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Our Audience Weighs In: What is “Real,” What Is “Fake” In Outdoor Social Media?

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

Sorry, I’m not going to let you off the hook that easy. It’s not a wash where both sides have equal merit. There wasn’t much of anything constructive in that first article by Ms. Highland, and for a community that usually sticks to nature photos and doesn’t get too political, you managed to unite every single prominent outdoor woman against the ideas conveyed in that piece.

You say you want to help women become more prominent in the outdoor industry, but then you take the most prominent outdoor women on Instagram and criticize them for not being “real.” How is that supposed to make women feel included, when you dismiss the role models we most look up to? And apparently without doing much research on these ladies, because if you dug just a little deeper you’d see that women like Elise Sterck and Holly Johnson can have thousands of followers but still take time to personally respond to comments, lead meetups, and facilitate discussions in the community.

If you want to “make women and their experiences” a bigger part of TGR, don’t attack the ones who are out there doing it. It is so important for other women, and especially girls aspiring to become athletes and mountaineers, to see themselves being represented. What are they supposed to think if you suggest their role models are fake? Do better, TGR.

Where are all these “cute-but-impractical woolen blankets” and how can I get one?

A very passive piece TGR, but I can’t say expected much else. Carolyn Highland says “I think it comes down to whether your Instagram is about your life, or if your life is about your Instagram.” ...and what about everything in between?? Why does it have to be one or the other? Life isn’t that black and white guys. Laura Grieser also says “So ask yourselves, ‘Did I hike to the top of this peak to soak in the view, or to take pictures of the view?’” - BOTH! I love the outdoors and I love photography, and I have loved both even before the days of Instagram. Again, it’s not that black and white. Not for me…. and not for ANY of the outdoor women I know.

    Hi Holly! First off, let me say as a result of this conversation, I found your blog and have been slowly making my through every post. I’m loving it! So, that’s a positive! Second, to your point of it being black-and-white. No, of course it’s not. I love reaching summits, and I love capturing views from the summits. What saddens me, though, is reaching the summit and watching people just stand there and take pictures – instead of taking a moment to put down their iPhones and their cameras and just… be. Just taking the time to soak in the view – ALL of the view – and appreciate how truly grand and awesome nature is. Not just run up, snap some shots, and run down, without every really SEEING what’s out there. That’s the point I was trying to convey with my question. I know it’s possible to do both – as I often do myself – but sometimes, it’s nice to just be in the moment. And that’s what I’d like to see more of.

      That’s fair Laura! I think putting down the phone and being present and in the moment is an issue that expands to all areas of life these days, unfortunately… but I can honestly say (at least from the hikes I’ve done) that there is more taking in the views and appreciating the raw beauty of nature, than not. I’m very glad you are enjoying my blog - thank you for checking it out! And also, thank you for being so engaged in this conversation, I think we would both agree that it is very interesting to read what everyone has to say.

        You’re right, it expands far beyond the outdoor space – iPhones are taking over Sunday brunch, Thursday happy hour, family dinners, and even wedding nights! Ahhhhh. *Face Palm* Anyway, I’m certainly glad this conversation is happening, and hope that at the very least, people will be more mindful of their surroundings and how they interact with one another and with nature. Keep on adventuring!

Is this your way of apologizing for slamming some amazing women? If this “line” were less blurry and these everyday women were clearly professionals would that make publicly attacking them for being awesome more palatable to you? Because it sounds like if a company wants to sponsor a woman because she has a lot of followers and that will increase their visibility, then to you, she might be fair game.  Why was this focused around just women? Men don’t have also hike solo and sometimes wish to be in their own pictures? They don’t own cameras and post similar photos? They aren’t sponsored? And to your point of trying to make women feel included;  we have been heavily involved for some time. The Mountaineers Club was founded in 1906 and over half of the original charter members were woman. Mountain climbers in dresses for god sakes. And there were even a few photographers. So, we have been included. It’s respect we still seem to be missing.

    yes, what about the men? You see a popular IG photo of a guy staring off into a mountain vista wearing way too much Patagonia, and no one doubts that he is “authentic” and climbed that peak on his own merit. But a girl in the same spot with colorful leggings and flowing hair just let out of a bun - is she even a climber or was it just for the picture?

I also want to address this idea that hiking and nature photography aren’t cohesive hobbies. Not everyone taking a picture is doing it for just for their Instagram!!! Most of us have been doing this for some time and just so you know, social media is new. Taking pictures of your adventures is not!! I went with my dad as a kid and distinctly remember his canon camera and waiting for the pictures to develop to see if they turned out. Miles and days from the hike they were captured on. What is wonderful about social media is that we now have a place to show them where other people actually give a shit! Our families and friends are so done having to see any more pictures from our latest hike! We made our own community of crazy people just like us. So please stop handing out advice to us on how we can do things better, i.e. your way. You do you and we will follow suit.

    Interesting that you mention this! I just posted something to my blog which touches on the photography aspect.

I think there are great points to both sides of this argument, and I’m also wondering why it’s focused solely on women in outdoor media? Is it implied here, that only women stage “outdoor shots” and aren’t actually getting “rad.”

    Hi Lexie! I love this point, and it’s something I’ve been contemplating for some time. What’s interesting to me is the amount of hashtags related to outdoor women: #outdoorwomen #weareowa #shejumps #definefeminine #SMITHwomen #herPNWlife #andshesdopetoo #girlswhorip #ladyshred #outdoorbella #mountaingirls and on and on and on – I can’t keep up!

    It seems to me, though, that men don’t have this same influx of hashtags relating to the outdoors and men. As an example, #outdoorwomen has 238,523 posts. #outdoormen has 1,721. Why? I don’t know. And if I’m wrong in this assumption and there are outdoor man hashtags I don’t know about, I’d love to know. But it’s certainly food for thought.

    I think Laura is definitely right about there being far more IG pages dedicated to women, but the underlying message in the original article and even the question raised by TGR about blurring the lines shouldn’t be gender specific. Also, there were a ton of men that responded to this conversation - it’s too bad none of them were either asked or chose to weigh in above.

      I don’t like how gender specific the articles are. Good points all around. Missholldoll, your page is awesome!

Saying that you didn’t realize that images on some high profile Instagram accounts were staged is like say you thought Laura Croft was a real Tomb Rader, ridiculous and naive.  I also find it upsetting and misogynist that this discussion is occurring over the accounts of young women.  I am pretty sure there are plenty of staged Instagram accounts by men that we are not critquing, discussing or questioning the morality and intentions of these “manly” posts.

In my humble opinion social media is finally leveling the, previously very gender biased, playing field of sports and outdoor promotion and retailing. It is a platform that both the consumer and the point of origin (young talented and oftentimes good looking young women) can control the content and/or choose what they view.  Up until recently consumers have been fed ”unreal” marketing by advertising agents who determine what the public sees and who is “important”.  In this archaic marketing model women were considered “less than” their sporting male counterparts who brought home bigger pay outs, larger prize money and more media driven attention. The assumption that women do not bear the marketing punch of their male counterparts is being blown out of the water thanks to social media and these “lifestyle athletes”.

I say bravo ladies you have finally broken a glass ceiling.  I also think it is entirely up to these successful social media engineers to determine how they apply and create their influence, how they handle their fame and the clout they themselves have created.  It should be a wild but fascinating ride, let us not tear them down before they hit their stride.

With that being said, I do think there are certain accounts and personalities that deserve special “happy day” and gender busting equality kudos. We all know of a few but my current favorites belong to the always sweet and positive Lindsey Dyer and Colleen Carroll.

Does anyone else find it strange that TGR has released two articles now highlighting teenage fashionista Essena O’Neill? She has nothing to do with skiing, biking, adventure, etc. Maybe because it’s giving TGR an opportunity to try to discredit women who are capturing the public’s attention, when that attention used to be solely directed at “professional athletes”? Last I checked, bashing other people to lift yourself up is something that should be left up to politicians and 7th grade boys. TGR is back-peddling in this second article, but it’s no replacement for an apology to the specific women to which they needlessly gave bad press.

I’m a dude. So…sorry. But honestly, I think it’s great that so many people are reflecting on this trend. I think by reflecting on it—it keeps us as individuals and as an industry in check and always shooting to maintain authenticity. I don’t think there’s one way to see this issue. I don’t think it’s good or bad. I do think it’s something we need to think about as an industry.

Can’t believe I missed this!! I’d like to hear Brody Leven’s take.

Personally the take away for me wasn’t so much about women in the outdoors as it is people presenting themselves as something they are not.
Just in my lil corner of the PNW I’ve had personal run ins with some folks that “Do it for the Gram” and to be very let down in the terms of they’re actual skills.
To be asked by one of these people to go backcountry skiing or climbing, the assumption is made (based off their social media) that they know what they are doing, which can put a persons life in jeopardy.  I’ve had that happen personally.
Their followers cling to the wisdom bestowed on them, its the blind leading the blind.

Its sad to see this article and the previous get so much negative attention as opposed to just getting attention. Yes, its too focused on women (IMO).
If you can take a beautiful photo from a mountain peak with long flowing hair, AWESOME!
Also, its brought many blogs to my attention, which is awesome.
Just live authentic people. Be humble with your skills. And keep adventuring.

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