Leave No #DigitalFootprint On Your Next Adventure

JoAnna Haugen

For more than seven years, California suffered from an intense drought and devastating wildfires. With rain came relief, and with relief came a kaleidoscopic display of wildflowers. The resulting “super bloom” was a visual silver lining to the drought and to the patterns of “precipitation extremes” that scientists have predicted as part of climate change.

But where there’s a beautiful backdrop, there’s also countless people all angling for the ideal Insta-snap taken against a candy-colored landscape. And with these eco-adventurers in search of the most envy-inducing social media post came terrible repercussions. Lake Elsinore, California saw a “poppy apocalypse,” where the influx of tourists overwhelmed the town and trampled the very blooms they came to see. One couple even landed a helicopter on the poppy fields to avoid the hike.

We know you were feeling #blessed to see California’s super bloom—and Norway’s Trolltunga, and Sri Lanka’s Buddha statues, and pretty much anywhere else on the planet ripe for a jaw-dropping selfie—but the road to likes, shares, and follows is often paved with disregard for safety, environmental consequences, and cultural sensitivity. Next time you travel, pack your social media smarts and avoid leaving a destructive digital footprint with these tips.

Avoid geotagging

The beauty of social media is that people can share photos with family, friends, and followers in real time, essentially giving them a chance to experience the moment with you. But the popularity of “tagging” the geographic location of where these photos were taken has become a problem.

In South Africa, for example, rangers posted signs asking people not to geotag photos because they’re leading poachers to wildlife. In Jackson Hole, Wyoming, geotags at Delta Lake heavily increased foot traffic in the area, leading ill-prepared hikers astray and putting a strain on the natural environment. And destinations like Horseshoe Bend, Arizona, which used to receive only 1,000 visitors annually, now struggles to accommodate its daily 4,000 visitors—and their vehicles and accessibility needs. According to The Outline, that’s due in large part to the fact that #horseshoebend had been geotagged 226,000 times as of 2017.

Avoid geotagging or choose a generic state or region. Or if you must, check to see if the area you’re visiting has preferred geotagging guidelines. For example, Jackson Hole asks visitors to use the geotag “Tag Responsibly, Keep Jackson Hole Wild.”

Don’t do it for the ‘gram

People are literally dying to take the perfect selfie when they href=”https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/14/nyregion/kaaterskill-falls-catskills-deaths-instagram.html” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>stand too close to waterfalls, dangle over precarious ledges, hang out of moving trains, and engage in other treacherous activities. Put simply: It’s not worth becoming a statistic just so you can post a photo resulting in lots of likes. When trouble arises from these daredevil stunts, it can cost countless man hours and tens of thousands of dollars from rescue teams and medical professionals called to respond to the crisis. In response to the rash of selfie-related deaths (at least 259 globally since 2011), one study recommended designated “no selfie zones” around areas that are particularly risky, such as bodies of water, mountain peaks, and on tall buildings.

Even if you do walk away unscathed, disregarding laws and actively seeking out dangerous situations to post on social media encourages other people to follow in your foolhardy footsteps. In the case of the coveted “shoe selfies,” that decision could have fatal repercussions for those around you—as it did for one passenger on a helicopter, whose shoe selfie led to a disastrous crash in New York, killing all five passengers onboard.

Be mindful of local customs

Your social media photos are all about you, but the context in which you take them is not. Regardless of how lovely the photos might look, it is not acceptable to insult religious customs like the two French tourists in Sri Lanka caught pretending to kiss Buddha statues. Or come to blows in front of horrified locals who just want their city’s precious art left alone, as was the case at Rome’s Trevi fountain when two tourists wanted the ideal selfie position during golden hour.

It’s true that there’s a complicated relationship between Instagram usage for travel documentation and the positive association of narcissism with the use of Instagram when using it to make other people jealous of your rad life (sorry, but you knew it was true). But here’s a helpful reminder to take with you as you travel: Other people and other cultures are not intended to be props for your most-liked post.

You are responsible for knowing and respecting local etiquette when it comes to taking and sharing photos. Do the extra work to dig up the social mores of the place you’re visiting.

Respect natural landscapes, wildlife, and people

As you travel, remain mindful that you are a guest in someone else’s backyard, and that respect always trumps the perfect photo opp.

One of the primary concerns that blossomed with the recent super bloom was the damage caused to the flowers themselves when people left the established trail. The fear wasn’t unfounded: in 2018, tourists overran a picturesque sunflower field in Ontario, knocking sunflowers over and popping the flower heads off. Rather than respect their surroundings, visitors ruined them.

Image via iStock

Also, don’t take wildlife selfies, which have skyrocketed in recent years—a 292 percent increase from 2014 to late 2017, according to World Animal Protection. Recognizing the potential harm to both the wildlife and their unwelcome paparazzi, Instagram blocks many hashtags related to animal selfies, so don’t disturb them in their natural habitat.

Finally, be thoughtful about photos you take of people. Avoid using people as props (good advice no matter where you travel), ask permission before taking photos of children, and don’t take sneaky photos from afar.

Use social media sharing as an opportunity for awareness

Instead of angling for the same photo as everyone else, step back from the situation and use your social media accounts to reflect on your experiences. If you can, consider leaving the ‘gram at home. A meaningful travel experience is built on connection, so tuck your phone away and have a conversation to fully appreciate the moment.

If you are going to post, post something worthwhile. Consider using social media for good: use hashtags like #IfOnlyTheEarthCouldSpeak and #ActOnClimate to raise awareness about pressing global issues often exacerbated by social media itself. If you’re like most people, you’ll be active on social media as you travel … so you might as well leave a positive #digitalfootprint as you go.