Guthook’s New Social Feature: An Overview and Early Analysis
Well, guys, we’re deep into the era of coronavirus, and that (sadly) means we’re not going to be hitting any long-distance trails for a while. Only a few (long) weeks ago, many of us were looking forward to starting our thru-hike attempts, and the February 28 release of Guthook’s new Check-In Social Feature was fuel for the fire of our thoughts and discussions around how we socialize on and off trail.
According to Guthook’s website, the new feature is “a way to keep in touch with family and friends back home or to follow the progress of your tramily while hiking.” Hikers can document their journeys with a series of GPS check-ins, which friends and family can then follow.
Now, in this pandemic limbo we’re all living in, online platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and the also-newly-released Hikerlink have become even more solidified in their power to keep us connected outside the physical world, where the functionality of the Guthook social feature is completely reliant on our ability to physically explore the trails.
Though it’s still unclear how long it will be before we can actually use it, Guthook’s new social feature will undoubtedly be a prominent feature of trail life once it starts back up in full force. To give us all something to ponder, here’s an overview of the new feature and some thoughts on how it could integrate into the social dynamics of backpacking. A dirtbag can dream, right?
How it Works
In your profile on the Guthook app, you have the option to add a profile and cover picture, first and last name, display name, and bio. You’ll choose between a public or private profile; private means you can’t be found in a search and your profile details and check-ins are only displayed to your accepted followers. No one can see your check-ins unless you accept their follow request.
You can then find friends to follow and invite people to follow you. Your friends and family don’t have to own a trail guide to follow you (though they may want to buy it for funsies), but they do need to download the app and create a profile to sign in and view your check-ins.
From here, the social feature works as an extension of your regular Guthook use. The app pinpoints your location with GPS, then you can go to your profile to send a check-in. The check-in will automatically be time stamped, and you can choose to add a personal message. Your followers will be able to see where you were, when, and what you had to say about it on your profile or a map view. As with waypoint comments and updates, none of this will upload until you’ve connected to a cell or internet signal.
Some have compared this new feature to Hikerlink, the social network unveiled by The Trek on March 2, but I think that perspective lacks nuance. Hikerlink is essentially a digital Hiker Yearbook and logbook for connecting and communicating with other hikers. Like Facebook in 2006, but for thru-hikers. Guthook’s Social Feature is for checking in and location sharing. Like Foursquare in 2009, but for long trails. As it stands they are not the same, but they do have similar potential for both thru-hike enhancement and abuse.
When I first saw the Social Feature announced on Instagram, my mind went immediately to privacy. I saw Insta stories of hikers publicly sharing their newly created Guthook accounts for dozens to hundreds of people they may or may not know to request to follow. I wondered about the potential for stalking, which is already becoming an increasing concern in the age of hikers documenting their hikes via social media, often in real time. An age where follower and like counts inadvertently establish modes of status and comparison and time outside is increasingly punctuated by phone checks. While none of this is inherently good or bad, it prompts us all to consider how we can interact with technology while still getting what we came outside to get, which varies slightly for each of us.
Zooming out, I can see this feature for what it means to be, which is a tool to ease the burden of hikers whose family and friends want to know where they are. Makes sense. But a technology’s impact is dictated not so much by its creators’ intent as by the way people use it. And, to layer one unknown on top of another, the use of this technology could be dictated by whatever effects a global pandemic may come to have on interactions between hikers.
Guthook is already hugely popular across the hiking community. There is no doubt this Social Feature will be widely used on trail, but how, with whom, and with what degree of privacy it will typically be used are yet to be established.
Here’s how I see this technology being used, and potential implications of those uses.
Following from Home
This will be a wonderful tool to easily connect hikers and concerned/interested friends and family who aren’t on trail. Though this should absolutely not be considered a replacement for the potential life-saving power of a SPOT or InReach device (Guthook doesn’t call for help, y’all), if you were planning to buy one of those devices solely to broadcast your whereabouts to avid followers, you might consider Guthook Social as an inexpensive, if delayed, alternative.
Keeping up with the Traildashians
Ever felt anxious about how you’ll keep up with your friends if the tramily has to split up? This is how. Assuming you’ve had a chance to download the new check-in data before hitting the next section of trial, you’ll have all the time and location data to inform any catch-up attempts you may be plotting. I’m excited about the potential to follow a curated group of people based on a mutual desire to find each other again down the trail. This will be especially helpful for hikers who forgo social media and/or are too lazy to text.
The ability to add a message to your check-ins will bring an unprecedented amount of personal detail to the on-trail experience. You could already say anything in the comments, but people keep it mostly relevant to the waypoint at hand. The expectation with a social check-in is that it will be about you, the hiker checking in. This will likely prompt updates on daily mileage, town plans, and descriptions of your day, cracking the digital door to the FOMO and inter-trail competition that is already perpetuated by Instagram.
With all this checking in and detailed updating, the instances of hikers on their phones will certainly spike. This is inherently neither good nor bad, but does certainly decrease a person’s ability to be fully present. Many hikers hit the trail looking for some level of disconnection from the world in order to deeply connect with self, others, and nature. Some hikers may struggle to put boundaries on their relationship with this new feature as it conflicts with their desire to unplug; others may not be bothered at all.
Post-COVID, maybe we will crave more digital interaction than physical. I hope not. Thru-hikers were already pretty careful about germ spreading (hey, Giardia), but if there’s a change to be seen on this front, Guthook will be there to see it through.
Lost and Found
Similar to police using phone data to assist in the search for missing persons, there is a potential here for search and rescue crews to use detailed check-in data to help locate missing hikers who used this feature often. If data privacy doesn’t prove too big a barrier, this could save lives.
Then there’s the potential to be found by people you don’t want finding you. This is where personal discretion and responsibility come in, as well as clear communication with your hiking partners. If you decide to share your public Guthook profile with a large network and accept follow requests indiscriminately (as many of us do on Instagram), you make it a lot easier for someone you don’t know to track you down. It has happened and will happen again, and it’s not always malicious but it could be. This is why the private profile setting exists and why follows must be requested. Even if you don’t care about the small risk associated with a public profile widely shared and blindly opened to followers, it could be a good conversation to have if you’re hiking with someone else who might prefer more anonymity.
What impact do you think Guthook’s Social Feature will have on thru-hiking culture? I’m interested to hear the different perspectives on what will surely be a ubiquitous addition to the future of thru-hiking, especially in our post-pandemic outdoor lives.
Featured image via Cameron Mosier
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