The Ethics of Geotagging on Social Media
Outdoor recreation is hot right now. Covid brought tons of new people to the outdoors when inside was no longer safe, and the rebound traffic after a no-hike year in 2020 made the Triple Crown trails busier than ever in ’21 and ’22. In some cases, the increased visitation means our favorite public lands are being loved to death.
It’s hard to discern exactly why certain places have gotten so busy, but the most commonly blamed culprit is social media. Unlike a casual conversation with a friend, a single post on your favorite platform could reach millions of people overnight. With timestamps and geotagging, any random follower can identify when and where an Instagram influencer took that beautiful sunset pic and be on their way there the next day.
“Geotagging” is the practice of adding a location to a photo’s metadata or caption. It can be as specific as spot coordinates and as broad as “planet earth.” This depends somewhat on the platform but mainly on the tagger’s preference since it is manually edited.
It’s undeniable that people visit destinations after seeing a post on social media. The Instagram account @insta_repeat documents the desire to recreate picture-perfect moments from scenic points like Horseshoe Bend or the Italian Dolomites. The former has become so popular it went from a dirt pullover with a few thousand visitors a year in 2009 (right before Instagram was launched) to an estimated two million visitors in 2018, complete with fees, shuttles, and a paved parking lot for its 5000 daily visitors.
Approaches to Geotagging
Longtime visitors to these places are understandably frustrated. Their once quiet refuge is now a zoo of cellphone selfies and unmitigated trash. But who is to blame, and where is the line between sharing your life with friends and putting a sensitive ecosystem on blast? There are many approaches to sharing places on social media, each with its own explanations and drawbacks.
Some outdoor influencers always tag where their photos are taken. In many people’s eyes, this is the most inclusive approach since it doesn’t reserve destinations for friends or the outdoor elites who know how to find them and get there. In other words, this is the “no-gatekeeping” approach. After all, it’s public land, right? Who am I to regulate who and how many people know about it?
The criticism here is that the accessibility of the information leads to too many people visiting, often irresponsibly. Social media is fast, but public infrastructure is slow to catch up with visitation. While you can leave a lengthy caption about LNT principles of the area or the required permits, the chances are slim to none that the entire audience will read and take this advice to heart.
Don’t Tag but Provide Info on Request
Another common approach is to quietly leave the location blank but provide details when asked in a direct message or conversation. This usually prevents a location from quickly being fed into an algorithm and visited by a wide audience.
Critics of this approach call it a slippery slope to gatekeeping. How do you determine who is worthy of learning the location? What about people that are too intimidated to send a message request because they don’t fit the common demographic or community?
It also raises the question of whether you are responsible for how this person behaves at the tagged location and how they represent it on their own social media. It only takes one person to “let the cat out of the bag.”
When I bring a friend to a new place, I usually try to give them key beta (such as permits, need for wag bags, closed zones, etc.). When we meet up, and I ask if they brought a wag bag, I have gotten a blank stare or “oh shit, I forgot!” more often than I would hope for. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, being a personal educator to our peers isn’t effective.
Big social media platforms also don’t incentivize education. Instagram heavily promotes the account title, geotag, and picture but truncates captions and comments to the first dozen words or so by default. Simply put, they focus on visual interest and quick facts over meaningful commentary.
Make a Statement Against Sharing
An increasingly popular approach to geotagging is the “ethical statement” tag. Popular ones include #stopgeotagging or #Tag Responsibly, Keep the West Wild.
While it raises some awareness for conservation issues, it’s often done in the single line of text reserved for geotags or as a hashtag. In this small space, there isn’t room for nuance or explanation of the statement. It’s also one of the most exclusionary approaches; the poster wants the attention and accolades of being in a cool place doing a cool thing but doesn’t believe other people should be granted the knowledge to do it themselves. Is that fair on public lands?
It is also rarely effective. Someone else can blow it up in the comments, use a reverse image search to identify major features, or approximate its location using context clues and pinpoint it on a 3D map.
A few years ago, a colleague who uses this approach shared a photo with me but didn’t care to share where it was. Just with reasonable knowledge of Utah’s geology, Google Earth, and 30 spare minutes, I was able to pinpoint where the photo was taken within a quarter mile, including what direction they were facing and the names of the geological features in the background, as well as when they were there within one month.
The most conservative approach is not to post at all. No inspirational imagery, no relevant or educational captions, no geotags, nada. While you could argue this is the most gatekeep-y approach of them all, there’s also no obligation for the average joe to broadcast their personal business online. Also called the darkhorse or secret spot approach, not posting prevents a place from getting runaway attention online.
This is my personal approach, mostly because I believe no one cares what I’m up to on the average weekend. I also don’t want to feel responsible when someone goes to the desert without wag bags or doesn’t research permits for that alpine lake campsite.
This is fine as someone with a day job in an unrelated industry. Unfortunately, it isn’t an option for most outdoor influencers or sponsored adventure athletes; part of their job is keeping people interested in what they are doing (and, subsequently, the brands that sponsor them). This usually means social media posts with locations, mileage, route names, and more.
The expectation to tag forces people with the biggest digital footprint to bring attention to places that might not be able to handle it.
So What Should I, the Everyday Hiker, Do?
There’s no perfect answer here. What’s most important is self-acknowledgment of your digital footprint and the permanence of the internet. Are you big enough that thousands or tens of thousands see every story you post? Or do you have a private account followed by your 10 closest friends and grandma?
It’s worth noting that the organization dedicated to low-impact hiking, Leave No Trace, is not anti-geotagging. They attempt to be inclusive by encouraging responsible outdoor recreation while focusing on education rather than limiting visitors.
Also, consider the platform you are using. Instagram is quick to show you a pretty picture and move on. A personal blog or vlog, on the other hand, leaves much more room for narrative and education and likely has an audience more receptive to advice and engaging conversation.
Lastly, consider that even the “sensitive environment” you seek to protect doesn’t have a magic number where Visitor 1000 is fine, but Visitor 1001 is catastrophic. Most destinations can handle more traffic than we imagine if the visitors act responsibly and the managing agency has the resources to protect it.
If your secret spot is getting loved to death, talk to your local trail organization or land manager and see what you can help, and participate in public comment periods to get more resources dedicated to high-impact areas. But if you’re simply upset your secret spot has been found by other people, maybe your attitude and ego are the problems rather than the other visitors.
Featured image: Photo and graphic design by Zack Goldmann.
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