No one has ever been killed by a selfie. A lot of people have been killed by stupid behavior. No beautiful destination has ever been ruined by an Instagram post. A lot of beautiful places have been ruined by irresponsible assholes. When it comes to social media’s impact on the outdoors, all of us are getting mad about the wrong thing. And that anger is one of the reasons why we have a problem.
I don’t know if it was the poppies in California, or the tourists who died in the Grand Canyon, or the guy who fell off a cliff in Yosemite National Park, but it seems as if the social-media outrage cycle has come full circle. Now, rather than being mad at a dentist who shot a lion or a zoo that killed a gorilla, everyone is outraged at social media itself.
And, like what happened with Cecil the Lion, then Harambe, I for some reason got the call to go be a talking head on national news about selfie deaths. Also like those previous incidents the show’s producers came into that story with an agenda, and cut any reasoned discussion about the topic in favor of me trying to explain why you can’t just build a safety fence around the entire Grand Canyon.
What I tried to explain is that so-called selfie deaths aren’t anything new. There’s not been any sort of increase in the frequency of accidental deaths since the advent of Instagram or Snapchat; people have always managed to find stupid ways to die. Smartphones could stop working tomorrow, and a teenage boy will still find a way to put his life at risk in order to impress a girl, even if he can’t snap a photo in the process. The biggest change would just be that the rest of us wouldn’t see a photo of the shenanigans and would never get the chance to get outraged about it.
Selfie deaths were even the subject of an article on Outside a couple weeks ago. In it, Kathryn Miles reported that 259 deaths worldwide have been attributed to the selfie between 2011 and 2017, and went on to describe psychological factors that could influence people to take more risks in order to produce more impressive photos. While that statistic may sound alarming, there are well over 1.4 million accidental deaths per year worldwide. Here at home, 160 people or so suffer accidental deaths in our national parks every year. Even if selfies were physical things with sharp edges, 43 deaths per year wouldn't be enough to merit its own category in a report, and certainly shouldn't trigger any concern. Miles reports on the case of Gigi Wu, who died after falling while hiking. Does the fact that Wu snapped her own photos, rather than relying on a photographer putting their head under a black cloth make her different in any way from George Mallory? As Miles points out, risk taking is not a new phenomenon, nor is doing it in an attempt to become famous. That we are all talking about selfie deaths is likely just the result of the media's current obsession with reporting about them; a new one makes headlines every week.
When people get the opportunity to visit a really cool national park, or a field full of beautiful wildflowers, or see a neat animal, it is only right and normal that they want to document the experience and share it with their friends. Again, this is not a new phenomenon. Are Ansel Adams’s photos of Yosemite Valley really that different from every Instagram photo every tourist snaps in the same spot?
And just like Adams’s work, all those Instagram posts from Yosemite make people want to go visit. In fact, if we can attribute any statistics to the rise of social media, it could be increasing visitation to our national parks. In 2008, the year after the first iPhone debuted, 274 million people visited a national park. In 2017, that number was 330 million. Did all those Glacier Point selfies inspire a few new people to go camping? Undoubtedly.
That, of course, leads us to another problem often attributed to social media: You’re blowing up my spot, bro. Not only do photos and videos on social media help inspire new people to recreate outdoors, but they also allow users to easily share the exact locations where those photos and videos were taken. Finding a cool camping spot is no longer something that requires navigation skills; you just click on the geotag to open Google Maps, then tell that app to lead the way there.
I think that’s a good thing. More people becoming passionate about the outdoors equals more people who will prioritize conservation, climate change, public lands, and outdoor recreation when they vote. And, as is being demonstrated in Washington right now, which is full of politicians making unprecedented attacks on our clean water, public lands, and climate, we desperately need to recruit more voters to these causes. In order to achieve that, we need to make the outdoors easier to enjoy, not harder. Showing people where to find the cool stuff is the surest way to make sure they’ll have a good time.
But what about that sick swimmin’ hole only you and your buddies knew about until last summer, and which is now overrun by, gasp, other people? Well, I hate to break it to you, but that spot is on public land. So, those other people own it too. In fact, we all do. If you’re worried about it getting trashed, maybe organize a clean up, or even a charitable group that raises funds to protect the area. If that spot really is important to you, then it’ll be worth the effort. The draw your old spot now has might help you raise money for that charity or help fund local businesses, or if it becomes really popular, maybe even permit or entrance fees could be applied, raising money for local conservation needs.
That’s exactly what’s happened in one small town in Utah. Kanarraville has just 397 residents, but also a really scenic waterfall. Locals blame social media for driving a huge increase in visitors: up to 40,000 are expected this year. A local described the hoards of Instagrammers as “a catastrophe,” to The Spectrum. But the town has been able to start charging each of them an $8 fee. That’s an extra $320,000 a year going into the town council’s coffers, and that’s before you figure in any money spend by tourists at local businesses. I bet the owner of the local gas station isn’t mad about fueling up all those additional customers.
Social media represents change. New people from more diverse backgrounds can now easily reach massive audiences. Change can be scary but it can also be powerful. Look at all the socially conscious new brands like Toms Shoes or Cotopaxi that have managed to build massive audiences through social media, while also doing good stuff for the world. Change also happens whether you like it or not. So you might as well try and find a way to benefit from it.
Every time I see a news story about national parks and other public lands being “loved to death,” and blaming social media for a boom in visitation, I can’t help but see a missed opportunity. More visitors should equal more dollars for the places that we love; the only reason that it doesn’t is that politicians often stand in the way. Because social media makes it easier to reach a wide audience, I bet we could use it as a way to change those politicians' minds.
Every time I see a news story blaming a selfie for a death, I also see a missed opportunity. If social media was powerful enough to draw a person to that place, and inspire them to take a photo, then surely it can also be powerful enough to reach that person with a powerful message about responsible recreation.
If we, as a community of outdoors-loving people are worried about social media bringing people who aren’t indoctrinated into our belief system to the places we love, then damaging them, why can’t we use social media to indoctrinate those people? We’re tacitly acknowledging the effectiveness of the platform, without seeing it as a tool we can effectively use. And that’s just dumb.
Just like outrage over a dead lion actually harmed lion conservation, getting angry at social media is only ever going to be pointless and harmful. This is an opportunity, not a problem.