The good, the bad and the ugly of social media and the outdoors

Mount Eolus, as seen from the summit of North Eolus. That’d look good on the ‘Gram.

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.

THE GOOD

Doin’ work at Turkey Mountain in Tulsa. Hard to say if without social media we would have gotten so many people to volunteer at trail work days like this one.

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 BAD

I’m sure this looked great on someone’s IG account.

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 UGLY

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.

Bob Doucette

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Pics or it didn’t happen: Would you climb a mountain without posting pictures?

Hiking and photography go together. But will you hike without posting pics?

I asked a question on Twitter and got some interesting answers to this: “Would you climb a mountain if you couldn’t take or post pictures?”

The question itself was rhetorical. But people answered.

“Absolutely. My camera is my least important piece of equipment. If I did not carry my phone for navigation I would likely take even fewer pictures than I do,” one responder said.

Another: “Definitely, though I think I’d still want some way of recording the experience to remember it later, probably some scribbled notes.”

And another: “Do it all the time.”

I believe these folks, as well as the others who more or less said the same thing. Based on what they’ve posted, many of them are pretty serious about their outdoor undertakings. They hike and climb for the sake of the activity, not because they want to be able to say that they’ve done it.

But I also know that there are those who probably would not climb mountains if they couldn’t take photos, or share the experience on a blog or via social media. In fact, many of them are trying to get new images for the sake of keeping those platforms stocked with new things for people to look at, comment on, or hit “like” or whatever.

I also know the nature of the question (and the responses that followed) probably discouraged these folks from answering that no, they wouldn’t climb if they couldn’t share. To admit it would seem shallow.

That’s the part I want to break down, because I think there are a couple of reasons that push people toward this side of the outdoor world.

For some, it really is a question of meeting demand. Many hikers, climbers, mountaineers or whatever have websites that need new posts. They’ve got social media channels that need fresh photos and videos. Sponsorships might be part of the deal, or perhaps a larger prize down the road that will pay off if all these online efforts showcasing their adventures hit some sort of critical mass. So yeah, that’s pressure to get out there more, push harder and provide new stories to tell online audiences.

For others, it’s simpler. They’ll hike a mountain, or climb a pitch, get a dramatic photo, and post it. Soon thereafter, folks are double-tapping that image like crazy and their phone is blowing up with likes and comments from enthralled followers. It’s a symbiotic stimulus-response reaction between the person and their audience. For the followers, it’s a matter of expressed appreciation. For the poster, it’s validation. And validation is a powerful drug. A numbers game follows where the tally of likes and followers drives these folks to see what image will garner even greater numbers.

Most of the time, this is pretty harmless. If it floats your boat, you do you, man. While there are examples of people trying things in places where they get in over their heads (sometimes with deadly consequences), those are rare exceptions.

I asked the question following a trip to Colorado for a family wedding. I had a day after the ceremony where I could head up into the mountains and maybe hike a trail and bag a peak. Might as well, right?

But it had snowed pretty hard in the high country, and I’d left my ice axe at home. I read a report that a hiker had a near-miss with an avalanche in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. And someone else lost control of their car at Loveland Pass, with icy conditions sending them down the mountainside. I took a pass.

And yet, part of me regretted not going up, especially after seeing some friends’ pics in the hills at the same time I’d planned to go. Was it fear of missing out? Or fear of missing the opportunity to take a bunch of photos of snowy alpine scenes, writing a trip report, and posting fresh images on the IG?

And that brought up a deeper question: What’s my overriding motive?

I’m a storyteller by nature, be it with words or pictures. I enjoy it. But I’d hate to get to the point where every outing has to be justified by fresh content for all the interwebz to consume. Worse yet, I’d hate if it turned into something where I planned all my trips on the basis of what new thing I can publish.

In other words, I needed to check myself. Hence the question.

I can say yeah, I’d climb a mountain if I couldn’t take pics or post about it. I have before, and I enjoyed the experience just fine. I’ve done plenty of hikes without snapping a single shot. Those were good, too. And so were the ascents and hikes where I took dozens of photos.

But I don’t want to get to the point where I’m hiking for the approval of others. I never want to make the hike akin to a job, where it must be done and documented or it’s not worth my time. That would signal a loss of the love for the outdoors, and that would be far more tragic than not seeing a bunch of affirming notifications pop up on a hand-held screen.

My next hike ought to have no photos taken. Or at least I should give myself that option.

Bob Doucette

Are you into social media? Let’s connect!

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Regular readers may already know this, but if you’re new to this site or whatnot, you can find me on numerous social media outlets.

I stay pretty active on a number of Twitter chats (#ATQA, #trailtime and #hikerchat are my go-to favorites) if you’re a Twitterati kind of person. Look me up @RMHigh7088 (yes, an old school Twitter handle that isn’t very cool. But there it is).

On Instagram, find me @Proactiveoutside. I post a lot of pics about some of the amazing places I see from far away or close to home. And check out some of my shots at #seenontherun, #seenonthetrail or #urbantrail. If you’ve got some cool shots of your own, tag ’em with these. I’d love to see them!

On Facebook, check me out at Proactiveoutside. I post links from this blog there, but also a lot of other interesting links and photos related to the outdoors, fitness, running, conservation and adventure.

Click on the “Like” or “Follow” buttons seen on the right side of this page, or just find me on the web.

See you all on the Interwebz!

Bob Doucette

A shameless plug to be your outdoor NASCAR

The message in this thoughtfully posed photograph: LET ME PIMP YOUR STUFFFF!!!!

The message in this thoughtfully posed photograph: LET ME PIMP YOUR STUFFFF!!!!

So I’ve been regularly writing about outdoorsy stuff for more than six years now. First, for a blog at a former employer (I dare you to find the Out There blog on NewsOK.com), and for the past three-plus years, here on this site. Beyond just enjoying the subject matter, I’ve learned a bunch about how social media plays a part in how these sites work.

Corporate America has paid attention, too. Some of my favorite outdoor writers get decent advertising on their sites and sponsorship deals do to rad things. I’ve had a small slice of that pie (thank you, Salomon!), but for the most part, I really think all those gear companies and travel outfits are missing out. I’m what they call in the biz “unsponsored.” But I could be a better billboard for your stuff than a NASCAR driver.

Don’t believe me? Let me just give you a rundown of the stuff I had with me and the role it all played in my latest outing, paired with clever slogans that took me an entire five seconds to compose:

Nissan Murano: Even though it’s 11 years old, it’ll get you there. And serve as your shelter.

The North Face: We’ll keep you warm. Even in the back of an old-ish car.

Thermarest: We’ll make the back of that car comfy.

Columbia: Maker of the Omni-Wick and Omni-Shield. We’ll keep you warm when you’re walking.

The U.S. Defense Department: Our “hiking pants” are better than yours. OORAH!

Merrell: The Goodyear of foot-powered locomotion since, well, awhile. Or should Goodyear be called the Merrell of car-powered travel since… I dunno. Whatever. They’re my shoes.

Smith & Wesson: We make knives, too!

Mossberg: Peace through superior firepower for car campers nationwide. #ClickClickBoom

Remington: Got buckshot? We do.

Icebreaker: Keepin’ noggins warm for generations of wanderers everywhere. Even Oklahoma.

Bass Pro Shops: Maker of Red Head socks, which keep your tootsies just as warm as stuff three times the price.

Apple: The iPhone 5: It’s a camera. It’s a phone. It’s the raddest electronic ball-and-chain on the planet. Well, until we put out the 6. And the 6-plus. Yeah, those are better.

Tecate: The official beer of post-hike dinosaur-track observing.

Now I figure I could hastag my way into outdoor social media stardom and become the next “it guy” for outdoor retailers everywhere. But I prefer to cut to the chase. Just read those pitches. Bask in their glory (but don’t steal ‘em; that would be rude). Just listen to the cha-ching that would go along with a picture of your product worn/carried/driven/pimped out by me; I’ll do my best to look all pensive/serious/rad/epic. Maybe do all that with a selfie stick.

As much as this will be a game-changer for you, it will be life-changing for me. Hopefully I’ll have time between all these sponsorship deals and guest appearances to, you know, do stuff.

Maybe I need an agent…

Bob Doucette

Casey Nocket, creepytings and the inevitable collision of ‘look at me!’ and the outdoors

It was bound to happen, sooner rather than later.

A collision of forces, innocuous by themselves, but in combination pretty unfortunate. An affinity for the outdoors, social media and a desire to be noticed by a lot of people have brought us… creepytings.

Casey Nocket and her Creepytings vandalism.

Casey Nocket and her creepytings vandalism.

Creepytings is an Instagram gallery of photos that a woman named Casey Nocket created in which she photographs acryllic paintings she plasters on rock faces in the country’s national parks.

I’m sure some people found these stunts interesting or cool, but most public reaction has been harshly negative. And for good reason, as it’s not only defacing places that are set aside to remain pristine, but it’s also illegal.

The “art” in itself looks like graffiti intended to look like primitive cave paintings. At least that’s the impression I got. Photographs showcase the paintings, and sometimes heavily stylized images of her with her paintings. It’s very hipster-in-the-wild chic, I guess.

I’m not going to debate whether or not what Nocket did was wrong. It’s obvious it was. Whatever punishment she has coming can’t come soon enough.

And it would be easy to take shots at the younger generation that has embraced all things social media and photography. No hike goes undocumented, no selfie is one too many. Go Pros and “Go Poles” have changed the way we see the outdoors, and how we portray ourselves in it, or more accurately, the image we try to portray of ourselves. Whether it’s a thing of personal branding or just hunting for likes, the result is the same — there is a lot of media out there of people doing things outside.

I’ll admit to being at least partially guilty of that. The biggest reason I write in this space is to showcase the outdoors and the need for all of us to be out in it. When you’re in it, you learn to respect it. That’s my theory.

But on that note, we’ve got work to do.

I’m a huge proponent of my local urban wild space, Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness. It’s an awesome place where I can run trails and hike, and it’s within Tulsa’s city limits, 15 minutes from my front door.

But I get discouraged when I see stuff like this.

Someone's bad idea of "art" at Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness.

Someone’s bad idea of “art” at Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness.

That was all chalk, but there are other rock faces defaced with spray paint. Similar acts of vandalism have tagged a number of wilderness areas I’ve visited. This is not a new problem, though one that’s worth fighting.

What’s different is people (in this case, Nocket) making it so public, justifying it as “art,” and then publicizing it widely (before she succumbed to public backlash and made her Instagram account private).

So I see this in two ways. We’ve succeeded in getting people outdoors, at least to a certain extent.

But we’ve failed in terms of instilling the sense of responsibility people need to have in caring for wild places. The chalk art, the creepytings paintings, the video of two idiots hitting golf balls off a mountain summit — all cases of people doing decidedly non-awesome things outside.

Or maybe we haven’t totally failed. Perhaps that’s too harsh. But if Casey Nocket teaches us anything, it’s that we have a lot of work to do in terms of teaching people to respect and protect wilderness.

So let’s get this message out. If you don’t respect it, you won’t protect it. And if you don’t protect it, you won’t have it for much longer.

Bob Doucette