A guide to nature in the age of Instagram

Snapping Photos Outdoors

In March of this year, California was host to a spectacular sight: one of the greatest super blooms in years. Lake Elsinore (halfway between LA and San Diego) was so alight in poppies that the incredible blooms could even be seen from space. It was an Instagrammer’s paradise… and everyone knew it.

Within days, the town and the flowers had been overrun with tens of thousands of visitors all eager to get their perfect picture. The city was forced to close the area, then reopen it, only to ultimately shut down again because of the crushing weight of the crowds.

It’s become a familiar story… The almost unbelievably technicolored Rainbow Mountain in Peru went from just barely discovered to nearly destroyed in the span of a few short years. A hot springs in Colorado has been forced to deal with the fact that it is literally overflowing with human feces thanks to its newfound popularity online. There have been stories of simple sunflower farms turning into scenes of crazed terror. There’s even a newly published list of all the places Instagram has ruined (thanks, Mother Jones). Simply put, we are loving nature to death.

Platforms like Instagram are transforming digital trends into very real world consequences. The idea that public places can go viral IRL is a relatively novel idea. Yet this is not some fad or craze that will fade by next season: we are very likely looking at the new normal. And while you may not care about the movements of a few influencers, I would argue that you should, and not just out of a sense of moral obligation for protecting our natural spaces.

“Love it or hate it, Instagram and influencer marketing are here to stay. Beyond that, I’d say there’s actually a lot to love about Instagram as well.”

Instagram has over 1 billion monthly active users globally, and influencer marketing is slated to become up to a $10 billion business by 2020. Love it or hate it, Instagram and influencer marketing are here to stay. Beyond that, I’d say there’s actually a lot to love about Instagram as well. Influencer marketing can generate greater ROI than traditional marketing, and influencers have played a big role in making branded content smarter, more visually appealing, and more trustworthy than traditional advertising. Influencer marketing is on the rise because it works, and both brands and consumers seem to prefer it for good reason.

It is unlikely that influencers and the subsequent crowds they bring with them will stop lining up for that perfect shot in nature’s most Instagrammable locations anytime soon, so we owe it to ourselves and our natural spaces to design experiences that will better enable us to enjoy these incredible places without also destroying them.

Interestingly enough, one of the destinations to start this disturbing trend might also offer insights into how we might solve it. In 2009, Microsoft included a photo of The Wave in Arizona in its Windows 7 release. Since then, interest in the otherworldly red rock formations has skyrocketed. Last year alone, more than 160,000 people applied for hiking permits. Luckily, the Bureau of Land Management has an aggressive lottery permit system in place to prevent the would-be hordes from descending too heavily on the landscape. While this limits the number of people who can witness this spectacular place, it also protects it from being overrun, all while maintaining a democratic system that allows everyone a chance at visiting the natural wonder.

While social media generally and influencer marketing specifically are still very much the wild, wild West, there are some guiding principles that everyone — from land managers and influencers to average people — could follow to be more mindful in relation to the natural world.

For influencers

First and foremost, don’t be part of the problem. Don’t be the sort of influencer who breaks into national parks or trespasses in off-limits areas. For influencers taking photos in fragile places, avoid picking the flowers or doing anything damaging and disrespectful on camera because it will undoubtedly encourage any number of copycats to follow suit.

Beyond that, be proactive about demonstrating good stewardship and proper behavior. While photographers and influencers may use any number of tricks to get the perfect shot — creative angles, bringing store bought flowers, and other props to shoot with — most people may not be aware of this. Take the time to show your followers how to get the shot properly, and incorporate skill sharing, behind the scenes looks, and best practices into your blog, story highlights, and brand.

Furthermore, consider leaving the geo-tag off of potentially sensitive locations, making spots less immediately discoverable for anyone and everyone.

For marketers

There currently aren’t well-established guidelines for influencer and marketer relationships, so it’s important to do your research when pursuing a potential brand sponsorship. For brands with a strong social mission or sustainability focus, in particular, look for influencers who align with your brand’s philosophy in what they do, and not just what they say, to avoid the risk of unnecessary blowback against the brand.

For individuals

Take the extra time to research where you’re going. What sort of amenities are available? Do you need to be prepared to pack out your waste, for example? Educate yourself on Leave No Trace principles at the very least (REI has some great, easy resources if you’re just getting started).

Consider doing more exploring on your own. There are almost 250 million acres of public lands in the United States alone, and I guarantee you, they’re not all filled with selfie-taking hordes. You don’t necessarily have to go far to get away from the crowds and still have stunning views either, as this spot merely a quarter mile from Horseshoe Bend shows.

For land managers

For those directly in charge of managing spaces that have the potential to be overrun by crowds, Instagram, above all, offers a lesson in experience design. It seems that a lot of pain could be avoided by planning for overwhelming numbers from the outset. Where possible, set strict limits on the number of visitors able to enter the attraction each day, and communicate those expectations to the community beforehand. Help photo-hungry admirers know what to expect (wait times, parking, tickets, etc.) and how to be respectful in advance. When it comes to anticipating crowd sizes, prepare for the worst: if recent news stories are any indication, that is exactly what is to be expected.

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