Sam Sugerman: Think first, tag second

Thursday, March 14, 2019 - 4:21pm

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The Michigan Daily

Take Trolltunga, the cliff outcrop overlooking mountains and glaciers is a must-see on any Norwegian vacation. In 2010, about 800 people ventured to the lionized cliff. But, by 2016, something had radically changed and more than 80,000 people traversed the difficult topography to stand atop the same rock formation. The catalyst of this drastic increase in visitors can be traced to the 2010 creation — and subsequent rise — of Instagram, as well as the prevalence of geotagging.

Geotagging is the assignment of a specific physical location to a picture posted on social media — especially Instagram — and it is a double-edged sword. This is because when you post a picture and tag your location, it causes an increase in physical traffic to that place. Take the town of Wanaka, New Zealand, for instance.

In 2015, as a publicity stunt, Wanaka city officials invited social media influencers — people with established credibility in an industry that promote specific items or places — to vacation in the small South Island city. In the coming years, Wanaka saw a 14 percent increase in the number of visitors. Photographer Chris Burkard explained his understanding of this increase to National Geographic: “Now you’re less than 10 clicks away from seeing an image on Instagram to purchasing a ticket to go there.”

This increase in tourism in Wanaka has stimulated the local economy, much to the satisfaction of the city, but has wreaked havoc on Lake Wanaka’s most prized inhabitant: a solitary tree. The Lone Tree of Lake Wanaka springs out of the lake far beyond the shoreline where its branches barely stay above water. The tree’s unique beauty draws flocks of tourists annually and is one of the most photographed in New Zealand. Instead of marveling at the beauty of nature, however, many tourists instead opt to climb its weak limbs for ideal Instagram photos. Now, in its current state, the brittle willow is slowly deteriorating, and city officials say it could soon see its demise.

Wanaka is a microcosm of the effects that geotagging can have on communities. Sites and cities around the world are reaping the short-term economic benefits of increased tourism while the environment falls victim. In fact, the practice of geotagging has precipitated such grave impacts on the environment that the organization Leave No Trace updated its social media guidelines to direct people to “avoid tagging (or geotagging) specific locations.”

Since the creation of Instagram, the U.S. National Park Service has seen about a 19 percent increase in tourism, and now the parks are underfunded after 2016 budget cuts left only $11 billion to maintain the upkeep of trails, roads and services. This is due in part to the fact that when a specific spot is geotagged it prompts more people to seek out the trendy destination. This leads to a decrease in biodiversity and a loss of organic matter because constant traffic on the trails does not give the soil adequate time to recover. Additionally, the increased tourism leads to more cars within the confines of the parks than ever and is correlated with poorer air quality. In fact, the Pollutant Standards Index — the cumulative measurement of six criteria pollutants — in the national parks is comparable to the 20 largest cities in the United States.

The rise of Instagram has prompted an increase in tourism and created a global problem associated with geotagging. Geotagging, like most issues pertaining to the environment and sustainability, is solvable. But it necessitates the enforcement and alteration of human behaviors — which is a challenge in and of itself. The answer lies in the demise of geotagging, but how do you convince Instagram’s more than 1 billion active users to sacrifice their social reward of boasting about their vacations to peers?

The problem also relates to the philosophy of expansion — not the American desire for westward expansion, but humans’ innate desire for exploration and discovery. When a photograph is posted on Instagram with a geotag, it provokes our interest in the destination, and with the current expansiveness of the internet, there are only about 10 clicks between a person seeing an image and living it.

Many tourism agencies have taken various tactics to tackle the problem at hand. For example, a provocative ad about Jackson Hole, WY.  asks, “How many likes is a patch of dead wild flowers worth?” This question is valid and may seem obvious, but we continue to prioritize likes over conservation in our social-media-centered society. Since the iPhone and other modern-day technological advancements revolutionized life as we know it, we have become surrounded with opportunity. Just take Instagram: The app has proved that pictures can get people outside.

However, once we find ourselves secluded in the wilderness, we neglect to act responsibly and give nature the respect it deserves. Social media presents the opportunity for greatness, but only if we let it.

Geotagging may feel like a small piece in the calamity that is environmental degradation, but think about it as a piece of trash. If every person takes a wrapper and throws it on the ground, you have a landfill. But if they instead took that trash and saved it to be recycled, composted or otherwise somehow reused, you would have a luscious field of vegetation and wildlife. Additionally, geotags pose threats to some of the world’s most iconic natural phenomena. Geotags have become almost habitual in Instagram posts, but I plead that you tag responsibly and keep some of your favorite outdoor spots to yourself.

Sam Sugerman can be reached at samsug@umich.edu.