A dive into the Art of the Geo-Tag. The social media practice steeped in controversy.
It's no secret that Geo-tagging is a widespread conversation of conservation. Since the rise of social media in the mid-2000's the great expanse of wander-lusters into secluded parts of the globe has been on the rise. I myself included.
Before the rise of social media, most isolated locations were kept on the hush. Not because people were more secretive, but because the information simply wasn't as accessible. Word of breathtaking views, epic waterfalls, or bucket-list hikes didn't spread as easily. Outdoorsy types and would-be adventurers would have to pick up a book to find trail information, photos, and expectations. Film in the media would occasionally showcase such sites, but unless they chose to reveal the location, you would be left searching on your own. Before the age of Google, this was even more of a task. Iconic locations still got attention, like Old-Faithful in Yellowstone (which now has it's own webcam btw), Niagara Falls, and the Grand Canyon, but unless it was a national park, many locations went virtually unheard of.
The same is not true today. A reclusive natural hot-spring can go viral at the push of a button. Areas once remote and tranquil become exposed and chaotic. What was once accessible only to a local audience through word of mouth is now displayed for the world to see. Visitors from all over are traveling to see places that 10 years ago were hidden, and with those visitors come a unique set of concerns and obstacles to overcome. We aren't here to tell everyone that geo-tags are the root of all evil. Quite the opposite. We love the idea of more people getting outside and loving the beautiful planet we call home, but some caution must be used to make sure we don't love it too hard; like a 4-year-old boy squeezing a kitten *just a touch* too tight (not speaking from personal experience).
What exactly is a Geo-tag?
An electronic tag that gives a name and a location (GPS coordinates) to a photo, video, or post, on a social media website. That GPS coordinate is a precise geographic location based on it's latitudinal and longitudinal value. Anyone can add geo-tags to their posts and even create new ones. A geo-tag combined with interactive maps and trail finding apps makes finding these places a breeze.
We are going to outline some of the challenges this technology presents, as well as look at the benefits that come with it, hopefully shedding light on the art that is the geo-tag, and how to use it properly.
Challenges Presented by Geo-tagging
Tangible impacts are being made on the environment, economy, and infrastructure around us as well as personal well being due to Geo-tags. The measurable growth and direct correlation are impossible to ignore to the point that some places have asked visitors to cease tagging specific locations. Jackson Hole is a Prime example.
In November of 2018, Jackson Hole Tourism and Travel board revealed a new campaign to put an honest halt to Geo-tagging in the area. Jackson is renowned for beauty and tourism. The Grand Tetons jut out of the landscape like a beacon, calling out to adventurers. The signal of that beacon was so amplified by social media that it brought serious concern to the well being of the land.
Delta Lake in the Grand Teton National park has become “a poster child for social media gone awry,” said Brian Modena, a board member of Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism in an interview with the New York Times. The footpath that saw a few hikers each day jumped to 145 people a day, because of influencers sharing photos of the lake from the top of the trail. Causing struggles for the forest service trying to make it safe. "Along the way, some of the masses are stumbling along the steep, loose trail that’s a result of repeated use and erosion, rather than planning, engineering and deliberate drainage." (source)
In southern Utah, about an hour outside of the widely known Zion Nation Park lies Kanarraville. A town with a population of just 400. Kanarraville was an unassuming blip on the map surrounded by some of Utah's most iconic locations. In terms of a tourist attraction, it wasn't even an afterthought. At least until one small creek-wading trail found itself to be a social media rising star. The hike is beautiful and well-deserving of attention, but the town of Kanarraville water source is a spring near the falls, and the trail quickly went from a few travelers here and there to needing its own parking lot and visitor center. The foot traffic lends to extra erosion, trash, and potential threats to the town's main water source. In 2016 it saw 40k visitors and In 2018 a permit program was launched to help relieve the amount of foot traffic the hike was seeing.
160 miles to the south-east of Kanarraville lies Horseshoe Bend. A grand overlook of the Colorado River 1,000 ft below as it carves through the landscape near Page, Arizona. Years ago there was only a small turnout with a few cars. Now there is a 450 spot parking lot, a visitor center, viewing deck, and guard rail.
The way we use our social media impacts our surroundings on a physical and permanent level. Keeping up with growing crowds in an environmentally cautious manner requires a lot of time and a lot of money. Money that we don't always have.
The Geo-Tag phenomenon has done a tremendous job unearthing modest and nameless territory, but that doesn't mean the heavy hitters are immune to its impact.
National Parks have been bulging at the seams over the years due to similar reasons. Everyone wants to get their own photo, selfie, and vlog at these amazing locations. Create their own memories. We as humans have an innate desire to feel included. We want to be part of the crowd so to speak. Sharing these locations on our Instagram not only allows us to feel included but it also allows us to feel unique, and special. "Yes, I went there, and yes, I want you to see that I've been there" With this growth trend in National Park attendance arises serious monetary constraint.
The current financial state of the NPS is weakening year by year. Budget cuts and an influx of visitors is suffocating the park's abilities to keep up with growing demand. 2020 Isn't going to let up either. President Trump's budget proposal contains "line after line of cuts in NPS funding, from operations (down $52.4 million) and the Historic Preservation Fund (down $64.2 million), to Construction (a $113.4 million decrease) and Land Acquisition and State Assistance (down $176.1 million). It all adds up to a proposed cut of $460.4 million for the Park Service." *NationalParkstraveler.org
John Garder, senior director of budget and appropriations at the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, told The Revelator that the majority of national parks have been short on cash for years. Parks are under huge stress just to stay afloat and are currently billions of dollars behind in needed maintenance.
- Yellowstone National Park: $800 million in deferred maintenance.
- Yosemite National: $582 million in deferred maintenance.
- Grand Canyon National Park: $329 million in deferred maintenance.
- Great Smokies National Park: $215 million in deferred maintenance
Dana Soehn, spokesperson for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, says park visitation has increased by 25 percent over the past decade, while staffing has decreased by 23 percent.
Apart from the tangible impact that is measurable in charts and data, comes more personal impact with the increased use of our favorite spots. These tend to lean more to personal preference but they are still an important consideration to be made in the world of Geo-tagging. Your personal views might differ from those below but here are a few things we think can negatively impact your outdoor experience.
- Over-run | crowded: A scenic overlook filled with a school-bus size crowd can distract from the view we waited for (or hiked miles upon miles to see.) We often venture into nature for an escape from every day and the mundane to meditate and feel at peace. That peace can be fleeting when a group comes trotting into the serenity while thundering *insert whatever music you dislike most here* on their blue-tooth speaker.
- Trashy: I hate to say it. People can be pretty terrible outdoors. Many of us strive to follow Earth healthy leave no trace principles but unfortunately, that's not everyone. The more people you have visiting one certain location, the more chances you have some of those people leaving behind garbage. This has a negative environmental impact, as well as being a distraction from the reason you got out in the first place.
- Cost: Paying for permits and or parking. Now, this might sound like a petty thing to consider, especially if that money is going to creating a better experience for everyone, but if a once loved location becomes so overcrowded you now need to pay X amount of dollars to enjoy it, it might put a damper on the experience for you, and it is something to consider. More and more frequently scenic locations are becoming accessible only to those with permits, and some places those permits are increasingly difficult to come by. Havasupai Falls in Arizona is one such location where acquiring a permit can be a frustrating experience as well as expensive
- Dangerous: If you put hundreds of people on an undeveloped trail, things can start to get sketchy. For the visitors and for the land. Trails are carefully developed to take traffic amounts, water runoff, and other ecological factors in mind. Ungroomed trails with high volumes of traffic become a safety hazard to the people and animals that enjoy these places.
The Benefits of Geo-Tagging
It's not all bad tho, there are some major perks to this wonderful technology. Many of us have found new favorite spots, hiking trails, waterfalls, peaks to bag, and more because of a geo-tag. We save places to our photo album, Pinterest, Instagram, and other areas of places we one day hope to go. Places we might not have heard of otherwise, and that's amazing. Here are some of the other reasons that Geo-tags deserve more than a cold shoulder.
More people outside:
Although it can lead to more crowds, more people outside is an overall net plus. Nature is therapeutic, and people who get outside tend to be happier. Not to mention research now suggests that children who travel more than stay in and play with toys experience a boost in brain development. As a society, if we can encourage others to do something that makes them happy or promotes creativity and brain function, we should absolutely do that. More people outside also mean more chances to make new friends and strengthen your social circle.
Dispersing the gathering spots:
Geo-tagging allows us all to find more places to enjoy. If more places we enjoy are available, then the odds are less likely that everyone will be at the same place. One spot getting a little crowded? No worries, Just head the other way to the location getting a little less love. The more locations available to us to enjoy nature, the more opportunity we have to avoid a crowd.
All outdoor enthusiasts and advocates for sustainability started somewhere. That somewhere can be an image. Instagram and Geo Tags have inspired many to get outside, even if in their own backyard, and take ownership of their surroundings. Some still need help finding their inner John Muir. Social media has given us this incredible ability to share all the wonders of nature we come across as trail junkies and explorers. If you have been inspired by others, keep the ball rolling and share that excitement in any way you can.
To tag? Or not to tag.
So, the question is: To tag, or not to tag. With all things considered, there is a lot to think about in the realm of Geo-tags, for better or for worse. We want to encourage others to get outside, but we can't start tagging everywhere we go with reckless abandon. There is a smart way to go about it, and here are a few key points you should ask yourself before you share.
- How many followers do you have? If you only have a handful of people who actively view your social media platform, you might be able to have a little more leniency with what and where you use Geo tags, as your outreach isn't likely to cause a stampede of people tromping flowers to get your same shot.
- How secret is your spot? You might not know right off the bat how "secret" your favorite spot to relax is, but a quick way to gauge its online presence is to do a simple check. Open up Instagram and look for geo-tags that resemble the location in question, or nearby areas. How many posts are there with that tag? How frequently is it tagged? A google image search can tell you a good amount as well. Knowing just how public your getaway spot actually is, is an important consideration to make when deciding how to proceed with the geo-tag.
- What is the potential impact? If you tag a beautiful location that doesn't currently have heavy traffic, what are the potential side affects of drawing a larger crowd to that spot. How will it effect the environment? Can the infrastructure handle it?
- Has geo-tagging in the area been banned? Not much more needs to be said here. Make sure you aren't in a location that has asked people to tag responsibly (Such as Jackson Hole)
In all things and at all times, be good earth stewards, and inspire others to be the same. Remember we are all in this together. Both the good and the bad. See you on the trail.