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The Good, The Bad, and the Geotag

Healthy geo-tagging = keeping stoke levels high and environmental impact levels low

Originally posted on HIKEspiration.com

2020; not just a new year, but a new decade! The past ten years have seen immense change in all aspects, but one in particular, is social media. I remember sitting in homeroom during my freshman year of high school and learning how to work Snapchat for the first time. The next week we were all putting together our Instagram profiles and updating Facebook accounts with photos from the homecoming dance the weekend before. 

In today’s society it seems as if the world revolves around online sites and social media. Influencers- people who make a living by posting online- have started using their status to share dream locations to their followers. Everyone loves a good view. People are setting out now more than ever in search of the best views possible, with substantial help from social media geotags. Geo-tagging, if you are not familiar with the idea, is the process of embedding a digital photo with exact coordinate data for a given location. In doing so, social media users are able to pinpoint the exact location of photographs in hopes of going there themselves. And so sparks the debate, Is the use of geotags environmentally and socially safe?

Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

PC: Daniel Brittain (https://www.theoutbound.com/wyoming/chillin/explore-jenny-lake

Geotagging and Overtourism

Those against geotagging state that these embedded locations are harming the environment. Several journals have been written explaining the negative connotation of this posting feature. The most common reason found among relative authors is over-toursim. For example, the Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board has seen a huge influx of visitors to Delta Lake in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. Media influencers have posted various photographs of this destination and its incredible views. So much, that visitors of this specific trail in GTNP have increased from 1-2 hikers to 145 hikers per day. Such a large increase in visitation has caused erosion to occur at a faster rate and is quite taxing on park resources. 

But is social media to blame for the sudden burst of over-tourism in natural places? Some say yes. In a study conducted by Sprout Social, researchers discovered that social posts with a geo-tag have 79% more engagement than posts without any tags. These serene locations have become overcrowded with people all trying to capture the same picture. 

Geo-tagging Can Increase Security Risks

More is at stake than just the environment, though. Geotags also initiate security risks. Embedding locations into photographs and posting them online puts your exact location out for the world to see. Online predators, and people in general, are able to see where you are, therefore making it easier to find you- some with ill intentions. 

Other security risks are eminent as well. The eight-mile Delta Lake trail in Grand Teton National Park is steep, strenuous, and not marked very well. Visitors have been ill-prepared and found using a precise geotag to find the location resulting in injuries and getting lost. This recurring stint is what sparked the Board to take action. 

Keep Jackson Hole Wild Campaign

PC: Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board

In an effort to slow the effects of over-tourism on fragile ecosystems and keep people safe, The Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board has created the tagline Tag Responsibly, Keep Jackson Hole Wild. This sustainability campaign focuses on eight tips for how to keep Jackson Hole wild; using public transport, reducing & reusing, giving wildlife space, respecting wildlife closure areas, knowing before you go, staying on the trails, educating others, and yes- geotagging responsibly. 

Geo-tagging Opens the Outdoors to All

On the other side of the debate, the use of geotags opens the doors to outdoor spaces for social media users. As noted before, marking the exact location where images have been captured leads other people to venture out in search of the same views. Individuals that may be less knowledgeable of outdoor spaces follow these influencers because they give them ideas of where to go. Protesting geotags may be seen as gate-keeping which reserves locations for elite recreationists. The former group- avid adventurists and users of the trail- are not the only ones permitted in these destinations. Rather, universal access and inclusion for all is at the heart of public lands and, potentially, geotags as well.

PC: Adirondack Council Homepage

A 2018 study conducted by the Adirondack Council in the High Peaks of New York focused on decision-making factors for over 1,000 surveyors. Of the 1,004 responses, 11% were first time hikers, 24% were beginner hikers (< 4 hikes/year), 52% were experienced hikers (> 4 hikes/year), and 13% were expert hikers (year-round hiker, group leader). Self-reporting results concluded that less than 50 individuals noted social media influence as a source of their inspiration and more than 600 said they were searching for a good view. By using social media and geo-tags, these individuals are able to share their hikes with others and inspire people to get out and enjoy nature.

Geo-tagging Increases Safety on the Trail

Geo-tagging can also increase safety on trails. As mentioned before, the Delta Lake trail is not marked very well; and other trails are the same way. With more people around there is better access to trail information such as directions and conditions and there are more people around to help in an emergency. This reduces the chances of getting lost or injured and encourages people to talk with other people on the trail, thus increasing community.

PC: TEKTONIKA

(https://www8.hp.com/us/en/tektonika/index.php/2017/03/17/geotagging-when-really-cool-tech-is-actually-a-huge-bummer/)

Healthy Geo-tagging Habits

In order to keep those stoke levels high and limit impact on the natural environment & safety, there are several things we can do. For instance:

  1. Use generic geotags: Name the city rather than the actual trail/destination.

  2. Mention Leave No Trace principles in captions: Educate your followers and add insight about one of their seven principles into your caption.

  3. #thelocation: Mention the trail name in your hashtags along with everything else; your location is safer that way.

  4. Disable location services/geotagging: Turning off mobile location services will take away the option to add geotags to posts. 

  5. Be mindful! There is more at stake than your social reputation.

What Does This Mean for Users?

There is a very fine line between encouraging over-tourism and enabling accessibility when using geotags. The outdoors have always been inclusive for all- it was the basis upon which our National Park Service was established. But preserving these lands for the next generations is also a cornerstone of this organization. It is imperative for users to identify their reasoning behind the use of their own geotags on social media and decide for themselves whether or not their habits are, indeed, healthy.


Resources

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!