Why Geotagging is Bad for Everyone
If you know what geotagging is, skip to the next paragraph. For those of you that don't know, geotagging (not to be confused with geocaching) is the action of tagging your photos on social media in a precise physical location. The photos below are an example. The photo on the left is a picture that was posted and geotagged at the Walker Canyon Poppy Fields. The geotag is circled in red. Other users can then click on that geotag, and it will take them to the page that is shown in the photo on the right. The geotag gives the exact location the photo was taken at, and shows all the other photos that were taken at that location.
What's the problem with geotagging specific locations? Let's use an example of a small local swimming hole. This swimming hole was relatively unknown, except to locals and those in the know who were trusted with its knowledge. There wasn't much of a path, it was more of bushwack from the road down to the river. People respected this place because it was in their backyard. It was a cool place to just hang out with a few friends on the weekend in an undeniably beautiful setting. Maybe a few different groups would show up if the weather was perfect, but with 20 or 30 people there, it never felt busy.
Fast forward three years. There are literally 1,000's of highly filtered pictures of this place geotagged on Instagram. Everyone has seen the photos, especially the ones that some very popular influencers have posted on social media. Then it got included in a "Top 10 Swimming Holes Everyone Must Visit Before They Die" click-bait article. Everyone wants to go and get the same epic shots. The swimming hole literally has 100's of people showing up every day. Neighbors are ticked off because people are parking on their property and blocking the road. Trash is being left behind. Going barefoot is a bad idea due to all the broken glass. It's not that people shouldn't enjoy beautiful natural places. They should. That's the purpose of public lands. However, sharing pictures of these places on social media, specifically geotagging, isn't in the best interest of anyone.
Before the advent of social media, people (lets call them Jim and Jenny, or “JJ”) may have started walking in their local forest preserve, where they learned to stay on the marked paths, off trails when they were muddy, and perhaps they learned about another cool local hike. When JJ tried that new hike, they learned that flip flops aren’t acceptable footwear for longer hikes, orange peels and apple cores should be packed out, and a fellow hiker shared some details about a cool hot spring up in the mountains. JJ’s visit to the hot spring that winter taught them that it’s important to check weather conditions at higher elevations, glass isn’t acceptable at hot springs, and then another hot springer told them about a rad hike in the local mountains. The next summer, while completing that more difficult hike in the mountains, JJ learned that campfires aren’t allowed in the alpine zone, and that to avoid the crowds, you can backpack in and camp overnight. JJ then visited a local outdoor store where they bought a tent so they could do a longer backpacking trip. In addition to the tent, the sales person at the store made sure JJ had all the proper gear (some of which they didn’t know they needed) including a camp stove (no fires in the alpine zone) and trowel for cat holes (bury all human waste 6” deep and 250’ from waterways). You can see where this is going. This gradual learning process allowed people who were new to the outdoors to build up their responsible stewardship skills and ensured that the basic rules of the outdoors were learned and followed by the vast majority of people.
Nowadays, everyone has access to all of these amazing places with just a few clicks on the computer or swipes on their phone. They see a beautiful picture of a swimming hole say “that looks amazing, lets go!”, click on the geotag, find the location, maybe buy some basic gear on Amazon, get a basic trail map on an app, and off they go after doing minimal, if any, research. Many of these people haven’t acquired the corresponding outdoor ethics that will allow them to be responsible users of our public lands. Although these people may not break the rules and damage our natural wonders with malicious intent, the damage is done all the same. I’m sure that “AW + RS” didn’t intend to kill that pine tree by expressing their mutual love in its bark, but they did. I’m sure whoever broke that bottle in hot spring didn’t do it on purpose, but it still cut my foot open. The campers at who left a smoldering campfire in the back-country probably didn’t realize that it often takes five gallons of water to put out a campfire, not just one Nalgene worth, but those embers still had a high probably of starting a wildfire.
It's not that people shouldn't enjoy beautiful natural places. Everyone should! But geotagging & sending people to these locations uninformed is having an enormous negative impact, as noted in the swimming hole example above and the recent superbloom fiasco in California. If you want to geotag, that’s your choice, but I implore you to do it with purpose. Share ethically taken photos that SHOW responsible actions. Share important information about how to treat the place with respect. Share what people can do to improve the place and leave it better than they found it. A shared picture captioned with a John Muir quote, song lyrics, or a shoutout to your wannabe sponsors just doesn’t cut it.
All that aside, ask yourself this - What do you gain by geotagging? A few more likes? A new follower? Making your friends and followers (many of whom you probably don't even know ) jealous? Are those momenatary dopamine hits worth the potential permanent impacts to our public lands? I can’t answer that question for you, but for me the answer is an unequivocal NO.