The Trouble with Social Media in the Outdoors Opinion

© Dan Bailey

The outdoors can seem less an escape from modern life than an extension of it, with the same messy dilemmas. In his longrunning series of essays on environmental ethics, Tomas Frydrych wrestles with some of the big questions we could all be asking ourselves: here it's the pernicious role of social media in the outdoors, and its impact on footfall and behaviour.

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In this third piece of reflections on the modern outdoor ethos I want to look at the fallout from the connected nature of our contemporary existence - a big subject, with far-reaching ethical implications. I am going to merely scratch the surface here by highlighting three issues that I think are of a particular significance for us outdoor folk: the impact of the Follower Economy, the Concentration of Footprints effect, and the consequences of life in Echo Chambers.

Is The Ben in nick? quick, let the Facebook hordes know...  © Martin McKenna
Is The Ben in nick? quick, let the Facebook hordes know...
© Martin McKenna

Upon a Time

The Internet entered public consciousness in the '90s promising liberation through access to free knowledge for all. Alas, it wasn't to be. Neither content nor technology are free, and while the venture capital kept pouring in without restraint, it became an open secret that the only thing turning profit was porn. With the benefit of hindsight, the implosion of the Dotcom bubble was inevitable.

The Follower Economy has turned into a fiercely competitive pyramid scheme, demanding ever increasing volume of yet more jaw-dropping content to sustain it. Ever more contrived challenges are conceived for the sake of self-publicity and that Holy Grail of modern marketing, virality

At the other side emerged a medium systematically remoulded into the monolithic advertising channel the Internet is today. When the so-called social networks arrived, they did so with new and superior opportunities to mine user data and to target advertisements, and with a follower model that lent itself exceptionally well to product placement. And so the Follower Economy was born.

Follower Economy

In the Follower Economy social media followers are a commodity. The monetisation can take different forms, from contractual sponsorship agreements to money or goods supplied for advertorial or reviews, but in all its shapes it raises ethical questions. This is a big deal in the outdoor world, as Ben Schenck of the MtnMeister podcast observes, since other possibilities of outdoor-based income are limited. Schenck tried to get to the bottom of the 'how much' question, but only with limited success - perhaps these matters are too commercially sensitive.

But the outdoor Follower Economy is problematic on a deeper level than the fact that it shapes the content it pays for. It gave birth to a whole new breed of professionals - the 'brand ambassador', the 'influencer', the 'adventurer' - and with them came a significant shift in focus. Seen through this lens, nature is no longer primarily a wonderful place we immerse ourselves into, but, with echoes of colonial exploration of old, a place where we achieve, conquer, prove ourselves to those around us, where we compete against each other.

A new gospel of Salvation through Adventure is preached in earnest to electronic pews of awestruck followers: 'Forsake all others for Adventure!' I cannot but wonder, when we have all become so liberated, who will make the smartphones to take the selfies, and who will maintain the camper vans? But I am digressing.

How's that gonna look on Instagram?  © Alan James
How's that gonna look on Instagram?
© Alan James

This neo-romantic message is laden with platitudes but (ultra)light on responsibility. The emphasis on self-fulfilment above all else is deeply disturbing, and already bearing fruit, as we are seeing reversal on issues on which a good progress had been made in the past, such as the making of fire in our wild spaces, or outdoor defecation practices. Ethical questions only arise when it's someone else's behaviour that impinges on me, ie. the outdoor ethos of the new adventurers is at best reactive rather than proactive.

As more and more are sucked in, the Follower Economy has turned into a fiercely competitive pyramid scheme, demanding ever increasing volume of yet more jaw-dropping content to sustain it. Omission has become the principal narrative device of our day, and ever more contrived challenges are conceived of for the sake of self-publicity and that Holy Grail of modern marketing, virality.

We are all better served by making our own outdoor experiences rather than striving to relive someone else's

The endless quest for followers means continually encouraging more people to get outdoors. 'It's good for you', we are told. This might well be true, but the inverse is not: we are not necessarily good for the outdoors, and contrary to what many believe, an exposure to nature's wonders alone does not better people make; the state of our (once pristine) planet warrants no other conclusion. More people in nature, first and foremost, means more rubbish at our scenic spots. That's the acute contemporary reality that needs acknowledging and addressing. The regression we are seeing in recent years is palpable and rapid.

My point is not that we should seek to restrict the number of people in the outdoors, but that it matters why we go there. The prospectors will dig, the trophy hunters will kill. If we are chasing selfies, we will behave as narcissists. The follower economy is artificially pushing up the numbers for marketing purposes, while little thought is given to, and no responsibility is taken for, what that means for the outdoors itself.

Maybe some moments actually aren't worth sharing after all...?  © Dan Bailey
Maybe some moments actually aren't worth sharing after all...?
© Dan Bailey

I would argue that in our age matters of responsible outdoor behaviour and conservation must be in the forefront of all outdoor publicity, taking priority over everything else, including making a living. We need to become conservationists first, only then adventurers; if we don't there will be no outdoors worth visiting left.

As I argued in the first part of this series, a growth in numbers necessarily means we need to follow more a stringent ethos, accept more constraints on our activities, be satisfuied with a smaller Fair Share. If you are an outdoor 'brand ambassador', an 'influencer' or a 'professional adventurer', your outdoor ethos cannot be based on what is appropriate for you alone, or for the lone adventurer persona you present to the world; it needs to be based on what is appropriate for you accompanied by your 300k, or whatever, followers. Your principal responsibility must be to educate on genuinely sustainable practices and conservation - the occasional token reference to Leave No Trace is not enough. And if that gets in the way of making a living ...tough.

Concentration of Footprints

One of the effects of social media is that we are all heading into the same places. And I mean exactly the same places, thanks to the GPS. While GPS logs can be a useful planning resource, they come with the risk that on the day we turn into mere followers of other people's tracks. When that happens, our footprints get heavily concentrated.

One of the effects of social media is that we are all heading into the same places. And I mean exactly the same places, thanks to the GPS. Our footprints get heavily concentrated

Back in the mid '90s my first ventures into Scotland's hills were inspired and guided by Cameron McNeish's The Munros. One sentence has stuck with me through the quarter of a century since:

I therefore hope ... this book [helps] spreading the load on the hill, taking the more adventurous away from the popular honeypot routes.

Of course, at very popular locations where erosion control is necessary such concentration of impact can be a good thing. But at other locations it simply creates excessive pressures. And I think on balance the negatives outweigh the positives.

It's not just the GPS. Photos, geotagged or not, can produce a similar effect, as can videos. Worse, videos and images can go viral, indeed the Follower Economy aspires for them to. Virality can have devastating, even if unintended, consequences for the natural locations portrayed (and/or the communities attached to them).

With a competitive element thrown into the mix, our ethos gets skewed even further. The Strava service is the most obvious example, but not the only one. Mountain biking is much affected by this - corners are straight-lined, technically challenging bits are bypassed, all for the sake of that coveted KOM; secondary erosion rapidly follows. Most paths near where I live have been, often irreversibly, 'strava-ed' in this way.

Perhaps we could all do with using our phones less when we're supposed to be out in nature?  © John McKenna
Perhaps we could all do with using our phones less when we're supposed to be out in nature?
© John McKenna

Yet again, it comes back to the Fair Share - if I want to share minute details of my experience with thousands of people, then I'd better make sure that the location can deal with thousands trying to replicate that experience, for on social media the multitude is only one or two (un)lucky retweets away.

Make of it what you will. Personally, based on reflection on these issues, I don't do Strava or publish GPS tracks in any shape and form, or even geotag photos. I avoid detailed information about the location of my wild camps, and at times have decided not to blog about an entire trip for similar reasons. Of course I make no exclusive claim on any of these places, nor begrudge others visiting them, but I think we are all better served by making our own outdoor experiences rather than striving to relive someone else's.

In the Echo Chambers

We tend to follow people who's opinions are similar to ours, who in turn tend to share/retweet opinions similar to theirs, etc. These echo chambers provide a cheap validation of our own perspectives, while sharply polarising us from those who differ. They deprive us of opportunities, and ultimately the ability, to critically assess the opinions we hold.

This is a real problem. The echo chambers are high contrast black & white microcosms, while the real world rarely is. Ethics is not about holding onto a simplistic moral high ground; that's the hallmark of fundamentalism. Rather, ethics is a balancing act, where we try to navigate an optimal way through a multiplicity of competing undesirable scenarios.

The wilderness-craving me dislikes paved paths, with their neat drainage ditches and all that; they degrade my personal 'wilderness' experience, they hurt my feet. But in the view of the numbers of people passing through some places such an intervention is clearly necessary. And so while in my ideal world there would be none of that, in this world I am compelled to chip into a path repair fund. But imagine I find myself in an echo chamber which doesn't believe in human feet causing erosion (not that far fetched, believe me)?

This is, obviously, a trivial example; but the underlying issue is far from trivial. I see these patterns in various conversations passing through my own chamber. There is the Leave No Trave v bushcraft polarity which crops up time from time; there is the wilderness v livelihoods polarity, or timber forestry v tourism. It can be a worthwhile exercise to step into one of these other echo chambers and listen.

Some places could do with a lot less exposure on social media. Photo: Gerry Neely  © gerryneely
Some places could do with a lot less exposure on social media. Photo: Gerry Neely

To avoid misunderstanding, I am not saying that all opinions are equal, and all 'truths' need to be accommodated. I am saying that the social media echo chambers, and social media in general, are not conducive to formulating a viable ethos. They are artificial constructs, imaginary worlds.

They also make us feel like experts on things with which we have no direct involvement. Indeed, it is exceedingly easy to hold the moral high ground on matters that don't have personal existential consequences, you know, to be outraged over a small remote highland community wanting to do something that impinges on the 'wildness' of their home ground to boost their income, while I am sitting in an office in the Central Belt with a regular monthly income.

It's not that we can't or should not have views on matters we are not experts on, or directly involved in (I clearly do), but we need to be wary of a depersonalised ethos; ethical questions can't be resolved in the abstract.

All in all, I think rather than getting us closer together, helping us understand each other, social media tends to drive us apart. We need to get out there more, meet real people, try to wear the other's shoes for a bit. Maybe even make friends. I know it's hard, real outdoor people smell.


For me two things emerged clearly while trying to think through what it takes to be a responsible outdoor person in the 21st century:

  • Our outdoor ethos needs to be dynamic, with participation numbers influencing what constitutes responsible behaviour (the Fair Share) and where. The more of us there are, the more care we need to take, simple as that.
  • The impact of our outdoor pursuits reaches beyond the places where they happen, and beyond the time when they happen. Additional impact arises due to the environmental costs of our equipment as well as the secondary activities we might trigger through social media. These secondary impacts might be much more significant than the primary ones, and a responsible outdoor behaviour needs to account for this.

Perhaps not particularly exciting or profound. But nevertheless, I think we outdoor folk need to review (and keep reviewing afresh) what we do, how we do it, and where we do it, from these two angles; the Leave No Trace principles of old are no longer enough, and time is not on our side.

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27 Aug, 2018

An excellent and thought provoking read, thank you. 

I will 'share' it on Facebook immediately! ;-)

27 Aug, 2018

Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.

But don't put the pictures on Facebook or track your footprints with GPS.

Because the internet is evil.

27 Aug, 2018

I can see that there's a point trying to get out of that essay. Having read it, I'm not sure it escaped.

But maybe, it's me. Social media can be an antisocial thing, and I am not wholly immersed in it.


27 Aug, 2018

Great article!! A side point... is it not possible that some people voraciously absorb other's adventures without leaving the door themselves? If this "feed" is cut off, lots of us will have no alternative but to get outside and experience the outdoors first hand (heaven forbid!) leading to a greater environmental impact?

27 Aug, 2018

Only skimmed this, and slightly off-topic, but this quote the author likes:

Is a very good argument to purchase definitive guidebooks and support companies and organisations who research and produce definitive guides to areas, to use them and ensure the load is spread widely, to avoid some crags and areas being neglected and overgrown while the honeypots become trashed and overused.

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