“These are public lands, right? We’re all supposed to have access to them,” she says. “And it doesn’t really make sense for us to keep public lands a secret. That’s an oxymoron. That doesn’t make any sense at all.” – Race, Public Lands And The Debate Over Geotagging
The #nogeotag movement is a form of gatekeeping, or elitism. It involves individuals—usually those unaffected by structural racism and privileged to have grown up hiking and camping—asserting their self proclaimed authority over who should and shouldn’t be allowed into certain outdoor spaces…They never stop to consider that their childhood was privileged with outdoor experiences not available to the majority of working-class families in the United States. – Five Reasons Why You Should Keep Geotagging
With the rise of social media, so has come the rise of #hashtagging. For those not familiar with the term and how a hashtag gets used, the overall synopsis is using such a term to make it easier to find videos, posts, or photos with a certain word. If you look up photos of #ArchesNationalPark, for example, on Instagram, you’ll see photos of, well, Arches National Park. And geotagging? That means putting the location in the photo (sometimes precise; sometimes vague) of the location where you went.
As you can see in my example above, I give the general area but not the specific area. A reader knows I went to Grand Mesa but not the specific trail. I believe in obscurity, not secrecy.
This is all a prelude to some interesting trends that are going on currently.
- People claim that social media is the cause of many places getting “ruined.”
- And the counter-claims to NOT geo or hashtag means a person’s gatekeeping and being elitist.
What is interesting to me is that by using this methodology of obscurity, not secrecy, I’ve been told I give TOO much info….and that I’m “gatekeeping” by not giving enough info!
So, which is it???
First, social media did not “ruin” outdoor places per se. It certainly enabled people to post photos much easier than even a decade ago. Even a $50 phone can take decent images, and within minutes your photo or video is up for the world to see—no need to go through a publisher.
And, as pointed out to me by a reader, in aggregate, the “Top Ten / clickbait” nature of social media and the algorithms employed by the social media companies themselves drive people to specific areas. In some cases certainly in numbers higher more than traditional media outlets.
But are the number of people “ruining” a place?
In some cases, yes. In the sense that infrastructure can’t handle the popularity, the environment gets trampled, etc. Horseshoe Bend is one example of a once-quiet place now seeing more people arguably to its detriment.
But it is just one aspect.
Perhaps cutting funds to our public lands, not investing in an in-park transit system or other infrastructure improvements, privatizing land management aspects, opening up lands for more industrial use, and understaffing the areas may be partially to blame as well?
Then there is the explosive growth of Denver, SLC, Vegas, and Phoenix in the past twenty years that no-doubt impacted the once quieter areas in the Ameican West as well.
And I should say that “influencers” causing people to see places are nothing new.
Life Magazine published an article in April 1953 on a booming uranium mining town that caused people to come out to see the sight of this beautiful place called “Delicate Arch” in Arches National Monument.
So while social media certainly made sites more popular in some cases, it is not the only reason. Nor is the admitted damage to some of these places the cause of strictly social media, either. It is part of the problem but not the only cause.
But let’s look at the other side of the argument.
Is not giving specific locations or directions gatekeeping? In other words, by not giving the exact breadcrumbs to a location, is someone being elitist?
First, there are larger problems with outdoor access than a lack of hashtags or geotagging.
To bang a drum loudly that I’ve banged many times before, only 10% of the outdoor user base has the cultural and economic privilege to even travel to these places that are allegedly being locked up due to lack of hashtags and geotagging.
If a person can travel hundreds of miles for a vacation, book a flight, or rent a car, then they have the resources to figure out and plan their vacation.
So, what we are talking about is that a portion of the 10% fortunate enough to have these resources want more explicit directions and, crucially, in an electronic format they desire.
Research, learning the skills to look at print or electronic maps for trip planning, calling up a ranger station, or even borrowing older guidebooks via an interlibrary loan is not as easy as getting the electronic bread crumbs to a place, perhaps.
Then there is the real fact that places can get damaged by too many people in an area. It is why the descendants of Ancestral Pueblo, Fremont, and others respectfully ask not to geotag a place specifically. Beyond the damage to the sensitive archeological and cultural areas, many unscrupulous people would outright steal artifacts or maliciously damage an area. I think respecting the people’s wishes from the area is perhaps more important than getting labeled a gatekeeper.
So, what to do?
Again, I say obscurity, not secrecy.
Let people know the general area but not the specifics. If someone wants to learn the area, especially the 10% who can do so, they will undoubtedly be able to hike and explore the same area with some applied elbow grease.
As people who cherished Glen Canyon back in the day can tell you, when places get below the radar too much, it is harder to justify protecting an area. (And why we need more than the 10% involved in many of our public lands if we want true protection of the wild places)
Giving people the TOOLS to do their research is more important than giving electronic breadcrumbs by far.
Suppose you are part of the 10% fortunate enough to have the ability to travel and not sure how to find these places or have the skills. There are many classes from such places as REI, instruction on YouTube, private organizations that teach this skill, and even some people who give these resources for free.
If you have the skills already and the money, consider giving back a bit, be it financially, donating your older but still useful gear, or instructing to let a new generation of people learn these skills who otherwise not have the chance.
Big City Mountaineers, many outdoor non-profit groups, and even some schools let people whose “…childhood [is not] privileged with outdoor experiences” have the opportunity to access some of the resources people traveling to the Wind River Range for an outdoor vacation might have available. Hashtags or not.
- I used to give breadcrumbs to exact locations, not understanding that it is not the best thing to do at times. Then I changed my mind. Here are some thoughts on that subject.
- A couple of years later, I updated the thoughts a bit with an article on Social Media Ethics. The TL;DR? “Obscurity, not secrecy.” And that’s my overriding philosophy.
- And though I think the idea of NOT giving exact geotags being elitist is far too simplistic, I do recognize how people can go too far the other way as well.
- And, speaking of gatekeeping, I think lack of economic and cultural opportunities are far more dangerous to our public lands if only 10% get to enjoy them.
- Finally, if you want to question your beliefs, look at them critically, and enjoy nuanced discussion versus platitudes, pick up a book (Whaa !?) called Wilderness Ethics. Though written in the early 1990s, it raises questions still relevant today.