Welcome to summer, when your social feeds turn into a deluge of other people’s beach pictures and you age 1,000 years actively hating on other people’s beach pictures. Every “like” on a vacation photo is sarcastic. Every double-tap, a tiny protest when the closest you can get to an ocean is some bathroom soap scented “Paradise Limeade.” You can practically taste the resentment in the comments section of each post. (On the plus side, the salty taste of cynicism helps add to the beachy atmosphere.)
“OMG fun!” others write. This is an acronym for: “Oh My God, Feed-me-to-the-sharks-before-I-see-another-picture-of-your-legs-by-a-pool. Ugh. No.”
“Wish I was there!” is the most honest comment. It is pettiness masquerading as applause, sealed with the most passive-aggressive punctuation. Here, the exclamation point is doing much of the heavy lifting. If you zoom in close enough, you’ll note the entire “!” is actually made of a dense collection of crying-face emoji as well as tiny knives.
There are over 20 million photos on Instagram with the hashtag #boat. Some of these photos don’t even have a boat in them. This is because sometimes “boat” is less a noun and more a feeling. “Boat” is opulence. It is luxury. It’s the sensation of not checking your email when you should be, of hitting snooze for five or 10 or 300 minutes. It is not setting your alarm at all. “Boat” is the feeling you get when you have enough disposable income to own a boat.
The only people who enjoy looking at vacation photos are the people who took them. Even then, looking back on vacation photos is a masochistic ritual. It’s happiness BDSM. This is what you look like on a beach, Vacation You says to Present You, sitting in your office where the closest thing you get to a waterfront view are the windows overlooking a parking lot with a puddle. Look at how happy, how carefree you have been, the photos taunt. Maybe if you stare at me long enough, you will release one (1) serotonin.
The vacation photo is far from a new phenomenon. Decades ago, long before Facebook photo albums and Instagram multi-posts were a twinkle in an influencer’s eye, there were physical photo albums and slide shows you watched as the photographer clicked through. If you have a parent with a penchant for photography or one who calls any car ride longer than an hour a “road trip,” you know these things very much still exist.
“Here is a picture of a big rock,” a dad — it’s always a dad — would say, gesturing to the nondescript rock photo on the screen. The gathered group of family, friends and neighbors who were unable to think of a good enough excuse to bail would nod obligatorily. “Yes,” they’d think. “I would much enjoy being crushed by that right now.”
I recently went on vacation to a beach town and did all the things you do while vacationing in a beach town. I saw the ocean. I went on a boat tour. I thought about making someone take a photo of me sitting directly on the shoreline, as if having sand stick to my sweaty inner thighs isn’t one of the worst sensations in the world. While on the aforementioned boat tour, our group saw a pod of dolphins swim past us. Seeing dolphins in the wild was magical. It felt like a gift to see their fins crest the surface, to watch their bodies glide through the waves. It was like a “Planet Earth” special come to life, if “Planet Earth” were narrated by a college student with feigned enthusiasm. Reflexively, I reached into my pocket for my phone to take a picture.
I didn’t end up taking a photo. Part of me wants to pretend that has nothing to do with the fact that the dolphins were long gone by the time I opened my camera app. Another part of me knows I can just Google “dolphins” and see literally millions of pictures with a better view than I had in real life. Another part still knows that writing about why you didn’t take a vacation photo is as big and annoying an Internet crime as just taking the dang vacation photo.
Maybe one day I will take the beach picture I feel like taking and not think twice about it. Maybe I won’t reach for my phone instinctively. I don’t know if one is any better than the other. Wanting to share a picture of you enjoying a fun thing can come from as pure a place as wanting to keep the moment to yourself. If that’s where you are when it comes to vacation pictures, good on you. Wish I was there, too.