective actions when needed.
So, in short, whether you skimmed this, devoured the whole thing with ten wines, or scrolled all the way to the bottom here because I bore you, just know that you have influence and that it matters. If any of this article resonated with you, I ask you kindly (and mildly desperately) to share it far and wide. These are the conversations oh so absent from the travel media space, and we think it’s time for that to change.
*awkward fist bump *
Thanks for reading.
I hope you enjoyed this piece. Eager to discuss more ways that you can use your travel blog or platform to influence positive social change? Join the free Slaying Social Facebook Group, where we lead weekly discussions about issues impacting the travel industry and how they affects us as content creators. Oh, and how to grow, amplify, and even monetize your platform – responsibly. #ShamelessPlugOver
Access our FREE Resource Library!
Subscribe below to get full access to our FREE resource library! Our library is chock full of downloadable worksheets, checklists, templates, and more for Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and Instagram. Did we mention it's free?!