To 'Gram or not to 'Gram? And with what in the photo? And why? Ryan Dunfee photo.
Last Thursday, TGR Stash member Carolyn Highland wrote an opinion piece titled Op Ed: Is This Real Life? Outdoor Women on Social Media, which she penned following the well-known blow up of Australian model Essena O’Neill, who turned around her popular social feed to reveal how contrived all her photos had been. Carolyn's concerns surrounded what she considers a new sensation: the "everyday-woman-turned-outdoor-model.” To Carolyn, the outdoor perfection so often captured in her Instagram feed seems at least partially fake, somewhere deep down.
After all, there seems to be a formula: flowing hair, cute-but-impractical woolen blanket deep in the woods, a little makeup, perfect breakfast scenes with a sponsor’s enamel mug, and the steam off the coffee caught in perfect dawn light with a famous peak in the background. Product placement and endorsements (especially when social media marketing is so expertly designed to hide the advertisement in an “organic” post) raise further suspicions. Carolyn summarized her concerns perfectly: “I think it comes down to whether your Instagram is about your life, or if your life is about your Instagram.”
To clarify, Carolyn's piece reflected her own opinions, and we shared them not because we necessarily agreed, but because we thought it was a relevant piece and would provoke a worthwhile discussion. The response to Carolyn's piece was overwhelming. Many of the individuals written about in the piece felt offended or strongly disagreed with Carolyn’s opinions. Other reactions ventured anywhere from “120% true!!” to “Who cares? They’re getting outside!” Still, others thought the op-ed, and our sharing of it, was simply in poor taste.
I should mention that we here at TGR, in a sincere effort to shake up the outdoor media landscape and make women and their experiences a bigger part of it, will certainly touch a few nerves along the way. But we always invite you to give us your feedback, whatever it may be.
The Blurring Lines Between Professional and Amateur, and What It Means
Social media is undoubtedly blurring the lines in all kinds of ways, and our norms are struggling to keep up. For example, we might all agree that Angel Collinson–a pro skier with loads of sponsors and a movie segment closing in on 2,000,000 views on Facebook–is a professional outdoor athlete and a public figure, and that we can treat her as such in the media, just as we might treat Tom Brady, or Angelina Jolie, or Ted Cruz. For someone like Angel, we might expect professional-quality photos, product placements, and brand shout-outs.
But what about someone like Elise Sterck? Do her 109,000 Instagram followers make her a public figure? Or is she instead a skilled amateur? Should we be confounded when a skilled amateur plugs a camp stove? Does this make her a pro, a hired gun? And at what? The line is so blurred.
Then again, maybe the line doesn't exist. Maybe the "line" is entirely subjective-for some, maybe tagging a gear company in a post crosses the line, and maybe it depends on what company is tagged. Ultimately, it goes back to how much the individual trusts the people they're following.
Our Audience Weighs In
Cory Cirrilo, a pro skier and TGR audience member, asked this thoughtful prompt in the comments of the original article:
Based on the exposition and movement sparked by Essena O’Neill, I believe the point is an important one to raise: What is real and what is 'fake?' Our technological identities are becoming more and more convergent with our real ones, and the line between them is becoming more faded. But as these identities are still manifested out of ourselves, isn’t that completely real, no matter how what we post differs from our 'actual' selves? Or not?
We posed this question to several of the individuals mentioned in the original article, along with a few others who offered really interesting comments following its publication. Check them out, ponder, and offer your own perspective in the comments below.
Elena Pressprich–skier, photographer, regional leader of the Outdoor Women’s Alliance, radiology student:
“I think it does prompt a good question. I agree, the lines between our self-identity and our 'technological' identity are becoming blended. However, I do not see the issue that lies with this. Technology–specifically speaking, social media–has allowed me to explore so many areas of my life and question so many things. I see places I want to travel to from others’ images. I have met other ladies that have similar interests as I do that I would not have met otherwise. I get inspiration from seeing beautiful imagery and hearing of others achieve incredible feats that make me want to try new things... yes… almost always via social media.
How do you get your inspiration to try something new? Most likely these days, you saw something that looked fun, challenging or beautiful, and it probably came from the internet. Just because you are new to something, does not make you less real in that. Social media has given me a free platform to share my thoughts and photos I capture along my adventures. Motives change. Sometimes I go out strictly to take photos, sometimes I head out to go summit something and take photos along the way.
Both will probably result in making a post to social media. I’ll probably tag a sponsor or two. Maybe I set up a camera on a tripod. Maybe I grab a friend to snag a picture of me and pose. Maybe I take 27 selfies just to get that perfect one I like. It’s still me. I still made it to the top of the mountain. It’s still real. And it all makes me happy. “
Tiffiny Costello, a freelance digital marketer and social media manager, who wrote her own rebuttal to Carolyn’s piece on her blog:
“Intention is everything. You know what your intention is when you choose to get up at 4 a.m. to go catch sunrise at the top of a 14’er. You know what your intention is when you pick out which photo you took of that sunrise is worth sharing on Instagram. Obviously, we aren’t hiking the mountains, walking the miles, spending the dollars on airfare, just for 'the shot,' or the likes on social media. We are there for the experience, too, and social media has allowed us to connect with the world and share ourselves–the part of ourselves we choose to share–with millions of other people.
So when it comes down to figuring out what is real or fake, and how faded the line of technology is between our online selves vs. our real selves, it’s truly in the intention of the person sharing their life. Who are we to tell another person if they are real or fake? That is not up to us. What is up to us is our own life and how we are living it. When we quit worrying about whether someone is real or fake simply because they choose to post certain photos on social media, we will find that we have our own life to live and we too will choose what to share and keep to ourselves.”
Carolyn Highland, writer and teacher and author of the original op-ed:
"Is an account an identity? Have we allowed our presence on social media to actually affect who we are?
If we were to turn off all our social media and simply exist as ourselves, would we be any different than we are now? Ideally not, but with the current state of affairs, perhaps we would. Our daily lives might look different—the way we spend our time, our motivation for doing or not doing certain things. But we should still feel fully ourselves and wholly fulfilled without our social media accounts. Would we?
The fact that we live in a world where our technological presence has begun to affect our identities is a strange and slightly alarming phenomenon. If we were even to call this presence online an “identity,” why would it be removed enough from our actual one that they would now “become more and more convergent”?
In Grayson Schafer’s October 26 th article on Outside Online, Pics or It Didn't Happen, he wrote, 'Instagram culture is actually changing the way people travel and plan their trips. Instead of thinking about the experiences they want to have, people are thinking about what the photos they want to post.'
I often ask myself when I go outside what my purpose is in doing so—what will it take for me to feel I have achieved what I set out to do? Sometimes it is to get a good workout, or relax, or simply enjoy the fresh air. And yet, sometimes I don’t feel quite satisfied until a photograph has come out of the adventure.
I question myself when I do this because it feels as though I am chasing an extrinsic rather than intrinsic reward of being outside. If we are intrinsically motivated, the clarity and rejuvenation and peace and invigoration of being outside is our driving force. It is the reason we wake up before first light and withstand cold temperatures and tug on wet gear and carry heavy loads uphill.
If we are doing all this in the hopes of capturing the perfect photograph, if we are being extrinsically motivated by a third-party recompense, is that motivation genuine? How is our experience altered when the photo is the goal, rather than a byproduct?"
Laura Grieser, freelance writer:
There's no question that the line between our ‘real’ lives and those that we project online is becoming increasingly faded. Although technological identities are manifested out of ourselves, they are also concocted . Too often, I see people spend more time viewing the landscape from atop the summit of a hike or a ski hill through their five-inch iPhone screen than through their own eyes. So ask yourselves, ‘Did I hike to the top of this peak to soak in the view, or to take pictures of the view?’ On your next adventure, I challenge you: leave your iPhone, your Nikon, and your Garmin at home. Get out because it revitalizes your soul, not because it satisfies your Instagram followers. Because what's real isn't the likes or the promotion we get–it's the health and vitality gained from reaching the summit, and our loved ones who join us on the path.”
Holly Johnson, blogger, social media influencer & strategist, who wrote her own rebuttal on her blog:
"First, I didn't know who Essena O'Neil was until the TGR article. Second, when I watched her video, I saw a teenage girl, who hit "stardom" too early in life having meltdown and a breakthrough. I think she has an important message, but I think it has more to do with self-esteem than anything else. The life I display on social media is solely of my outdoor weekend adventures, and everything else belongs to me. I don't feel any happier having 70k followers than I did having 10k, and I never thought I would. I feel happiness when I make a new friend through social media, when I know they wouldn't be in my life without it. I feel happiness when I'm out doing what I love, which includes hiking, backpacking, photography and pseudo outdoor modeling. I feel happiness when someone says "you inspired me to get outside." My social media life is just ONE part of who I am, but it is in fact me. I encourage anyone who is so desperately seeking what is "real" in life, to stop searching for it on their phones... because there is no way to truly be 100% "authentic" when it comes to social media."
Tana Hoffman, Content Marketing Manager at Teton Gravity Research:
"To be honest, I never thought twice about whether or not the people I follow on social media could be staging their outdoor adventure photos. I live in Jackson Hole, and essentially every person I know here is posting photos of themselves on top of a mountain/in their tents/hanging from a rock face/returning from a yurt trip. I'd never question them for a second because, well, it's what we do here!
The truth is, I know a lot of locals that have been picked up by sponsors on account of their adventurous spirit and knowledge about the outdoors. They've become ambassadors, they tag their sponsors, and I don't hold that against them because these individuals do it to get more exposure so that they can share their perspectives with a larger audience. Isn't that what social media is all about?
It's come to my attention that there are, in fact, individuals who spend entire days staging and photographing outdoor 'adventures' for the sake of having Instagram posts for the next week. And they are catching a lot of heat. Why, though? Brands do it every day. Pick your favorite outdoor gear brand; I'll bet that at least half the photos on their social/site/catalogs were staged. But we still love those brands for what they represent. So if one person's perspective entertains or inspires you—whether or not said Instagrammer climbed the mountain in the photo—isn't that content still considered valuable? Unless someone has captioned a photo with an outright lie (which is against the most basic rules of branding to begin with), it's all just marketing. My only question to those individuals would be, doesn't pretending to go on a backcountry ski trip, without actually doing it, take all the fun out of it?"
Elise Sterck, backcountry skier, helicopter pilot, and Instagram influencer:
"As a someone who has received both gear and money to use while in the outdoors, I can confidently say that very little has changed in my life from a year ago when I had no sponsors. I'm actually quite surprised to hear this question posed in the first place... Why does any ski brand choose to sponsor a random kid that rips it in the terrain park? Probably because he is extremely good at skiing and they think he would represent their brand well. The same goes for any "sponsored" person you might see on Instagram. Chances are, the person liked doing whatever their craft was, a company noticed them via social media, and asked to get involved. Things really are as simple as that. So, is there a difference between how I post now and how I posted a year ago in relation to having a few sponsors? Yes. I have nicer gear now. That's it.”
From The Column: Women in the Mountains
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