Emerson's thousands of snaps are just a tiny percentage of the countless photos posted to social media sites. Cyberspace is filled with images of natural landscapes, which run alongside streams of political jabs, silly cat videos, selfies and other digital trumpery. But geographers now believe postings by tourists and outdoor enthusiasts like Emerson offer a vast, untapped trove of data that could help explore how heavily visited places are, and how people value them.
"This is really exciting because it allows us to identify, in an objective way, which natural landscapes are valued and used by the public," said Jordan Smith, director of Utah State University's Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism. "This is something we haven't been able to do with traditional social science research methods like surveys."
In a study released last month by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Smith and Dutch colleagues analyzed 7.5 million images posted on three very different social media platforms Instagram, Panoramio and Flickr. They found that photos posted to these platforms hold real value to social science as long as images are "geo-tagged" meaning that the geographic coordinates of where they were shot are included in their metadata.
There were big differences in who used these three social-media platforms and how, but the researchers detected patterns common to all three.
"This is a proof of concept that we could take social media data and use it to map how landscapes are valued. Regardless of which platforms you used, the results were remarkably consistent," said Smith, an assistant professor in USU's Department of Environment and Society. "There are a lot of meaningful management implications that could be learned if we apply these algorithms to public lands people value here."
More than 100 million Americans use the cellphone app Instagram to casually post images, in manner similar to tweeting. Photos appear in a square format, and followers can make comments and "like" photos, as well as search for similar users and images using hashtags.
Flickr and Panoramio are used by photography enthusiasts for exhibiting their work online. Panoramio is widely used across Europe, but its principals began retiring the platform as part of a planned effort to merge it with Google Maps. For the next year, users may continue to access their accounts, but are no longer able to post new photos, likes or comments.
Smith's new research, which investigated images shot in Europe in 2015, concluded the most-valued landscapes include mountains and places near rivers and lakes, as well as lands near population centers.
"These landscapes are clearly providing ecosystem services highly valued by society," said co-author Ross Meentemeyer, director of North Carolina State University's Center for Geospatial Analytics. "Using social media to uncover and quantify people's interest in ecosystem services is an exciting new approach to understanding the important connection between natural resources and human health and well-being."
Smith, whose USU center conducts visitor-use surveys on Utah's public lands, hopes to develop tools that can be applied to the Western United States, where uses of public lands have shifted from resource extraction and agriculture to outdoor recreation and tourism.
An earlier study from University of Washington demonstrated that social media posts can reliably quantify nature-based tourism and recreation. That study cataloged 1.4 million photos shot at 836 recreational sites around the world and posted on Flickr, then compared the numbers with empirical data.
"Information from crowd-sourced social media is revolutionizing the way we study people and understand their choices," said lead author Spencer Wood of the Woods Institute for the Environment, a joint venture with Stanford University.
His team this year published a follow-up study of Flickr-posted photos shot at 38 national parks in the Western U.S. They found that the number of photos shot in a particular park and posted each month reflects actual visitor totals for that month proof that social media postings offer an inexpensive and effective way to determine visitation at recreational, scenic and wilderness destinations.
Now Wood intends to use such data to probe deeper.
"We want to understand how environmental quality affects visitation," Wood said. "We need good data on recreational use, and those data tend to be lacking. They are from a few isolated places like parks where you can count people coming and going."
Smith cautions that researchers must consider the inherent biases built into each platform.
"Instagram data could be sensitive to biases arising from random events, like political upheaval and extreme weather," Smith said. "In the West, think monument designations and flash floods."
Instagram users tend to be younger and their posted images are often whimsical and spontaneous.
Yet Salt Lake City photographers Royce Bair and Prajit Ravindran, both expert outdoor shooters, rely on heavily on Instagram to share their stunning images of Utah landscapes, often bathed in starlight and shot in wide angle.
Bair is a social-media machine, spending up to an hour a day posting images of Utah's geological and topographical wonders, including shots created by other photographers. Thousands of fans follow his Flickr account, but he has moved his focus to Instagram, where his main account (@roycebairphoto) has nearly 100,000 followers.
"I still love Flickr. Serious people, editors, reporters contact me more often because of Flickr, but everyday people are more likely to contact me through Instagram," said Bair, who makes his living with photography. "The platform is growing exponentially, faster than Facebook ... everyone has a mobile device in their hand. If you want to show off how beautiful your pictures are, Flickr and 500px are the way to go, but if you want to get noticed quickly, Instagram is a great way to do it."
Time magazine's photo blog recently named Ravindran's Instagram account (@irockutah) the best to follow in Utah. A software engineer who moved to Salt Lake City five years ago, Ravindran has logged 58,000 miles traveling around Utah with his Nikon D810 in search of new ways to capture the Great Salt Lake, Bonneville Salt Flats, sandstone arches and cloudy skies over mountain ranges.
Since starting his Instagram account, he has posted 658 landscapes and amassed 27,000 followers.
"For me it's a new way to showcase my work, and finding like-minded photographers interesting in conserving the public land," he said.
His standing form appears in many of his shots, usually viewed from behind in the distance. This framing reflects his interest in "participatory photography," an idea developed by late wilderness photographer and adventurer Galen Rowell, whose images projected his own emotional response to what he was shooting. By putting himself in the photo, Ravindran becomes part of the scene and uses his own body to provide a sense of scale.
On the other hand, Jimmy Emerson, the Georgia veterinarian, often shoots places and things without getting of his car. He even shoots the inside of his car in his haste to document everything America has to offer, from old buildings to fast food to empty landscapes.
"I love history, I love historic structures," said Emerson. "Before I go on a trip I get on the National Register of Historic Places website. Is there something someone else found that I need to look at?"
One day in 2011 while driving in the Uinta Basin, he saw a road sign indicating a historic landmark was down a back road. Emerson reflexively turned and eventually came across the 60-year-old suspension bridge that crosses the Green River at Browns Park. Out came his camera and he shot the relic, which has since become impassable thanks to an overweight tractor.
"I couldn't believe how narrow that darn thing was. I was watching someone drive it thinking it is too narrow to drive across," said Emerson.
During a two-week excursion through the Great Basin two years later, he posted 1,862 photos to Flickr.
It's the only way to come close to describing the beauty of Utah's parks, he said.
"Y'all are lucky. They are phenomenal," he said. "I like the openness and desolation out in the middle of nowhere. You are driving and you don't see a car for three hours. Around here [in Georgia] you see a car on every street corner. People see the Utah desert and think it's desolate and empty. I think it's gorgeous."
Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Maffly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-257-8713. Twitter: @brianmaffly