If you didn’t take a photo of something you've done outdoors, did it really ever happen at all?
Today, most vacations, adventures, and explorations are revealed to us through social media networks like Facebook, or Instagram. And, far from the contrary, t’s not just influencers and celebrities who are "guilty" of posting, posting, and...well, posting some more.
I’m guilty of this. My friends are guilty of this, too. Most adventures my partner and I go on end up on one of our Instagram profiles. They are geotagged, hash-tagged, and made visible for others to recreate, right down to the caption and filter.
Nearly every picture available to us on social media platforms like Instagram is now edited, filtered, and tagged to the point that if I wanted to go to the other side of the world and replicate an adventure someone just had, I easily could. During a recent trip to Iceland, for example, I got a lot of my ideas of where to explore from Instagram photos I had seen. But this doesn’t make me unique; just another explorer looking for beauty.
Some studies suggest that taking too many photos may actually hinder your ability to recall the events in those photos accurately at later dates; that's because, as other studies purport, the focus on using photography as a method for documenting memories has become more about forming our social identities than actually making events memorable and accessible down the road. We do, after all, take far too many images of experiences and adventures without ever actually looking at them.
Once our photos are edited and posted, they become a source of attention more than a source of remembrance. Perhaps this habit of taking photos without recognizing the consequences of those photos stems from our need to over-edit, over-display, and seek attention from those images. We are so envious of other people's experiences that we may even feel as though our adventures don't measure up to, say, those of a photographer who is paid to travel the globe and take photos.
When it comes to nature and wilderness preservation, it's no secret that social media can be an effective tool for raising awareness of various issues, plights, and campaigns to protect the world's natural heritage; platforms like Instagram can shed light on species degradation, and can bridge the gap between our experiences in nature, and protecting those areas.
But the question remains: is exposing all of these beautiful, natural areas and places worth the Likes and followers? Or are some places better kept hidden in your iPhone, for only you to "Like?"
When people go into nature for the sake of nature, those Instagrams don’t seem as harmful. We aren’t all going into nature to decrease our stress levels or improve mental health, though. Some people are exploring so that they can get that perfect photo in order to connect to their followers; not nature.
This disconnect leads people to care less about the beautiful environment in which they find themselves, making them more likely to leave a trace.
In 2012, the Vance Creek Bridge near Seattle, a privately owned bridge, became a viral Instagram sensation. Tourists came from all over the world to get the perfect photo of the bridge. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop at just a photo. Fires were started; litter was left behind, and some tourists even graffitied this beautiful piece of history.
To stop the recklessness, the bridge was dismantled in 2016. Because if we can’t play nice, we can’t play at all.
Let's back up for a moment; isn’t playing what we all need more of? According to an article in National Geographic, only 10 percent of teens spend time outside every day. The percentage of teens on Instagram, though? A significant 76 percent.
If Instagram is so popular, could it encourage teens and millennials to crave the outdoors and beautiful places? Helping to increase that 10 percent to 20, 30 or even 50. Isn’t that healthy? Or does that simply solve a problem by creating a new one?
Unfortunately, the tension between encouraging people to get outdoors versus keeping the wild, wild, isn’t new - It’s simply evolved. Today, marketing campaigns and influencers are pushing hard to get more people outside, a new transition that is making the tension stretch further.
An example of this is the Every Kid in a Park campaign, which helps youth explore National Parks, far and wide. The key difference between this campaign and one post of a beautiful place and staged selfie?
This campaign teaches youth about conservation efforts. Something that isn’t typically included in "Instagram For Nature 101." But then this idea presents itself: maybe there is an "Instagram For Nature 101"; it’s just called something else.
Maybe it’s called @nationalparkservice or @u.s.forestservice. These agencies and organizations like them have an amazing power over and influence upon social media users. Organizations can post beautiful photos, but also give tips on how to explore safely and how to leave no trace.
The tools are there; they just need to be used more consistently.
Not everyone will listen, but some will. And just some of the 800 million users on Instagram may be enough to keep that bridge, or that trail, existing long enough for future generations to appreciate its beauty.
There’s no way around it: Instagram will continue to rise in popularity. But the way in which it’s used, and sadly, abused, is up to us.
It’s up to the nature lovers; the environmental activists; and outdoor agencies to use our voices to educate, teach, and maybe even keep a few things harder to find. A little more wild, a little more natural.
Not every picture needs to be posted.
But if it must be, for the sake of your adventures and for the sake of your personal story, then maybe just once it doesn’t need a geotag or the hashtag #thisiswhereyoufindit. Maybe this time, it can simply be a beautiful picture that encourages someone to go find that spot, or somewhere like it, so they can capture it for themselves.