In early April, California experienced a “superbloom” of flowers. As a result of drought, the bloom was the first in the past few years and the fields and National Parks in the state exploded into a cornucopia of florae and colours. Around the state, fields were initially opened up for all members of the public to freely behold the spectacle of nature.
Sadly, this spectacle was short-lived as the parks and fields had to be closed off prematurely to the public as the authorities gradually became worried for the welfare and survival of these flowers. The problem? Not some plant virus and not a flood either. The threat actually came from the visiting people and I can explain to you how.
The beauty of this wonder drew lots of people from different parts of the country but as they came, they came with as many cameras as possible. Now while taking pictures is generally harmless, the situation soon degenerated as an increased number of social media influencers and selfie-taking tourists joined the throngs. From trampling on the flowers (and there were signposts clearly stating that no one should walk on them) to actually landing a helicopter in the middle of the flowers, these visitors in some cases even uprooted entire clumps of poppies to capture perfect pictures for the ‘gram. Some of the visitors were well behaved, but many others were not. And thus, the situation got so bad that the poppy fields had to be closed prematurely.
This is not an isolated event. In 2018, a sunflower farm in Ontario was closed after what was termed the “zombie apocalypse” of picture-takers descending on the farm. At a popular spot in Arizona called Horseshoe Bend, overwhelming insta-fame has led local authorities to install a car park that can accommodate 300 vehicles and metal railing at what was once a lonely overlook (which was what had popularized the place in the first place). In the last few years, national parks and public places have been facing an onslaught of sorts from camera-wielding influencers who in their bid to capture flawless pictures, have shown an utter disrespect and disregard for an environment whose beauty drew them in in the first place. The creed appears to be “once I get my picture and all those likes and comments, the earth itself might as well disappear”.
While taking pictures might be harmless, the cascade consequence of doing so irresponsibly might not be. In places like South Africa, herds of endangered animals have been put at risk by these visits and pictures alone. Geotagging features of social media puts a big red pin for poachers looking to hunt down animals.
In response to all these, measures have risen to curtail the crises. In places like Wyoming’s Jackson Hole, the authorities have started campaigns to reduce and eliminate geotagging with calls for responsible tagging by visitors. During the California bloom, the California Park Authority used a social hashtag campaign #DontDoomtheBloom and in South Africa, signposts were attached to fences along safari routes, requesting photographers not to share the location of rhinos, a popular target of poachers. But the most prominent voice in this fight has been from an unlikely source; an anonymous Instagram account @publiclandshateyou you. Described as a “vigilante”, the account is “trying to shame influencers who are trampling the plants they claim to love”. The author adds caustic commentary to images of destruction or carelessness exhibited on public lands.
While this set of culprits may be relatively new (the influencer culture hasn’t always been this crazy after all), the practice of wanton disregard for places and people is not. This disregard is a reoccurring theme in books, movies and in our daily lives. From Mexico and Egypt, down to Native American settlements and intrusions in the Caves of Nepal, our history is replete with tales of tombs, holy grounds and other places repeatedly desecrated in the name of “research” “exploration”, “archeology” and “profit”. The handle “publiclandshateyou” might as well have been a chant by Native Americans against invading settlers.
This trait is so ingrained in the American psyche that most people deem it to be the norm. In a recent study conducted by One Poll on behalf of Exodus Travels, American tourists declared that they were partial to ethical travel. In one of the categories of questions, 54 percent declared that as part of their strive towards ethical travel, they would start respecting local rules on traditional monuments. In other words, before now, respect for rules guiding the places they visited was not on the table. Do you see how this might be a way of life for Americans?
I have heard it argued that acts such as these are justifiable in the light of the pursuit of knowledge or the creation of art. But are they really? Because if they are, then it seems to me that the objections raised here in relation to the irresponsibility of these outdoor visitors are not based on the atrocious nature of the acts they commit against the environment alone. Rather, the main grudge here is against the social media influencers themselves: a set of people who many in our society hold in disdain and perceive as unintelligent and vain.
But times have changed. Kids are growing up with the dreams of being social media influencers, almost in the same the way Columbus dreamt of sailing the seas and Picasso, of painting. In an era where children are raised more by their apps than by parents, these influencers (hated though they may be) have become the new thought leaders and faux intellectuals. Much like the artists of old got patronage for their works by Kings and the Pope, today’s social media influencers gain brand endorsements and the acclaim of people who buy into the make-believe. In a world where people are building advanced civilisations on Fortnite, it is not farfetched then to argue that actually leaving your house to visit a national park might be considered a form of archeological expedition.
You see, these fellows did not become modern day influencers by posting the normal or the mundane. They became social celebrities by doing (or feigning to do) the outrageous and then posting them on as many platforms as possible. Such that when brands issue a public apology for working with a recalcitrant influencer, what it sounds like to me is “We know this influencer does stupid things but he/she is popular and we just wanted to sell our products at the time; now that he/she has done something that may make our products not sell, we promise to stop working with him/her”.
We have successfully created and become enslaved to a system where the only form of validation is the social media because as I pointed out in a post on this subject matter, we all want to be seen. It is into this same system that Instagram accounts such as @publiclandshateyou are tapping into. If the individuals behind these accounts are only interested in stopping these influencers from visiting and consequently damaging their natural reserve, they would have written petitions upon petitions to the National Park Services and their Law makers. Maybe they have; maybe they haven’t. My point here though is that social media had grown so powerful that even the ‘good guys’ have to resort to the system (and generate the same outrage influencers resort to in efforts to earn their keep) to drive their points home and effect change.
Even in the use of social media in this way, cute pictures of national reserves are not as popular as the bad ones. The popular approach (now adopted by accounts such as @publiclandhatesyou) is to post the outrageous; publicly shaming influencers in the hopes that people feel so outraged that they lash out against them and pressure them to change their behaviours. And sure enough, @publiclandhatesyou has earned interviews with popular newspapers such as The Guardian, almost like the influencers earn interviews with brands and share their own version of events with other media houses.
And thus, the loop goes round and round.
Now the harm that these fanatical picture-takers and influencers bring is absolutely unpleasant, but it is not totally unmanageable. Calling for a total ban of pictures is akin to using a sledgehammer to kill an ant and might best be described as lazy. We are in a camera society, that is a given at this point.
What I expect of the authorities is to iterate, innovate and design systems bearing the camera hordes of the 21st century in mind. For instance, we can agree that were these parks and monuments to be managed by private enterprises, over-visiting, excessive trampling and irresponsible picture-taking would either not have been a problem, or been a situation more controlled.
Innovation has never been the strongest suits of many governments around the world, but that doesn’t make it impossible. A possible solution for instance, may lie in collaborating with tech companies for ways to mitigate the issue. This may seem like oversimplifying a complex problem, but then, if there are people who can solve the problem, it just might be the good people of Silicon Valley who created most of it anyway.
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Feature image via Shutterstock.