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Does virtual travel cramp your style?

By Katia Hetter, CNN
August 3, 2012 -- Updated 1441 GMT (2241 HKT)
Bernice Radle used Instagram for this picture of bike racks in Montreal. Radle, a green consultant, frequently posts photos from her travels on social media to share cool aspects of the cities she visits with friends. Bernice Radle used Instagram for this picture of bike racks in Montreal. Radle, a green consultant, frequently posts photos from her travels on social media to share cool aspects of the cities she visits with friends.
Montreal, Canada
Buffalo, New York
Buenos Aires, Argentina
The Bosphorus Strait, Turkey
Orlando, Florida
Taj Mahal, India
Lake Louise, Alberta
Dhaka, Bangladesh
Kolkata, India
  • Travelers -- and their friends -- are experiencing vacations through online posts
  • Some people get overwhelmed by the number of friends' vacation photos online
  • People have always used photography to shape a positive public image of themselves
  • Consider putting down your smartphone to actually experience your vacation

(CNN) -- Bernice Radle doesn't stay put.

This year alone, the Buffalo-based green consultant has traveled for work or pleasure to Boston, New York, Nantucket, Baltimore, Providence, Los Angeles, Toronto, Montreal and all over New Hampshire.

And you'd know that if you followed her travels on Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Flickr, LinkedIn or her blog.

"I look at photo sharing through social media as a way to influence my friends and followers to check out cities, public art and urban spaces," said Radle, 26. "It is a great way to sort of educate on how cool, hip, fun, interesting a city is."

No longer do vacationers wait for photos and slides to be developed so they can put together albums or slideshows to entertain (or bore) the relatives and friends. Using a variety of social media, travelers can post highlights of their vacations as they travel, document every single meal and complain about hotel or airline mistakes in time for the businesses to correct them.

Is the photo better than the trip?

"What we're seeing is an elaboration of what we consider to be our circle of friends," said Karen Cerulo, a sociology professor at Rutgers University. "When we go away, we take the people in our Internet circle with us. We want to share the time that we're having with them. This is the growth of our interaction circles."

But all that incessant posting raises some questions: Do your friends -- and, let's face it, acquaintances you rarely see in the flesh -- want to vacation virtually with you? And are you losing out on the experience by fiddling with your phone?

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Jason Lloyd Clement considers his online vacation behavior an extension of his work creating content for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's website.

Nobody wants to go through that many pictures to find a few that are great. We're not editing ourselves the way we used to.
Joanne Cantor, communications professor emeritus

The Washington resident is passionate about cities and all of their ingredients: traffic, people, street art, old buildings and modern architecture, and he sees social media as a way to share his love with his friends and family. (It also informs his mother that he's OK.)

"While I'm on the road, I use Instagram and Twitter to document all the little details of a trip, especially food and quirky things I encounter," Clement, 29, wrote in an e-mail. "I also sometimes make quick YouTube videos when I travel, like this clip of a bike ride through Buenos Aires and this little rant on why I hate napkins in South America."

When he gets home, he often posts full collections of photos to Facebook and Flickr and remembers his trips on a board dedicated to travel on Pinterest.

Although he gets positive feedback about his postings, Clement knows he could be overwhelming some people: He was the kid in school who brought five things for show-and-tell instead of one. "Perhaps that was foreshadowing," he writes.

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Technology makes for an overload of photos

Some posters can go overboard, says Wei Tchou, a Brooklyn graduate student who promises that she does like her friends' vacation pictures. At least the ones with her friends in the pictures.

"Landscape shots all start to look the same pretty quickly (as) you're like, scrolling through," Tchou wrote. "Pretty soon you aren't sure if you're just cycling through the entire album loads of times or if there really are, you know, 500 photos of the same beach in Hilton Head at sunset."

Now that it's so easy to photograph and publish to social media, travelers can take an unlimited number of photos and post 200 to 300 of their trips, says Joanne Cantor, a communications professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

"Nobody wants to go through that many pictures to find a few that are great," she said. "We're not editing ourselves the way we used to."

iReporter Andrew Bennett started doing handstands in front of landmarks while he was studying abroad in 2007. His handstand in front of The Alamo in 2008 draws some interest from other visitors iReporter Andrew Bennett started doing handstands in front of landmarks while he was studying abroad in 2007. His handstand in front of The Alamo in 2008 draws some interest from other visitors
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Photos: Captivating photo traditions Photos: Captivating photo traditions

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When does it turn into bragging?

A special message for people who claim to be taking their friends along on vacation through the wonders of Facebook: Your children do look beautiful building a sand castle. That pile of paella looks delicious. But your friends and family know they're not actually on that beach with their vacationing Facebook friends.

Dara Frize, an occasional Facebook user known to post a few vacation photos, likes see her friends' family vacation pictures but sees a high volume of pictures as bragging

"I think they're a blatant form of 'showoff-manship,' " said Frize, an Orange County mother of three. "If you have an awesome life, then all your 'friends' know you have an awesome life. No need to post it. Unless you're using Facebook for some sort of networking; then isn't it all a little braggadocious? Not to mention all the 'creeper' friends on Facebook who now know you're out of town."

Image management is nothing new

Still, active participants in the online world aren't actually doing anything new by attempting to create and maintain a positive public image.

In the early 20th century, people were even more conscious of what they conveyed through family pictures because such photo sessions were an occasional event, says Marvin Heiferman, photography professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York and author of "Photography Changes Everything." He collects news about visual culture on Twitter at @WHYWELOOK.

People were self-conscious whenever they were photographed. They tended to dress in their finest clothes and have serious expressions in order to convey a sense of their good character, Heiferman says.

"As the 20th century moved on and photography became more widespread, images in advertising, movies and media endorsed different values, a sense of euphoria, and emphasized the need to project a positive personality," he said. "People wanted to be seen as happy and successful in snapshots, not like a stick in the mud."

Stopping to notice the volcano

iReporter Thomas Thomas Jr. definitely conveys a sense of happiness in his online postings. Known among his friends for his handstand pictures around the world, the Staten Island, New York, consultant says he still wants to experience the reality of his trip, which he claims is better than the virtual reality of his postings.

"Traveling with friends tends to make for some lifelong memories but those memories don't need to be posted immediately," wrote Thomas, 37.

"There have definitely been dinners where I've looked around and everyone at the table is doing something on their phones, to which I'd say, 'We're sitting next to a volcano! Update your status later!' You've got to enjoy the moment by actually being in it."

One step removed

Vacationing exclusively through your camera lens can take away from the actual experience of your vacation, says Cantor, the communications professor. Vacations used to be time for families to get away from work and school, spend time together and focus on each other.

"If the parents are constantly answering messages from work and they've got one part of their heads back at the office, that can interfere with their enjoyment of the trip," she said. "If the kids are always texting their friends and are not doing anything with their families, that can interfere with it. If they do it most of the time, they're not really experiencing vacation."

That's not to say that you shouldn't take pictures of your wonderful trip, go back to those pictures and bring back those positive feelings. But if you experience the bulk of your vacation "looking through a lens, you might as well have seen it on TV rather than have been there," Cantor said.

That's why iReporter Jim McClure decided not to rely on his iPhone to document his vacations anymore after testing it as his only camera on a trip to the Canadian Rockies a few years ago.

Dozens of times a day, McClure would shoot images, correct them, upload them to Facebook and Twitter, caption them and respond to previous posts.

"Normally, such behavior would have tempted my wife to push me into a lake, but she was a good sport and put up with my new hobby," he wrote.

Although he enjoyed the response from friends and family as they traveled, "I began to feel like a reporter -- filing stories and images -- as opposed to someone on vacation," he wrote. "This wasn't a bad thing, just different."

He's back to packing his SLR, organizing and editing images after the trip and then sharing them on social media.

Put the camera down

Documentary film maker Brian Palmer, who shoots video, photographs and writes for a living, is sometimes told to put his cameras down.

"I think this drive to collect evidence of one's travel experiences and then to present it as proof to other people for validation is powerful among many of us, pro and non-pro alike," said Palmer, a Brooklyn resident. "The ease of digital capture and transmission via social media may have intensified the tendency, but I'm not sure to what extent. Those who are inclined to live through the lens will, unless stopped.

"I have been able to rein myself in when a travel companion has taken me to task," he said. "I feel things more, and I often see more, paradoxically, because I'm not trying to stuff the world into a 35-millimeter frame."

Has a traveling companion's smart phone ever gotten in the way of a vacation? Has it ever added to your enjoyment of your trip? Please share in the comments below.

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