Social media as leisure culture
First Monday

Social media as leisure culture by Anne-Mette Bech Albrechtslund and Anders Albrechtslund

The purpose of this paper is to situate the everyday use of social media in the broader cultural practice of leisure. Whereas the use of social media has many different aims and contexts, our main idea is to emphasize how social media practices associated with leisure and playfulness rather than functionality and tasks — therefore seemingly “useless” in a strictly utilitarian sense — are practices which are meaningful. We point to certain dynamics in social media practices which we connect to the culture of twentieth century mass tourism, using observations of central touristic practices to motivate an analysis of social media use as leisure culture. This gives us a nuanced understanding of the activities connecting everyday life and social media. Further, our analysis provides new insights into the basic motivation for engaging in online sociality despite concerns about privacy, time-waste and exploitation.


1. Introduction
2. Dynamics of touristic practices
3. Touristic practices as an analytical framework
4. Dynamics of social media practices
5. Conclusion



1. Introduction

In his famous collection of essays on modern cultural phenomena, Mythologies (1968), Roland Barthes wrote about the inutility of the Eiffel Tower. Regardless of the many scientific uses Gustave Eiffel envisioned for his construction (meteorology, radio–electric research, aerodynamic measurements, etc.), the tower has never been anything other than a major sightseeing object for mass tourism. It is in that sense a monument which is “utterly useless” but at the same time attracting meaning “the way a lightning rod attracts thunderbolts”, for example as a symbol of Paris, city of romance and beauty [1]. In this paper, we argue that the everyday use of social media is a similarly ambiguous phenomenon which to a considerable degree can also be described as useless, but still meaningful as a cultural practice. Obviously, social media as a term covers diverse sorts of practices with many different purposes, and we do not mean to suggest that the use of social media has no constructive or serious value. As a matter of fact, the purpose of this article is to emphasize how social media practices associated with leisure and playfulness rather than functionality and tasks, and therefore seemingly “useless” in a strictly utilitarian sense, are practices which are meaningful. To be clear, when we analyze and discuss social media in the following, we specifically refer to the everyday, mundane or leisurely use of these services.

We present here an exploration and analysis of leisurely online sociality as a touristic practice to provide a new way of understanding social media use. There are at least two reasons for applying this approach: First, a number of similarities between practicing online sociality and practicing tourism can be readily identified. These include both technologies such as the camera and practices such as “postings” (as in Facebook status updates and postcards, respectively). Second, by exploring these similarities further, our ambition is to emphasize certain dynamics in online social practices which are otherwise not immediately recognizable. Tourism can be characterized as “a leisure activity which presupposes its opposite, namely organised and regulated work. It is one manifestation of how work and leisure are organised as separate and regulated spheres of social practice in ‘modern’ societies” [2]. For instance, the tourist engages in a range of activities (sightseeing, photographing, sending postcards, etc.) which appear “in some sense unnecessary” but can be seen as part of a meaningful exchange between everyday life and the vacation [3]. Correspondingly, the user of social media typically performs seemingly unnecessary activities (sharing mundane moments, photos, thoughts, and links) which nonetheless can be interpreted as a catalyzing practice producing meaning and identity (A.–M. Albrechtslund, 2011). This approach can help us to better understand the popularity of social media and the easy incorporation of such practices into everyday living in spite of the many perceived dangers (e.g., privacy invasion, online predators) and negative consequences (e.g., time–waste, corporate exploitation) (A. Albrechtslund, 2008). As such, our purpose is to situate social media practices in existing cultural practices by pointing out similar dynamics.

Internet studies are diverse in approach, scope and focus, however, most studies share an interest in concrete practices of Internet users. Our current study connects to this interdisciplinary field, as it draws on qualitative and analytical methods to investigate online social networking practices. Here, we offer an exploratory and interpretive study focusing on the typical activities related to the use of social media. We establish an analytical framework for understanding these activities by characterizing key features of touristic practices, arriving at two significant dynamics at play: The catalyzing function of seemingly useless activities (they become meaningful by e.g., sustaining significant social relations) and the bridging between seemingly distinct spheres (e.g., public and private lives). We situate practices of online sociality in this framework, and we conclude with a discussion of some of the issues emerging from the results of our approach.



2. Dynamics of touristic practices

The study of modern mass tourism includes a wide variety of theories, concepts and empirical focal points, and in this section, we draw especially on tourism studies influenced by cultural and sociological theories, in particular John Urry’s The Tourist Gaze (with Larsen, 2011) as well as Roland Barthes’ The Eiffel Tower (1982). Based on systematic, empirical observations carried out in Paris, France, during the month of August, 2012, we have identified and analyzed four phenomena of special interest, which we will elaborate on in the following: The sight, the tourist, the camera and the postcard. These constitute key elements of the touristic experience which are all interrelated and very useful for building our analytical framework.

2.1. The Sight

Surfacing from the Trocadéro underground metro station in Paris’ 16th Arrondissement (Arrondissement de Passy), the first thing which catches the eye is a colorful kiosk selling tourist artefacts, pancakes and ice cream, surrounded by people with cameras and faces generally turned in one specific direction; it is actually possible to see the tourist attraction prior to it appearing before your eyes. After turning left around one wing of the Palais de Chaillot onto the crowded paved platform, the Eiffel Tower, more than 500 meters away, appears as a spectacular and overwhelming sight. A closer look reveals that many of these people are in fact not looking at the tower, but have their backs turned towards it; they are posing in front of a photographer who is working to include both the person and the tower in an all–encompassing picture. Continuing towards the attraction down the stairs and through the Jardins de Trocadéro, passing more tourists and ice cream stands, the tower grows before the eyes and it becomes increasingly difficult to capture it in a single gaze. Finally, the tourists arrive at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.

The curious thing is that there is no real inside to visit, as Roland Barthes (1982) concludes. As stated in the introduction, it might be said that the monument is “utterly useless” [4], as it does not serve any reasonable purpose other than to attract tourists. This has been the case since its construction in the 1880s, where Gustave Eiffel himself found it necessary to defend the contested usefulness of the tower, including different kinds of scientific research and meteorological observations. However reasonable these claims are, “they seem quite ridiculous alongside the overwhelming myth of the Tower, of the human meaning which it has assumed throughout the world” [5]. In other words, the Eiffel tower and other sights have no useful function such as a road or an airport, but this does not imply that the tourist sight is meaningless. The distinction between usefulness and meaning is important, because it anticipates the point that the tourist attraction is more than just an object to see, rather the sight is a catalyst for a more complex tourist experience.

This corresponds to John Urry’s characterization of modern mass tourism as essentially unnecessary (Urry and Larsen, 2011). Urry compares the relation between everyday life and tourism with Michel Foucault’s (1973) study of the relation between normality and illness in The Birth of the Clinic where studying deviation at the same time provides a perspective on normality. In a similar way, the study of tourism — where people are separated from their ordinary circumstances — gives insight into everyday life as well as society, since tourism is at the same time in opposition to and a product of everyday life. Accordingly, tourism is meaningful as a part of modern experience, even though it is unnecessary and tourist attractions are essentially useless.

“Then why do we visit the Eiffel Tower?”, Roland Barthes asks, and he answers:

No doubt in order to participate in a dream of which it is (and this is its originality) much more the crystallizer than the true object. The Tower is not a usual spectacle; to enter the Tower, to scale it, to run around its courses, is, in a manner both more elementary and more profound, to accede to a view and to explore the interior of an object (though an openwork one), to transform the touristic rite into an adventure of sight and of the intelligence. [6]

Tourism thus encompasses a ritualistic practice in the sense that sightseeing can be a form of appropriation. In the case of the Eiffel Tower, this attraction is an “obligatory monument” [7] for the tourist to see Paris. The ritualistic practice of visiting the tourist attraction involves a translation into knowledge on a more symbolic level, of apprehending a certain meaning of Paris. The Eiffel Tower, one of the most visited and famous monuments in the world, can be understood as the archetype of a tourist attraction. What constitutes this as a sight — irrational, useless, but certainly meaningful — is its facilitation of the touristic experience, the tourist’s participation in a dream, as Barthes puts it. Thus the sight is nothing without the sightseeing, the tourist’s job is to perform it through a specific set of actions.

2.2. The Tourist

When you enter the Rue des Francs Bourgeois in Paris’ Marais district, it feels like stepping onto a trail towards something. The intimate, quiet atmosphere of the small streets of this neighborhood are intersected by more populated stretches connecting to the Place des Vosges, the oldest square in the city celebrated for its architectural beauty, its famous historic residents and literary associations. People yielding cameras and backpacks are immediately recognizable as tourists, many studying maps and guidebooks. The tourist trail towards the Place des Vosges is not an official, designated route to the tourist attraction, however, the crowds seem to follow some invisible road signs that organize the Marais into sections that are crowded and others almost left alone by tourists.

Tourists are often aware of appearing “touristic” and, essentially, not being local. Self–conscious and playful attitudes towards the practice of sightseeing itself can be observed to the point where it is possible to talk about a kind of post–tourism [8]. This connects to another characteristic of the modern tourist experience: that it can hold both the genuine and the tacky. On the one hand the tourist’s ritualistic practice is a search for the experience of something true or authentic, e.g., “the romance of Paris”, however, the very same dream can just as well become part of the cliché of Paris, reproduced in tourism advertisements. The authentic and the inauthentic can be sought after or enjoyed by the tourist even as part of the same experience and both can be part of the production of meaning.


Eiffel Tower seen from the Palais du Trocadero
Figure 1: The Eiffel Tower seen from the Palais du Trocadéro, by Sebastian Grünwald (own work) [CC–BY–3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons (URL:


When tourists gather on the Place des Vosges or take in the view of the Eiffel Tower from the Palais de Chaillot, they tend to do a number of things: they either move slowly or linger in the same spot, they study guidebooks and maps, interact with their travel companions, and display a blend of focused seriousness and light–hearted playfulness. A noticeable activity is, of course, the posing and photographing — or, to put it another way, the searching for and selecting motifs and angles that adequately capture the experience. In his book, Urry develops an understanding of the “tourist gaze” as a particular way of looking at the world which translates certain things into sights (Urry and Larsen, 2011). This gaze is not an individual perspective, but is a product of many working actors, including guidebooks, others’ experiences, local presentation, cultural signs, and general social patterning [9]. Importantly, it is also a product of its relation to its opposite, such as the mundane activities of everyday life, indicating that the tourist gaze is always dependent on historical and societal circumstances.

2.3. The Camera

When stepping onto the Pont de la Tournelle towards the Ile Saint–Louis between the Latin Quarter and the Marais district, a beautiful view of the Notre Dame Cathedral appears. This is a spot where especially tourists stop to take in the view. It seems as if the bridge has dynamic invisible fields into which tourists and accidental passers–by try to avoid stepping. These fields are constituted by the line between a photographer and one or more tourists posing in front of the view towards the attraction. Interestingly, such invisible fields seem to be generally respected as a private space, indicating that this is an important moment not to be disrupted.

Modern mass tourism has been characterized as being a visual culture [10]. Thus, photography has always been a central practice in the tourist experience with the classic Kodak camera as iconic device (West, 2000). The tourist experience in all its phases is filled with pictures: Studying guidebooks, brochures and online resources when planning where to go or researching the chosen destination. At the vacation spot, personalized pictures of tourist attractions and leisure activities are taken. After returning home to the everyday life, the pictures are arranged and displayed in albums [11]. An obvious question to ask might be: Why take pictures of tourist attractions that have been photographed countless times already and are perhaps even on the cover of the brochure that launched the idea of going in the first place? Susan Sontag (1977) argues that photography is a way of grasping the world: “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power” [12]. Taking pictures of the Notre Dame Cathedral is therefore rarely about discovering a novel perspective or creating an original aesthetic work. Rather, the picture taking is a necessary act of appropriation both as a more abstract knowledge/power relation and as a concrete documentation of a moment for later retrospection.

The tourist photo is usually part of a collection of photos chronicling the vacation, and this collection always has a potential audience. The photo album thus serves as point of departure for a narrative structured around the events or sights which the selection of photos has emphasized as the most important. As such, the individual photo is always part of a larger network consisting of other pictures, memories, stories, other people, etc. This also means that the tourist vacation is connected to everyday life through pictures:

Tourist photography and everyday life are not separate worlds but bridges constantly traversed by photographing tourists on the move. It is a form of photography intricately bound up with performing social relations and picturing co–travelling ‘significant others’, which also means that many otherwise ‘ordinary’ places are transformed into dramaturgical landscapes. [13]

The tourist album is the key element in this bridging between vacation and everyday life and, today, it comes in a variety of forms. As a consequence of the change to digital photography, the photo album can be shared with selected friends, family or networks where a co–narration can take place through comments, shares and “likes” (Facebook). Accordingly, the social aspect of tourist photography has been brought to the foreground by the emergence of online social networks.

2.4. The Postcard

Arriving at the Funiculaire Gare Haute, the upper station of the little tram line that helps you get up the many stairs of the Montmartre, the Sacré Coeur Basilica appears on your right hand. The imposing church is one of the major tourist sights in Paris, but, like the Eiffel Tower, it also attracts tourists because it offers a great panoramic view of the city. The surrounding area is densely packed with restaurants and shops selling tourist merchandise, collectibles, souvenirs and postcards. Most often, the postcards are displayed on stands outside the shops and are, thus, a very eye–catching part of what tourists experience walking in these streets. Some stop to browse through these postcards which are mostly inexpensive and can be hand picked from the stands or bought in preselected packages at a discount.

The postcard is not confined to being a phenomenon of mass tourism, as it has been an important aspect of modern communication needs since the early twentieth century [14]. A postcard is a single piece of paper or thin cardboard meant to be written and mailed without an envelope, however, the touristic postcard most often features a glossy photograph of a sight or location at the destination from which the tourist is mailing the card, for example, at the Place du Tertre many postcards present a photo of the Sacré Coeur Basilica. Another type of postcard can offer more playful motifs, such as a simple black background with the generic text “Paris by night”. The postcard is thus obviously a part of the visual culture of mass tourism, but is also distinguished from photos, souvenirs, etc. by its emphasis on written communication.

As a communicative object, the touristic picture postcard is remarkable for its blending of private and public spheres. It contains a private message between a sender and a receiver familiar with each other, usually friends or family, but the open format makes this message potentially readable for anyone handling the card between the tourist and the recipient, e.g., mail workers, other household members, etc. Moreover, the recipient conventionally displays the postcard in the home for guests to see and even sometimes read, emphasizing the semi–public nature of this type of communication. Like the tourist experience in general, the postcard is essential unnecessary. The genre does not invite an intimate correspondence and, therefore, the content is often generic. However, sending a postcard is a meaningful action for the tourist as well as the recipient by being mailed from the vacation spot to friends or family thus connecting the tourist to his or her everyday life and maintaining this relation as a communicative performance. This location–specific mailing of the postcard is what makes it meaningful, as the act of conveying the message that the tourist is currently vacationing and having experiences makes the communication phatic in nature (Jakobson, 1987; Rogan, 2005).



3. Touristic practices as an analytical framework

In the previous section we studied sights, tourists, cameras and postcards and found certain characteristics that prevailed throughout these dynamic touristic practices. As Urry (and Larsen, 2011) has noted, tourism is essentially unnecessary but maintains a complicated and meaningful relationship with the “real” life of the everyday [15]. In this sense, the tourist vacation is not so much seen as an escape from reality, or from what really matters, but as something which is distinguished from, but also created by, everyday life. The tourist sight is rarely in itself a meaningful object, but rather has a catalyzing function similar to the “MacGuffin”, a narrative plot device used especially in thrillers and whodunits [16]. In such stories, this is usually an object desired and pursued by the protagonist, however, the reason for its desirability is rarely explained in detail [17], but it remains an obligatory object motivating the moving forward of the plot. Like the Eiffel Tower in Barthes’ analysis, the tourist sight is often in itself a “useless” monument, but it plays a central role as a catalyzer for the “dream” in which the tourist wants to participate, i.e., the modern mythology or popular story of Paris as the city of romance, art, and good living.

Just as the film spectator may be aware of the emptiness of the MacGuffin while still enjoying the thrill of the plot, the tourist often displays a quite self–conscious and sometimes even playful attitude towards sightseeing and the sight itself. At the same time, the tourist makes sure to uphold the acts of the touristic ritual, i.e., taking pictures, lingering and gazing at the view. Indeed, the photographing activities at the tourist site are rarely connected to aesthetic ambitions, but part of this catalyzing process. Tourist photography, for instance, can function as a way of reaffirming significant social relations, both in the act of taking pictures of each other at the destination and of sharing them after having returned home (Larsen, 2005).

Another characteristic feature of touristic practices is that they serve as bridging mechanisms between seemingly distinct spheres. The photo album links the vacation experience with the context of everyday life by being a medium both for own reminiscence and for communicating the experience to others. The photo album is thus not only an example of tourism as constituting a primarily visual culture, it also highlights the social nature of most touristic practices. Further, the bridging mechanism can also produce a blending of public and private, as the semi–public nature of the postcard illustrates. When tourists appropriate attractions by taking personalized pictures, this practice is an example of something public becoming private by the creation of “invisible fields” between poser and photographer which are respected as tiny private spheres in an otherwise very public space. These photos are again made semi–public when the photo album communicates the private experience to a broader audience through sharing with family, friends or a network.

These two mechanisms, catalyzing and bridging, are not simply accidental side effects of tourism, but are central to the dynamics of the touristic practices we have studied and their production of meaning. In the following, they are used as analytical concepts to explore practices in online social settings with a special focus on posting, photo sharing and location check–ins.



4. Dynamics of social media practices

Engaging in online social activity can be said to always involve posting as a general activity which includes text communication, sharing of photos and other images, and, as a newer development, indicating a specific location at the time of posting. As such, posting something is the basis of online communication on diverse platforms such as blogs, message boards, and social network sites — the latter seeing a dramatic increase in user activity in recent years (Madden and Zickuhr, 2011). Focusing on the practice of posting rather than a more specific social network site activity is therefore productive for the analysis as it offers a way to maintain a general perspective on leisurely social media use. We structure the following study around the two central features of our analytical framework: catalyzing and bridging.

4.1. The Useless as Catalyst

In their influential article from 2007, boyd and Ellison developed a definition of social network sites which emphasizes a semi–public profile, a list of connected users, and ability to browse and interact with this egocentric network of users. The personal profile thus plays a central role in this definition as it was typically the point of reference in the design of the site, but today, it seems that the importance of the profile has diminished in favor of the flow of live updates from users in the network (A. Albrechtslund, 2011). This live content stream of “statuses”, “tweets” or “check–ins” is the de facto interface to social network sites such Facebook, Google+, Twitter and Foursquare.

Earlier, in section 2, we discussed how the tourist engages in a range of activities (sightseeing, photographing, sending postcards, etc.) that seems essentially unnecessary but is part of a meaningful exchange between everyday life and the vacation. The tourist sight, as epitomized by the Eiffel Tower in Barthes’ essay, is characterized by its inutility, something which seems to “escape reason” but is “something other and something much more than” [18] the object in itself. The question of why we visit these “useless” monuments can be seen as addressing the same consternation regarding the use of online social services, where the user of social network sites typically performs seemingly unnecessary or superficial activities (sharing mundane moments, photos, thoughts, and links). While the type of content may vary across sites, postings are typically characterized by being compact, quick observations, descriptions or opinions meant for continual reading. Although longer texts are allowed and produced on social network sites, Twitter’s famous 140 character limit sets a standard for the genre of the status update. The content of the live stream, produced by users posting to the network, is not always profound or thought–provoking in itself. However, performing these activities can be interpreted as a catalyzing practice producing meaning and identity.

Since the early days of the social Internet in the 1980s, scholars have been concerned with how we perform identity and make sense of ourselves online. Observing how communication in online settings is always dependent on some form of symbolic mediation, usually text and images, it appears that identity needs to be created and “composed”, as Sherry Turkle has put it [19]. The idea of multiple, fragmented identities which online personas permit as something useful and liberating, undermining many traditional ideas about identity, connects to Donna Haraway’s famous myth of the cyborg as a hybrid identity in a utopian reality where people are “not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” [20].

However, although Turkle argued for the intimate connection between what we do online and what we do off–line, she still represents a view on the Internet, especially prevalent in early Internet studies, which separates virtuality and reality, when e.g., writing: “We can use the virtual to reflect constructively on the real” [21]. This tradition sees possibilities for expressing and exploring multiple identities in “cyberspace”, the famous term coined by William Gibson in his novel Neuromancer (1984). Cyberspace as metaphor designates a frontier–like abstract space, removed from the real, physical world as we know it, an exotic, mythologized space where users could be free of the limitations of the body, time, geographical boundaries, etc. [22]. Such utopian perceptions of cyberspace have been criticized from several angles, as different Internet researchers have taken a more nuanced view on cyberspace. For example, Annette Markham has demonstrated an understanding of the many different ways people perceive what it is to be online, identifying a continuum of experiencing cyberspace as a tool, to a place, to simply a way of being [23]. Following Markham’s distinctions, we might say that today, in light of smart phones and social media, the Internet has become a way of being, or perhaps even more accurate, Internet has become an integrated element in our way of being and cannot be isolated in the form of “cyberspace”.

If we understand identity as something performed (Butler, 1990) or continuously narrated (Ricoeur, 1988), a person’s actions and statements in all aspects of life, such as clothing, hairstyle, general appearance and behavior, all contribute to both self–understanding and outward personality. Performing identity online is thus not to be seen as isolated from the general identity work, but rather as an integral part of it. However, online social networking does offer a distinct way of connecting these identity performances which, in turn, produces something new.

To read and contribute to the live content stream involves a set of practices which produce a certain way of “seeing” and understanding. Like the tourist gaze frames the experience of something as a sight to visit, online social networking produces a certain “gaze” which translates experiences into something sharable which might attract “likes” and comments. For example, a parent sharing a baby picture with a cute caption is an active and selective construction of a certain moment, which is different from a passive registration of the complete activities during a certain timespan. This is not to say that such postings are necessarily a rosy presentation of a moment, e.g., leaving out baby screaming, diaper changes, etc. The capture is an actively constructed depiction of this moment, produced not only by the individual perspective of the poster, but rather as the result of a co–creation involving e.g., others’ comments, likes, the design of the site, and general experience with the genre of (baby photo) posting. Just as tourists can exhibit an ironic, self–aware attitude towards practicing the tourist gaze (cf., the so–called post–tourist), it is entirely possible — and quite common — to play around with the conventions of posting, but this awareness is also an affirmation of the existence of a certain “gaze”, or what could be called “The Facebook Eye” (Jurgenson, 2012).

The social Internet space consists of diverse discourses and data. In the context of social network sites, the live content stream is primarily [24] constituted by postings from a given user’s network of contacts, shaping the communicative space in which the user participates. While other kinds of social sites such as Web forums and blogs are not usually customized to the individual user in this way, they similarly provide a specific framework for social interaction. It is a distinctive feature of social network sites that e.g., baby photos, links to news articles, photos of silly cats, discussions about sports, and location specifications blend together in a continual flow. Meaning is produced across these various discourses as the practice of online sociality unfolds. Postings from both private and professional life may form part of an ongoing production of identity where each contribution to the content stream can have a catalyzing function. The specific framework for such a meaningful identity online can be described as a co–constructed way of understanding and performing sociality (Larsen and Ryberg, 2011). In other words, our social life is also experienced under the conditions of a certain gaze resembling that of the tourist. This gaze is totalizing because it assembles a variety of actors and circumstances into a composite vehicle for continuous identity performance and narration.

4.2. Bridging the Gaps

Like the tourist leaves behind everyday life and goes on vacation, online socializing involves a range of conceptual divisions and dualities such as online/off–line, private/public, real/virtual, professional/personal — an issue which has remained a central matter in Internet research for many years (Baym, 2010; boyd and Ellison, 2007; Silver, 2000). As mentioned, identity is produced through many different elements in the practice of online sociality, as both posting updates, photos and links and taking part in different interactions constitute a continuous circulation of information. Online sociality thus always unfolds in relation to a hybrid and transient totality. In the following, we will elaborate on this dynamic and discuss how individuals engages in a constant interpretation and negotiation, bridging the gaps experienced as a result of these perceived divisions and dualities.

Seemingly distinct spheres are constantly bridged in the practice of online sociality. The division between public and private spheres, for instance, is at the heart of much discussion, confusion, and concern relating to Internet use. The more or less extensive sharing of personal information on social Web sites — activities, beliefs, preferences, whereabouts, family relations, etc. — creates a hybrid space where public and private life is continually traversed and negotiated (A. Albrechtslund, 2008). Similarly, distinguishing between online and off–line domains often entails a complex process of sorting out yet other divisions and dualities, including real/virtual, authentic/inauthentic and natural/technological. The separation of such concepts often proves to be difficult when engaging with actual use, as Petersen (2007) has demonstrated in his study of the interweaving of materiality and online life, describing it as mundane cyborg practices in reference to Haraway (1991). While engaging in online sociality does not involve departing from the physical circumstances of everyday life as it does for the tourist on vacation, both practices share the persistent involvement with devices that maintain the social relations, context and significance of everyday life and thus bridges these gaps.

The central touristic device of the postcard embodies the blending of spheres that are often perceived as separate, connecting vacation and everyday life as well as public and private communication. Reminiscent of this dynamic is the key practice of posting updates to online social sites, even taking into consideration the much more adaptable privacy settings and interaction potentials (comments, likes, retweets etc.) of social media. Seen as a bridging activity, the posting of any kind of content to e.g., Facebook’s News Feed is an act of performing identity within the context of a network consisting of various social relations. Like the postcard, the status update is not always about profound content, but has more to do with the act of communicating and connecting in itself. Just as the postcard functions as a device to embed the vacation experience in the context of everyday life, the status update achieves meaning because it is part of a person’s reality as a whole, not removed from it. Furthermore, the importance of mailing the postcard on location, and, correspondingly, posting the thought, comment, anecdote, etc. to the online network in a more or less immediate connection to the given situation is a testament to the way the meaning created by these acts results from a hybridity of physical and virtual space, and of present and absent actors.

The same dynamics can be said to be at work in the practice of online photo–sharing. This activity has become an increasingly significant element of posting in recent years, and is manifesting in various interesting and playful ways, as the rise of services such as Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat show. Sharing personal photos online is thus a key bridging activity, and an important catalyst for meaning production as well. The coalescence of intimacy and exhibition is similar in the practices of tourist photography and photo–sharing, which are both characterized by transforming “configurations of the fields of cultural production in the context of new media, for which ‘art’, ‘folk’ and ‘popular’, as well as ‘artist’, ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ are inadequate” [25]. The creation of photo albums is at the same time a construction of a personal archive, driven by a sort of “nostalgia for the present” (Jurgenson, 2011) where meaning is produced by “slicing out this moment and freezing it” [26], and a central device in the social dynamics of identity performance, producing and displaying social relations (Larsen, 2005).



5. Conclusion

It is important to stress that we do not claim any direct identification between online social networking and tourism such as a superficial statement that online social networking is “the same” as tourism. Nor do we pretend that users of social media are “everyday tourists” or even that tourism and online social networking can be reduced to a single type of practice carried out by a specific type of actor. Here, tourism purely serves as an analytical framework providing a point of departure that allows for a productive way of thinking about social media as leisure culture.

What we have set out to do in this paper is to identify the dynamics that are at play in the cultural practice of tourism in general, and then to show how these dynamics are translatable and useful in relation to practices of online sociality. As these new practices emanate from and are embedded in our traditional cultural habits, it is hardly surprising that we are able to connect online sociality to a phenomenon such as mass tourism. Facebook, Foursquare, and other social networking applications are new technologies that let us connect to our social networks in new ways, however, as we have shown, the dynamics driving these services look very familiar. There are a number of immediately apparent similarities between tourism and social media practices which inspired us to explore the connection further, namely the interesting blending of public and private spheres, and the complex role of gratuitous activities in the mundane context of everyday life. Further analysis led us to articulate two concepts, catalyzing and bridging, as a way to grasp how the seemingly unnecessary or even useless activities of online socializing are integrated in a meaningful performance of digital identity. In other words, when users of social media engage in what appears to be time–wasting, gullible, or escapist activities, they are also actively taking part in a meaningful enactment of identity in a network of social relations. This also means that identity performance is not understood as a fabrication or staging of the self [27], where the “real” or “authentic” is somehow located behind the mask of social conduct.

Another pertinent similarity when considering touristic practices and online sociality is the political and economical issues; tourism is a major commercial industry and so are social media. As such, the experience of vacation as well as online social networking is obviously embedded in a larger ideological framework which enables and shapes these practices. However, these structural issues alone do not answer the question of why we engage in these practices. Our study offers a way to understand the motivation behind them and thus what makes the industries possible in the first place. A narrow focus on ideological issues can have the unfortunate consequence of infantilizing the subject taking part in these activities and reducing the complexity of the meaning–producing practice of performing digital identities to an exploitative power relation. Rather, a closer look at these practices as an experience which is meaningful for the individual opens up a trajectory of thinking that provides new insights into the everyday life with the Internet. End of article


About the authors

Anne–Mette Albrechtslund is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Psychology at Aalborg University in Denmark.
E–mail: ama [at] hum [dot] aau [dot] dk

Anders Albrechtslund is an Associate Professor in the Department of Aesthetics and Communication at Aarhus University in Denmark.
E–mail: alb [at] hum [dot] au [dot] dk



The authors would like to thank The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark for granting residence in the State of Denmark’s scholarship housing in Paris, France, in the month of August, 2012, where much of the fieldwork and the initial writing on this piece took place. We would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions which have helped us improve the paper.



1. Barthes, 1982, p. 238.

2. Urry and Larsen, 2011, p. 2.

3. Urry and Larsen, 2011, p. 1; Larsen, 2008.

4. Barthes, 1982, p. 238.

5. Barthes, 1982, p. 239.

6. Barthes, 1982, p. 241.

7. Barthes, 1982, p. 247.

8. Urry and Larsen, 2011, p. 13.

9. Urry and Larsen, 2011, p. 4.

10. Urry and Larsen, 2011, p. 14.

11. Larsen, 2005, p. 431.

12. Sontag, 1977, p. 4.

13. Larsen, 2008, p. 431.

14. Rogan, 2005, p. 3.

15. Urry and Larsen, 2011, p. 1.

16. Truffaut, 1985, p. 138.

17. Famous examples include the “secret microfilm” in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), and the “Maltese Falcon” in John Huston’s film (1941).

18. Barthes, 1982, p. 238.

19. Turkle, 2004, p. 101; see also A.–M. Albrechtslund, 2010.

20. Haraway, 1991, p. 154.

21. Turkle, 2004, p. 109.

22. Finnemann, 2005, p. 11.

23. Markham, 1998, p. 87.

24. Other content includes ads, promoted posts and site updates.

25. Burgess, 2007, p. 29.

26. Sontag, 1977, p. 15.

27. Only if understood in Goffmanian (1959) terms. Our understanding of identity in this paper corresponds to Goffman’s dramaturgical model of social interaction which describes identity as a performance with varying degrees of social strictures and codes.



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Editorial history

Received 2 October 2013; revised 3 March 2014; accepted 10 March 2014.

Copyright © 2014, First Monday.
Copyright © 2014, Anne–Mette Bech Albrechtslund and Anders Albrechtslund.

Social media as leisure culture
by Anne–Mette Bech Albrechtslund and Anders Albrechtslund.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 4 - 7 April 2014

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.