I’m going to sound part geezer, part hipster when I say that I was in to the outdoors before I got on social media. The love was there long before “like and share” became a thing.
But to be frank, I’ve embraced social media. I’m a storyteller, and social media offers great ways to share those stories, or in the case of Instagram, a medium in itself for its own form of spelling out outdoorsy narratives. I’m not on everything, but you can see my stuff on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and much of the time it’s going to have an outdoors theme.
Well, that’s me and tens of millions of others. There are legions upon legions of hikers, climbers, runners, cyclists and everyone else that does stuff outdoors showing their lives on these platforms and blogs like this one. Taken together, it is an ocean of landscapes, action shots, yoga poses, selfies, stories, panoramas and more. Standing out is tough, so people learn what they can to stand out, or claim a niche as their own.
Given the flood of outdoorsy information being pumped out every day, you gotta wonder: is this really good for the outdoors? The short answer: yes and no.
I’ve long believed that learning more about the outdoors will naturally make people care about wild spaces. I’m a conservationist at heart, so this is important to me. To that end, I believe social media has been a relative success.
Think about this: How many of you would have known about the Land and Water Conservation Fund had you not heard about it on social media? The public pressure to permanently reauthorize the bill that funds LWCF made it go from an unseen issue to a front-and-center bipartisan no-brainer that easily passed Congress and even got the stamp of approval from President Trump. Face time in the halls of Congress, letters and calls were huge for sure, but the speed in which the issue became well-known was due much in part to social media campaigns. Getting a conservation win in this political climate in Washington is no small deal.
Here’s something else: Think about all the information we have at our fingertips that might otherwise be difficult to find. Want to know what avalanche conditions are like? It’s probably been shared on Facebook and Twitter, maybe thousands of times. Looking for conditions of a potential hike and climb? There’s probably a Facebook group where beta queries will be answered. I could go on, but you get the point.
Social media has allowed for instant, widespread sharing of information that goes anywhere from useful to life-saving. It can ramp up pressure for causes we feel are important. Even if it’s something as simple as learning something new about a place you didn’t know about, it can be a positive.
The flip side of the coin is that social media — particularly in the case of Instagram — can make it too easy to love things to death.
People want to see and experience cool things other people do. Shared enough online, their numbers are legion. That’s why you see lines of people waiting to photograph Horseshoe Bend, people manipulating scenery at Hanging Lake and some fool flying a helicopter right on top of the California super bloom. Too many people doin’ it for the ‘Gram are running roughshod over places too delicate to handle the traffic and other pressures people can bring.
It’s bad enough that public land managers are looking at increasing the use of permit-only access to some places. Human traffic — and the trash and abuse that comes with it — threatens to ruin some of the most beautiful places in the world. Leave No Trace ethicists are pushing an add-on to their code, asking people not to geotag places they go so as to slow the onslaught of folks looking for the perfect shot and the bucketloads of likes they hope to earn.
In that respect, all the photos, text posts, videos and whatnot have come at a cost. It’s definitely a bad trend.
The nature of social media is the ability to instantly share, sometimes to huge audiences. Alongside this is the ability to instantly comment on what’s shared. That can be great, but sometimes it’s terrible.
You’ve seen this at work in politics. It gets nasty. And yeah, that transfers to the outdoors.
If a hiker or climber gets hurt and needs rescue, it doesn’t take long for speculation comments to roll in, sometimes with a derogatory edge. If that person dies, some people back off. Others double down. People will say anything online, and often without the tact and basic morality they would use face-to-face.
This works its way into activism, too. Someone says something, or shares information about a certain cause. They get kudos. But others have a stricter ideological purity test that must be passed, and if their standards aren’t met, out come the claws. The next thing you know an honest effort to do good turns into a puritanical food fight in which the original message gets lost. I’d caution these people not to get so woke that they eat their own, but I’d get angrily shouted down. Such is the nature of social media, which magnifies divisions, emotions and hyperbole like a magnifying glass to sunlight, and often we’re the bug frying on the ground as a result.
SO NOW WHAT?
I’ll cut to the chase and say that I’ll stick with my social media use. So will tens of millions of others. With this in mind, what’s the best we can do? Maybe we don’t share images or locations of every place we go. We turn the heat down on areas of debate. We vet articles for veracity, and share more of the good stuff. Social media has always been curated, which means we have a lot of control over the tenor and intent of what we share.
This sounds a lot like all areas of life shared online. The key difference: The way we operate online will have real-life consequences (and hopefully benefits) to the places we care about, the wildlife that lives there, and the future of the outdoors. For my part, I’ll try to do better.