By: Blonde Two

Geotagging photos, particularly on social media platforms such as Instagram and YouTube is so popular that most of us do it without thinking. We love the places we visit, are often proud of them and our efforts to there, and want to tell the world about our adventures.

You might say that there’s nothing wrong with that but geotagging has, in recent years, been getting a bad name for its (reported) involvement in the over population of fragile outdoor environments. Every argument has two sides so I thought today that I’d discuss some of the pros and cons of geotagging.

The advantages of geotagging outdoor locations

Geotagging can improve inclusion

If social media has done a great job in making the outdoors more inclusive, geotagging has arguably been a key factor in this. Despite all so many of us are doing to encourage people outside, there is a huge disparity of experience between those who were given the opportunity to experience outdoor life when they were young, and those that weren’t. In an ideal world every young person would be taught the skills and confidence required to explore safely, discover new places, and enjoy nights under the stars.

But even outdoors we don’t live in an ideal world.

Geotagging arguably improves accessibility for all by making both routes and locations possible to find without traditional outdoor skills. But it goes further than this. The combination of geotagging and attractive imagery makes beautiful locations emotionally accessible as well. Imagine yourself in a new place. You want to experience it but don’t know the ‘rules’. Where am I allowed to go? What am I allowed to do? Do people like me do this? If you can’t work out the answers to these questions, insecurity might set in, you might not explore at all.

Geotagged social media posts or routes can answer the questions for you. Putting aside our own ideas of what people should and shouldn’t be doing outdoors, geotagged messages can be really encouraging. You can go here. Why not try this. Lots of people like you do this. I’m not a psychologist but I would suggest that most of us find security in knowing that we aren’t alone, and that we are doing what we perceive to be ‘the right thing’.

Geotagging can help local businesses

The success of local businesses, particularly in the hospitality and retail sectors often depends on visitor numbers. Not only does geotagging of beautiful locations offer the potential to bring in more visitors, it can also provide useful information on what exactly those visitors enjoy doing. For example, if you owned a village pub with a bunkhouse, searched online for nearby locations, and noticed an upturn in visitors who wanted to kayak, you might think about providing secure kayak storage, and drying facilities. You might also decided to include a few handy geotags in your own social media promotion.

Geotagging can support delicate environments

This one may seem counter-intuitive but hear me out. As well as encouraging visitors, geotagging a location can arguably be used to help deliver location specific help-us-look-after-this-place requests. Whether its avoiding over eroded paths, staying away during bird nesting, or wild camping in a sustainable way, we can all think of locations that would benefit helpful advice and information.

There’s a caveat here of course. Shaming and blaming are both unhelpful approaches (I’ve learned this the hard way), and presume that everyone has had the same education opportunities. However we are back to the, ‘What am I allowed to do?‘ question here. Most of us care about our outdoor environments, and want to look after them. Giving helpful visual and textual messages in geotagged posts can go a long way to promoting environmentally friendly behaviour.

The disadvantages of geotagging outdoor locations

Geotagging can cause inadvertent problems for locals

Imagine you’re a farmer. You urgently need to get to a lambing ewe but can’t because a gate is blocked by a parked car. Now imagine you’re a visitor. You’ve seen a wonderful waterfall on Instagram, and want to visit it yourself. The problem is that everybody else has seen the same waterfall, and the car park was only designed for occasional use. So you park on the road. Across a gateway. The farmer’s ewe dies.

This is a good example of the inadvertent effect geotagging could (already does) have if it isn’t used carefully. It’s not a question of fault or blame. The original Instagrammer didn’t know so many people would turn up, the visitor didn’t know the farmer needed access, the farmer didn’t expect the gate to be blocked. We’re never going to be able to predict all the outcomes of our actions but it is possible to learn from this type of situation.

Geotagging can inadvertently cause damage to a local area

We all know the damage that campfires, litter and inappropriate toilet habits do to outdoor spaces but these are only the obvious tip of the iceberg. Increased visitor numbers can cause erosion and path widening, both of which cause a reduction in species diversity. Traffic congestion causes pollution. Noise pollution can affect wildlife. Just getting into a river changes the water, and that’s before you have a wee. The list is long.

There are some locations that won’t be affected by increased visitor numbers as much as others. These tend to be places with good infrastructure including parking, footpaths and toilets. Some people are happier knowing these are in place, other people prefer to visit somewhere more wild. The good news is that there is plenty of outdoors for all of us. But not if we all decided to visit the same place at the same time.

Geotagged images can be very misleading

If geotagging is the ultimate in definite location advice, Instagram images have to be the exact opposite. Behind every social media picture there’s a hidden story. It might be one of a pleasant family walk or a challenge met. But it could also be the crowd, the queues to take a specific photo,  the piles of human excrement behind flowering bushes, or the near miss because someone’s undertaken a route unsuited to their ability.

If the story being told and the actual reality are too far apart, we have a problem. More to the point, with geotagging added, we have a problem that more and more people are going to become part of because they know exactly where to go but nothing of what to expect.

So should we stop geotagging our favourite locations?

Social sharing, route mapping and geotagging are here to stay for the foreseeable future so it’s up to all of us to make sure we use these tools in a responsible manner. Responsibility of course looks different to one person than it does the next. It isn’t my job to tell you what to do but here are a few questions you might like to ask yourself before you geotag your next outdoor location.

  • Is this location sensitive?
  • Will more people being here damage or protect it?
  • Are paths to this location already eroded?
  • Is it on access land?
  • Is it accessible by public footpaths or bridleways?
  • Is car parking available for increased visitor numbers?
  • Am I going to adversely affect local businesses by sharing it?
  • Could I share a wider location instead?
  • Could I use my image to encourage people to explore and find their own locations?
  • Could I use a geotag to give helpful look-after-this-place messages?
  • How can I encourage others to think carefully about their geotagging?

The future of geotagging in the outdoors

The future of geotagging remains to be seen. Location data is really valuable (we’re talking a lot of money here), and like everything, can be used for good or not so good. It can also have unforeseen and unintentional results, some of which I’m sure we haven’t seen or even predicted yet.

There’s no doubt that being outside is good for us. Or that more people loving the outdoors will result in more people wanting to protect it. What’s perhaps not so clear is that we can’t afford to see the outdoors as a resource that is there to serve our purposes. Houses, cars, families, all need looking after. Being considerate about geotagging, and expecting our favourite outdoor businesses to do the same, is just one way we can all do our best to look after our outdoor spaces as well.

If you’re looking for useful guidance on how to bring your social media use in line with your existing leave-no-trace approach, I would really recommend taking a look at the Centre for Outdoor Ethics social media advice, which includes detailed mapping, images, geotagging, and giving something back to the places you love.

Happy gramming!