Snapchat Geofilters: The New Passport Stamps

• How location specific filters are spreading a travel-centred culture •

A geofilter than can be accessed throughout Barcelona.

“Travel is the only thing you buy that can make you richer,” goes the age-old adage. And it’s true: travel introduces you to new cultures and customs that enrich your lives in a way that a new dress or phone never can. While travel has long been a popular activity, with budget airlines and travel deals popping up, it’s never been so affordable to partake. More importantly, with cameras on our smartphones, we are able to share our experiences in real time. Traveling has become the new consumable, something we collect and show off. No longer is it enough to have the most expensive designer bag on your arm or the newest smartphone in your hand, now it’s all about that holiday you took last week and the ways in which you share your experiences.

While initially an activity for only the wealthiest, over the years, travel has become more and more affordable. Since the 1990s, budget airlines have become increasingly popular as a way to cheaply jet-off to a new destination, while start-ups like Airbnb provide affordable alternatives to hotels. As the internet connects the world, planning foreign holidays becomes easier and more accessible, and so tourism continues to rise. According to the UN World Tourism Organization, international tourism has increased by more than 4% in 2015. This means that in the first half of 2015 alone there were 21 million more international tourists than in 2014.

More and more people are choosing to spend their time and money on travel. Because of this rise, it’s become more important to millennials to have their friends see them traveling. The places you visit and things you see become social currency, a representation of your status. Just like that designer bag, sharing that picture of the beach or the local street market proves you have the time and means to get away and explore new cultures.

With different ways to tag your location and share your experiences in real time, social media is the biggest proponent of this idea of travel as a consumable. As you wait to board a plane, Facebook allows you to tell your friends where you’re headed. Instagram and Facebook both have little maps to show your friends and followers your exact location. These posts allow us to share that we have gotten away from the monotony of daily life. And while it may be fun to post a status, it’s much more satisfying to show rather than tell. Instagram now rivals Facebook as the most popular form of social media, and Snapchat, that fleeting way to send pictures to your friends, comes in third, proving that pictures really are worth a thousand words.

While you’re able to upload and tag a location on both Instagram and Facebook, Snapchat has taken it a step further with their geofilters. Introduced in mid-2014, the geofilter allows Snapchat users to add a fun design denoting where they are in the world. Originally rolled out in New York City and LA, the geofilter has spread to different spaces around the world. Moreover, Snapchat’s website allows users to submit their own idea for a filter, providing the potential for a tag for every town, neighbourhood, or destination across the world.

Hyde Park’s Snapchat geofilter.

Snapchat geofilters provide the perfect outlet for sharing your travels. Filters can be super specific: a cartoon squirrel and sign declare Hyde Park, Oxford Street has a yellow flag flying over your picture, a graphic of red buses and the Eros fountain frame your image at Piccadilly Circus, and an illustrated Tower Bridge can mirror the real thing. Big cities have filters for each specific neighbourhood. In New York, there’s a filter for Manhattan, Midtown, Queens, Brooklyn, Union Square, the list goes on. Even tourist attractions such as the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona come with their own filter. The creative aspect of each filter makes it fun to discover how the space’s character is captured in an illustration. And so it becomes fun and addictive to “collect” these spatial stamps, just as we enjoy collecting stamps in our passports; even more so, though, because we get to share them with our friends.

What makes these filters so appealing when traveling is that they can only be accessed from that specific location. Unlike on Facebook and Instagram, there is no option to search for and add a location you may not actually be. You must be in the exact right spot in order to access a certain geofilter, and this adds a desirability and uniqueness to sharing that particular moment.

Geofilter at Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Filters also add context to your image. Joseph Bayer, a researcher at University of Michigan who focuses on social media and its role within social cognition and well-being, explains, “Without a geofilter, a shot of an airport runway or city skyline does not provide enough information about one’s current place in the world.” Geofilters ensure there is no mistake as to where you are.

While budget airlines and affordable Airbnbs make weekend trips and holidays more accessible to everyone, there is still a level of status attached with being able to get away. Experiencing a new city or country is exciting, and on some level we want our loved ones to know where we’ve been. But there is the possibility this will elicit jealousy from our friends and family. Snapchat’s ephemeral nature makes it a safer choice to share with those we’re closest with. “Sharing travel can lead to feelings of jealousy among others (especially for non-close relationships), and sharing travel events may make one worry about others’ reactions,” says Mr. Bayer. “However, if the shared content is temporary and/or directed at close ties, the stakes are lower.”


A London geofilter than can only be accessed near King’s Cross.

The beauty of the geofilter, though, is that it allows anyone to partake in a little “travel.” Because of the specific nature of each geofilter, and the fact that anyone can submit one, a weekend trip to the next town over can result in sharing of new filter. While passport stamps require crossing a border, a new geofilter can be accessed by venturing out of your normal bubble. So instead of spending money on a new pair of expensive shoes, we’re seeking adventures and weekend trips where we can experience something cultural, and share that experience through the context of a filter. So while it may not be as cool to send a snap with a filter of the neighbourhood down the street, the geofilters allow for anyone to consume a travel-centric lifestyle.

Just as it was once enough to collect designer handbags, now we seek to collect experiences. Where passport stamps are a personal way to catalogue your travels between countries, Snapchat geofilters are a public way to catalogue those travels from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, city to city, country to country. Your ability to collect varied and diverse geofilters represents your traveling life (or lack thereof). And so the obsession with site-specific sharing begs the question, does it really matter if you were there if there wasn’t a geofilter to send?

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