“Studying” Abroad and Social Media

Florence, Italy: the place that completely stole my heart and absolutely changed me forever.  Studying abroad was hands down the best experience of my life.  When else in your life are you going to be able to travel for such an extended period time, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the culture and experience these cities beyond a superficial tourist perspective.  And let’s not forget while on this glorified vacation, you are also receiving school credit for those wine tasting classes and Italian-cuisine cooking classes.  So while you’re going out partying every night and skipping class to travel every weekend, don’t forget to thank mom and dad for all of that very valuable “studying” you got done.  But all jokes aside, I am really am so grateful to have been given this opportunity of studying abroad.  And I am also appreciative of having multiple ways to look back and reminisce on my experiences.  While documenting memories from trips once meant physical photo albums and hand written journals, we now have a much more digital way of capturing these moments.  While studying abroad, most people document and share these special experiences via social media–they post pictures on Instagram and Facebook, they Snapchat quick snip bits and videos, they tweet about where they are travelling to and they blog about what they are doing and learning.  Everything they see or do has a designated place on their social media pages.  This has become so normalized in our society that it has inevitably become necessary and expected.  Although tracking and sharing these memories is nice, I found the use of social media to be a major hindrance on the studying abroad experience.

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Studying in Florence made me realize how much of an impact social media still seems to have on students and their time abroad.  Here are a few of the pros and cons of social media that were blatantly obvious to me:

Pros:

Communal platforms to document/share memories:  As I previously mentioned, these social media platforms are a great way to document and share pictures and information from our travels.  Other people genuinely enjoy seeing our adventures and we genuinely enjoy seeing their.  It is nice to have a communal place to hold all of these memories.  Another thing I definitely didn’t realize until it happened to me, is that your Facebook albums won’t crash when your computer does.  Just recently my computer crashed and I lost everything on my laptop including all of my pictures from my time abroad.  I was absolutely devastated and thought I would never get over it–until…my mom reminded me that all of my pictures were still saved to my Facebook account.  I was so incredibly relieved.  While Facebook may have its own issues and this doesn’t mean my pictures are safe forever, it was nice to have this communal space as a sense of back up.

Advice/Learning:  There are so many social media accounts that are purposely aimed at offering advice and wisdom based on past experiences.  There are accounts that exists where students who have previously studied abroad will share their experiences as well as tips on what they would do differently.  I know that I personally used many of these sites to learn the best places to visit based on the cities that I was going to be travelling to.  I wanted to know which tourist “monuments” were worth it and which ones were not.  I wanted to know the special “off the beaten path” places that weren’t overly crowded with tourists and allowed me to further understand the culture.  There are accounts that offer tips on how to pack, how to save money, where to go, when to go, the best places to eat, and just about everything else you could possibly think of.

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Making $$$:  Many people today use travelling/studying abroad almost as a way of free promotion.  Their overwhelming use of these social media platforms during their adventures soon leads to amazing opportunities of either earning money or other forms of compensation.  I know of a few different instances of people who began their expeditions as studying abroad, travelling after graduation, etc. and then it soon evolved into companies being so impressed with their influential social media presence in relation to these topics that they begin flying these people out for free.  They are offered free travel, room and board, food and more so that they will document their trips and then share them to their vast audience on these social media sites.

Cons:

Too much time spent on social media rather than experiencing the culture:  One of my favorite things about studying abroad was the awesome feeling of not having a phone.  I am not ashamed to admit that in the US, I will never be caught dead without my phone in my hand.  I can’t even use the excuse of “Sorry I didn’t answer, I didn’t see your text” because I am on my phone 27/4, constantly refreshing my social media pages to stay updated on what my friends are up to.  Being abroad, this was never a concern of mine.  I liked going all day without calling, texting, and checking social media.  However, seeing as how we are currently living in the 21st century and the concept of studying abroad is becoming more and more common, we started to see an increase in available Wi-Fi.  I hate this part of being abroad. My friends and classmates began searching for restaurants and coffee shops based on which ones had free Wi-Fi so that they could check their phones.  In my opinion, this was a major impact and definitely took away from the experience.

Too much of a competition:  I know a lot about this one because I often got caught up in it myself.  I mentioned in my last blog post, about Parents’ Weekend, that many student were competing with who could get the best pictures and this is even more true for study abroad students.  Holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, touching the top of the Louvre, standing in a telephone booth in London, chugging bottles of vino during wine tastings in Tuscany.–you name it, I had the picture.  But it is not the picture themselves that are the problem.  The problem is the reason behind why we are taking them.  We become more concerned with “likes” on social media than we do on capturing these very special moments to look back on years from now.

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Experiencing things through your phone rather than living in the moment: One night in Florence, there was a fireworks show down near the Ponte Vecchio.  In the middle of the show, I realized I had been watching the entire fireworks display through the screen of my iPhone.  I hadn’t even looked up to catch a brief glimpse of the action in the sky. I realized then how imperative it was to ACTUALLY witness these moments through my very own two eyes.  Many of my friends did not realize why this began to bother me so much, but I am so glad that I realized what I was doing and made a change in time to still see the beautiful city of Florence through my own two eyes.

9 comments

  1. Loved this post! I studied abroad in Venice and I totally agree, a huge struggle was capturing how unreal your abroad experience was but let’s be real, photos will never really compare and it creates this constant anxiety to try to convey it via social media. I especially related to the last sentence about experiencing with your own eyes — that is also a huge pet peeve of mine and so I always spend no more than 2 minutes trying to get the pic and use the rest of the time to experience it without a phone in my face.

  2. Very relevant post. I feel like many people focus too largely on their social media profiles when they are abroad. Before people leave the states they even talk about how excited they are to take great pictures. I have friends that when abroad, they visited a site for the second time because they weren’t impressed with the pictures they took the first time. They could have taken this time to see another local hotspot or taken in the scenery more instead of focussing on the picture. I like @angelajin54 ‘s comment about only spending two minutes trying to take a picture, i think this is great advice. Being abroad should not be a competition over who takes the best Instagram pictures. Instead of focusing on other peoples judgements students need to be more in the moment.

    This post also reminded me of a picture i recently saw online definitely check it out! http://static.boredpanda.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/senior-woman-living-in-moment-no-smartphone-celebrities-movie-premiere-black-mass-5.jpg.

  3. Great post Sammy! I found the same dilemma during my time abroad. Something that your article made me think of was mentioned in another blog post two weeks ago. About how people often post to please others and not themselves, or posting just to see the reactions from friends and family. I’m definitely in the camp of people who only posted pictures once or twice during my time abroad, but something maybe to think about in relation to your article is how we change our travel photos, blogs, and content based on how we think people will react to them. Traveling is already a whirlwind of excitement and stress so it would be interesting to see how much more stress we get from posting about our travels!

  4. I love the topic of this post because it really is so relevant. I think anyone who has studied abroad in our generation has either felt this pressure to have the picture perfect trip or watched someone else succumb to this pressure. I remember hearing both sides of the story from my friends who went abroad last semester. Although few girls were willing to admit they took an extended amount of time trying to get the perfect picture, the boys who were forced to take those pictures will surely tell you just how many photos they had to take or retake before they could move on to the next stop. I will say though that looking back at the pictures I took abroad, I am glad I took a lot of them because they do help jog my memory of what it was like to be there. Reminiscing on the past would be much harder without them. I think its just the obsession with perfection that becomes a problem when it comes to take the photos.

    Also loved the picture @kailabc shared above. it just goes to show that this issue of snapping pictures of important moments rather than just experiencing them is clearly generational.

  5. Great article, Sammy! I studied abroad in Barcelona and was the only girl from Boston College that went during spring 2015. Because of this, I made three amazing friends from other countries: one from Italy, one from Germany, and one from Canada. For me, having friends from other countries lessened the need to “compete” with photos and made me want to experience the culture and enjoy the time with my friends even more. I wonder if the content of your post primarily applies to people from the US studying abroad with other people from the US, because I definitely noticed that the people I studied abroad with from other countries were more likely to live in the moment. Being around them encouraged me to do the same!

  6. Hi Sammy — great post, thank you for sharing. As with every major life event, trips abroad and particularly study abroad opportunities have become Social Media traps. I know that when I was studying abroad as an undergrad, many of the students around me were creating a lot of content for the web– blogs, vlogs, photo diaries, etc. I’ll admit to taking an absurd amount of photos, but I only posted very few on Instagram and waited to engage in sharing them on Facebook until I was back to the states. Like you said, it is much more important to experience the culture than to share it with home. But I also agree with your pro-argument for the communal aspect–the best part about going through my photos for social after the trip was selecting the images that I knew travel-mates would appreciate seeing. Thanks for posting!

  7. Sammy, I saw the words “Florence, Italy” and KNEW I needed to read your blog post. I myself studied abroad in Florence back when I was in college in the fall of 2010, and I found it very interesting to hear your perspective on how social media affected (and even hindered) some of your experiences. I completely agree with all of the pros and cons you mentioned, and I find myself fortunate that iPhones, Instagram and Snapchat were not really around when I studied abroad – we were still using our “Crackberrys” and the little mobile pay-as-you go Italian phones.

    If you can remember back a few years, not all parents and relatives were using Facebook; it was still mostly high school and college students. I actually had my mom download Facebook the August before I left solely so I did not have to email her every single photo I took (like she originally asked of me). Of course all friends and relatives want to see what you are doing, so having to only post photos on Facebook once is definitely much easier than responding to everyone’s request – especially with all the vino drinking and traveling! I know myself today, and how obsessed I am with social media, so I am quite grateful I studied abroad prior to the influx of all of these apps as I know I would have been living my experience through a Snapchat and Instagram filter.

    While it seems you think you may have missed some experiences because of your social media usage, at least you are able to savor and hold onto certain memories that will last forever through the pictures and videos you took. It sounds like you had an AMAZING time in Florence/”studying” abroad like I did – thank you for sharing an interesting view on your experience!

  8. Nice post here Sammy! I really liked you too a common and relevant college experience and related it to the use of social media. While I never got the opportunity to study abroad, sometimes I feel as if I am able to live vicariously (or maybe just superficially) through the social posts from my classmates and friends at various schools. I am interested to hear which medium you used the most during your time away. You alluded to Facebook albums, but did you frequently post on Instagram as well? Was snapchat relevant at the time. I know a buddy of mine is studying in Florence now, and I can honestly say I get a snapshot of every cool thing he does through the snapchat app. Your point about social media taking away from the present moment is one worth considering. I think beyond studying abroad, this still holds true. This past weekend, I visited a friend at the University of Michigan. I’ll admit, the first quarter was more about capturing the perfect picture to post on Instagram than it was about watching the game. In the end, I missed a few plays and crowd experiences I won’t get back. Detrimental? No, probably not. I was able to see three fourths of the game and capture a picture to send home to the folks. Would I have had a more enjoyable experience if I were to have left my mobile device at home? Hard to say. Ask me in a month or so.

  9. Great post! I lived in Australia over the summer and actually witnessed and could be faulted for a lot of the issues you presented. I also feared that my social media presence was obnoxious to those at home since I found myself Instagramming almost everyday with a snap story every night. My friends and I found ourselves figuring out “the right time” to Instagram since we had a 14 hour time difference, we had to make sure it was a good time in America to post it which was stressful and just plain ridiculous. I agree with appreciating time spent without my phone. Being parted from it really made me appreciate the beautiful places I was seeing. However like you said, my friends and I jumped for joy when we found a Mcdonald’s with wifi. I do like the aspect that in 10 years I can look back at my instagram and use it as a journal. I’m sure those million unnecessary pictures of the opera house and the great barrier reef will pay of some day like your leaning tower of pizza pictures!

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