Who Are Your Role Models?
I originally published this post in November 2019 but somehow it was magically removed from my blog feed. I'm sharing it again because I don't understand the mysteries of internet magic:
The subject of role models has been on my mind a lot lately. The increasing influence of social media “influencers” on our day-to-day choices, purchases, and even the filters we’re using in our images makes me stop and pause every now and again. Do I need social media in my life? How is it benefitting me as a human being? As an outdoor enthusiast? As a writer?
During these periods of perceived insanity, I've become progressively more aware of how people portray themselves, and their accomplishments, on social media. There has been an absolute explosion in particular of women posting images of themselves outside, getting dirty and sweaty and hanging out in a world that has been dominated by men since, well, ever.
With that amazing explosion, there has also been an increase in the number of female brand ambassadors and adventurers, women who post images of them chasing their purported dreams and finding their happiness in the hills, valleys, and streams of our wonderful planet.
Some of those women have tens of thousands of millions of followers; some of those women have closer to a hundred. What drives this discrepancy? Even if the content displayed on their accounts is of a similar genre (women getting outside), there is a huge gap between the so-called “SM Elite” and the everyday Janes floating around in the LTE ether. What about their presentation of themselves draws people to click the “follow” button and spend hours of their lives every week double-tapping, commenting, and clicking the “read more” button?
Let’s look at the micro-differences in their genre of sport: Unfortunately, there definitely is a dearth of badass lady-chick ice climbers out there but there's a plethora of women getting after it on the trails and more and more women learning to ski tour (I think this is absolutely fabulous). However, if that ice climber posts an image of herself in the middle of the gnar, in the actual grip of the climb's dirty, possibly scary, crux sequence, is she not posting an image that's as inspiring and as role-model-worthy as the perfectly choreographed, instagram-husband-photographed photo of a gal peering at a mountain sunrise with her adorable pup sitting next to her, or skinning, somehow untouched by sweat, up a scenic snowscape? Having personally seen how some of these “perfect” instagram photos come into being (just skin 100’ out of the Timberline Lodge parking lot and you’ll encounter a ridiculous number of “photo shoots”), I’m pretty offended when those photos gain their subjects an increased following. That stated, however, I try to pull aside my own beliefs and biases and try to logic-ize my way to an understanding. The easy conclusion to come to is that the ice climber doesn’t represent everyone and it’s the supposed relatability of the images that generates a following.
Let me put it this way: how many people do you know that actually ice climb? How many of those people are women? Probably not that many, and probably even fewer who actually lead ice or who climb routes in the alpine. I am in no way insulting women who don’t ice climb or women who rap into ice parks a few times a year to tag sticky ice and hone their craft– my point is merely that the relatability of content (at least by my assessment) impacts the rate at which someone’s content is engaged with.
Personally, my most liked photo *EVER* is an image of me sitting next to an alpine lake in running shorts… NOT the image of me leading out into the unknown on the Sandy Glacier Headwall. I think the latter is way cooler, and so do a handful of other people, but it’s certainly not relatable and it scares the bajeesus out of a large portion of my friends and family who choose not to like the image out of a desire to discourage my participation in the risky business of it all.
Trolling accounts like I’ve done for the last 5+ years and it becomes clear very quickly that the curated, "relatable" ladies have an infinitely higher influence on the social community than the chick crushing her frozen project in the dead of winter. There also happens to be a few women who only post curated images of themselves at trailheads with their gear perfectly oriented after stating that they slayed that line, crushed that peak, or bombed down that trail... those few also happen to have more followers than those with images of them actually climbing or skiing. Why is that? Why not post an image of the actual business of what you've claimed to do? We know you went with someone, a significant other, a friend, a photographer you paid to shoot staged photos of you ‘suffering.’ Where are the photos that document what really happened out there?
This is where my somewhat insane *passion* for clearly defined ethics comes into play. If there isn’t an image, or a Strava track… did it actually happen?
I had an accomplished mountain running friend once tell me, "I want a GPS track that shows the runner reaching each point along the route so I know they aren't lying. There are too many people out there making shit up for me to believe anyone anymore."
I hate to be a cynic, but I can fully understand where he was coming from. There a lot of claims circulating around in cyberspace and although I hope they are all true, time, and the FKT police, have proven many of them wrong over the course of time. I mean, everyone knows the difference between moving time and elapsed time right? Vigilante justice at its finest...
Even when accomplishments are called into question and curated images are examined, it doesn’t really seem to matter at the end of the day. Most people either don’t care about authenticity or can’t even be bothered to try because the 60 hours they spend “working” on their instagram feed every week don’t give them enough time to. And, at least in my opinion, who we choose to associate with on SM may mean absolutely nothing, or it could mean a lot. I'm choosing to assume that it means a lot given the number of hours people spend (waste) on it. I include myself in the “waste” category and my phone has a time limit set for a max of 45-minutes of SM time every day and I’ve hit that limit a few times… which honestly makes me nauseous. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, all seem to hold an alarming amount of power over us and it could be safely assumed that those we forge social relationships with can be seen, in some cases, as an extension of our friend group.
As a result of this strange digital intimacy, as our social communities grow they begin to echo the formation of the “IRL” relationship groups we have. In Real Life, we generally make new friends as a result of “friend of friend” relationships, through significant others, through our workplace, or through our passions (run club, gym, trails, etc). In real life, we are typically able to identify whom we can trust, who we ought to avoid, and who we really, really ought to stay as far away from as possible. Everyone knows the people in the third camp– the crazy person that gets wasted every time you see him/her out and tries to make-out with someone’s SO, or the person who can’t seem to hold on to their “best friends” for more than a few months. Once we filter out the craziness, we can allow these new people into our lives if there’s space for them. SM, on the other hand, allows for the creation of self-imposed filters that are quite challenging to remove. The best we can do is guess. Once we’ve done that, we have a tendency to cluster those we follow based on several criteria, the most important of which include how individuals present themselves in their own posts and how they interact with the internet community at large.
Trolling through accounts and reading a selection of Monday morning posts, it's hard to not feel at least a little bit jealous (or incredulous!) at some of the accomplishments our weekend warriors are showcasing. A good example would be posts about climbing routes in the big mountains. I find myself regularly questioning the verity of certain people's "accomplishments" based on what I know about them and what I know about the routes they've "conquered" (more on my very visceral distaste for that word in a later post).
Questions I commonly see being asked on photos by actual climbers are, "What were conditions like?" and "how was the summit?" and “I can’t believe your dog made it to the summit!” These questions go unanswered by some people, and are responded to in-depth by others. Captions with the vaguest of details are often ones that receive the largest amount of comment feedback... is that the goal? Vague = conversational? Or is it merely an evasive tactic with the primary goal of avoiding truth-telling? Simply, I always want to know, "if you summited, where's the summit shot?" People love taking summit selfies or recording stories from the top of peaks in gorgeous weather but it's a depressing side effect of social media today, this questioning of accomplishments.
As Colin Haley wrote on the Patagonia Blog:
"Since the alpine-climbing world seems ripe with incredulity these days, I’ve been thinking about making sure to document my solo climbs well. To me, it would be pretty heartbreaking to be called a liar since honesty is something I value very highly, far more than what one has actually climbed or not."
It's a sad day when professional athletes' accomplishments are questioned often enough that they have to defend themselves with .gpx files. With so many mis-truths and falsehoods being sprayed about on Instagram feeds, it's easy to understand why so many people are questioned when their captions are vague. Being called a liar isn't a label anyone would aspire to have (I hope) but it's one that's tossed around loosely by some. Mark Twain said, "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything." It’s the act of lying that creates all of the weird grandiose personas we see fluttering around on our “recommended for you” pages. Misrepresentations and embellished versions of what you did over the weekend or what you're planning on doing often lead people down rabbit holes. They generate followers, build up a huge community of "like-minded" badasses, but are often the catalyst for the loss of friendships and/or climbing partnerships.
But people love epic people and they love epic photos and tales of epic adventures, so it's easy to see why the most epic of the epic receive the most attention and are regarded as role models on social media– especially if they have a good story, true or otherwise, to go along with it. And this becomes especially true if the epic tale is being told by a female outdoorsperson who has built up a large, dedicated community of followers (is it starting to sound like a cult yet?) by telling stories of the obstacles they've had to overcome to get to their summit or to achieve their goals.
What if the obstacles aren't genuine? What if they are simply attention-seeking? We shouldn't judge the struggles of others and yet, sometimes, those struggles become so overwhelmingly influential on what they write about in their captions that they suck people into their story. In a strong way, it is this presentation of self that directly influences the persona with which we interact with the social community.
Kelly Cordes, the man, the machine, the spirit-animal/inspiration behind most of my strictest beliefs in alpine style, wrote a very, very (did I mention very?) interesting article a number of years ago entitled, "Tasting Talking." In it, he dives into the importance of genuine conversations, once that eliminate the bullshit and the waxing-poetic behind accomplishments,
"If you didn’t reach the summit, don’t tell me you reached your personal summit. Tell me where you retreated from. (Then wax-on about what it meant to you, if you wish.) If you couldn’t do the route on top rope, don’t come down and spray that you can hike the route next time. Shut up, pull the rope and send. If you failed, you failed. You’ll fail at more important things in life."
Do you see why I find him so engaging?
The inaccurate portrayal of accomplishments is so so so damn easy on social media. "Here's a photo of my on my way to the summit." Did I actually summit or, did I retreat at some point 50 feet beneath it? The truth is not meant to be stretched and why, oh, why, build a following of people who are banking on your honesty? The tastiest of talkers are often some of the people with the most followers, a group of people who seem to thrive on elaborating re-telling the details of their experience over a series of posts rather than summing up the end-accomplishment in a single sentence. "I did ____", "I did not do _____."
If the goal is simply to post a lovely image, one that will inspire people to chase their own goals, then post your lovely image and forget the raw, emotional caption. Isn't it better to lie by omission than to lie through language? I don’t necessarily agree with that sentiment but if I have to choose between evils, I’ll pick that one.
Moving right on over to the next layer I wish to examine… Ignoring the annoying presence of "bot comments" on social media, it's easy to see why people who engage regularly on other people's feeds have large numbers of followers. Sometimes the comments they leave are encouraging or inquiring. "What were conditions like?" "You guys are so cute!" "Wow! What a trip!" Those are the folks that make us feel good and that motivate us to continue to post, post, post away. They leave us with that glowing sense of satisfaction, that tiny release of endorphins we get as we watch our "likes" shoot toward into the triple digits. It's easy to see why people choose to follow those who are supportive of their accomplishments, encouraging of their goals, and sympathetic toward their failures. These are the people that we are most likely to become friends with IRL.
On the flipside of this equation are the half-bragging comments, less-commonly read but all too prevalent in today's social feeds. Comparisons between trips: "Man, I did that last week and it felt so easy!" and "Yeah, I've been thinking about climbing that route for a while- I'll probably solo it." and "That definitely didn't feel like 12a to me." These posts aren't attacking but the parallels they're drawing between what is shown in the posted image and their own personal skill set/comfort level completing certain objectives doesn't exactly reek of support or encouragement. These are the people that I label “d!cks” and “a$$holes” within 10 minutes of meeting them. For these people, interacting with the community appears to be nothing short of ceaseless competition.
Who can be the best? Who is the best? Who's done it the longest? Who will think I'm cool once I've "beaten" them at ____?" Again, not exactly an attack but the cycle of comparisons and "dick-measuring" may make someone appear badass to those with enough time to waste that they read through the comments on other people’s photos. These comments must thus, help them gain respect from the community, but will also (hopefully) scare people away from their account.
I personally have a hard time with the compliment-seeking commentary that pops up in comment feeds. The "oh my god I wish I was as beautiful as you are!" starts to feel disingenous after the upteenth time you see it written on someone’s feed. As This American Life discussed in Episode 573 "Status Update,"
"[It's] not just likes and comments but a specific kind of comment.... and the wording is pretty much always the same.
"Gorgeous. Pretty. Stunning."
"You kill it. You're so pretty. So beautiful."
"OK, just to be clear, they say this about everybody's selfies, whether or not the selfies are, in fact, stunning or beautiful. This is super-affirming language that is applied equally to every girl, universally. You've heard of bullying online? This is the opposite."
Those black-listed opposites, those "Instagram Bullies" are a sad aspect of the online community and one that seems to get a lot of mention by a number of pro-athletes, community members, and victims alike. I know a number of people who have been attacked on social media and my own handle was blasted on someone's account (which crowd-sourced getting my account permanently deleted) because of a misinterpreted comment on someone else’s feed:
There is nothing in this post to support the claims of bullying- what did I do that was horrible enough to be put on blast? For all the followers and commenters know, I am a horrible, awful, shameful person who should be punished for doing something horrendous. And I honestly can't blame the commenters. I could just as easily blast libel against a random person on social media and use my GIGANTIC MASSIVE following to incite a wave of criticism and hate against that random person for doing... something. It's one thing to complain about someone's actions and another to lay claims against them without evidence whilst using their name and/or account handle.
I've seen the followers on accounts like this one skyrocket after they spout off with vigilante justice. What is it about the willful spreading of discord among the social community that encourages followers? I want to fully understand why these so-called social justice and calls-to-arms can unify a group of people through online 'story-telling.' What draws individuals to those with the most to complain about? Do these people inspire us to be better? Or do they simply encourage people to continue spreading lies and falsehoods, further stirring the hate cycle of the cyberverse. I click UNFOLLOW and BLOCK on a relatively regular basis; my list of “can’t dos” is pages long and I get a large amount of joy out of removing these negativity breeders out of my line of sight. It’s cathartic– give it a try.
Wherever your inspiration lies will undoubtedly cluster your feed. Is it the weekend warriors who grab your attention? Or, the professional cyclist, skier, or fashion blogger whose posts you comment on? Or, maybe it's a combination of the two. What we see as 'inspirational' helps build our community. That pro athlete may never respond to your direct message or "like" your comment on an image of them on the podium but the weekend warrior will probably DM you beta for the mountain you want to climb or share their .gpx track for the big trail run they went on in the North Cascades. What do you find the most value in? Do we follow the weekend warriors because we want to be like them? Be better than they are? Or is it because they inspire us to push our own limits when we have a chance to chase our goals?