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Social Media in the Outdoors

Learning how to be reverent in nature.

Originally published on Hikespiration.com

Inspired by Lisa Chase’s article Over-shared in OUTSIDE Magazine’s June/July 2020 issue

Introduction

Recently, I had the opportunity to step away from the world and be off-the-grid for a few days up in Wisconsin’s north woods. I drained my phone’s battery utilizing Google Maps and Spotify on the five-hour drive and, therefore, spent the weekend completely unplugged. My days were spent chatting by the campfire, paddling around the lake, and battling with fish below the surface. There was no talk about the Coronavirus or our glaring social differences; no use of social media in the outdoors. There was simply the sound of bullfrogs and loons lulling us into a state of reverie.

When I arrived home again on Sunday afternoon, I was telling the weekend’s stories to eager ears of my family. An exciting story recalling me reeling in a large mouth bass was followed by the expected question, “Where’s the picture?”, to which I answered “I don’t have one, I didn’t have my phone.” Disappointment and disbelief flashed across their faces. They couldn’t believe that I was unable to capture this moment and share it with them. Thankfully, one of my fellow campers had jumped into a kayak and paddled out with his phone to snag a picture of the fish I pulled in. In this day and age it seems odd to be without our mobile devices. Not capturing pictures of passing moments to share later on social media feeds seems almost bizarre. This, my friends, is an issue.

What is the Issue?

The issue at hand is our necessity to tie social media with our outdoor pursuits. The very concept of “photo-ops” has replaced the idea of living in the moment. It has subconsciously taken over our mindset while enjoying the outdoor world. Amazing views inspire feelings of awe and peace, but under it all, we are all searching for the best frame to capture the moment. For some, these photos will stay in their camera roll to be seen by their own eyes. For others, these moments will be shared online promptly after arriving back home. This begs the question, Is social media a place for inspiration or comparison?

In an article titled Over-shared in OUTSIDE magazine, author Lisa Chase argues that “It isn’t the photographing that bugs us. Photography has always been an art, and intimate. What’s changed is the pausing, posturing, and posting for likes- at scale”. Capturing photographs is, in and of itself, an art. It is an interruption of an experience to mark an exact moment. Looking back on these photos later reminds the photographer of certain moments and feelings. So how has the simple act of taking a photograph (an artistic display) changed into social sharing?

Instagram is known as the #1 photo-sharing application. Back at it’s very roots, creators Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger sought to create an app that bridged photographs with the social media world. Stripping previous apps down to bare bones and combining the word “instant” with “telegram” birthed a modern day network of photographs. In its first three months (Oct.-Dec. 2010), Instagram racked up one million users. Today this app has over 112 million users. Of these millions of users are what we call influencers.

Influencers are people who make a living by posting online. From clothing to travel to #vanlife, these individuals have started using their status to share products and places with their followers. In the same way, these people are able to link others with the great outdoors. Public lands offer an awe-inspiring backdrop to an influencer’s photos. When followers see these pictures, they become inspired to visit these places and find the same view; therefore, increasing visitation to these natural wonders. With this increased visitation comes increased misuse of natural lands.

In an article on BBC News.com, writer Sean Allsop discusses the negative effects of social media influencers in the outdoors. His article highlights Instagram account @publiclandshateyou and its efforts to end bad influencer behavior. Behaviors such as following social trails rather than designated trails, disrupting or removing flora, and anything else people may do for the ‘gram are all criticized. While his methods are not always appreciated, he does a great job in using this platform to spread awareness about disrespecting the outdoors

How Has this Evolved Over Time?

Social media in the outdoors has evolved over time. Enjoying outdoor pursuits has changed from solitude and enjoying the scenery to going simply for the ‘gram. As stated before, there has been a change in the way we take pictures. This art form has evolved into posing and posturing for social media likes.

Chase explains, “It’s as if the instagram tourists are performing the experience of being in nature rather than simply being in nature. [Solitude and scenery] used to be the purview of a club of outdoor purists. Now, it seems, any fool with a smartphone can have it for themselves.” Yes, even us fools are able to step foot in the outdoors and capture amazing photos. But it’s the very act of taking these photographs that takes away from experiencing nature. The dreamlike state achieved on top of a vista is interrupted by the story we wish to tell later on.

Naive first-timers step out of their vehicles at lookout points or scramble to the end of a trail and reach for their cameras. While these moments are captured on film, the feelings have already been put on the shelf. Not everyone knows what “we” know. They don’t understand the ideologies of the Leave No Trace Principles, they are not familiar with trail etiquette. Rather, they run across fragile surfaces to capture the perfect frame, they stand in the middle of the trail to pose for a picture. Lisa Chase described it best when she said, “At their point of entry to the natural world- where they went for the picture that shows they were there- they don’t yet see it for the vulnerable temple it is.” Our serene landscapes have yet to have an impact on their lives because they are too busy behind the lens of their camera.

How Can this be Mitigated?

We can mitigate social media in the outdoors by teaching people how to be reverent in nature. Continued exposure and experiences in these places instill a sense of protection in users. They see the beauty and the fragility of these natural areas and are therefore inspired to care for them. Check out some ways to protect our natural lands below.

  1. Journaling: Natural landscapes evoke a multitude of emotions: sometimes the best way to hold onto those feelings is through photography. What if users took a less interrupted route to capturing the moment? Journaling is a great way to seize emotions and thoughts in the moment. A pen to paper approach would eliminate the posturing & posing and would enable people to simply be in nature.
  2. Follow Environmentally Conscious Influencers on Social Media: Drone videos, crazy stunts, and awe-inspiring poses on the edge of a cliff are entertaining, yes. But these photos and videos may not always be as sustainable as they should be. Clean up your social media feeds and find environmentally conscious influencers to follow and inspire your own sense of adventure.
  3. Become Familiar with Leave No Trace Principles: Channel your inner bigfoot and leave no trace! Familiarize yourself with the seven LNT Principles and be an advocate in our natural lands. For more information on the seven principles click here.
  4. Learn Trail Etiquette: The American Hiking Society identifies ten general rules for etiquette on the trail. While these are attuned to hiking, they can be used generally out in nature. For instance: 1. Enjoy these spaces quietly- speak in low voices and do not play music out loud, 2. Those going downhill yield to those coming uphill, 3. All breaks should be taken off the trail so others may pass, 4. When moving in groups, do so single-file, and 5. Be respectful of others and wildlife.
  5. Utilize Healthy Geotagging Practices: Everyone loves to find new trails and travel destinations. At what point do these geotags become detrimental to the location’s health? Check out our previous article titled The Good, the Bad, and the Geotag for more information.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, my weekend of solitude and state of reverie came to an end. Wisconsin’s north woods, like so many other places in the world, is full of peace and quiet. When we head out into nature it is essential to remember to respect these places, to treat the outdoors like the temple it really is. Doing so will enable other people and future generations to experience them in the same way. In the words of Woody Guthrie:

This land is your land, and this land is my land

From the California, to the New York Island

From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters

This land was made for you and me.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!