So as to not seem like I’ve got my head completely up my ass, I’m going to address a blog post shared with me by a climber friend of mine. She, blessed with nice melanin, mentioned it with a hard wink as if to say… “consider it carefully, Caroline.” I’m trying.
In June 2018, the Center for Outdoor Ethics issued its first guidance on social media by urging people to “avoid tagging (or geotagging) specific locations. Instead, tag a general location such as a state or region, if any at all.” We disagree. We invite all public land owners to experience and fall in love with local, state and national parks, national forests and wilderness areas—and here’s why you should too. We don’t care whether you are hiking for the Gram, taking selfies at overlooks or enjoying a Sunday afternoon in your recumbent bike.
~ Danielle Williams, melaninbasecamp.com
The article titled “5 Reasons Why You Should Keep Geotagging” then outlines five decent reasons to continue geotagging. I read through this twice and appreciated some of it, but TL;DR I will continue my “gatekeeping.” I will continue to rail against hashtag whoring.
If only it were as simple as people doing things without consequence. But people can choose how they share, and choosing how they share is at the heart of this matter.
Williams might see that I am choosing who I share my maps with, and feel like I am maybe excluding based on race or sexual orientation or age or maybe another uncontrollable factor. While it is true that I do tend to share my maps more with older folks who are not on social media, I usually have zero indication of a person’s identity other than what they (or sometimes their name) tell me. I share based on what they tell me. And I share with people who are least likely to whore out delicate and disturbed places only for the sake of seeming “cool” or gaining followership. Choosing how I share, them choosing how they share, is at the heart of the matter. I want a little more control over where my information goes, because it is complex information that if used indiscriminately, could be deadly. Hey – we’re talking an 800-mile walk through the desert!
When I do not share, people still have the opportunity to find trail information elsewhere. There is a book about the Hayduke Trail, complete with maps and tips, just like there are books and maps widely available about every National Park, state park, monument, and anything else worth visiting in the world. School libraries, bookstores, ebooks, online searches: the best information is FREE. I am hoping that people are not relying on geotags and hashtags to find their information about what to visit and how to get there, because there are exclusionary problems with that, as well. Williams’ argument can be immediately turned against her, were I to suggest that affluent young people are largely creating the outdoor narrative and roadmap everyone else follows. Were that not the case, I suspect the “urban” crowd would be steered more towards parks and events which speak to their history, culture, and aspirations. Why is it that the Native American displays at the South Rim Grand Canyon are ghost towns while the much more “photograph-able” viewpoints are swarming with shutterbugs? Could the Crazyhorse Memorial ever be as hashtagged as Mount Rushmore? Why aren’t people flocking to Manzanar, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad, and Stonewall for selfies and making tags trend? Thinking a little further into this; however, Williams’ point starts to shine, and I begin to agree with her how the narrative can be controlled with tags. I come full circle.
That said, her all-in tagging response is knee-jerk and deletes the negative impact which unprepared folks (whether white, brown, purple or whatever) are having on remote locations. Yes, we absolutely want urbanites there. But we want them to be safe and prepared, and to leave it how they found it. This “racist gatekeeping” of mine is conservationism, meant to preserve nature for future generations of urbanites and all others, not just for a specific race. If (modern) conservationists* were purposefully exclusionary, there would be no outreach, no books, no photographs. Lips would be sealed.
Sorry, but wanting visitors to be prepared is not a purity test. Is my local Search and Rescue racist and exclusionary for wanting people to plan ahead and prepare? Wanting people — ANY people — to not fuck shit up is not racist. Let’s turn it around for a second. How can I believe the local Paiute & Shoshone tribes would like me geotagging the remote petroglyphs and flake I have found in the mountains near Lone Pine, or tolerate me geotagging the incredible arrowheads and camps I’ve found on the California/Nevada border?
This coming from a computer programmer with some significant mapping experience, I’ll tell you: geotagging and hashtagging literally does nothing to serve us in our daily lives. It is a selfless endeavor, serving strangers and even more ominously, data-sucking corporations. So why do we do it? Is Instagram the best place to research your trip? What data is served other than heavily post-processed, cropped and filtered images (which may or may not depict reality at all) and a pin dropped on a map? Are we advised on what to bring, how and when to travel, what services are available, how to act? Unlikely. Is this information coming from a friend who can be called if there are questions? Probably not. Are we welcome at the destination, are we likely to have any alone or quiet time, and can we come and go without making a negative impact? Good questions.
I deliver some trail information on my website. I carefully deliver the information, but I do gatekeep against people who would distill all this information into one petty goal achieved with tagging and other campaigning: more social media followers. I have read Williams opinion, and I wish to step carefully around it because I understand I have privilege and sympathize with her and her followers’ struggles. At the same time I will absolutely deny that my desire to slow down the arrival of folks with only a waypoint and filtered photos in hand into delicate and disturbed places is anything but conservationism. I will disagree with her that geotags and hashtags are, or should ever be, a way for urbanites to discover and arrive at wild places. Social media as a method of introducing people to hiking, camping, backpacking, canyoneering, climbing, etc., without any in-person introduction, education, or research, is potentially dangerous to these individuals. Where I live in the Eastern Sierra, people with little understanding of nature’s power sometimes simply disappear into the woods, or if they’re lucky, imperil others with expensive rescues.
I am fine to continue eschewing tagging as a way of sharing information, especially since I know how unlikely people are to carefully read captions. I think if people considered the sometimes devastating consequences of their public sharing (e.g. so and so went on a lark because they saw your post and were gravely injured because they didn’t know xyz…), they might start instead just sharing with close family and friends. And were they do that, why would they need tagging? Wouldn’t there be phone calls and in-person chats if a friend or family member were curious? If we want more urbanites and underprivileged folks in the woods, we need to nurture intrapersonal curiosity, not stuff it down strangers’ throats. And ultimately — and I cringe to say this as I’m aware of how important social media is to some cultures — to suggest that the only way they find out about wild places is through social media… is a bit of an insult to our intelligence and cultural networks.
In her fifth and final reason to continue tagging, Williams states “Conservation starts with falling in love with America’s public lands.”
This sentiment is sweet, but it’s just not backed up by numbers and the evidence left behind in the parks. “Loved to death” does in fact mean names carved in trees and rocks, rocks rolled off cliffs, vegetation and cryptobiotic trampled, soil eroded, animal homes disturbed, animals fed and killed with human food, human and dog excrement left behind along with copious trash and microlitter, not to mention automobile, light and noise impacts. “Loved to Death” IS a thing, but it is not love. It is extraction. Seems lately all that is being extracted are selfies and geotags.
As Aldo Leopold put it in the sentinal opus of conservationism, “A Sand County Almanac”:
“But all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.”
Let’s bring all the folks out into the woods who are ready for more than just a quick selfie in a dangerous place. But let’s tell them about it in person, and make sure they come back safe, to share that photo in person.
* Conservationists have taken severe wrong turns ejecting native peoples to create nature refuges.
PS. I’m no longer on Instagram. More on that soon.
PS PS. Cover image is a photo of some pottery pieces I found on a mountain the day after I wrote this. I’ll never tell where.