When it comes to being in wild nature, my general rule about social media is ‘don’t hike/ski/climb/ride and tweet’. I tend to take lots of photos but in terms of posting and viewing images, I find being even haphazardly engaged in the online world stops me from being deeply immersed in my surroundings. If I’m base camping somewhere with coverage, I will some sometimes post some things or check the news or weather, but generally try to keep my backcountry experience mostly in the real world.

I was recently on a multi day walk in the Alps. My 12 year old daughter had decided to stay at home with various friends and, a couple of times a day I would turn the phone on and check where she was. ‘While I was there’ I’d Instagram a quick pic. We were walking through some gorgeous country, in a section of the Bogong High Plains where I hadn’t been for years and it was fun to share some images and thoughts on these great places.

I often look at people in the mountains and notice how we use or allow technology to separate ourselves from the land. You just have to sit near the road over the summit of Mt Stirling on any summer weekend to see this proved. 4WD’s churn up the hill. People jump out for a minute, take some selfies and photos of their trucks and the view, and then keep going. Probably one in 10 go for any type of a wander away from their vehicle, probably one in 20 bother to walk the few hundred metres to the actual summit. I love my phone and camera as much as the next person but I do feel that – at least here in the ‘West’ – most of us have turned into a jumpy, short attention spanned species now days (one of my earlier rants on this is here). Nature often seems more like a backdrop to our adventures than something we immerse ourselves in.

Outside magazine recently asked ‘Is Instagram Ruining the Great Outdoors?’. I assumed it was going to talk about the tendency for us to use our phones to separate ourselves from the experience of nature, but it was something quite different:

“The great outdoors is all over social media. On Instagram, the hashtag #nature has been used more than 20 million times. Attach a geotag to your photo of last weekend’s campsite, and your followers can tramp to the exact same spot.

Some nature lovers worry about the downside to this: Is Instagram funneling hordes of people to places that can’t handle this crush of admirers? Are those filtered, perfectly tinted pics sending a message that people can always go where they want, when they want, and how they want?

In September 2015, photographer Scott Rinckenberger posed a similar question to his then 44,000 followers on Instagram. “Should we all be sharing the locations of the beautiful photos we share on social media, or should we withhold the locations in an effort to protect these fragile places and keep the outdoors a place of exploration and discovery?”

Rinckenberger, a 38-year-old Seattle photographer, had noticed that certain alpine lakes in the Cascades would trend on Instagram. A longtime backpacker, he watched as shares of images of a few high lakes would spike, followed soon by noticeable increases in hiker traffic to those lakes, even though many weren’t previously well known. The trend intrigued and concerned him: alpine areas that could handle only three or four parties were now overflowing with “ten times that many people on a given weekend,” Rinckenberger says.

This isn’t just happening in the Cascades, of course. In Virginia’s George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, a nondescript swimming hole called the Devil’s Bathtub was all but unknown to outsiders until it was posted on Instagram about three years ago. After it caught fire on the platform, a place that might see ten or 20 people per day during peak season suddenly began to see 400 per day, say U.S. Forest Service officials.

In 2015, rangers at Denali National Park, which has only a handful of formal hiking trails, began asking backcountry hikers not to post precise maps or GPS coordinates of their adventures on the web, the Alaska Dispatch News reported. The goal was to avoid further creation of “informal trails” and the damage they bring, as well as to preserve the trail-less, choose-your-own-adventure philosophy of the park, the story said.

This tension – between wanting more people to enjoy the outdoors while preserving their wildnessisn’t new… When guidebooks hit the outdoor world in the 1960s, some railed against the new democratization, claiming the authors were pointing too many people to places that had been hard-earned secrets”.

While one option to reduce impacts in ‘new’ areas might include the request for photographers not to geotag photos from remote and fragile locations, another development that I thought was interesting comes from Yellowstone:

“Yellowstone National Park recently began the #YellowstonePledge campaign, a new strategy to foster both a sense of ownership toward the park and a respect for it. The campaign encourages people to read and take the pledge (“Practice safe selfies by never approaching animals to take a picture,” for example, or “Stay on boardwalks in thermal areas”), and then post the hashtag #YellowstonePledge to Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.”

IMGP1431The issue of social media or websites increasing visitation to fragile areas is one that I wonder about a lot. I have sometimes posted reports on this website about areas that are fragile and out of the way, and sometimes decided not to, for fear of increasing visitation. These are in already protected areas so they don’t need ‘profile’ to help them. It’s surprising – and quite fantastic – to consider that even in this day and age, there are some great mountainous areas in Tasmania, for instance, that have almost no presence in the online world. I’m glad that this is still the case. If you want to visit, you need to get a map and just go there, rather than being able to download the co-ordinates for the route in, or even know exactly what it’s like there. I think this lack of info is something to cherish. Of course, its easy to ignore online info and guide books, and treat your trip to even a well traveled area as a real adventure, if that’s your choice (on my first trip down the Franklin River, we didn’t take a map, and that lead to a lot of adventure and some ‘interesting’ moments).

I suppose the take home messages I got from reading the Outside article was:

  • It can be great to share images and inspire others to get out into wild places, but
  • Don’t tag fragile places, and be mindful about how your image might influence other people’s behaviour.

And for my own part, I would add:

  • Don’t let the technology control how you engage with nature. Spend most of your time being there, not thinking about how that image would look on Instagram or facebook.

Then I spotted an interesting post on a blog called Finding Nature. It was called ‘Our Growing Disconnection: the decline of nature in fiction, film and song’ and quoted a  research paper that had been published in Perspectives on Psychological Science. The article opens with reference to the January 2015 letter to OUPprotesting at the loss of nature words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. The study analysed works of popular culture throughout the 20th century, finding a cultural shift away from nature starting in the 1950s”.

That is, the article poses the suggestion that words describing nature are becoming less common, because the various forms of mainstream media focus less on nature. This, of course, raises the question: is this happening because we are increasingly urbanised (and more connected to the virtual world offered by our communications technology?), and hence this means ‘nature’ is less of a presence in western popular culture?

The article goes on to say:

“Two arguments are often put forward to explain our growing disconnection from nature. Urbanization and Technology. The paper argues that rates of increasing urbanisation don’t mirror the decline of nature words, yet the dawns of new technology do; from television in the 1950s to video games in the 1980s. Perhaps these technologies replaced nature as a source of joy? It seems the technology that defines us as humans shapes us more and more”.

Back to our walking trip. I looked around the camp. We had a big group, with 8 kids under 15. They had navigated from the last camp, and spent five hours crossing some wild and wind blown country. Now they were clustered around someone’s phone, playing a game. But 20 minutes later they were out gathering fire wood and we had a long night of playing games around the campfire. Phones and the internet are fantastic and also habitually addictive, so you do need to stay on top of the habit. The natural world is as compelling as it ever was, and possibly more so for those who understand that climate change is impacting on all landscapes, including the places we love the most. As with most things in life, finding the Balance is what it’s all about.