Gate Expectations: Social Media Anxiety Disorder

Why the hell am I here again? 

I was 300 feet above the ground in a hot air balloon, floating over the martian-like terrain of Cappadocia in central Turkey.  It was six o’clock in the morning.

And I was going to shit my pants.

After two arduous weeks working on an archeological dig, a group of us sardined ourselves into a van to travel to Cappadocia to drink, eat and relax amongst the “fairy chimneys” of the picturesque town.

Cappadocia is one of the most interesting and arresting places in the world.

It was a beautiful morning, calm; the climate couldn’t have been more perfect for a hot air balloon ride. As we watched the seasoned employees shoot fiery hot air into the sunken balloons, my fiend Jill and I squealed at the noise. Hundreds of balloons took shape and it was time to get into the basket.

Our balloon was full of tourists from all over: a stylish Parisian couple, a perfectly over-prepared family from Denmark and two girls from Quebec with whom we chatted politely.               

As we lifted off the ground I had to pinch myself to prove I wasn’t dreaming; I was having one of the most sought-after travel experiences in Turkey. It was beautiful.

And then it happened. The gurgle, the panic.

I was going to shit my pants.

For the entire one-hour ride with hundreds of balloons floating around to watch a sunrise over gorgeous terrain, I was clenched tight trying not to explode with the traveller’s diarrhea that had been plaguing me since I arrived in Turkey weeks earlier.

Thankfully, I was able to hold it until I found refuge behind a bush when we landed. I was mortified, and pretty sad that I had spent the whole experience (and well over $150) trying not poop in my pants.

Do you think the photos I posted on Facebook about my beautiful trip to Turkey contained any hint to my gut-wrenching mishap? Absolutely not!

The photos displayed the smiling impeccably-dressed-while-living-in-a-backpack Gabby. In fact, I didn’t tell anyone, not even my boyfriend, about the experience until months later.

I was completely humiliated about agonizing through the whole ride, wishing it was over.  I hadn’t been tough enough to let loose and have fun (what a disaster that could’ve been). I had seen tons of pictures of balloons floating over Cappadocia, but after checking it off my bucket list, I realized I hadn’t had fun.  I felt like I was a bad traveller, that I had failed at being adventurous. Why did I feel so deflated about the whole experience?

Social media has taken armchair travel to a whole new level. Photos of perfect Paris picnics in front of the Eiffel tower on Instagram feature put together travellers in their best light. Iconic shots of one’s toes in the sand with a fruity cocktail show people just how much fun you’re having on a beach vacation.

Facebook showcases people traveling the world, with profile pictures representing their very best angles. Few people are posting photos on social media of seasickness, 18-hour layovers in crappy airports or that creepy guy at the hostel who just won’t leave you alone.

Now, trips don’t just have to live up to your expectations, they have to live up to the whole world’s expectations. With the value of vacation measured in likes instead of memories, I have found myself asking, “Am I having a good time?” or “Did I get a good photo of that building?” I realized I was spending too much time documenting my trips instead of actually experiencing them.

Recently a close friend of mine went on a three-week vacation to Europe with her boyfriend. Whatever could go wrong went wrong. They missed flights, they had bad hotels; it clearly wasn’t a good time.

But she had trouble admitting to anyone — even her best friends— that her trip abroad hadn’t been “the time of my life.” Her Instagram was filled with mushy selfies and happy smiles even though I know there were many tears.

In the past few years, there have been studies published about the effects Facebook and other social media outlets have on people’s self-esteem. A major study from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden found the more someone uses Facebook, the lower their self-esteem became.

Interestingly, it was women who had a lower life-satisfaction rate and were unhappier.

Edinburgh Napier University asserts that twelve percent of people in their study said simply having Facebook made them anxious, and many felt pressure to create inventive status updates. The 24-hour news cycle isn’t just for major broadcasters anymore; social media never sleeps and there is always another picture to like, or status to comment on.

There are also studies about Social Media Anxiety Disorder, or SMAD. SMAD manifests in people with low-self esteem and causes them to believe that the virtual representation of a person is true to reality.

People start to feel inadequate when they don’t measure up to their Facebook ‘friends,’ and are constantly comparing themselves to others online viewing the virtual world as an extension of themselves. Users post only positive things about themselves: first place in a marathon, their new engagement ring or a photo-shopped portrait. Very rarely do we see people sitting home alone on a Friday night, or suffering with a bout of food poisoning.

Travel blogs are their own separate animal when navigating this social media jungle. These types of blogs — which have exploded in recent years, thousands exist— are meant to entice, evoke wanderlust and allow world exploration from the comfort of your glowing screen. At the same time they make people feel ashamed if they don’t have the same perfect adventure when they are backpacking through the south of France.

Travelling to a foreign country isn’t easy, it requires research and planning, and even then, it’s highly unrealistic that everything you read in Lonely Planet is accurate. There is constant pressure to always be happy while travelling, to enjoy every second you’ve paid for, and that every trip is going to go exactly as planned.

Let’s take Brooke Saward from World of Wanderlust for example. One of her most recent articles is about how to get upgraded to first class. Her main argument? Being a solo female traveller is enough to get you the elusive upgrade.

The 23-year-old Australian has an accompanying Instagram account featuring incredibly perfect photos of travelling the world with a giant wardrobe and a Prada handbag. While these are enjoyable, and create a sense of aspiration to travel, they’re also not very realistic.

Cailin O’Neil’s website, Travel Yourself, offers a more realistic approach to travel. The 30-year-old from Halifax started her video travel blog in 2009 with a trip to Spain. O’Neil’s YouTube page has over a million views and she is always planning the next trip. One of her worst trip experiences landed her stranded on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe in the fall of 2013.

In her piece “Traveling solo can be a scary adventure” she admits most trips don’t go as planned, and it’s always best to expect the unexpected. Nothing however, had prepared her for coming face to face with baboons and letting a stranger with a machine gun take her to the bank to pay for a taxi.

At the same time, O’Neil is a self-proclaimed “Instagram snob.” She only posts good quality pictures on her account, and is also sure to include a small travel story about the location she photographed. But like most people, she feels the pressure of having to post constantly while she is travelling. Her readers have come to expect it.

O’Neil believes it’s important to create a sense of balance between the realistic and the aspirational in her line of work, and on social media. There is room for both the fancy aspirational travel blogger, and the down and dirty realistic one.

When it comes down to it, everyone gets diarrhea, everyone wears the same stained t-shirt for days on end until they find a laundromat, and pretty much no one ever gets upgraded to first class.

Travel isn’t about snapping the best profile picture or collecting the best anecdotes for the next get together. Travel is about pushing out of your comfort zone, and trying to get a glimpse of how other people live. The best travel stories come from the mishaps, the missed flights and scary hotel rooms.  

When I arrived home from Turkey, everyone asked me how my trip was. My automatic response was “It was great!” feeling it was best to not mention any mishaps. It just felt easier. But since opening up about my travels, I’ve had more fun reminiscing about unfortunate bodily functions and lost passports than I ever did bragging about how cool the Parthenon is in real life.

If you hated Paris: it’s okay. Found Stonehenge a huge disappointment? Can’t blame you for that. Just sit back and enjoy the three Michelin star restaurant, don’t sweat it if you don’t get the perfect foodie pic. Travelling is about creating your own experience, and no profile picture or 140-character boast should tell you otherwise.

After considering my options, almost pooping yourself in a hot air balloon is probably a pretty good anecdote for the next cocktail party. Cheers to that.

*I wrote this article as part of my magazine workshop in journalism school. I pitched it to a few publishers with no avail, but I felt it was an important piece of writing that I come back to frequently when I get anxious about my follower count on Instagram, or if I become jealous of another blogger’s success. While I cannot claim to be an innocent in all of this — in fact, I use social media a lot — but I struggle between the words writer, blogger, social media influencer as a means of describing myself. 

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