After selfies and food porn, nature shots — especially those of a lone hiker staring wistfully at a sun-drenched landscape — just might be the most popular genre of photography on Instagram.
An optimist might see this as an opportunity to advertise the charms of the wilderness, spurring within ‘grammers an appreciation of nature that itself leads to environmental stewardship. You know, just one post after another of thick forests and distant mountains captioned with the sage words of John Muir. Wouldn’t that be nice?
If only it were all that harmless.
More than 700 million people use Instagram every month. It’s no longer the fun app for following your friends’ escapades or sort of stalking your crush. Instagram already has one million advertisers and is expected to generate $22 billion in revenue by 2021. Instagram, ladies and gentlemen, isn’t just a business. It’s a mega business.
But there is yet another economy that exists entirely within the confines of the app’s slick interface. Influencers — or super-cool ‘grammers with tons of passionate and active followers — can make a lot of money by posting sponsored content from brands eager to reach their young fans. Quite a few major nature and travel photographers owe their living to this subtle exchange of cash and influence. While far from common, earning an income via Instagram isn’t so unusual these days.
A sponsored post could be as subtle as a granola bar carefully placed in a photo, or a dreamy shot of a distant locale the photographer was paid to travel to, shoot and — most importantly — post on his or her Instagram feed. Sometimes, even the caption (or marketing copy, if we’re being honest) is provided.
And of course success as an influencer leads to success in other, perhaps more desirable areas, like the sale of prints and photo books, or high-profile assignments and campaigns with major publishers and brands. Portfolios are so yesterday. All you need to land gigs these days is a vibey Instagram account with a few-hundred-thousand followers.
The 4.2 billion likes per day handed out on the ‘gram might as well be dollar bills. And that’s why the app just isn’t fun anymore. It’s little more than a desperate hustle. Every photo seems staged and overly dramatic; every caption strives to be clever or profound. All the authenticity has dried up. Real moments are a rarity.
This commercialized state of affairs is leading to some reckless actions by people who should know better. Here are some of the most common offenses gracing the ‘gram in the guise of the #outdoorlife:
- Illegal and unsafe campfires
- Tents pitched — usually glowing — where they’re not supposed to be (illegal camping)
- Drone shots taken within the boundaries of a national park
- Drone shots in active wildfire zones (yes, this happens)
- Venturing off-trail onto protected areas and vegetation (crushing wildflowers, for example)
- Littering and polluting
- Baiting animals to take their photo
Unfortunately, these types of posts aren’t limited to unknown ‘grammers with 110 followers who’ve never heard the words “leave no trace” in their lives. Popular influencers, some with millions of followers, are posting this garbage. And with such a massive audience salivating for content to ogle, indiscretions are celebrated as pop art with likes aplenty.
All it takes is the right person to post the wrong photo and suddenly everyone is trampling sensitive vegetation, camping illegally and flying drones in national parks, amongst other ill deeds.
Now the good news — a foil to all this madness. A vigilante Instagram account has emerged to keep all these assholes in line. At least it did — until Instagram deleted every trace of it from the internet.
For a couple of weeks, @assholesoutside brought a much-needed sword of justice to Instagram by shaming photographers who posted images showing or promoting the violation of laws or regulations. The account operated simply and precisely. An offending ‘grammer posting a reckless image promoting illegal behavior would be contacted first, and if they refused to remove the image, @assholesoutside would roast them with a repost, tag and lengthy caption explaining the degree of their misdeeds.
Having posted only a dozen photos or so, the account was already racing toward 10,000 followers. Then it disappeared.
In its last days, @assholesoutside was shaming bigger and more famous fish, including a National Geographic Travel post that featured a tent illegally pitched on Taft Point in Yosemite National Park. Perhaps picking these David-and-Goliath fights ultimately led to the account’s demise.
So who do we turn to now to stop the unthinkable number of assholes who are outside, disrespecting nature to make a quick buck on the ‘gram? A number of people and organizations can take it up a notch:
- Influencers need to take responsibility for what they post, plain and simple.
- Instagram needs to delete posts promoting illegal activity — not accounts bringing those posts to light.
- Before a brand works with an influencer, they should review that ‘grammer’s feed, and set clear guidelines prohibiting illegal shots.
- Followers need to call out their Instagram heroes when they cross the line and even unfollow them if they don’t clean up their act.
How likely is any of this to happen? I won’t be holding my breath. But I will be searching Instagram far-and-wide for the next @assholesoutside. A little bit of revenge — even if it came vigilante-style — felt like a sorely needed force that brought balance to Instagram’s absurd reality.