News, Op - Ed

Instagram Is Skewing Our Perception Of Nature And It Has Got To Stop

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The buzzword of the times starts with a P and stirs the irate and opinionated en masse. I’m referring to privilege, of course, of which there are all kinds and can make it easy to feel like you’re walking on egg shells sometimes. I’m about to add a new type of privilege into the mix and I do apologize, only it’s important we talk about this one because if you’re a human being alive in society today, it may well be affecting you.

I like to keep the peace, but I find myself growing more frustrated as the days go on, that the likes of Instagram have created an opportunity for a bizarre kind of privilege to emerge: the exploitation of the world’s most beautiful places. Nature privilege, if you will.

Through a screen, in perfectly curated little squares, we are subject to parts of the world that many of us won’t ever be lucky enough to see in our lifetime. I don’t say that to discourage you from trying, of course, but rather matter-of-factly when we consider our busy lives and limited paid time-off. Ephemeral and fragrant superblooms, bioluminescent ocean upwellings and perfectly-timed capuchin-trying-to-grab-my-banana moments that are flaunted nonchalantly, accompanied by a vapid caption that’s unrelated and, to be honest, suggestive of an experience wasted on a spectator not truly immersed.

It sounds bitter and honestly that’s not my intention, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that nothing is ever what it seems when it comes to social media. However, I do find it frustrating that in the age of the influencer, some of the photographs are beautiful, but with little backbone. I dislike the blindingly obvious disconnect from the human experience that naturally accompanies being in spaces so breathtaking. Instead, the emphasis is on an entirely unrelated beauty product via a vulgar marketing ploy, or totally impractical pair of designer heels. These harsh juxtapositions respect the vibrant background little and send the message that these opportunities are dime a dozen and time in nature—the most astounding spots on the planet, in fact—simply for a photo op.

I’ll take a moment to clarify that I don’t lump everyone who goes by the title “influencer” into the same category. There are some good ones out there (though that word still makes me cringe) and I appreciate the hard work that goes into the job. It isn’t easy having to be “on” 24/7, provide a continuous stream of fresh content, engage with your audience and continuously find new brands to back you. However, I do think that the role encourages some to get lost in the quest for maximum “likes” and “follows”, to the point where they lose sight of what’s important. Platforms like Instagram can encourage a culture of extremes, where in order to stand out you must go above and beyond what your peers are doing with each post. Herein lies the problem.

Some of us are more outdoorsy than others; I get that. I don’t expect everyone to have the same “Why don’t I ever buy waterproof mascara?!” regret when they look back at photos taken after a little (big) cry in awe at a once-in-a-lifetime sunset over the saguaros or cassowary with her young in the Daintree. But we’re mostly the same, regardless of our age, gender or background; we have an innate appreciation for beauty and most of us draw our biggest inspiration from the natural world whether we realize it or not. In particular, from the stories that took place out there. Whether it’s finally seeing your favourite animal on safari, after years being glued to Attenborough’s documentaries, or standing atop the Alps ready to take on your first black diamond after great effort and many bruises to reach that point, we are who we are because of the experiences we have as we interact with the world around us.

Part of the appeal of nature to those of us who revel in its glory is the challenge that comes with a hike to a mountain summit or wild trek to a secret beach, stumbling across a hidden gem and feeling like it was a gift for your efforts. And for the committed among us, we’ll embrace a few cuts and bruises, scary bug encounters and nettle stings if we get the endorphin rush, those heart-to-hearts that only manifest on a mother of a hike, and views from what feels like the end of the world because of the way they make us feel alive. The blood, sweat and tears are all part of an experience that wouldn’t be as epic without them; wouldn’t be the stuff of stories.

Looking at some of the influencers of Instagram, who flaunt their lipstick or handbag atop a cliff while miraculously unscathed and donning completely inappropriate garb, I can’t help but feel that our perception is becoming skewed; that we’re losing sense of what it’s really about. We should strive to spend time in nature for its profound healing effects on us, not to obtain the winning photograph of us looking like we’re enjoying ourselves that others don’t realize took 500 shots and 2 hours of frustration to capture.

Much in the way that we have exploited our planet’s resources for fossil fuels and plastics, I fear that we are exploiting all that is beautiful in the way that we mindlessly geotag places that locals now struggle to enjoy. Some spaces are sacred and it’s not fair that those backed by branding and business trips should be able to pick and choose from where to market themselves if the environment isn’t being respected for what it demands of us. Neither winding canyon nor hidden atoll are the place for public broadcasting, but spaces to be shared only with those who can join you in the flesh to smell the breeze and hear the birdsong right by your side. And to be honest, flaunting plastic-packaged products that are winding up polluting these very spaces is a shameful business.

It’s about more than the FOMO; nature privilege is skewing our perception of what is real and what matters. It disrespects our natural world and disconnects us from an integral part of the human experience. Think about that the next time you’re scrolling and when you’re out in the big, wide world yourself. Put the phone down for a moment and breathe it all in. I guarantee you’ll feel better for doing so.

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Kat Kennedy
Kat Kennedy is an explorative writer and advocate for sustainable living. She's a proud 'third culture kid' who is passionate about houseplants, vegan baking and outdoor adventures. You can read more of her articles on her blog, Sphynx Kennedy, or keep up with her on Instagram @sphynxkennedy.
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