Let’s talk about geotagging

But first, I invite you to check your current opinions (read: ego) on geotagging. Just shelve ‘em for a moment, hit the pause button, give yourself 10 minutes of reading and considering before you interject with a “well, actually…” Here’s the thing about this post: you aren’t going to leave with a solid answer of to geotag or not to geotag.

So what is geotagging? According to our friends at Wikipedia,

Geotagging or GeoTagging, is the process of adding geographical identification metadata to various media such as a geotagged photograph or video, websites, SMS messages, QR Codes[1] or RSS feeds and is a form of geospatial metadata. This data usually consists of latitude and longitude coordinates, though they can also include altitude, bearing, distance, accuracy data, and place names, and perhaps a time stamp.

For our purposes, we’re mainly talking about the geotag feature on Instagram (and social media at large). According to SproutSocial, “an Instagram [geotag]  is the specific location, down to the latitude and longitude, of where you’ve stored your Instagram content. Geolocations are gathered from the physical location of your mobile device, which allows users to store or tag their content to those coordinates.” Geotags are a way to gain visibility amongst like-minded community, a way to give mountains back their Indigenous names, a little digital log of the places you’ve been from restaurants and cities to trailheads and summits.

The idea of imbalance between public lands and visitors isn’t new–rewind to the 1940s and you’ll see reference to the same idea of “rapid growth in the number of Americans hitting the trail” (source). If you’re reading this, you’re probably an outdoorist, so you get it. The great outdoors are, well, great, so it’s no surprise that more and more people want to get out there.

Here’s the thing, more than 500 million people visit public lands annually (source), with over 330 million visits to national park sites in 2017 (source)–and blaming Instagram and geotagging for an influx of people at trailheads isn’t going to solve the accompanying issues of overuse. To blame a geotag is to eschew the deeper, critical issues our lands are facing right now. To say “Instagram is ruining the outdoors” is to water down our current environmental crisis with cheap sentiments of bitterness and old guard. Is social media playing a role in the current issues we’re facing? Absolutely. But it’s just one teat on an udder full of problems that need solutions (like the crisis happening at climbing crags across the country).

Further, I wondered: do we have any data or research that indicates geotagging and social media as the root of all outdoor evil? The short answer is: no. There is a distinct lack of science behind all of this, though I did find a few studies that surprised me.

Here are the results from a hiker survey conducted by the Adirondack Council, asking folks on the trail “why did you decide to hike today?” Note the least popular response:

Hmm….

The debate around geotagging has reached every corner of the internet from National Geographic to the New York Times. The Leave No Trace center issued a new guidance specifically addressing social media. This is a topic that deserves nuance, as is seen within this Outside Magazine article that both cites Instagram as a reason folks fall to their death at Horseshoe Bend, and also recognizes that “the best way to protect public lands is to have advocates. Often the best advocates are the folks taking photos and sharing them on Facebook and Instagram.”

Either way, I wonder: why are we blaming Instagram solely for the popularization of the outdoors? It’s not just Instagram y’all. The outdoors are being promoted in film, guidebooks, through e-mail newsletters, by tourism groups, by motivational speakers, in commercials–it’s everywhere. Is it just easy for us to scapegoat Instagram instead of taking the energy to consider how big and complex this beast is?

During a coffee date with my dear friend Bri Madia, who is infamous for her strong stance against geotagging, she posed a question I hadn’t fully considered: “What I want to know is, why do people geotag?” So, naturally, I asked my community–on both sides of the aisle. First, I polled on Instagram stories, do you or don’t you geotag (including general/regional tags)? There was a fairly even split erring on the side of ‘do’ with 1107 vs. 825 ‘donts’.
*note, this is not intended to be deep scientific findings, just a pulse of my community, don’t get it twisted.

Why DO we geotag? (57%)

The overwhelming sentiment in the pro-tagging camp was around the idea of sharing the experiences we have with others. “To share with the community” and “to encourage, to inform, to let people know about the amazing places right in their backyard.” Folks from places like the southeast, Kansas and Texas expressed a desire to help their neighbors discover that they’ve got rad outdoor spaces they might not know existed (“Coming from Ohio, most Ohio folks have no idea how much great hiking there is!”). Some do it to provide updated imagery of trail conditions.

Karen Ramos (@naturechola) summed up the pro side eloquently:

“Because I don’t believe in using conservation as an excuse for exclusion.”

Folks cited Instagram as a resource they used when they were first exploring public lands and planning trips, and use geotagging as a way to pay it forward. Heck, I just searched Placencia, Belize geotags last night to vibe out my trip in a few weeks. While Instagram provides a pinpoint on a map to a place that’s been geotagged, I wonder how many people simply drive straight there vs. how many use that as a starting point to begin their research on a place. I found no conclusive data on this topic, despite many strong opinions.

Many people also ‘fessed up to doing it for self-serving purposes, to remember the places they had visited, to get more likes, or “to brag about the hard hikes I accomplished.” An interesting note is that many folks acknowledged having small platforms or private accounts where their tags had less visibility.

Why DON’T we geotag? (43%)

I’ll start with the legitimate responses–and this one I personally identify with: “because I don’t need internet strangers knowing where I am.” I had this conversation again and again with women in my community. I travel solo often, and usually haunt the same spots because they are safe and comfortable for me. So, I don’t geotag those areas, and if someone asks me about it, I’m honest about that. As Bri Madia puts it, “I grew up in a time when you didn’t tell strangers on the internet where you were. I’ll recommend guidebooks, map apps, and resources but I’m not going to draw you a map on how to find me in the middle of nowhere.” I personally have had a number of creepy run-ins with folks who ‘found me’ via Instagram, so I’m careful about sharing my location (I don’t post IG stories until I’ve left a location now).

There are the other, more dire instances where geotagging is undeniably harmful too–like when it can endanger rhinos being sought by poachers. I also spoke to a woman in Big Cypress, Florida who cited orchid poaching as an issue perpetuated by geotagging. A number of scientists and ecologists chimed in with similar thoughts about needing to protect certain flora, fauna, and archeological sites.

From there, the responses devolve. The anti-geotagging responses echoed ideas of “to keep it a secret, not everyone deserves to know,” and “can’t trust the general public with wild, untouched places.” There was also “I want to keep my special places secret,” and my favorite for honesty, “I hate people.”

Folks, if you are “protecting places from people who don’t deserve to go there,” you are engaging in something called gatekeeping. (Please see Melanin Basecamp’s #1 reason why they are pro-geotagging.) Gatekeeping is a self-appointed decision on who does or doesn’t have the right to access information, community, or identity. And I pose this question to you: what exactly qualifies you as the person who gets to decide who is or isn’t deserving of ‘your’ outdoor spaces? At what point did you graduate from average outdoorsy person to almighty keeper of nature? Did you forget that there’s no such thing as “pristine, untouched wilderness” because as my friend Dr. Len Necefer reminds us: Indigenous people have been moving across, living on, cultivating, and celebrating that land way before settlers forcibly removed Native people from it and declared it wild.

Gatekeeping isn’t cool. It isn’t okay, and if you’re feeling a little uncomfortable because you realized maybe you’re being a gatekeeper–I invite you to consider changing your mindset around how you “protect” the places you love. I don’t always tag the specific locations I’m in, often opting for the general park or forest name–but I will always engage in a conversation and share my resources if someone DMs me about a place. The outdoors is not mine to keep (nor is it yours).

Aside from the exclusionary bullshit behind being anti-geotagging, my number one qualm with folks who gripe about Instagram ruining the outdoors is a lack of solutions for the problem. A lot of “get off my lawn” and not enough “here’s what I think we can do to make it better.” Scroll down to the 4th point in Melanin Basecamp’s recent geotagging article, and bam, solutions. Whether you’re for or against geotagging, we can all agree that there is a massive influx of people getting outdoors, and we lack the infrastructure to accommodate the boom.

Do I think everyone deserves access to the outdoors? Hell yes. Do I also believe that once we hit carrying capacities for trails and ecosystems, we need to start implementing permitting systems and quotas? Absolutely. Back to that study from the Adirondack Council, dive into page 2 and you’ll see that hikers largely support management intervention, trail closures, etc.

After all of this, my thoughts on geotagging evolved and I realized: the problem isn’t that geotagging provides too much information, it’s that geotagging doesn’t provide enough. My original sentiments erred on the side of “geotagging shortcuts the educational aspect of learning about a place” – so what if geotagging supplemented that? What if, at the top of public lands geotag pages was a quick wiki-style bite of information that could offer information about whether a spot is illegal to access, if there are sensitive cryptobiotic soils not to step on, whether an area is prone to flash floods or avalanches, if there’s an archeological site it’s illegal to disturb, a warning not to crush the wildflowers. What if the users aren’t the problem, but the system of geotagging itself is what’s broken?

Further, if used well, geotagging can be a tool to promote advocacy and spread information. If you do choose to geotag, I believe the onus is on you to provide resources and education. When tagging a spot in Moab (whether you tag Grandstaff Trailhead or just Moab), include a quick blurb about how delicate cryptobiotic soil is and why it’s important to stay on the trail. Offer a quick ‘and remember to practice Leave No Trace!’ or remind folks “this spot is 30 miles down a dirt road with no access to water, and you have to carry your poo out!” You hold the power to spread advocacy, and you have the power to use an Instagram post to spark positive stewardship amongst your community.

Instagram and geotagging are what you make it. Are there “influencers” out there who make a profit off public lands without stewarding them, or taking any action to give back to the places they benefit from? Absolutely. Who has the power to support that or demand that they do better? You do. (Oh yes, this idea of the ethics of being an outdoor professional/influencer is a topic I plan on traveling down the rabbit hole of in the future…)

And folks, I do truly understand that there are some places that are so special, so spiritual, so personally sacred that we (read: our egos, and that’s okay) truly can’t bear the thought of sharing the location with the internet–so, don’t post pictures of them online. If it’s truly about the sanctity of the place, and not about your ego, don’t post it.

In a report by the Center for Western Priorities, the group concludes a study on public lands visitation by saying “Policymakers should steer clear of policies that limit public access to U.S. public lands. Instead, America’s elected officials should look for ways to maintain and expand outdoor opportunities by boosting budgets for land management agencies and guaranteeing permanent funding for conservation and public lands access. Hundreds of millions of visitors each year depend on it.” Replace ‘policymakers’ with ‘Instagrammers–and social media haters’ and you’ve got my feelings on this whole debate summed up.

Note: This post intends to act as a starting point for this conversation, and despite behind long as heck, isn’t exhaustive. Please add your resources, your thoughts, data you know about, etc. in the comments and keep it going. My hope is that this post will require many updates and revisions as we dive deeper into the topic as a community. 

Cover image by Dayne Tompkin on Unsplash.

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