Jesse Weber | 11.30.2018

"Instagram is ruining this place."

You've probably heard a sentiment like this before, or said it yourself. Many people are blaming social media for the degradation or overcrowding of outdoor destinations. The fact is, outdoor recreation is becoming more and more popular worldwide. More people are getting outside, which means increased visitation and higher impact on a lot of destinations. Social media certainly has a big part to play in this, along with the sharing of information online in general.

By posting pictures, videos, and descriptions of the places we love to visit, we are inspiring others to get out there and experience those places for themselves. But that's the goal, isn't it? As lovers of the outdoors, we want more access to recreation, and we want protected places to stay that way. In the face of any threat to such opportunities, the simplest solution is for more people to care about the outdoors and rally around the cause. Social media is a powerful tool for raising that voice in advocacy.

The unfortunate consequence of more people getting outside is that some places can be loved to death, or in certain cases, purposely harmed by irresponsible users. This raises the question of whether or not social media is actually a good thing for the outdoors. 

Like it or not, social media is here to stay, so we should try to make it a good thing, and it can be. How we behave outside and share online makes the difference between good and bad.

The key distinction to make is between responsible and irresponsible enjoyment of the outdoors. If we want to promote responsible use, we should share and encourage such in our social media.

Responsible practices are those which:

  • Leave the place as good or better than you found it
  • Don't detract from the experience of other users
  • Are safe for you and those around you
  • Respect the rules in place

(Review the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace for more on responsible recreation.)

These responsible practices may seem like fairly common sense, but they are all too often forgotten or cast aside when we get absorbed in our own self interest or capturing a moment "for the Gram." We've all seen it, and maybe done it ourselves, thinking it harmless at the time—cutting off trail, ignoring a closure sign, jumping or swimming where it's not allowed, flying a drone too close to people, dropping a glass bottle, camping in the wrong spot—the list of seemingly small infractions becomes significant when more people think it's okay.

There have been many infamous cases of social media users getting in trouble or worse—getting themselves hurt or killed—by making irresponsible decisions in the outdoors. We won't call out any of those individuals here, but a quick search online will turn up plenty of stories; some are merely embarrassing, but others are downright tragic.

To prevent things like that, and to preserve the outdoors that we love, we must exhibit responsible behavior in order to teach and encourage it to others. Here are important points to keep in mind before you pose for that picture or tap "share."

1. You (and your photos) are not more important than other people’s outdoor experience

Other people have the same rights as you in the outdoors: to enjoy nature's sights and sounds without undue distraction. Loud music, drones, horseplay, and inappropriate language or gestures are common examples of things that may detract from others' experience. Simply be courteous to other users and respectful of the place.

2. You (and your photos) are not worth more than your and others’ safety

It's easier than you think to get caught up in the moment and make a poor decision. Always think twice about what could go wrong and if it's really worth it. Be sure to think not only about yourself but about others around you, others out of sight who you might not know are there, about those who will come later, and about the example set with the media you share.

3. You (and your photos) are not above the rules

It can be tempting to bend or ignore a regulation to get the perfect shot or get away from the crowds. Even if no one catches you in the act, and even if you're sure your action doesn't damage the environment or put anyone in danger, sharing that image online can prove your guilt. Not only that, it sets a bad example for others.

4. Protecting the outdoors is the responsibility of everyone, so we should all pitch in

This idea goes far beyond social media, and it is the key to protecting our beloved outdoors into the future. Responsibility starts with each of us individually. Don't ever assume that someone will clean up after you or that your actions don't have consequences. Make yourself a model of responsible recreation. And then there is the option, and indeed the obligation, to go above and beyond by being a good steward of the outdoors. This means leaving a place better than you found it, maybe by cleaning up after others or educating someone else about how to be responsible. For tips on how to respectfully confront someone about their behavior, see The Art of Sharing Leaving No Trace with Others.

5. There is no perfect world, but we can try

We can still not ignore the inevitable drawbacks to more people getting outside. It is true that there will always be careless and irresponsible people. It's unavoidable that some places will be degraded by simple overuse. It's a fact that certain places have a finite capacity, no matter how well they are cared for (hot springs, swimming holes, rock climbs, some roads/parking areas, etc.). It would be naive to ignore human impacts on these areas, but it is possible that the good far outweighs the bad.

More people getting outside and acting responsibly means:

  • Greater collective value for the outdoors in society
  • More protection for existing destinations
  • Increased establishment of new protected destinations
  • Better care of established places
  • Better restoration of places already impacted

Together we can reverse the trend of negative impact, and instead create a positive feedback loop wherein more people getting outside means more and better opportunities in the outdoors for everyone into the future. Social media can help us get there, if only we use it responsibly.



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