To Geotag, or Not to Geotag?

With Internet detoxes and new ‘authentic’ apps like BeReal cropping up, it’s clear humanity is trying to navigate the simulacrum of social media. How do we negotiate the boundary between the virtual reality and, well, reality? Some outdoor enthusiasts say stop geotagging.

What is geotagging? It’s the custom of labelling a photo or post – usually on Instagram – with your location. That way, if someone likes your perfect shot of the coastline, they can easily go and explore it themselves.

The practice has become commonplace on Instagram especially, and the platform even encourages it. Geotagged posts often get much more engagement – up to 79% more than those without a tag.

#nogeotag

Unfortunately, as many long-time hikers have pointed out, geotagging has led to overcrowding on trails, disruption to small communities, and damage to wildlife. The beautiful Rattlesnake Ledge trail near Seattle is facing renovations, after receiving over four times the number of annual visitors expected when it was constructed.

In Siberia, photographers have trampled flower fields for years to get pictures, irritating flower growers. Zion National Park’s Angels Landing is famous for its dramatic sheer drops – so Instagrammable that crowds there have become dangerous, and several walkers have died.

Overcrowding where parks don’t have the capacity to host ‘Insta-flocks’ can also create risky and frustrating parking situations, overflowing dumpsters, and degradation to the track and surrounding lands. New explorers coming from social media can often be unaware of hiking etiquette, rules around feeding wildlife or interfering with plants, or even appropriate clothing/equipment.

In 2018, Leave No Trace boosted the anti-geotagging movement, encouraging ‘thoughtful geotagging’ in their guidelines. They have since backpedalled on that stance. The Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board also jumped on the anti-tag train in 2018, launching a campaign to discourage the practice at its Insta-popular locations.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming, was home to an anti-geotag campaign a few years ago.

The issue of social-media-incited overcrowding isn’t unique to parks either – some restaurants have sacrificed publicity to ban photos and tags online. In another instance, residents of the brightly-painted Choi Hung Estate in Hong Kong have had their daily lives disturbed by influxes of photographers and influencers.

‘Gatekeeping’ Nature

On the other hand, argue proponents of geotagging, asking people to keep secret their hikes and lookouts is ‘gatekeeping’. It creates an elitism around experiencing nature – an unnatural concept if ever there was one.

Many of the loudest voices in the anti-geotagging bloc grew up with parents who regularly took them into the wilderness. They have established communities to turn to for resources on new locations and the equipment they need to reach them.

Not everyone has that privileged access. Sure, people might be rushing to get out in the bush to get that perfect pic and earn their place alongside the hundreds of other #seacliffbridge-s. They’re still getting out in nature, and hopefully enjoying their experience beyond the photo.

And parks are trying to manage the consequences. Hundreds of ‘selfie-stations’ – wooden stands in front of snap-worthy views – have been set up across the US to make photography safer. Some parks are trying to limit numbers using timed entry slots, some are trying to use algorithms to point hikers to less-crowded trails.

Geotagging is just another challenge of the modern world, but as Aram Mrjoian writes for The Guardian, “If nature isn’t supposed to be for everyone, who gets to decide who it’s for?” The choice is up to the individual: to tag or not to tag.

Cover photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash.

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