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Are Influencers Harming The Outdoors Industry?

17 mins read
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Let’s get a few things out of the way first. Influencers aren’t inherently bad. The whole idea of social media influencing isn’t new; for years, companies have handed out free gear to folks who had a big reach, in the hopes those people would promote the gear. Whether it’s on radio, black-and-white TV, in newspapers, or on Instagram, the concept of influencers is as old as the system of buying and selling goods.


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Over the past decade, though – and perhaps a bit longer – we’ve seen a shift in how influencers act on social media. We’ve seen them wield an impossibly large amount of power. And increasingly, we see influencers who don’t really know what they’re doing – but know how to take a decent photo or make engaging videos – get the exposure and the fame that other hardworking sportsmen and women arguably deserve. This is where the friction between influencers and average anglers – and content creators, like myself – begins.

Dave McCoy, owner and Head Guide for Emerald Water Anglers, said it best in a chat with John Dietsch: “Somehow everyone (in this new generation) is born a pro and then there is that cliche of free gear is the best gear. Every manufacturer would rather give a young ‘influencer’ -–a term I cannot stand––free gear in hopes of showing it favorably on their feed. They are acting pro but being a far cry from it.”

Dietsch wrote a fantastic story about this over at Angling Tradeand I highly recommend you read it. In that story, April Vokey, Maddie Brenneman, and Shyanne Orvis all share their take on influencers as it pertains to fly fishing, but I want to speak to the outdoors industry as a whole.

We’re growing. The pandemic was good in that regard, because it forced folks outdoors. They either rekindled a love for nature, or discovered it for the first time.

But bad influencers have grown alongside the outdoors industry. That doesn’t bode well for sportsmen and women in the long run.

Bad influencers would be right at home in P.T. Barnum’s marketing department. They don’t care about much else other than putting on a show.

What Are ‘Bad’ Influencers?

Before we go any further, I need to define what a bad influencer is.

Bad influencers are those who either obviously don’t know what they’re doing, but are in the spotlight only because they’re attractive, or articulate, or know how to take great photos. These are the folks holding a fish for a grip-and-grin with their fingers mashed in its gills. The folks who have someone else shoot their buck, then stage a photo-op to look like they took it down themselves (this happens more often than you’d think). The folks who clearly don’t understand wilderness, but like the idea of appearing to do so, and have decided to try and profit on it.

“Sports for ‘outdoorsmen’ have a long history of supporting hucksters and false heroes, going all the way back to the great traveling Western shows of the 19th century,” says Marshall Cutchin, publisher of the long-running and popular magazine MidCurrent. “With every generation there is a new generation of pretenders.”

Bad influencers would be right at home in P.T. Barnum’s marketing department. They don’t care about much else other than putting on a show.

A bad influencer won’t, for example, get the permits from the Forest Service that are required for any commercial activity (a discussion for another time) on Forest Service lands. Other federal agencies have similar requirements, but bad influencers are either unaware or don’t care.

In short, bad influencers are everything that’s made modern Americans distrust, and in some cases completely despise, modern media. They’re all flash and no substance. It’s all about them with no interest in anyone else – unless there’s money or free gear involved.

Modern Media And Us

Influencers are largely a product of the fragmentation of modern media. Like I mentioned at the start of this piece, the idea behind influencing isn’t new, but social media influencers certainly are.

Not too long ago, the written word was king. Writers made a respectable living because writing is a tough job that few people can do well.

With the advent of social media, however, we’ve seen our nation’s already poor reading and critical thinking skills take a nosedive.

According to a study described by The Washington Post, in 2016, 1 in 3 high school seniors did not read a book for pleasure. As late as the 1970s, though, roughly 60% of high school seniors read a book, magazine, or newspaper, just for fun.

Now, it wouldn’t be concerning if young kids were simply reading books, essays, or other longform content on their phones. But that’s not what they’re doing. According to psychology professor Jean Twenge, the lack of longform content is directly correlated to the drop in literacy and critical thinking skills.

Twenge asserts that we should be concerned because “the skill set and attention it takes to digest concepts in long-form writing are quite different from glancing at a text message or status update.”

Not only is the value of the written word being lost, but so are the skills that are vital to having full, real conversations with other people.

“Reading long-form texts like books and magazine articles is really important for understanding complex ideas and for developing critical thinking skills,” Twenge says.

However, it’s not fair to castigate all social media as bad, nor is it far to assume that long content will spark creative, in-depth thinking. The real crux of the problem is quality over quantity. In the outdoors world, we’ve very much veered towards more content instead of more highly polished content.

Marshall Cutchin has observed this firsthand during his decades in the fly fishing industry.

“What I think social media has done is accelerate fly fishing’s turn from fish worship to hero worship,” Cutchin told me. “But it’s not just social media that has done this; it’s magazines, TV and every other sort of media. Social media just happens to be consumed at a higher rate.”

The race to be first, to be the loudest, to be the one on the top of everyone’s feed, has vastly tilted the outdoors media landscape in favor of those with a high bandwidth for creating superficially-engaging content.

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Which brings us full-circle to influencers. They’ve created a feedback loop that profits off Americans’ declining ability to thoughtfully engage with content. Influencers are very much a part and product of literacy in 21st-century America.

The vast majority of influencers aren’t creating content with any depth. They’re a mirror image of the talking heads on cable news. Most influencers do as little as possible to seem genuine, so they can spend more time finding manufacturers to pay them in free gear. Just like cable news has adapted to social media by always trying to come up with a killer five-second sound bite, influencers go for flash and instant reaction instead of substance.

Of course, all influencers aren’t like this. A few, in fact, are true believers in the gear they’re promoting, or companies they’re supporting. But those who only act as influencers are increasingly rare. Single posts are important and vital to marketing strategies, and that specific type of marketing won’t ever disappear. But the influencers who’ve risen to the top do more than just influence.

They’re storytellers.

Storytellers Aren’t Influencers

Steve Rinella, April Vokey, Danielle Prewett – these are household names for anyone involved in the outdoors, and they’re also some of the few media figures who both influence and provide substance. Danielle’s recipes and cooking tutorials have greatly improved my wild game preparation. April and Steve’s podcasts and writing often get bookmarked, because both individuals provide incredible value.

These folks represent what all influencers should aspire to be – storytellers. Promoters of the outdoors and wild places, of conservation and protection, of helping others discover the connection to the natural world that no one can adequately describe. While they’re making a profit, they’d still do what they’re doing now even if the social media fame and free gear wasn’t there. Call them “true believers” if you will.

Stories are always what have made the outdoors world go round. Fish stories, campfire stories – the community depends on tales being told, but so few people are actually telling something worth listening to. The ones who are? They’re the ones making a difference. The Rinellas and Vokeys and Prewetts aren’t influencers. They’re storytellers, and that’s an important distinction to make.

It’s the “real” influencers – the ones who don’t bother with storytelling because it takes the effort, hard work, and creativity most influencers inherently lack – who are part of the problem.

Invisibility

The biggest problem that influencers perpetrate isn’t their surface-level, staged content – it’s the culture of anonymous, superficial arguing they support through production of content that doesn’t engage users or challenge them to think critically.

Influencers aren’t directly responsible for the drop in consumption of longform content – and the subsequent loss of critical thinking skills in our society – but they’re certainly not doing anything to remedy the issue. Influencers keep feeding the machine, because it’s an easy way to get free gear and make a few bucks. By so doing, they support the invisibility that’s shows off some of the worst of humanity.

If I don’t like someone’s picture, I can leave a nasty comment, and it’s completely anonymous. I don’t have to use my real name, or picture. I have a platform to spout off whenever and however I please.

Comments like that create a vicious cycle where wars are waged with emojis. It’s ironic, because the very arguments that take place in the comments sections of social media posts are what could benefit so much from the critical thinking and longform reading skills that social media has made absent.

The very real beef someone may have with an influencer’s post often turns personal, or vehement, when it doesn’t need to. Influencers make their money and fame based off their reach and engagements. Every time a comment is left – even if it is negative – that influencer only gains more ground.

If we could disagree and discuss civilly in the comments, then a lot of the problems we have with influencers wouldn’t likely be as exacerbated. But when you’re new to fishing or hunting, and you comment on an influencer’s post asking for advice or an explanation about a new-to-you-technique or tip, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll receive a comment calling you some kind of uninformed idiot. That turns a lot of would-be sportsmen and women permanently away from the sport.

Consider what a new angler thinks when all they see on social media is a furious debate over the purity of fly fishing and the impropriety of using bait. Why would they want to join a community like that?

We sportsmen and women crow constantly about the need for more young people to get involved, to appreciate the outdoors, to stand up for conservation and what’s right. Then we turn right around and ridicule folks who fish differently than us, who hunt with a rifle instead of a bow, or who don’t cook meals with game they harvested themselves and vegetables from their own garden.

What a poor excuse for a group of individuals who try to paint themselves as paragons of morality. It’s no wonder young kids don’t want to join this community.

The Damage

It’s fair to say influencers are bad for the outdoors community. As bad as they are, though, they’re just as easy to defeat. Not commenting when you disagree with someone, not following people who clearly don’t know what they’re doing just so you can hate-comment on their posts – these are simple steps we can take to right the ship. To make the outdoors industry a better place.

Influencers have dealt significant damage, but it’s not unsalvageable.

It just takes the effort and hard work on our part to be better than the influencers.


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Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer and guide from Utah. He runs the Utah Fly Fishing Company, is the News Editor for MidCurrent, and a columnist for Hatch Magazine. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant. 

2 Comments

  1. Wow, what an excellent article. I’m of the generation that sort of came up with social media so I’m always a little skeptical of articles with titles like this that they’ll just be bashing on influencers just because social media is this weird new thing. But the points you made here really resonate I think. I especially appreciate the invisibility section, I’ve been fishing all my life but only recently got seriously back into fly fishing and you are right on the money that seeing the ‘discussion’, or lack thereof, that goes on in social media posts almost turned me off completely. And every time I see those kind of posts I think exactly what you’re saying here, how can we be a sport that wants more new people to join when we turn around and treat them this way?
    Anyways, excellent article, so here’s a comment for you in hopes that it spreads your ‘influence’ for the better! Ha

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