Welcome to the Great Outdoors' Insta-Sphere

Love it, hate it, or "like" it, social media is reshaping our relationship to public lands

By Katie O'Reilly

June 26, 2020

Welcome to the Great Outdoors' Insta-Sphere

Illustration by Eugenia Loli

I RECENTLY had a social media nightmare. I was dangling my legs off the side of a dock when an adorable seal jumped out of the water and plopped down next to me. Knowing it could be the photo of a lifetime, I reached for my phone, but by the time I accessed my camera, the seal had splashed back beneath the waves.

I woke up twitchy and anxious. Earlier that same week, in real life—IRL, as they say—I'd been hiking in Arizona's Sonoran Desert. A co-trekker (and former herpetology major) had gasped, grabbed my arm, and pointed out a chubby, pink-and-black Gila monster lurking beneath a brittlebush. But I didn't have a clear memory of the rare beaded lizard because—you guessed it—I had been too busy trying to capture the moment on my cell to really get a good look at it. I lay in bed, troubled, for once not reaching for my phone.

Abundant research has documented the behaviors and dopamine rewards that drive the social media user—the craving for attention, the narcissistic self-referencing, the reliance on the vanity metrics of likes and retweets and follows for emotional validation.

I also know all about social media getting us addicted and then destroying every last shred of our privacy, selling our preferences and psychographic data to tech giants, shady political campaigns, and online hucksters. Still, I can't deny that artificially intelligent algorithms based on my personal engagement patterns have exposed me to amazing digital riches. I log in to Instagram and swim in aspirational thru-hikes and freestyle climbs. My feed introduces me to countless new ways to enjoy the great outdoors, from #goatyoga and #hikeitbaby to accounts dedicated to zero-waste camping and skijoring with rescue dogs.

Horseshoe Bend, a rock formation near Grand Canyon National Park that enjoys outrageous sunsets, has seen a sevenfold increase in visitors since 2010, the year Instagram launched.

Even if you've never used Instagram, it's shaping your world. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Instagram boasted over a billion users. In spring 2019, "nature" ranked as Instagrammers' sixth-most-popular topic (based on the prevalence of hashtags describing landscapes, seasons, and natural events), beating out cute animals, bikinis, and even inspirational quotes. Summit selfies and snaps of wild animals, glammed-up campsites, and backcountry engagements are among the platform's ultimate money shots. That has led some of the more Instagrammable outdoor places to be overwhelmed by people seeking the same iconic photo—raising the question of whether national parks and other public lands are the platform's beneficiaries or victims.

On the plus side, Instagram is helping to diversify nature's fan base. By exposing public lands to a larger, younger, and more diverse community, it is altering perceptions about who gets to enjoy the great outdoors and how. At the same time, public lands have become the backdrops of choice for advertiser-sponsored Instagram "influencers"—social media stars who sometimes boast tens of thousands of followers and are paid to subtly position their sponsors' products in their perfect photos. For influencers, urging followers to embrace #outdoorsforall and to #getoutside can be a profitable business decision.

WHEN I AWOKE from my Insta-seal dream, the COVID-19 crisis was just taking hold in the United States. Within weeks, people were losing loved ones and jobs, self-isolating, and watching their lives get turned upside down. No longer seen as a frivolous time waster, social media became essential, easing isolation and helping people maintain a semblance of community. Especially after state and federal officials closed trails, parks, and beaches to the public, people took to Instagram to wistfully repost backcountry memories and epic landscapes shot in the Before Times.

Since March 2020, smartphone screen-time hours have skyrocketed. That means more of our personal data is being mined than ever before. As we log on and "follow" and "like," we disclose ever more needs and desires to companies that profit from us. We're not the only ones being commoditized. Since nature is such an excellent place to tout outdoor gear and craft beers, it's subject to the same algorithmic and optimization metrics that translate to profits for corporations like Facebook (owner of Instagram since 2012).

And as more beautiful places get shown off by influencers on photo-sharing sites, more fans crowd onto suddenly famous trails to see and photograph the newly iconic vistas themselves. That's what happened at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve—home to a springtime sensation known as a super bloom—where influencers in 2018 started the unfortunate trend of making "poppy angels." Last year, after more than 100,000 tourists seeking the perfect Instagram shot rushed in—one couple arriving at the fields of delicate wildflowers by helicopter—the reserve fought back with the hashtag #dontdoomthebloom. Similarly, Horseshoe Bend, a rock formation near Grand Canyon National Park that enjoys outrageous sunsets, has seen a sevenfold increase in visitors since 2010, the year Instagram launched. Park rangers had to install handrails and a new parking lot to contain the influx.

It doesn't help that since 2011, the National Park Service has been working with 11 percent fewer staff and a multibillion-dollar shortfall. Factor in 17 percent greater visitation and you get overflowing dumpsters, trampled trails, overtaxed ecosystems, and much more difficulty editing out the throngs of other people waiting to get the same picture of themselves looking all solitary and romantically pensive in nature.

Some social media users are taking dicey risks in pursuit of that to-die-for profile shot. Since 2011, hundreds have perished via "selfiecide." Last year, a travel-blogging couple fell 800 feet to their deaths trying to capture themselves at Taft Point, a popular overlook at Yosemite, and a man in India got mauled trying to snap a pic of himself with a wild bear. The NPS responded with a Safe Park Selfie Day to encourage responsible picture taking. Several state parks installed "selfie stations" featuring adjustable shelves on which guests can safely set their mobile devices before Insta-worthy backgrounds. And officials at Yellowstone National Park created the Yellowstone Pledge, asking its millions of visitors to vow to "be bear aware" and to "practice safe selfies."

Much of the antagonism around social media use in the outdoors seems to boil down to generational strife, an older cohort's discomfort with the hugely influential tool wielded by this new generation.

Social media users often find coveted selfie spots through geotagging; people add precise geographic IDs to their posts, making it easier for others to find the location where they posed. Attempting to moderate traffic in scenic-but-fragile places in 2018, tourism officials in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, created a generic geotag that reads "Tag Responsibly, Keep Jackson Hole Wild," thus kicking off the #nogeotag movement among tourism bureaus and national parks. In 2018, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics updated its social media guidelines, stopping short of recommending against geotagging altogether but asking users to be thoughtful when doing so. (Other destructive Insta-trends include #rockstacking—collecting rocks from rivers and trails to make cairn-like sculptures, which can destroy lizards' burrow systems—and using drones. It's illegal to fly drones for recreational use in national parks and wilderness areas, yet Instagram abounds with enviable aerial footage of pristine places.)

In 2017, a thirtysomething we'll call Steve—who would talk only on the condition of anonymity—took some visiting friends on a hike to a favorite vista spot in his home state of Idaho. All around, he says, they found evidence of illegal campfires, mounds of human waste and trash, rocks covered with graffiti, and trees carved with initials. "I drew a connection between the increase in this disrespect and the increase in social media use," he says, "and decided to fight fire with fire."

Thus was born the vigilante account @publiclandshateyou, featuring pictures of influencers trampling fields of freshly bloomed flowers, #adventuredogs frolicking off-leash in fragile areas, and a car doing donuts in Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats. In a sardonically aggressive tone, Steve reposts photos depicting illegal and/or detrimental activity to his 75,000-plus followers, lambasting the companies whose products are being promoted. Unlike the influencer pages Steve targets, @publiclandshateyou doesn't have corporate sponsors or ads. "I'm OK with spending my time and money doing this," he says. "I feel it's productive."

Steve has gotten influencers to post apologies and companies to donate to conservation organizations out of penance, and he helped get at least one drone flyer cited for illegal operations. Influencers have threatened him with lawsuits, and there are rumblings that a number of them are filing a class action harassment suit. Depending on whom you ask, Steve is a relentless bully or an unlikely visionary. Either way, he has marshaled a powerful psychological force easily amplified by social media: public shaming. "People do not like callout culture, but shame is a powerful emotion that you can really learn from," he says.

Pushback on Steve's and similar accounts comes not only from the perfectly coiffed influencers but also from the ragged edges of the Insta-sphere adventure sector—a space increasingly known for homegrown, accidental heroes. Take Jenny Bruso, the self-described "fat, femme, queer former indoor kid" behind the hit feed @unlikelyhikers. "The majority of people going to these places want to do the right thing," she says. "Instagram is actually a great way to put the rules out there in simple terms. You can find entertaining ways to post about why we stay on trails and don't go into inaccessible places without shaming anyone."

Bruso says she'd always thought of influencers as "vapid, selfie-loving airheads." It took her a while after the 2017 advent of @unlikelyhikers to realize that she was an influencer herself. She uses her account to teach her 80,000-plus followers things she wishes she had known back when she first started hiking, like how to go to the bathroom outside.

Bruso isn't the only unlikely hiker. There's the popular @pattiegonia, who hikes in drag and posts about eco-stewardship and LGBTQ allyship; @theventureoutproject, an account highlighting transgender and queer backpackers; and the self-explanatory @melaninbasecamp, @outdoorafro, @browngirlscamping, @outdoorsasian, and @latinooutdoors feeds, all encouraging their audiences to get outside and get involved in conservation. Last year, Outdoor Afro, the group behind the Insta-account, dispatched 20 of its leaders to lobby their congressional reps, helping to win reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Perry Cohen, the founder of Venture Out, says followers typically find his group organically, after Instagramming about being queer outdoorspeople. "It's validating to see that there are other people like you," he says, "that this thing you've been doing in isolation for so long has an actual community." Bruso adds that those with multiple marginalized identities have a harder time finding community in day-to-day life. "I've always had kind of a tumultuous relationship with social media, but when I started using it as a place to talk about what it was like to start hiking as a fat person, I saw a lot of potential to explode that narrative, connect with other people who have shared similar experiences, and create new narratives."

Community is what drove Brandi Small, a Los Angeles–based medical technician, to launch @brandihikes in 2017. "I didn't see very many people who looked like me hiking—I am African American and don't have the ideal body type for hiking—so I thought this would open up a space to help overcome the stigma that you have to look a certain way and be able to run up the trails," Small says. She now leads group hikes through the nonprofit Women Who Hike and has been approached about brand sponsorships.

Through informative posts about leave-no-trace principles and trail etiquette, Instagram role models are using their platforms to set an example for how to treat public lands. Many reject the notion that Instagram is ruinous to wild places. Danielle Williams, the creator of @melaninbasecamp, a feed celebrating people of color in adventure sports, sees the #nogeotag movement as an elitist form of gatekeeping. "It involves individuals—usually those unaffected by structural racism and privileged to have grown up hiking and camping—asserting their self-proclaimed authority over who should and shouldn't be allowed into certain outdoor spaces."

To Williams, the Instagram naysayers are bitter about sharing their favorite playground with younger, more diverse adventurers who often choose to enjoy the outdoors in more communal and socially documented ways. Indeed, much of the antagonism around social media use in the outdoors seems to boil down to generational strife, an older cohort's discomfort with the hugely influential tool wielded by this new generation. That tool, to clarify, has not changed everything: Underprivileged communities still have woeful access to public lands. It has, however, undeniably opened up representations of nature to new audiences, at a new scale. In that sense, it's redistributing and democratizing the wealth of public lands.

I RECENTLY GOT to witness Instagram royalty in action when I joined Wyn Wiley, the photographer who moonlights as "backcountry drag queen" @pattiegonia, for the Northern California leg of Pattie's HiQueen Tour, sponsored by trail-running shoe brand Hoka One One. In true Oprah fashion, an exuberant Wiley/Pattie gifted the two dozen or so San Francisco Bay Area fans who'd gathered at a trailhead near Mt. Tamalpais with shoes as colorful as the rainbow cape she had donned for the hike. "Hoka is doing it right, y'all!" she said, introducing the brand's four-person video team, there to capture Pattie frolicking with fans before ferny landscapes and Pacific vistas for a short promo film. "They're profiling all sorts of communities that normally don't get seen in the outdoors—we're gonna get seen by the people, and it's gonna be great!"

Hoka's approach is a classic example of what Freddy Tran Nager, a content strategist who teaches influencer marketing at the University of Southern California, calls the "meaning transfer model." He says, "Brands hire a social media celebrity in an attempt to transfer that identity—their personality, what they stand for—to their products." In a similar vein, earlier this year, Eddie Bauer hired influencers Cohen and Bruso as well as paraplegic skier Trevor Kennison (@trevor_kennison) and Nailah Blades, creator of Color Outside (@wecoloroutside), an organization that aims to carve out space for women of color in the outdoors. Beyond donning Eddie Bauer duds and posing for pics, a company spokesperson says, these leaders will be directly influencing the brand. In Kennison's case, this means working with designers to develop adaptive gear; in Cohen's, helping to design clothes sized for trans people and reviewing marketing collateral to help Eddie Bauer better understand where it may be unintentionally leaving folks out.

"Plot twist!" Pattie announced. "This hike is more of a conversation." Pattie introduced a local queer educator and climate researcher she'd invited on the hike and had everyone add their preferred pronouns on name tags. "I want y'all to love seeing all different sides of Mt. Tam, but also, please take this as an opportunity while hiking to dive into any conversation around allyship," she said, referring to the process of building relationships based on trust and accountability with marginalized groups.

Some fellow Pattie fans, I discovered, had found the outdoor adventure world tangentially, as a result of their interest in the cheeky drag star. That day, I gained a more resonant understanding of pronouns—how they carry assumptions about gender and how misgendering someone in an outdoor space creates its own barrier to entry. Then everyone sat cross-legged on the ground, raptly listening to Pattie's guest speaker discuss climate action. If it took the lure of a fabulous (and highly Instagrammable) pic with the backcountry queen to spark such concern, I thought, was that so bad? And if Instagram's spotlight lavishes too much attention on beautiful natural places, perhaps influencers can leverage their social capital to make social media users care about—and want to protect and fund—places that aren't Yosemite or Joshua Tree. Permits and parking fees support places like state parks too, points out Daniel Kim, the project coordinator for @outdoorsasian. "The more people out there, the better," he says. "You help save places by enjoying them."

I STILL WISH, though, that I had cared more about connecting with that Gila monster than about documenting to friends and strangers that I'd seen it. I wish I was less susceptible to the slot-machine-like reward of likes (which carry no real value but—let's be honest—do, in a sense, show whether people love me and appreciate my outdoorsy lifestyle). Social media may be shaping the world I live in, but I should be able to dictate my own relationship with nature.

Small says that a couple of years into her Instagram career, she wrestled with the same dilemma. She noticed that she was sometimes too fixated on finding good photos and wasn't enjoying hiking the way she used to. So Small came up with a new rule: She could snap a maximum of 10 photos per hike. "If you take more than that, are you really enjoying the adventure?" Social media, she says, is "a bad place and a great place—it's what you make of it." She recommends that outdoors lovers follow pages that "build you up and make you feel good" (which for her include @blackgirlstrekkin and @womenwhohike).

As an experiment, I recently challenged myself to a phone-free hike on a familiar trail. My inability to snap the Instagrammable sights was stressful at first, but ultimately it allowed me to swim in more awe than I'd felt outside in a while. Strolling home, I even gave serious thought to taking a break from the platform altogether. But later that night, I relished logging in and seeing what my friends and my favorite adventure dogs had been up to, and I started daydreaming about the upcoming weekend's outdoor possibilities. The notion that I'd just up and leave this dreamy little digital microbubble seemed laughable.

The Instagram bubble, however, may burst without my help. The platform's rate of engagement is on the decline. ("The kids are getting bored," Nager says.) It's not just that millennials are facing middle age. According to Bruso and Small, Instagram has been gradually tweaking the platform to make it more difficult for influencers' unpaid pages and posts to get viewed. Just as Facebook started out by giving brands plenty of free organic reach, only to gradually impose "pay to play" options—what Nager describes as "the biggest bait and switch in marketing history"—Instagram is now making it harder, especially for communities with fewer resources, to wield its tool. Influencers who don't get with the program may just disappear from our feeds, especially as the COVID-19 crisis continues to dry up advertising dollars, making it harder for social media stars to survive on sponsored Instagram content.

To the extent that social media can be harnessed as a tool for conservation and the democratization of outdoor culture, it's a precarious benefit. And those functions may evolve in an entirely new direction, now that the social sphere is being taken over by the tween lip-synchers of TikTok (for the next few months or minutes, anyway).

So I may be back to peaceful and connective outdoor experiences like that recent unplugged hike. I took another one a couple of weeks later. Had the evening breeze always felt this deliciously crisp, I wondered, and was that nearby stream usually quite so burbly? An owl hooted in the twilight, and I only momentarily confused the sound with a notification from my phone.

This article appeared in the July/August 2020 edition with the headline "Welcome to the Insta-Sphere."

This article was funded by the Sierra Club Foundation.