Social Media and Its Impact on the Wild

Words and Photos by Sara Aranda

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Dear Social Media,

Vanity doesn’t function in the outdoors. If you’re thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, I doubt you’re worrying about how your social media channels are doing. Nature can be very unforgiving, and the wild will challenge you for your intellect, awareness, agility, and fortitude, not caring how you look or who you think you are. There are voids in time out there, where your character and morals hold no weight and survival comes only to those who know how to scavenge for it.

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I have a love/hate relationship with social media. I want to promote the outdoors and all the activities I love, and I enjoy testing gear and writing about this and that, but the more the outdoors are being talked about and shared, the more I see young people snow-shoeing into the backcountry in their Uggs, or trash and toilet paper left behind boulders. People see what advocates like me promote and (it seems like) they don’t do the research. Look how easy it must be! So they pay for their trip and show up, expecting things that aren’t real for them. They come face to face with the woods and know nothing about how to navigate it if they get lost, or what to bring, or what’s appropriate to wear when the forecast calls for rain (did they even check?), or what Leave No Trace entails. They come but they don’t respect nature.

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“We can spend a lifetime in parks and wilderness areas and on adventure-travel trips and remain starved for wild country and wild people.” – Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild (29), 1996

Living in Yosemite Valley, every weekend I saw people park their cars in meadows.

I overheard a few people talk about their outfits for their climbing class and how “spandex looks better for face climbing.” I can understand leggings being a preference for comfort and mobility, but looking better for a specific style of climbing? Where are they basing these notions from? From Social Media? I shake my head. I feel bad for the classic tourist sunburn, feel sick when another one goes over a waterfall. The better picture was obviously so worth it to them.

This extends beyond tourism. Local enthusiasts can be just as clueless or have ill-intention when they dismiss signs, leave trash, or deface natural resources. We all must be held accountable.

Thus, more and more, I look at my own social media and wonder what messages I’m sending. I remind myself of the original dirtbags, daring mountaineers, and avid outdoors-people who could care less about media and, well, how they were seen by others while in nature. And every day I question whether my self-promotion is warranted—will this actually help further my freelance career or am I just being…vain?

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With the introduction of climbing into the eye of the social media beast, a seeming plague of visitation inevitably reared an ugly head along with it. At what point are you harming the land? At what point do you sell out? At what point do you sound arrogant, cliché, or labeled as a spray queen? And at what cost to those who aren’t media savvy but are more badass and are actually pushing the boundaries to the sport? I’ve heard stories of professionals losing sponsorship to the fresh, young, not-as-groundbreaking, social media gurus.

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I question whether or not I want this career path, all the time. And, unfortunately, shameless self-promotion is necessary, especially for those of us trying to gain footing in the industry, and it makes me sad. The value of the actual writing seems only permissible once the audience sees a mega-mainstream magazine or book in your portfolio; and now, too, the long list of social media channels you’re “famous” on.

But associated issues extend beyond this, and becomes a discussion about tourism and land management in general.

“Humans become foreigners to the wild, foreigners to an experience that once grounded their most sacred beliefs and values. […] Wilderness tourism is not a free lunch. Its worse consequence is that is conceals what should be its primary use: the wild as a project of the self. […] The kind of wildness [the founders of wilderness preservation] experienced has become very rare – an endangered experience. As a result, we no longer understand the roots of our own cause.” – Jack Turner,  The Abstract Wild (86), 1996

Tourists and locals alike have asked me in Yosemite, “Where are all the attractions?” and I laugh and tell them to look up. I see news highlights on people disobeying Park regulations in Yellowstone, putting a baby bison in their car, or trampling beyond boardwalks.  I scolded someone for feeding a squirrel with a pretzel in her hand, for a photo. She was feeding it right in front of a sign that said “Keep Wildlife Wild! Do not feed the animals.” I was livid. There’s just too many of us fiending to #getoutside, but with no foundation, nor proper outdoor ethics. Many seek National Parks and beautiful public lands as if they are going to an amusement park or a zoo, to pose with “wild” animals and be highly “entertained”—is it because media presents these places as such? And with so much media and virtual overload in today’s society, how do you amuse someone stepping into the silence of the forest for the very first time?

We can at least remind them how imperative nature is to our psyche, our physicality, our spirit. We teach them to cherish the self-will inherent in nature, to respect the living planet, to remove themselves from the stage they are so used to walking on. No easy task.

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“We accept abstract information in place of personal experience and communication. This removes us from the true wild and severs our recognition of its value. Most people don’t miss it and won’t miss it in the future. Most people literally do not know what we are talking about.” – Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild (25), 1996

I consider the mountains, the deserts, the oceans, to be a sanctuary, a living haven and place of origin for Indigenous Nations. Public lands are a place to meditate, to dream, to fall in love, push comfort zones and relish existentialism beneath the cosmos, strengthen bonds with friends and family, discover pieces to the puzzle that is life. These are NOT places to claim or conquer, trash, manipulate. Be grateful these places are still here—we must savor every raindrop, look up, remember our place against the sky, feel the Earth and how it trembles when the thunder speaks. We are as soft and transient as the dogwood, and we must remain so. Tread as lightly as a wind passing through, paying homage to the wild from whence we came. It’s romantic, but it’s fu%*ing true.

“We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well – for we will not fight to save what we do not love.” – Stephen Jay Gould, “Unenchanted Evening,” Natural History, 1991

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So if us outdoor promoters are to continue to be stewards of the places we hold so dear, we must remember to extend our knowledge and outdoor ethics as well. If we are the ones people look up to as a resource, then we must be responsible, lead by example and be active teachers. We must be selfless in this way, give back to the planet, act sustainably and promote environmental agendas. We can’t be afraid of activism. Otherwise, the wild will continue to be a diminished reality, and every place will be viewed from a tram ride with virtual animals and virtual trees.

Imagine how claustrophobic we would all be (already are) becoming.

“One of my heroes said he could imagine no finer life than to arise each morning and walk all day toward an unknown goal forever. Basho said this is our life. So go for a walk and clear the mind of this junk. Climb right up a ridge, over the talus and through the whitebark pine, through all those charming little grouse wortleberries, and right on into the blue sky…” – Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild (66), 1996

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3 thoughts on “Social Media and Its Impact on the Wild

  1. First off let me say that I really enjoyed the second half of your blog, as an educator here in Yosemite National Park it is so important that we as ambassadors educate the public on wilderness ethics. Education is one of the most important parts of the wilderness experience to many tourists. As Carl Sharsmith a great naturalist here in Yosemite used to say “The more you know, the more you see”. As for the first half of your blog though I have to take issue. Maybe you didn’t mean for it to come off this way but it seems that you are bashing the average tourist. Yes people take selfies with lipstick, yes they pose for photos while rock climbing, and some don’t have the “appropriate” outdoor gear for the hike/climb that they want to do, but they are here, they are experiencing the National Park or wilderness area. Who are we to judge on how their experience should be. Yes it is our place to educate if they are disrespecting nature but is it is no way our place to say how they experience it. When I first came to Yosemite 9 years ago I have to admit I was a bit jaded as well. I would gawk at the people with water bottles and no Nalgene, or the rock climbers with just quick draws, or the hikers to half dome with a 2 liter of soda (maybe I still do chuckle a little at that), but I have also come to realize after these years of giving programs to these people that they are experiencing something. They are starting to feel or already do feel the power of nature, they are lovers of the natural world just as you are, they just might experience it differently. Everyone interacts with nature differently and sometimes it’s easy to climb high on these walls and look down at the masses and feel that they are not experiencing nature as they should, but the true experience is a personal one, something that can’t be shared, words cannot describe. No matter how many likes you get on facebook or istagram or views on your blog it will never compare to what you felt that first time you saw el cap, or how the birds sang in cooks meadow, or watching the water slowly fall from Yosemite falls. Nature is a universal and the universe is a big place with many different people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ..and Nature is not only Josemite or other great parks. Nature is also in your garden, on your balcony, along the street when you go shopping, on the beach, or even on your windowsill when you feed the birds in winter, because you are too old to go outdoors. Nature is where we come from and where we will be going, when it is our time. Make sure we will be welcome on the other side!

      Liked by 1 person

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