June 23, 2019

The Ugly Truth of Geotagging.

What’s my problem with geotagging?

Oh boy.

Let’s take a photogenic alpine lake as an example.

Five years ago, this lake was relatively unknown, except to locals or those who were trusted stewards.

When these stewards shared this location (by word of mouth), other important information was also shared: the importance of using established campsites, leave no trace principles, and the importance of packing out all trash (including toilet paper). On weekends, maybe three or four groups would camp around the lake if the weather was perfect. ​

Fast forward to today.

Now, there are over 50 thousand highly filtered pictures of this lake geotagged on Instagram. Everyone has seen the photos—especially the ones that popular influencers have posted.

Everyone wants to go get the same pictures, and with geotagging, they can find the exact location without doing any research. They can buy some gear online, find the trail with an app, and get to the lake without knowing a single thing about it.

This often results in people unknowingly causing permanent damage. In the case of this lake, parked cars were blocking the road and emergency access, trash was being left behind, trees were being cut down for campfires, and new campsites were being created too close to the lake, impacting water quality. Those are all reasons why access to our public lands are being restricted.

It’s not that people shouldn’t enjoy beautiful, natural places—everyone should! But, geotagging and sending people to these locations uninformed is having an enormous, negative impact—I’ve seen it at this lake and the world has seen it with the recent superbloom.

If you want to geotag, that’s your choice, but 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. A picture captioned with a John Muir quote doesn’t cut it.

All that aside, before geotagging, ask yourself these questions:

What do you gain by geotagging? More likes? Giving followers FOMO? Is the temporary dopamine hit worth the potential permanent impact? 

It’s unfortunate that it has come to this.

On one hand, there is ethical, educational, and ecological value in geotagging (especially for citizen science or to analyze trends over time), but today, unfortunately, this comes with a great risk.

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