Tokyo Station Travel Instagram

Instagram Travel Influencer Takes a Break: Traveling #NotForTheGram

By basic definition, an Instagram travel “micro-influencer” is someone who has more than 10,000 followers. As much as I hate being labeled as one, I am an Instagram micro-influencer because I have 13.5k Instagram followers. However, I’d like to be known as a “travel influencer” because that’s what my Instagram account was all about. I would admit, it was a dream which I made happen after around 2-ish years of hard work.

I started a free WordPress blog back in mid-2017 after earning my Master’s Degree in International Studies. My daily routine has always been to focus on my government job in the morning and attend classes at night. Therefore, finishing graduate school has left a huge hole in my daily routine. Travel blogging filled that up. Moreover, it has really been my passion to travel, write, and take photographs. Hence, I decided to give travel blogging a try as a hobby. I also created an Instagram account where I post my travel photos. Moreover, I spent years doing research, engaging with the travel community, and learning how travel bloggers shoot their photos. I applied these on my Instagram, I hit 10,000 followers my articles climbed up the Google search results.

That’s it. I’m officially an Instagram travel “influencer”.

Aside from the ‘swipe up’ function privilege on my Instagram stories, gaining 10,000 followers has led me to countless opportunities. Brands were offering me sample products and services (and sometimes money) in exchange for Instagram posts and articles. I also got invited to events, and admittedly it upped my self-esteem game. This was already what I’ve dreamed of, right?

Things were really going well in general (I’m still gaining more and more followers). I know how to take that Instagrammable photos better. I’m starting to gain respect, especially from the Southast Asia travel community. But when my blog’s second birthday came, I decided to ‘take a break’ from my travel influencer Instagram.

There are some parts of being a travel influencer on Instagram which I can’t take anymore.

Spending too much time on my Instagram travel influencer page takes a toll on my mental health

Achieving 13.5k followers took me hours of reading and studying how other Instagram travel influencers did it. Gaining such status also meant constantly being on Instagram and engaging with the community.

I’ve virtually met other travel bloggers and Instagram influencers asking tips from me on how I did it. I also met fans who sent me appreciation messages saying that I inspire them to travel. Also, there were people I personally know who unfollowed me. I guess they were getting sick and alienated of my posts. I also get random “Hi”s and spam messages from strangers.

Worse, I myself would still get envious of other people who were currently traveling while I scroll my feed. I saw a classmate who has been traveling frequently and I got envious when I saw that she’s in Taiwan! Like, man, I’ve already been there! Why? And then that’s it. This is no longer healthy. And to tell you the truth, Instagram has ruined some of my relationships with people I value the most. It was a long story and there is no turning back. But, all I can do is to just pick up the pieces and start over.

On aggressiveness and being competitive and unstoppable

My personality has always been competitive and unstoppable (My life mantra is “What Sherlyn wants, Sherlyn gets.”). Therefore I consider travel influencing as a competitive thing where I need to be number one. I always find ways to step up my game. Travel bloggers older than me have become established but they started it around 10 years ahead of me. I am aggressive enough and do whatever it takes to steal the spotlight from them. Finally, I asked myself, “Is it really worth it? What would I get from this? Money, fame, free stuff, validation?” Seriously, who doesn’t want all of these, right? Taking a break was the only way I know to slow myself down. I also want reassess the real purpose of everything I want to do and achieve.

Let’s face it. On Instagram travel influencing, the more skin is out there, the more likes you’ll get.

People want to celebrate self-love. People get confident if they see confidence. On the other hand, there are really just sex predators lurking around the virtual world. They will like all the bikini photos they see.

I had a random medical check-up and the doctor pointed out all the causes of my chief health complaints to stress, and advised me to exercise. I started hitting the gym. I seriously worked hard for that curves and abs as much as I aspire to be more physically and mentall healthy. Then I went to Palawan for a holiday, that was the first time I wore bikini. I posted a photo on Instagram. True enough, it garnered so many likes compared to my breathtaking photos of the mountains and the ocean. Also, I got comments like “hot”, “sexy”, and all those words. It might mean good or bad, depending on who said it.

Two years later, occasional bikini snaps would effortlessly give me more than a thousand likes. On the other hand, a beautiful temple photo in Myanmar could only have 300+ likes. One of my blogger friends asked me how do I work on getting more engagement on Instagram. I told her, “Babygirl, you just gotta post some hot bikini photos.”. Which she actually did, for the love of Instagram engagement! *laughing my *ss off*

Wearing a bikini is something I’m not absolutely comfortable with because I still have body issues. But it indeed makes me celebrate my body and its imperfections. But Instagram saying that I should wear more bikinis to remain in the spotlight is something I will not do. I mean, NatGeo could have instead noticed the beautiful sceneries and local portrait photos I took in Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar, right? Does that mean I’m still not good enough? Maybe I need more photography practice.

Instagram travel influencing was my creative outlet, but it made me lose my creativity at the same time.

I always want to celebrate my travels. Thus, I experiement on how my photos would look good together when placed side by side in a grid. I did a combination of black and whites, colorful, pastel-ish, and moody. But seeing other Instagrammers maintaining a specific theme on their feeds, I really felt the pressure of doing so. Before my current travel influencer Instagram account, I had countless attempts on creating different accounts. That included black and white, pastel-themed, purely landscape photos, cinematic filters, you name it. However I realized it’s gonna limit the photos I could post and I want to post everything. Eventually, I resorted to a colorful, #nofilter, highly-saturated edits, and people liked it.

But it still limited the photos I could upload. A clean white museum photo could not fit in my feed, nor an old black temple photo. Perhaps these photos could sit somewhere in the middle of my feed and will not be noticed by anyone. However as I scroll my feed and see those photos, I see dents to my perfectly-curated feed and I’m not happy with it. Moreover, seeing everyone using Lightroom presets makes me feel out of place, but I want to make my photos as real as possible. And that’s when, ladies and gentlemen, Instagram somehow ruined my creativity.

Traveling With the Wrong People

I have also traveled with some people who literally travel and willing to die for that Instagrammable photos. Being a solo traveler and taking my own photos was really hard as shit, and I will be happy to have someone to take photos of me. Some people I traveled with would check out Instagram photos taken in that specific spot we’re in (a museum, a building, or a street) and will literally copy how other people did it. While I don’t agree with what they were practicing, I gave it a try. And to be fair, I got a couple of nice photos which looked good on my feed. But I want my own unique pose and angles and I don’t want to be just like everybody else.

Am I really an Instagram “Travel Influencer”? What do I really influence?

I always feel some dopamine rush whenever people would tell me that I inspire them to travel, whenever people would reach out to me and ask for recommendations (Hmmm I think this is a potential travel consultancy gig hehehe), and whenever people would also go to where I go, use the brands I feature or mention (both sponsored and not sponsored). Having more than 10,000 followers is something that most brands consider “influential” enough that if I post their product and be seen by my followers, they have already reached their desired audience.

Some brands would reach out to me and ask to post photos with their products and will give me complimentary samples and even money, and that’s it, but sometimes the amount would depend on how many likes the post would get. Other brands would ask me to promote their services and I will only get an income once I made a sale by using the discount codes I provide. Online shops, travel agencies, and hotel booking companies started reaching out to me. Being a travel influencer, I have been promoting them on my Instagram and blog like crazy (hoping at least a hundred out of my 13.5k followers would patronize the products and services), but guess what, I can’t even make them use my damn promo code!

I’m not really sure how it works. The greatest number of likes I’ve garnered in a single post so far is around 1,700 (but then again I have 13,500 followers, so around 11,800 don’t really like my post?). Not to mention I never bought followers and these people followed me in their own free will, and I can’t figure out what’s wrong.

Can’t Even Sell My Own Bags!

Upon checking my stats, More than 50% of my followers came from the Philippines (that’s around more than 7,000 people), so perhaps if I sell any physical product, some would buy it. And then I started launching a travel and food-themed canvas tote bag business. My products have cute designs and were commended by so many people. However, they just won’t buy a goddamn bag. Take note, I only sell them for USD5! And then it hit me. There must be something I’m doing or not doing and I really have to figure this shit out because it’s already wasting my time and money.

Influencer marketing companies target the wrong influencers, and some manipulate the hell out of influencers’ content

Along with travel-related brands which reached out to me are brands that aren’t totally or at least directly connected to travel: make-up brands, cooking ingredients, drugstores, candies, home decors, name it. At first, I tend to accept all projects and say to myself, “This is just gonna be one non-travel-related photo on my feed and it can just get buried eventually, plus it’s money, so let’s do this!”. At first it wasn’t hard, you just have to follow the required elements of the photos by the brand, like the product name should be visible, you should be using the product, the caption should be like this and like that, etc. There were brands who will give you full liberty and will not pre-approve your posts, and preserves the creativity of the influencer.

However, there will be brands which will dictate every aspect of how you should take the photo and write the caption and it sometimes no longer aligns with my personal brand. I am obviously an Instagram travel influencer, and if it’s a brand not related to travel, I will naturally at least do my best to still link it to travel, right? But some PR companies do not get this. I mean, why would they approach me in the first place with their non-travel related brands. I had to turn down and stop participating in these types of campaigns because it was getting too toxic.

A Bad Experience With An Influencer Marketing Company

In fact, there was one PR company who yelled at me over the phone and explained things one by one and detail by detail in a very high-pitched derogatory manner as if I’m dumb (Excuse me, you’re talking to a University Professor with a Master’s Degree in a top university in the world! But of course, all she knows is that I am an “influencer” who did not meet her photo criteria). Oh, the photo, it’s gonna pay me just USD10 and this is for a big credit card company! Not to mention they had to made me wait for 2 weeks for the approval of my post only to reject it. On a brighter side, a popular sneaker company paid me thousands of dollars and three pairs of sneakers for 2 Instagram posts on my travel influencer account. Now this is the real deal.

Ideally, I want to work with travel-related brands and companies, like travel agencies, airlines, transportation companies, tourism boards, travel gear companies, travel websites, among others. With my self-esteem issues forever creeping in, I don’t think I’m big enough to work with them. At least not yet. Let’s see where it goes after I undergo a major overhaul.

Pitching proposals to brands made me feel like I’m “begging” for free stuff, and it doesn’t feel right.

This is not in any way to connote a negative notion on pitching, but this is what it felt like.

When I was still a small blogger with less than 10,000 followers and a free WordPress account, I had the audacity to pitch to brands because I was aggressive and unstoppable like that. Not-so-suprisingly, there were restaurants, hotels, and hostels around Manila and nearby provinces who believed in the power of micro-influencer marketing and won’t bother giving free meals and free accommodations to me in exchange for Instagram posts on my travel influencer account and blog articles. It really has a value because the content is going to be out there forever, accessible to everyone who wants to know about the business.

I believe this has been a tradition that the travel blogging community has been doing, and big-time travel bloggers tell everyone to not get discouraged by rejections and no responses. I was very insensitive about these, but there were incidents where businesses would even bully and bash these Instagram travel influencers instead of politely rejecting them. That included me. I have a very polished media kit and a professionally-written letter with complete information and details, but I got an undesirable disrespectful response instead of a nice rejection. For a time it discouraged me and hurt me, because if being disrespected for offering marketing services will be the price of a meal in a mid-range casual dining restaurant, then it’s not worth it.

Good Experiences With Brands and Bridging Relationships With People

Meanwhile, I had good encounters with business owners who kept in touch with me even after the project and even became my friends and part of my professional network. Them being more than nice and appreciative of my services, I endlessly promote their businesses in my social media and I don’t mind if they no longer gonna give me something in return for that. Despite that, I want to improve the quality of my photos and articles first and let the brands come to me more than I pitch to them. Other bigger bloggers tell me to just keep doing what I’m doing and the opportunities will eventually come. I’m still wishing and working hard for it!

I can no longer enjoy traveling the way I used to because of the pressures from my Instagram travel influencer page.

On the initial stages of my travel life, I did not really have enough photos. Sometimes I go home only bringing a few photos of my lunch or a non-spectacular street photo showing the gloomy weather condition in the place I went to. I talked to and learned a lot from so many people I met along the way but never exchanged contact details nor took a photo with them (because to me, the world is big and people really come and go). But all the stories and memories are inside my heart which I always share with my friends and loved ones.

And when my travel blogging dreams started, that’s when I stepped up the game. I was constantly on my Instagram travel influencer account trying to learn how these girls in long dresses take and edit their beautiful photos, including where they went and where could be a good spot to take Instagrammable photos. And then I joined the bandwagon. I bought nice swimsuits, cute and colorful skirts, and carefully plan my outfits vis-a-vis the places I will visit (yes, even if the clothes are weather-inappropriate and uncomfortable).

I will sometimes feel really down if I wore ordinary clothes or if my clothes did not match the place. Worse, in the name of having beautiful photos of me for Instagram, I will wake up really early. Or I will patiently wait for people to disperse for me to get a shot of myself with no people. I still visit museums and learn about the places’ culture. But sometimes I was just too focused on getting the right shot in a beautiful place. I forgot to consider talking to the locals and even trying out local food.

“If it’s not on Instagram, it did not happen.”

There was one time, the moment I landed in Cebu, I first went to the mall to buy some toiletries. I decided to videocall one of my friends saying I safely landed and I am planning to take less photos. Then he said, “Why? It’s not a real proof that you actually went there! They could just assume you stole the photo somewhere. Your Instagram should be you and the view! Also, if it’s not on Instagram, it never happened, right?”

Every word he said got me questioning about the real essence of traveling. Am I doing this for myself to grow and gain more experiences and learn more things about life? Or am I only doing this just for Instagram? Guilty as charged, sometimes I only go visit a restaurant to get a nice photo even if the food is not good and crazy expensive at the same time. Or go to a place and risk my safety just to get that perfect shot. I am becoming that kind of person already and I don’t really like it.

Traveling NOT for Instagram

Meanwhile, I met some people who did not even care if they took enough photos from a trip. I really admired them. I met a backpacker in a hostel in Cebu whom after going to Oslob, lost all his photos. His phone won’t turn on either. I felt sad for him and offered to accompany him to have his phone repaired. He told me to not worry too much about it. He said, “It’s all in here (pointing to his temple to mean all the memories are on his mind anyway)”. I answered, “And here (placing my heart on my chest to mean all memories are in his heart as well)”. It was a dramatic scene there but I felt it really hard and it hit me.

Moreover, I have an American friend who went around Manila and El Nido and then I checked his Instagram. I saw he posted an ugly photo of a black bird in a cage, and I was mocking him. I said, “That’s it? That’s all you can post after seeing a lot of beautiful stuff here in my country?” And he told me he has gone to so many places already. However, I would never see them on his Instagram. Now that’s real travel.

The purpose of my Instagram influencer travel page is to share my travel experiences to the world, but it feels so fake sometimes.

One of my favorite quotes by the late Anthony Bourdain was this:

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

Anthony Bourdain

Of course, nothing in this world is absolutely beautiful. Traveling also could get really awful sometimes. Delayed flights, ruined sleep patterns, people who will hit on you, non-aligning preferences with your travel companions. Also, getting ripped off a huge amount of money in tourist sites, weather disturbances, annoying people, and so much more. But no one posts these on Instagram. I mean who likes an ugly face, an ugly photo with an ugly story on Instagram? Each and everyone’s Instagram feed is meant to celebrate the good life and things that make us happy. Thus, there’s no room for ugly stuff.

But no one has to know whether you had a crazy vacation with the wrong travel companion in Indonesia. Whether you had a scary encounter with a stranger in Singapore. That time when some hotel staff yelled at you in Vietnam when you did not know what you did wrong. Whether you mistakenly booked a crappy and creepy hotel in Cambodia. That time when some airport staff in Brunei has been consistently rude to you everytime you exit the country. Whether some locals in Hong Kong would shoo you away if you ask them for directions in English.

The Ugly Side of Traveling

These are some ugly side of traveling that you just don’t want to share. It’s because people might get turned off, judge you, bash you for being judgmental and ethnocentric, among others. And I don’t want to spread fear, judgment and bad vibes either. So, I would rather share only the good stuff, but it feels so fake and uncomfortable on my part. Photos might look beautiful but the context and the moments behind that were not really beautiful. I want to be transparent to my followers but I don’t want to disappoint them at the same time. Hence I think Instagram is not the best place for that. 

No one really cares if you will be away from Instagram. People will just go on with their lives. Your follower count is nothing but a number.

Because of all the reasons stated above, I decided to give Instagram a break (well, not really. I still want to celebrate my travels in a more low-key, non-income-based, non-likes-based way, hence I created this account. I posted both an Instagram story and an Instagram feed post on my travel influencer account announcing my break. There, I asked my followers that they can leave their emails if they still want to get in touch. Guess what, only a handful of people expressed their sadness and intent to keep in touch. The rest, they never cared! Not even my own family and inner circle of friends. I reached out to those people who ‘care’ by sliding them a DM. I let them know about my other Instagram account and they really did follow me there.

It feels better to be surrounded by a few people who really care about you. To tell you the truth, Having 13.5k followers still leave me lonely and empty on most of the days. Do their follows and likes really mean anything? Can you count on them if some crisis happen to you without them judging? I don’t think so. 

Takeaway

Now, I am giving Instagram travel influencing a break. I will try to have travels which are less Instagram-motivated and I want to see what happens. This time I will no longer care about the likes and validation. I just want to celebrate my travels and writing and photography are the two things that make me happy. I will no longer care about the income and all the perks. At least for now.

After all, I have a full-time job with a decent income which allows me to see places. I’ll focus on that first. After all, if I keep on improving my travel writing and photography, I can eventually get noticed by brands. That includes airline companies, National Geographic, The Travel Channel, CNN, tourism boards, and luxury hotels. Who knows? But as of now, I just want to focus on my (real) job, (real) friends, and the (real) world, and be as real as possible.

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