I joined Instagram in 2012. I was slow to adopt the app’s geotag feature, which can embed the physical coordinates of a photo as part of the post’s data. In 2017, Instagram made it easier for users to share and search for location-based content; by 2018—when it seemed like everyone was announcing online where they were all the time—I was tagging nearly every place I visited. But in 2020, an incident on Max Patch mountain in North Carolina made me rethink the way I call attention to the natural world.
A relatively short drive from my home in South Carolina, Max Patch is a popular outdoor destination on the Appalachian Trail, because the 1.5-mile-long segment has minimal elevation gain and the hike to the summit usually takes fewer than 30 minutes. Famous for 360-degree views of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina (when the weather cooperates), the landscape is a dramatic backdrop. In the thick of COVID-19 lockdowns, hundreds of people made their way there, lured by the relatively easy hike, stunning scenery, opportunity to camp, and desire for fresh air.
Sometimes, I choose not to share with my social media audience at all—not every wonder is meant to be broadcast to the wider world.
But before I could visit Max Patch that summer, it was trampled, a victim of social media success. People brought up rolling coolers and tents, then left them behind as trash. With no restrooms on this section of the trail, the area was replete with human waste. There were fire rings where there weren’t supposed to be, raising the threat of flames when the region was on the cusp of drought. Formerly serene spots that would typically see day-trippers and a couple of thru-hikers daily now had hundreds of visitors or campers. As a result, to aid restoration efforts and allow the ecosystem to recover, Max Patch banned overnight camping.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming, had been grappling with a similar issue, so much so that the tourism board created the “Tag Responsibly, Keep Jackson Hole Wild” campaign, asking visitors to tag a general area, such as the state or national park, instead of trails or specific hard-to-reach vantage points. Delta Lake, a remote destination in Grand Teton National Park, went from seeing one or two hikers daily to drawing an estimated 145 people a day. Many were unprepared for the strenuous nine-mile trek. Some required assistance from rangers. The increased foot traffic also caused land erosion, and today, signs around the area ask visitors to “tag thoughtfully,” so that the landscape’s beauty remains for the future.
Travelers use tagged location searches on social media for myriad reasons: to gain inspiration, satiate wanderlust, make a list of places to hike on the next family vacation. And there are upsides to geotagging. More people of color are confident venturing into spaces they might have previously been hesitant to explore, and towns near these destinations get an economic boost from the travelers who pass through. Users get a boost, too—content with a geotag has up to 79 percent more engagement than a post without one, according to software company Sprout Social. But reading of the destruction of Max Patch cemented my resolve to rarely use geotags. Today, I don’t identify specific locales in national forests and federally managed wilderness areas—which typically don’t have bathrooms or well-maintained trails—and I don’t tag specific off-the-beaten-path spots. When I do choose to identify a place, I add a “generic tag,” which usually has the name of a nearby town, or of a national or state park.
Can the area’s current infrastructure support an additional influx of visitors?
Are adequate roads, parking, and restrooms available?
Is this a fragile ecosystem where accelerated human interaction/visitation could have a detrimental environmental impact?
Sometimes, I choose not to share with my social media audience at all—not every wonder is meant to be broadcast to the wider world. Instead, I’ll send a photo or short video to a friend with a note to let them know I’m thinking of them, an exchange that often leads to conversation about where I am, what it’s like, and how I feel. Those small interactions, while not public, still strengthen our connection—to nature and, perhaps more importantly, to each other.