Why Instagram matters so much and what could it do for you?
Instagram is the most important of all the social networks in the adventure space. My survey showed that in the The Business of Adventure community it is the most commonly used of all the public-facing social media networks. In the short time that it has existed (since October 2010) it has attracted a huge following, with over 700 million active monthly users in mid-2017. 70% of US companies now use it, and there are over 1 million active advertisers.
There are no shortage of articles bemoaning the negative effects of Instagram. The banner photo above is of the famous Trolltunga, a cliff above Lake Ringedalsvatnet in Norway. This is a stock photo, but apparently there is a long line of hikers waiting their turn for this iconic ‘alone in the wilderness’ image. “Between 2009 and 2014, visitors to Trolltunga increased from 500 to 40,000 in what many consider a wave of social media-fueled tourism” says this National Geographic article on how Instagram is changing travel.
Some highlights from the long list
How Instagram is Ruining Adventure
Posing rather than doing
Instagram is causing athletes to put more focus on getting the shot on the climb, rather than actually getting up the climb, says Andrew Bisharat, who is scandalised that climbers might post a photo on a climb that they have not successfully completed. “Are you going climbing to go climbing, or are you going climbing to create Instagrams that show you climbed? … [social media] tends to replace substance with image.”
Athletes doing and dieing
Instagram is apparently causing athletes to get themselves killed as they pursue ever more outrageous adventure images, to satisfy followers and sponsors. “The difference today is that every adventurer is expected to produce videos and build a fanbase, and now that fanbase is always looking over their shoulder,” said Jerry Isaak, who runs an Expeditionary Studies course in the USA.
The article goes on to point out that the rising death rate "has led at least two brands to pull back on their investment. In 2014, Clif Bar stopped sponsoring five rock climbers known for climbing without ropes or safety gear, saying, "We no longer feel good about benefiting from the amount of risk certain athletes are taking in areas of the sport where there is no margin for error." Salomon, a ski equipment company, recently eliminated video view-count incentives and set aside funds for extra, on-demand safety measures, as Matt Hansen reported in Powder magazine."
Amateurs doing and dieing
Instagram is causing ordinary people who have been enticed by beautiful images to try stunts they don’t have the skills for. “Realizing that this fellow was willing to put common sense aside for the sake of doing something he’d seen on social media, we discouraged him from what seemed more like a daredevil stunt than a well-considered solo ascent,” wrote Katie Lambert in Climbing magazine. She suggested that it was better back in the day when adventure magazines could act as gatekeepers. “In previous decades, climbing news and images were transmitted solely through monthly magazines… Only a select group of characters pushed the limits of possibility:”
Everyone else feeling jealous
Instagram is feeding our worst jealous instincts. “When I see images that are particularly rad, my head burns with jealousy and my stomach sinks with the thought: I want that. … Jealousy comes quickly when you only see the most beautiful, perfectly edited, carefully curated moments,” wrote Julie Ellison in Climber magazine. We suffer by contrasting our own up-and-down lives with the curated highlights we are offered on social media. Relevant magazine wrote about Instagram’s Envy Effect - “life looks better on the Internet than it does in real life….. all you see are other people’s peak experiences that highlight your lack in that moment”
The whole thing is fake
The whole experience is phoney. The @wanderingggirl account proved that, with some time and a little money, you can build up an entire fake account to the point where it can earn money from brands, just by using stock photos of stunning locations featuring back-to-the-camera images of pretty young blonde women with good hair.
The ‘wrong’ athletes get attention
Instagram is causing adventurers (young, female, scantily-clad) to get attention that should be going to more deserving athletes (who are apparently older and male). “Several popular “climber feeds” on Instagram are from sponsored young women who tend to post a lot of pictures of themselves climbing with very little clothing on” complained sponsored climber Will Gadd in Explore magazine, pointing out that “There are athletes getting serious sponsorship dollars based not on their performance, but simply on their social media clout.”
Another take on this came from Andrew Bisharat peering closely at climber/model Sierra Blair-Coyle. “If the goal is lucrative sponsorship, then it appears that there are now two ways to achieve this ends: you can work hard to become one of the best athletes in the world at your sport, or you can generate a large social-media following by looking good at doing whatever it is you like to do.”
In contrasting athletic ability and good looks, both men seem to miss the ability to share a story that is interesting, engaging and approachable. The truth is that sponsorship has never been a ‘reward’ for being the best athlete - it has always been about brands selling product. And it's becoming clear that aspiring outdoor consumers are not exclusively engaged by top tier ability.
Outdoor brands love Instagram - here’s why
There is no doubt that Instagram is hugely valued by outdoor brands. Red Bull led the charge, building a huge media presence through sharing hard-core adventure images - “[they] decided to sell the idea of energy. Red Bull’s universe is extreme sports and adrenaline-junky stunts”, wrote Chris Fowler. However, with the passing of time it has become clearer that the extreme end is not the powerful heart of the new social media adventure brand experience.
Michael Mann of Brand Culture Sport & Entertainment points out that it’s not the ‘wow’ factor of extreme stunts that really appeals to the fans of brands. “The reality is that most consumers don’t aspire to riding a 60 foot wave, but they do aspire to having a sense of freedom that a surf lifestyle evokes.” He offers as an example: “Nikon recently crafted a series of content with surf photographer Clarke Little about his love of the ocean and the beauty of waves, and his leap of faith to follow his dreams.”
In this article North Face extolls how social media lets them celebrate the adventures of their everyday users, not just their elite athletes. “…user-generated content really helps reflect and encourage people’s connection to the outdoors, and how The North Face is a part of it,” said The North Face President Todd Spaletto
Fans want relatable role models
Aspirational followers who are motivated by great adventure stories aren’t just some category of city-based-wannabes. It’s all of us, whatever our level. We get to share the motivation and the excitement. Outdoor writer Brendan Leonard wrote a rebuttal to the article cited above, Instagram’s Envy Effect. He called his Please Continue Instagramming Your Amazing Life. He wrote that “I like to know when friends find places that make them feel awesome, or do things they’re excited to share, or find joy anywhere.”
Women In Adventure ran a survey in 2016 and reached a similar conclusion. “At all abilities and levels of experience women were happy to see elite role models, but really want to see more ‘ordinary women doing extraordinary things.’ They wanted to see a wider range of women that ‘could be me’ in looks, age, and background. Stories should bridge the gap between aspirational or elite level athletes, which may be unachievable for most, and show how women can progress and succeed at any level.”
It is this desire from ‘ordinary adventurers’ to see more role models “that ‘could be me’ in looks, age, and background” that has created the real winners in this new space.
The benefits of Instagram for adventurers
The decline of the gatekeepers
Back when climbing magazines were still gatekeepers, as extolled by Katie Lambert above, those gates were closed to a great many people. Adventure had a certain look, and that look was very white, male, first world, and middle class. “The advent of social media has given women the ability to promote ourselves, rather than waiting for a magazine or film crew to approach us,” said downhill mountain biker and world champion Rachel Atherton in an Outside Magazine article. “It lets us develop a following that proves to companies hands down that, as women, we are just as valuable as men.”
In the same article, ski mountaineer Caroline Gleich said “What sponsors are most interested in is what value you can add to the brand. Now more than ever, there are more ways to tell your story, but you have to be willing to put yourself out there… In the past, we had to wait for an interview in a magazine, and there were very few opportunities for women to gain visibility and attract sponsors.”
The beneficiaries of this shift do tend to be white, first world women. There remain very few faces of colour or athletes from developing countries. Various social media supported groups are banding together to try and change that.
The rise of personal control over your brand
A following is no longer only gifted through the PR team of the sponsor, or the attention of adventure and/or traditional media. It can be built up by the athlete who decides what photos and content they post, thereby retaining control over their image. The power to tell a great story, through words and images and interaction with fans, becomes part of your portfolio of adventure assets. It makes the game more democratic.
Pro climber Sasha Digiulian, who has been living off her sponsorships since she was 17, is well aware of the power of her following. “Collectively over half a million people around the world follow what I say on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.” She wrote an article for Outside Magazine on How to Build Your Social Media Brand. “You have to be business savvy: you are essentially the CEO of a one-person company… in sports like climbing—where you’re performing solo—your accolades, images, and story are the assets you can leverage to forge partnerships with brands…”
The broadening of the market
This new model spreads the opportunity through a much wider range of brands and of athletes. Ryan Stuart, writing for Explore, points out that “The big winners in the shift [to social media] are smaller brands, who can’t afford magazine advertisements or pro-athlete salaries” as well as “an up-and-coming band of influencers who are changing the sponsored-athlete game, one selfie at a time.” “Our goal isn’t to choose an individual who is the most bad-ass athlete with the most followers,” says Allan Yiu in the interview. He is one of the founders of Westcomb, a Vancouver-based outerwear brand. “Rather it’s about fit and balance. Does this mean we have ambassadors with a couple hundred followers versus a couple hundred thousand? Yes, most definitely.”
Where do you fit in this space?
You don’t have to be building a following with an eye to self-promotion or brand-affiliation. There is space to share your excitement and your inspiration. There is also space to be thoughtful and realistic about how that growing following can help you extend your adventure career. Nevertheless it does take work and it may not be work that you find fulfilling. There are many ways in which Instagram can feel off-putting, but you can find a path around them.
It’s all a cliche!
In less than a decade of life Instagram has already generated a long list of cliches. Adventure photographer Kyle Frost talked to Adventure Journal about photography in the Instagram age. “It’s great that Instagram’s gotten more people outside and these brands have gotten more people outside. At any level. That’s fantastic. But as a photographer it gets kind of old when you see the same shot over and over again, in the same places over and over again.”
If your images are part of your training, your planning and your eventual adventures - wherever they may take you - that truth overtakes the cliches. If you are going to be repeating well-trodden ground, then being aware of the cliches and playing with them can also work.
But the images are faaaaake!
There are plenty of articles ready to point out how staged many photos are on Instagram, revealing how much behind-the-scenes work went into creating each ‘spontaneous’ image.
- What it takes to get a great Instagram photo, by Courtney Jones.
- Essena O'Neill quits Instagram, and reveals the trickery behind her photos, claiming social media 'is not real life'.
- The New York Times reveals the work behind #vanlife phenomenon.
Anyone who has ever been involved in the shooting of a good documentary film knows how much work is needed to produce a visual representation of reality that matches the emotional impact of actually being there in the moment. Taking good images does involve thought, skill and preparation. But how much time you devote to it is up to you. Plenty of followers enjoy a glimpse of your raw reality.
The locations are faaaaake!
It is also true that many adventurers didn’t live the reality implied by the photo, whether the hikers were flown into the beauty spot by helicopter for a social media ad campaign or the campers never actually slept in that gorgeous but unsafe spot. The Instagram account @youdidnotsleep is an amusing compilations of the best of the fake camping photos.
You have control over how your story is shared. You can prove the credibility of your images by sharing more of your process, and enhance your reputation in the process. “In today’s world of social media fraud, where so much of what you see is utter nonsense, it’s very rewarding to be making images that are both real, and the result of real effort as a photographer and athlete,” writes mountain runner and pro photographer Dan Patitucci.
With aspirational adventurers looking for the personal connection in the feeds they follow, you will have more impact if you share more of yourself. You are your brand and you need to be in (at least some) of the images you share. That does mean you are going to spend time obsessing about yourself and how you look, something you didn’t need to do before, at least until the magazine photographer came calling. The Instagram Husband is a fun video revealing what it’s like for the man (or woman) who is behind the camera in an Instagram couple.
This need to show yourself can leave you cowed by the feeling that only young, lithe, beautiful bodies deserve to be shown. Or you can use social media to fight back, as women who run have done with the #sportsbrasquad hashtag. “I still have days where I see a less than flattering picture of myself and feel a twinge of embarrassment. But that’s not my normal anymore… We work way too hard not to celebrate the bodies that we have.”
That desire from the Women In Adventure survey to see more role models “that ‘could be me’ in looks, age, and background” includes more real-world bodies in different shapes, sizes, weights and ages.
Returning to the envy-effect of Instagram, the pressure does not just bear down on followers watching other people’s highlights reel scroll by. There is pressure on you to keep your content upbeat, inspirational and success-orientated. It’s not just about being seen as an ‘achiever’, it is also that pain and disappointment can be a very private struggle that you have no wish to share.
Again the wish to see someone that ‘could be me’ includes seeing people failing, trying again, changing their minds, coming to grips with the loss of dreams. There can be relief in deciding to acknowledge the difficulties you encounter.
Kathy Karlo wrote about the pressure on women climbers to be “bad ass”. “Alex Theran, a fellow climber, shared her thoughts with me on the implications of being called a “badass.” She wrote, “I often plaster my social media with smiles. I erase the memories of very real struggles with a steady stream of upbeat posts and exclamation marks. I wonder if in doing that, I [am making other] women who do have a hard time think that they are failing and that they aren’t cut out for it.” Reflecting on some of her own climbing experiences, Kathy concludes “Strive for more, but do not sweep away your emotions. Instead, take your weak moments and turn them into inspiration. Do not go outside to cry.”
But there is also a truth that most adventurers, however much they seem to share with spontaneous generosity, draw a private line somewhere and hold their inner life in a guarded space. That’s okay. Choosing to share some of your life and your journey does not oblige you to share all of it or to share it forever more.
All the criticism aimed at social media can make any of us feel embarrassed to use it - to snap a selfie, share an adventure, hashtag a big achievement. Underlying all the criticism is a weird kind of shaming - who are you to dare publicly celebrate your adventure?
Athlete sponsorship consultant Vickie Saunders writes “Are you that person, who, after achieving a personal goal or winning an event you’ve worked really hard for, goes to a social gathering with no intention of telling anyone just how incredible you are feeling…….who has that voice in your head that just wants to tell the world, but that other voice that stops you saying a thing? Do you hope that maybe one of your friends will mention something, so you don’t look like you’re an ‘attention seeker’?
"Can you even consider for one moment, that perhaps by you sharing with someone what you’ve just achieved that it may have a positive impact on them? But more than that, what is wrong with telling people about your accomplishments? Really? What is wrong with it?”
Recognise the pitfalls of social media profiles, the cliches around #adventure, the potential emotional cost of sharing and comparing. And recognise the potential for joy and inspiration. Recognise the power of a tool that lets you build your own brand in a way that wasn’t available to a hopeful adventurer more than a few years ago. You need to find your own sweet spot in the social media space, where the rewards gain outweigh the work and discomfort involved in doing it.
Will it make you money?
An Instagram following of anything less than a million or two is not going to pay your bills in any meaningful way. Travel photographer Sara Melotti had an ‘expose’ blog post titled Instagram Created A Monster go viral, which then had the quixotic effect getting her a lot of media coverage and upping her Instagram following. She wrote recently in a post about How I Afford To Travel So Much saying that, despite her current 37,4k following, “Posting on instagram doesn’t allow me to make a living. To the day i made $0 on instagram. I never got payed for a post, I never got a free trip purely to post on IG.” She makes her money working as a professional photographer.
As a rough rule, in the fashion world social influencers are those with 100,000 followers or more. Micro influencers run from 10,000 to 100,000. In the outdoor and adventure space numbers tend to be rather lower but you are still likely to need to break the 1000 mark to have any impact with brands.
Social media in general and Instagram in particular is a tool to be used as you reach out for other funding streams. “The key is to get into more mainstream spaces and make a name for yourself as a representative of the sport" said pro climber Emily Harrington. "I’ve been in an iPad commercial for Apple. I did a Porsche commercial. But you have to do this in a way that makes you feel good. You have to be true to your core community.”
Use your Instagram to create a story that you are happy to share and then if and when you build an audience that gives you a voice, use it to further your other ambitions.
“That stupid word "influencer" exists for a reason. People need to start using that "influence" for more than a paycheck,” says Louisa of @youdidnotsleepthere. “I can't STAND how safe everyone plays it on Instagram. If you have 10k, 20k, 100k followers, use that as a platform to stand up for SOMETHING you believe in.”