To Share Or Not To Share? Geotagging Responsibly

To Share Or Not To Share? Geotagging Responsibly

by Stephan Edwards

Why do we travel overland? It’s safe to say that a big motivation for many of us is to explore terrains and cultures that are unknown to us - to seek out the new and different. Of course, we always want to share our experiences wth friends, family, and the wider world. How do we do that responsibly? How can we keep the thrill of discovery alive for our fellow travelers and protect the landscapes and people we encounter along the way? How do we ensure equal access for everyone? One way to do this is to practice responsible geotagging.

What Is Geotagging?

Simply put, geotags are geographical identification data attached to digital images, videos, texts, websites, or social media posts. Any digital object that can be shared online can include a geotag.

A geotag can be as broad or as specific (or as accurate or as inaccurate) as the user wants it to be. You might geotag the location of a photograph you took with a label as general as "Planet Earth", or you could plot its GPS coordinates down the minutes and seconds. Some geotags are crowdsourced, rather than GPS plotted.

Kurt with Map

Many of our devices - especially smart phones - have built-in GPS receivers that make it easy to add geotags to images and social media posts. Some digital cameras also can add geotags to photographs that appear only in the image's background metadata. Social media apps, like Instagram and Facebook, might automatically attach geotag data to posts, though there are user preferences that allow you to decide whether or not you want geotag.

Why use geotags? There are a number of positive reasons to use geotags in your images and social media posts. It's a useful tool for gathering more complete data about your images for archival and indexing purposes. It can help promote a business or draw attention to a cause. You can share the progress of your epic adventures with your friends and family. You can inspire others to get off the couch and go see the world around them.

Geotags can help you find other folks who have visited the same places as you. They can even offer an extra level of safety. Should you happen to get lost or break down in remote places, a previously geotagged social media post might point rescuers in the right direction toward your location.

You can see an example of a geotag in this Instagram post from my own feed. It's located just below my username @venturesomeoverland, and it reads:

"Old Faithful Geyser, Yellowstone Nat'l Park"


What Do We Mean By Responsible Geotagging?

That all sounds like really useful stuff, right? So, what are the drawbacks to geotagging?

We live in a world of data. We use social networking apps, software, and hardware that are constantly collecting data as we go about our lives every day. From our phones to our watches - even our refrigerators - and nearly everything in between, geotags are just one of those thousands of data points we give up in exchange for the free use of Internet-connected services.  

Not sharing your photos or location is one way to disconnect from the data machine - even for just a little while. I've discussed this before, but one of the core motivations for me to get out in the wilderness with my four wheel drive is to unplug from the world of technology. When I get away, I want to get away. Some of the experiences I have in remote places I want to remain my own and nobody else's. I often travel only for myself, so I might not take photographs, or perhaps only a few to save a handful of memories. I won't publish them at all.

XO on expedition

That's one approach. However, there are times when you do want to share your experiences, to invite your friends, family, and even strangers into your overland life and your experiences. Here's where you need to think carefully and intentionally about how you share your location data.

Take, for example, the Instagram post above featuring my Land Rover at Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone National Park. Old Faithful is a well-known destination, visited by millions of tourists from all over the world every year. It's likely that the geotag on that image won't have have much of an impact on the place itself. But what about more remote locations? Places where the environment is fragile? Places where increased visitation to that location your post might inspire could have negative effects on the landscape and the experience?

If Overland Expo West this year was any indication - with 29,000 attendees and over 400 vendors - interest and engagement in overlanding and van life has reached a level we have not seen before in North America. In a parallel trajectory, visitation to National Parks and other public lands has also soared in the last 24 months, and that has an undeniable environmental impact. Viral social media posts can be as destructive as they are inspiring.

Camping spot

However, as I wrote earlier, despite our quest for solitude in the remote places of the world, overlanding is also all about community. We learn from, inspire, and help one another. Whether that's through online platforms and social media, or in the actual physical form we all take in the real world, it's important.

It's encouraging to see how our overlanding community has grown not only in numbers but diversity in recent years. The more different kinds of folks we can welcome into the fold the better. Geotagging is a vehicle for breaking down barriers for access. There are all too many landscapes and wilderness experiences that our fellow humans have been excluded from for generations. BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people feel this exclusion acutely. When we share the roads less traveled with those who have never trod them, we increase awareness for land access and encourage education in Tread Lightly! principles across the board. We all win.

Geotagging For The Future

How do we strike the balance? Balance itself is the key. Keep some of your travel to yourself - enjoy the unique feeling of cherishing experiences that are solely your own. You can avoid the geotagging conundrum by not posting anything at all. 

On the flip side, share geotags that can expand and inspire our community. But do so with the intention to spread the word about responsible access, empathy for the environment, and equal opportunity for all adventurers.

1 Response

Michael Perez
Michael Perez

January 26, 2022

Good article. You might have added how to not geotag on Instagram ,for example.

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