Once pristine natural places become Instagram famous, everything changes. Lonely trails clog with hikers; empty forest pools fill with swimmers. Some have argued that the meshing of social media with the outdoors could cause locations to be loved to death, or even fundamentally taint outdoor recreation itself.
But painting our obsession with digital documentation as a kiss of death for nature's highlight reel ignores the fact when you throw photos of that scenic trail onto your social media platform of choice, you're logging data about when and where you interacted with an ecosystem.
And as researchers are now discovering, that data has the power to help us manage and protect special places, at a time when more people are using nature than ever before.
Recently, a new test of social media's usefulness in detecting real-life visitation patterns was described in a preprint paper uploaded to bioRxiv.
Researchers at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland set out to see how well "nature-based recreation" (NbR) mapping records where people were drawn to in Scotland's Cairngorms National Park. The team took data from a national survey commissioned by the Scottish Government in 2015 and then looked to see if the time and placement of geotags in Flickr photos matched the survey data for hotspots of wildlife watching over a five year period.
They found that short-term and seasonal patterns of photos uploaded to Flickr aligned well with the survey data, showing that you can accurately track park use down to the scale of several miles. Flickr revealed how visitors used space in the park far more quickly, easily and cheaply than park ranger surveys.
Spencer Wood, an environmental scientist at the University of Washington's Center for Creative Conservation who wasn't involved with the paper, told Earther it was a nice example of how social media can be harnessed to understand how people use outdoor environments.
"Popularity on social media platforms mirrors popularity in real life", said Wood, while cautioning that there's a lot of potential for bias in comparing the Flickr and survey data sets. "But we're digging into what those biases are and papers like this help us understand them better".
Wood has been at the forefront of this emerging field. He recently looked at how photos on Flickr could be used to accurately measure how many people were visiting 38 National Parks in the western US He's also worked closely with Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington State's Cascade Mountains on a project to understand how people use public lands.
While it's mostly proof-of-concept stuff at this point, ultimately, data from research like this could be useful to determine if trails and infrastructure in National Forests are sufficient to support the number of people visiting. While the US Forest Service only does large-scale data collection every four or five years, social media data may help tell the agency what's going on month to month.
"The Forest Service has pretty good information about who uses the national forests as a whole, but they don't really know who uses individual trails or why, or how popular those trails are except anecdotally from what rangers are reporting back", Wood explained.
There could be other uses, too, according to Wood. If social media data reveals most of the people in a region seem to favour high-grade hikes with mountain vista views, that could inform how land managers weigh future projects.
Public agencies are starting their own research efforts as well. Adam Milnor, an Arizona-based community planner with the National Park Service's Rivers, Trails and Assistance Program, works directly with parks to help them look at new sources of data on visitor use and recreation.
"We have a team of other folks in our agency that have sort of come together [on this issue]", Milnor told Earther.
Similar to Wood, the goal of these NPS researchers is to get a better idea of where people are going in the parks. Right now, Milnor says the NPS is in the brainstorming phase on how to approach this research. Since there are very understandable privacy concerns when it comes to the collection and use of social media data, he's quick to emphasise that the park service isn't interested in how individuals make their way around these natural spaces, just in illuminating patterns of wear and tear.
"We're only using data that people post and make publicly available and we're doing it only by looking at things that are anonymous", he said. "We're just trying to learn from what people are sharing with us already".
This learning comes at an opportune time for the Park Service, since in many of the more photogenic spots in the park system, visitation rates "have absolutely exploded", as Milnor put it. And it's not just specific locations feeling the strain.
"We are experiencing record visitation at National Parks", said Milnor, noting that the National Park system is up to over 330 million annual visitors visits nationwide, compared with half as many visitors just 40 years ago. Just since 2014, the number of yearly visitors has shot up an additional 40 million people.
As visitation to natural spaces swells, data scientists are likely to hone in on what information is helpful or misleading. But it's clear that social media's role in understanding of how humans use the outdoors is expanding alongside its presence in our lives.