Conservation Needs Instagram Just as Much as Explorers Do

In a world where conservation activism lives online just as much as it does "IRL," we need platforms like Instagram to help change the landscape of wilderness preservation just as much as explorers need it to document their adventures.

You've heard it here, folks: Instagram doesn't actually suck

And it definitely won't "ruin" the outdoors. Though it can harm wildlife if you use geotags irresponsibly. 

There has been very little research done or studies performed which closely monitor and determine the effect of social media platforms like Instagram on conservation. Nor have their been numerous investigations executed to decipher just how, exactly, platforms like Instagram are hurting outdoor exploration. Despite the significant lack of both empirical and non-empirical research into this issue, articles about Instagram's destructive nature on, well, nature, abound online in a digital world where we are perfectly capable of and totally at ease with tearing apart the use of Instagram for documenting natural exploration. Some articles are aggressive in their name-and-shame game of using Instagram as the scapegoat for the destruction of habitats, forests, oceans, lakes, parks, etc. 

Since its inception, Instagram has amassed millions of followers and even more users, ranging from celebrities and socialites to everyday people who use the platform to document food, forests, and fun. Thanks to its unique ability to attract world-renowned photographers, photojournalists, reporters, investigators, and creatives to share their work online, Instagram has also become a business for outdoor explorers and adventurers who are able to earn a pretty decent living documenting their adventures, especially those who do it for brands and companies. We may loathe the lip-kit advertisements and weird, fit-tea posts which rack in thousands of likes (and millions of dollars), but few of us can say we don't follow a photographer or two whose adventures give us serious wanderlust and #travelenvy. 

But let's consider something: is Instagram actually ruining nature, or are we? 

Now, before you grab your torches and pitchforks, hear me out. There's not actually any "proof" that Instagram is solely responsible for ruining nature. Yes, geotagging puts wildlife at risk and, yes, many people use Instagram as a method of documenting their destructive activities in National Parks or protected areas (I'm looking at you, tourists in Yellowstone who think it's "cool" to take a selfie with a bison or geyser ). For the most part, few of us would even be aware of many natural wonders and wilderness areas if not for the photographers posting overly-filtered and often totally photoshopped images of these places to their Instagram, with hashtags such as #mytinyatlas #exploremore #discover #getoutdoors, and the like. These images are designed to get Likes and comments, of course, but some are also captured and posted to raise awareness about the plight of both the environment and various species. 

After all, you can't help save something if you're unaware of its destruction. 

We're also suckers for a pretty picture, and if you claim to be immune to the pull or draw of a sunset silhouette over Zion National Park, or the image of a Whale Shark sailing gracefully through crystal-blue waters, I'm sorry to break it to you, but even you are lying to yourself. And if those images are accompanied by a message about the plight of Whale Sharks and the species' declining numbers or the destruction of crucial flora in National Parks, often we become concerned or, at the very least, have our interest piqued. These images allow us to discover more about our natural world that is otherwise inaccessible to us. 

Explorers - both paid and unpaid - are often found with a camera around their neck or an iPhone in the palms, ready to capture the perfect image and post it to some social media platform or other. We're a culture and society  obsessed with social media, and considering few of us are even willing to call people now, instead favoring text or Instagram DMs, it's little wonder that we prefer to follow adventurous folk who document the wildlife, environments, and landscapes of a lifetime that may very well disappear  in our lifetime.  This is perhaps one reason why so many organizations, charities, government bodies, conservation magazines, NPOs, NGOs, and activism groups operate Instagram accounts; many of which are wildly popular, and successful, to boot. They recognize that Instagram allows us to reach not only numerous generations, but also millions of people around the globe you may actually give a toss about nature and its conservation. We must remember that, while we type away articles which verbally savage Instagram for its role in destroying nature, we wouldn't actually know that much about conservation issues without these platforms. 

Let's be honest: did many people even know Great White sharks aren't man-eaters prior to lurking Nat Geo on Instagram and discovering it has a Shark Week special? #ProbablyNot.

So much of the global efforts and activism which occurs to help save both the environment and wildlife actually occur online. We sign petitions, donate, pledge participation, join groups, create tweet storms, connect with fellow activists, lobby for better legislations, online. The world wide web isn't just good for ordering groceries or shoes online. Platforms like Instagram actually help conservation efforts by spreading awareness about issues and concerns which are often excluded from mainstream news media and which we likely would not become aware of if not for social media. 

The question is not, and should not be, whether Instagram or platforms like it destroy or ruin nature. Rather, we should be looking to our own roles in how we treat our natural world and wilderness areas; we must determine (and come to terms with) whether we are responsible for the destruction, as opposed to shifting blame onto an app that doesn't determine how you treat a wild animal or National Park before you post an image to it.

Cover photo: Kevin Kaminski

Published: March 29, 2017

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Jacalyn BealesExplorer

Toronto

Toronto-based freelance writer, outdoors enthusiast and wildlife conservationist.