Since the beginning of time, humans have told their fellow humans where things were. It’s baked into our ancestral DNA. We’ve been unofficially geotagging our entire existence.
The nearest water? Down by the trees. Safe berries to eat? Behind the oak trees. The kill spot for deer? Next to the river.
Homosapians are hard-wired to tell stories and when you tell stories, you disclose locations. It’s just what happens. But now, in the age of social media, we’re running counter to everything we know as humans. We’re being told to hide where we go or at the least, disclose a general area instead.
Pushing the ‘ancestral DNA’ thesis aside, it also conflicts with our inane human nature to brag. We all do it. We simply want to tell and show people what we’re doing. It makes us feel special. A lot of people go to Colorado – for work, to sit in a hotel room, to visit the mountains, or to mountain bike. It’s a big state. But only a few people go summit 14ers or backpack to a crazy lake. These special places set us apart and make us unique.
And we want to tell people about these unique experiences.
This is where social media geotagging comes into play.
At the beginning of social media, sharing with your friend where you went – the cool bend in the Colorado river (ie: Horseshoe Bend), or a pretty waterfall (ie: Havasupai) was okay. You didn’t have the ability to disrupt the flow of travel because you were simply broadcasting to your small friend group.
But now… Now, some travel accounts have a reach in the multiple millions and specific photographers have also eclipsed the million follower mark also. This means they have the ability to shape the travel trends of hundreds of thousands.
Take the California super bloom of 2019 for example. Thanks to heavy winter rains, hillsides in southern California exploded with tremendous quantities of colorful flowers. Without the age of social media, this would have been covered on the local news – maybe a quick bit on the national news – and some people may have come to check it out and that would have been it.
But we don’t live in that world.
It quickly delved into chaos. The small town adjacent to the poppies were overrun with people, the mayor told the New York Times.
“We saw an explosion in interest and — all of sudden — lots and lots of visitors.” As many as 100,000 over the course of St. Patrick’s Day weekend, to be more precise.
“We’ve never had 50,000 or 100,000 in this city all at one time,” Mr. Manos added.
Another example is Horseshoe Bend which has seen its popularity rise exponentially. In the early 2010s, it only saw a thousand tourists a year. Now, it’s over 4,500 people a day. Due to this increase, instead of a free view, you now have to pay. While this could be seen as a negative, the U.S. Department of Interior has built it up and it’s a much more friendly place for tourists.
What can we learn from these two Instagram geotagging locations? A little bit.
The biggest is how location presents a challenge towards regulating. One is, more or less, in the middle of nowhere on a hillside. The other is off the side of a road with one way in, one way out traffic pattern. With the poppies, there’s only so much you can do to keep people away. It’s also counter to everything we know and love about the outdoors to close it down. But you won’t build up infrastructure for something that maybe happens one month a year and likely one month out of a few years. For Horseshoe Bend, it’s not going away, and with it becoming a must stop for tourists on bus tours, having better infrastructure will help in the long run.
The second is what impact does sharing have on the location? With the small California town, it absolutely overran the place. The original hiking paths were thrown aside as more and more people blazed their own paths. The city was basically shut down on weekends due to abnormal traffic. This, for obvious reasons, can have an incredible impact on safety. I mean, there was even someone who landed a helicopter amongst the super bloom.
On the other hand, did social media really ruin Horseshoe Bend? I’d argue no. It publicized it to an extreme, but the rock you walk out on hasn’t been overtly damaged. The view hasn’t been altered. What has changed though, is the ambiance. And that may be what the geotagging debate comes down to on a micro-level.
Peace and Quiet in Nature
We all come to nature for some sort of solitude. We want to get away from the craziness of the real world and if that world is constantly around you, you’re no better off than when you left. What we care about is enjoying the views without hoards of people. It’s an exclusivity thing. I want something and I don’t want random other people do be there. In other words, it’s gatekeeping.
In the end, we want to tell people where we went, but not have others there at the moment. It’s a little oxymoronic. And this works. Until it doesn’t. This strategy is okay until insanely big accounts post the specific location and then no one after that gets to enjoy the same solitude. An example of this is when I summited Mt. Daniel in the Central Cascades. There are only three spots to camp at the top. We ended up being the only ones up there but could you imagine if we were jockeying for a spot? That’d be awful.
Some Ideas on GeoTagging Going forward
I think it’s important to admit why we’re not geotagging. Yes, some of it is to protect the area from being overrun, but it’s more so because we all want to be alone. We’re all human and a bit selfish but there’s a middle ground we can take. Additionally, unless you actually have sway in the social media world, you tagging or not tagging really isn’t that big of a deal. Here are some ideas to navigate the GeoTagging Debate
Don’t geotag but offer to tell people who DM you where it is. This is minor gatekeeping with a very obvious entrance while still building a community.
Keep the place hidden publicly/privately but offer up tips and warm/cold suggestions, so others have an idea of where to go. In the end, though, they have to do the research (which is a really fun part).
If the location is freaking obvious (ex: Grand Canyon, Half Dome), pretty hard to get to that people won’t attempt it (Everest, middle of Africa/South America, Antarctica), then tagging the location isn’t that big of a deal. It offers more context and helps educate the world on adventure and travel.
Be honest and tell people straight up you won’t be sharing information publicly or privately. It’ll save you some headache of having to decline comments, and while it’ll likely drive people crazy, your firm position will have to be respected.
In the end, the likelihood that you reading this have the ability to shape travel plans is scarce, but I think the debate is an interesting one that poses a lot of challenges and the only solutions seem to involve some sort of gatekeeping. Hopefully going forward we can figure out a better way to do things!
Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.
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