The Great Geotagging Debate

Geotagging is the act of sharing specific location data, most commonly in a photograph on social media. It has become a controversial topic recently, as we have the Leave No Trace/Keep the Wilderness Wild folks on one side and the people who see not disclosing locations as a snobby racial and socioeconomic power play on the other, and both sides have some valid points.

It’s clear that the explosion of Instagram, and to a lesser degree Facebook, has created an explosion of people flocking to the great outdoors to replicate or compete with all the pretty things they see online. Which is great, more people are getting off the couch and out into the world. Fresh air and exercise are as good for the mind as they are the body, and in some ways it’s lovely that people who never would have gotten out are getting moving. And for the ones who have always gotten out, it’s nice that they can find new inspiration at their fingertips. However.

Let’s look at what’s happening as a result:

Overtourism: Once-pristine locations are getting overrun with people, and often inexperienced people, causing increases in search and rescue operations, litter, land erosion, graffiti, and road and parking issues. Some of the places being tagged are driving crowds to places that for any number of reasons can’t accommodate a huge influx of new people. A great example of this is the great poppy superbloom near Lake Elsinore, California, in 2019. After a few Instagram Influencers posted (admittedly filtered or photoshopped) photos, the crowds came in droves, caused traffic jams that prevented residents from getting to their homes, and resulted in so many people walking, sitting, rolling around on the poppy fields that the flowers were trampled and the town’s mayor took to social media to ask people to come back another year. There are a few locations in Washington that have had similar issues: these once-remote, difficult, unmarked trails started showing up on Instagram, with girls in that classic yoga pants/arms overhead/butt stuck out/standing-on-a-rocky-outcropping-in-front-of-a-photoshop-colored-lake pose, and now a place that was once serene and secluded has people lined up to take that same photo.

Nevermind half of them don’t have proper gear and would not fare well should the weather change unexpectedly, but the parking has gotten so out of control that the authorities had to get involved and regularly issue citations and tow cars blocking the road. These are the folks that feed animals and leave TP on the side of the trail and blast music while hiking. Not all of them of course but the increase in the offenses to LNT has increased with the amount of “just here for the ‘gram” people.

In response to the overcrowding, various alternate tags have shown up like “Planet Earth” or “The Outdoors,” and some people even obviously and sarcastically mis-tag their photos. In 2018 the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board launched a campaign asking park visitors to use the geotag “Tag Responsibly, Keep Jackson Hole Wild” instead of sharing specific locations. We have a “Tag Responsibly, Keep Washington Beautiful” geotag, and many other states, national parks, and mountain areas have followed suit.

Elitism: And just when it seemed to make sense to stop geotagging in order to preserve our land, the argument arises that preventing people from knowing where a location is is exclusionary and elitist and that there are racial and socioeconomic undertones to posting a photo of a beautiful place then in effect saying “but I’m not going to tell you where it is.” Not geotagging has been referred to as gatekeeping, and some say that withholding locations comes from white privilege and an attitude of “I can be here but you can’t.” Some believe it implies that people who didn’t learn Leave No Trace principles growing up, who don’t have an understanding of what environmentally ethical outdoorsmanship is, who don’t know the “rules” so to speak—that those people are less deserving of exploring nature. Some say there’s an implication that newcomers or people who aren’t “real hikers” aren’t allowed to know where the pretty things are, that only the “real” outdoors people can.

Is it racist to not geotag remote, untouched places in nature? Is it exclusionary in a socioeconomic way? But aside from the occasional parking fee or entrance fees at national parks, nature is free and open to everyone. Is not sharing a location a cultural game of keepaway? It does have a hint of exclusivity to it but so does the food posted on Insta without recipes. When Grandpa didn’t tell people where his good fishing spot was, was that elitist, or just wanting to keep his secret spot a secret? Is this the grown-up version of “you can’t be in our club?” or are some folks just more committed to preserving these hidden treasures rather than sharing them? It’s a fairly new topic and and ongoing debate still evolving and unfolding.

Personal Safety: The other concern with tagging your location is your own personal safety. If you are going to tag, do it when you get home. If you have a creepy ex or a creepy admirer, advertising that you’re out in the middle of nowhere could wind up bringing you an unwanted guest.

What are the solutions? You could use your social media platform to educate folks on how to find their own secret spots, and use the geotags of others as more of a way to get ideas than as specific coordinates to find, or a specific photo to replicate. We can share more about LNT principles, post them at trailheads, and educate younger people on how to be good land stewards the way someone taught us. Somehow moving the culture to one of both inclusivity and a love of the land is key; once people understand the damage overcrowding does, they might be more apt to spread out a bit and get back to the spirit of exploring and discovering. We have a duty, as the ones who are already here, to help impart that to the coming generations. As long as our love for the land prevails, we can find a way to reshape the cultural norms around this issue, a way that includes all while being kind to the earth.