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Social media influencers earn big bucks capturing B.C.'s natural beauty — but at what cost?

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2018-07-08 Alex Migdal
Nature photography is currency for social media influencers in B.C.© JKstock/Shutterstock Nature photography is currency for social media influencers in B.C.

Ally Pintucci hates the term social media influencer. But it's a catchphrase that marketers have adopted to describe online personalities like her. 

The 28-year-old boasts 27,000 followers on Instagram, where photos show her standing among towering trees in B.C.'s forests and perched on a rock surrounded by Whistler's glacial waters. 

The pictures incite envy and an urge to head outdoors, which is precisely what the brands she partners with are capitalizing on.

But what's missing, Pintucci says, is the disconnect between the photos and the painstaking work involved in taking them. 

"It's not pack a daypack with your Nikes and your leggings and stand there and take a picture," she said. "There's terrain. There's being prepared. There's having the right gear. There's knowing the trail." 

The relationship between social media and outdoor adventuring took another disquieting turn this week with the deaths of three hikers at Shannon Falls near Squamish, B.C.

The tragedy has raised questions about the role of so-called media influencers, the forces that push them to engage in risky activities and how the photos can distort the dangers involved. 

Family and friends have identified Megan Scraper, Alexey Lyakh and Ryker Gamble as the three victims.

Gamble and Lyakh founded High On Life, a YouTube channel and Instagram page that showcased their exotic travels, while Scraper, Lyakh's girlfriend, produced social media content for luxury hotels and travel businesses. 

Pintucci, who knew the trio, says the accident is a reminder for influencers — and their audiences — to stay safe.

"I don't know if there's a line that's being drawn anymore," she said. 

a young man jumping in the air: Ryker Gamble and his friends created a successful YouTube channel called High On Life that documented their adventures.© Provided by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Ryker Gamble and his friends created a successful YouTube channel called High On Life that documented their adventures.

Agreeing to safety rules

Destination B.C., a tourism agency, recruited more than 20 influencers last year as part of its marketing efforts.

The influencers, who come from anywhere from California to China, get a free trip to B.C. in exchange for Instagram stories, photos and videos. They can net up to $10,000 for one campaign.

It's a selective process, says Josie Heisig, an influencer marketing specialist with Destination B.C. The agency doesn't just look at numbers, but whether the influencer's brand fits. And a big part of that rests on safety, she says.

"We want people who are doing more than just getting that one glory shot," she said.

Influencers must agree to safety rules when signing a contract. That includes sticking to designated trails, wearing visible life jackets and helmets and avoiding campfires when there's a ban.

Any time the agency posts a photo that features the back country or the wild, it includes safety messaging from its partner, AdventureSmart.

"We really want them to understand what is entailed with getting to certain vantage points," Heisig said. 

'Competition for content'

But as influencers jostle for attention, they're increasingly taking risks to capture the perfect shot, says Wahiba Chair, a digital marketing instructor with the UBC Sauder School of Business. 

"There's so much competition for content," she said, noting that some influencers can earn six-figure incomes. "You know it's going to get more eyeballs and you know that's going to convert to more money." 

Pintucci, the Vancouver-based influencer, says it's too easy to lay the blame on social media for encouraging outdoor accidents. But she acknowledges that it raises an ethical dilemma. 

"Is anyone responsible with a photo supposed say, 'This is what it took me to get here and this is the story behind the photo?" she said.

For her part, Pintucci has stopped geotagging locations in her Instagram posts, so as not to attract crowds to the same spot. And she encourages photographers to use resources like North Shore Rescue. 

In a Facebook post on Monday, Pintucci wrote: "The world lost three adventurous souls to Mother Nature this week. Please be safe out there friends."

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