Social media and outdoor sport: so many angles to take. We spoke with backcountry skier/ice climber and Montana State professor Jerry Johnson to learn more about his perspective on this dynamic and highly influential medium.
Jerry Johnson is a professor at Montana State in the Department of Political Science. His academic interest ranges from public lands and natural resource policy to decision-making in avalanche terrain. Over the years, along with colleagues in the MSU Snow Science department, Johnson conducted research that has informed how and why backcountry skiers make certain decisions in avalanche terrain.
If you have time, here’s a link to Johnson’s interview on the excellent podcast The Avalanche Hour.
You can also find links to some of Johnson’s academic work here.
Back in mid-December, we ran an essay titled, Fomo to Jomo: Social Media and Backcountry Skiing. A lengthy comment came in from Johnson — scroll to the bottom of the Fomo to Jomo story to have a look.
Here’s a short excerpt from that comment: “Social media is the strongest contagion designed by humans that changes our decisions and behavior. It may bring you joy, but it may also destroy your day. It invites distraction and shapes our behavior in ways we may not realize. There may be a positive social media, but f there is, it sure seems in short supply.”
I called Johnson up and talked to learn more about his perspective. The conversation below was lightly edited for clarity.
WildSnow: I wanted to reach out because whenever I see someone with a Montana.edu address, I think this is going to be a thoughtful comment. These folks have dedicated their lives to examining questions about best practices in backcountry skiing. Something you noted in your comment struck me, as I tend not to gravitate toward social media for validation.
Let me bring your comment up.
Jerry Johnson: It was something like, social media essentially is the biggest scourge of our time. Or a social contagion.
WildSnow: Yeah, there it is, social contagion. And so I am curious; I’m going to ask you some questions here. How do you use social media, and are you on social media at all?
Johnson: Not at all.
WildSnow: Really? Nothing? I’m on social media through a WildSnow account. I use it for story ideas.
Johnson: I get on one Facebook page, a public Facebook page. And I don’t sign into it. And that’s the Southwest Montana ice conditions.
WildSnow: Ok. Next question. Without being on social media, how are you determining whether or not it is, perhaps, as toxic as you might think it is?
Johnson: I see enough comments in newspaper articles. Go to the New York Times, and you go to the Washington Post; one is moderated the other is not. Look at the quality of those two sites, and right there will show you how quickly the discourse can be great. At The Times, they don’t allow name-calling, and they don’t allow personal attacks. At The Post, anything goes. And it takes about three comments for it to just go to the bottom of the barrel.
WildSnow: How are/were you involved with the Snow Science Department at MSU?
Johnson: I’m not. I’m in Political Science. The snow science department is in the Earth Science Department. But I did work with Jordy Hendrix, who used to work at MSU, but he has since returned to his home in New Zealand.
We met for the first time at the ISSW in Anchorage. I was working on a different project with Scott Savage that focused on avalanche professionals and safety culture. Jordy and I sat down over a beer and just started to design a research agenda. And we worked together until recently, when he recently left MSU. I was helping out with the social science aspects of the research.
Our snow science research ran for about 12 years, and ultimately that ran its course.
I know this story has been told many times, but Jordy is a traditional snow scientist. That’s how he’s trained; in glaciology and snow science.
He had a student named Olivia die in an avalanche. She went back home to Silverton and died in an avalanche over the holidays. It really touched him.
He said, “you know, studying snow crystals just isn’t getting the job done.”
We met at about the same time, just a little before that accident; he went all in on the human side of this and the decision-making stuff. He has a science background; I have a social science background.
WildSnow: What are some things that you try to dispel to younger people navigating a social media reality and the accompanying pressures that you and I aren’t? I don’t feel the same pressure because I’m not on social media, and I don’t give a hoot about it. What advice do you give people in the real world about navigating these complexities?
Johnson: That’s a tough one. So much of it comes down to their ego. And this is the problem with social media. It’s still pure ego, for nothing. Like I said in that power piece, these people don’t care about you. No one loves you like you love you. And so if you’re going to let social media influence you, that’s a pretty dangerous path to be on. And it’s kind of antithetical to these very individualistic outdoor sports.
Skiers like to think of themselves as these independent people out there breaking their own trail. They’re not standing in lift lines. And then they let the Twitterverse influence their decisions. That seems crazy. Don’t do that.
Personally, my child was a very high-end kayaker for a number of years. He paddles with some of the best people in the world. I remember telling him, “is any of this worth a free kayak?”
Nobody’s getting rich here. So it’s not a material reward. It’s this egotistical reward. And it’s just not why we do these sports. That may be an age thing.
The skiing thing is really interesting. You can push this too far. But the kayakers, because there are fewer rewards, for one thing, there’s not a ton of magazines, there’s not a ton of kayaking films, it’s just an order of magnitude smaller than the ski industry. Generally, for several reasons, they have not gotten caught up in that. Sure, a few out there are all over social media. But as a sport, the culture of the sport never really went all in on this self-promotion thing.
Whereas with skiing, because we have so many ski films, and you have so much equipment, all these supposedly star skiers, it’s just so much more promotion oriented. And it’s a relatively easy sport to pick up. Anyone can become a good skier in a very short period.
That’s not true of kayaking, mountaineering, ice climbing, or any other sports. Anyone with any skill can start skiing pretty advanced terrain and get into big trouble.
So this ego thing is kind of intrinsic to the sport itself.
But, however, interestingly, at the same time, that’s what makes backcountry skiing incredibly safe.
We put way too much emphasis on so-called accidents. Most of these incidents are not accidents, in the sense that some random event happens, and someone gets injured or killed. You know, it’s incredibly safe. But, as you say, you look at your readership and the numbers. There will be a certain number of people going to get into that self-promotion, ego-driven behavior. And social media is the catalyst for that. Call me old.
WildSnow: I know this is a small sample size, but I know a young skier whose role models, when it comes to skiing and the mountains, are barely on social media— I think one of them is off it altogether. They’re being somewhat controlled when it comes to social media.
Johnson: It’s that look-at-me personality versus the surfer dude, who’s just surfing because it’s an internal satisfaction.
WildSnow: I like where we are going here; this feels more like a conversation than drilling down on social media and sports research.
I recall going downtown Bozeman a few years ago and being slightly startled to see a TGR store front and center on Main Street. In many ways, that town, like many ski towns, holds some serious cultural capital for backcountry skiers and skiers in general. In their films, you’ve got the whole spectrum, the hucking, the helicopters, and the human powdered. It’s just an interesting dynamic in terms of selling a product to skiers — there are a lot of moving parts. But in some sense, it sends a specific message about ski culture.
Johnson: I will tell you, though, that as a corporation, they have gotten it together. They did start with these films, you know, the bail-out-the-helicopter and ski something gnarly. But if you look at the evolution of their films, because they got pressure on this, there’s almost no TGR film that doesn’t show them doing some safety checks.
They have really done a great job of showing the homework that goes into skiing those lines. I give them a lot of credit for that; because it doesn’t make for a sexy skiing film. But they’re sending this subliminal or maybe not so subliminal message that this is serious stuff.
WildSnow: I’ll grant you that. Still, I would love for there to be a stand-alone documentary each year with all the outtakes of the immense human and physical infrastructure that makes them all safe.
Johnson: Yeah, I think you’re right because it’s considerable. These featured skiers are professionals. In the end, the problem is when some newbie says, “if they can see that face, I’m good to go ski this face.”
We see it on Saddle Peak all the time; it’s just south of Bridger Bowl. Some guy took a 500-foot ride there the other day. He was by himself, and he skied out of it. There have been some deaths there too. I do agree with you on their basic message, but I think most of the ski film companies have picked up on that, and they do demonstrate some of the safety procedures.
WildSnow: I’d like to think I’m an eternal optimist. I don’t know if my friends would describe me that way.
I feel the awareness of social media on our behavior ebbs and flows. I do feel like there’s a cohort of backcountry users who understand social media’s ego-driven nature and how it can make us make bad decisions. I think there’s some awareness of that.
But presuming social media is not going away, what do you think the avalanche education community can do to address it?
Johnson: I would like to see it part of a level one course. I don’t think they talk about that. I don’t think they talk about the inner message or the introspection of why we do this sport.
You can do it in an entertaining way, a fun educational sort of way.
Know Before You Go (KBYG) touches on this a bit. They’re trying to communicate this: you have some responsibility if you’re going to do this; it’s responsibility to you and responsibility to other people.
They could probably drive that home a little bit harder. And I think good educators could do it. I’m just not sure that they’re doing it yet. I do think most guides get it; the AMGA people get it. But it needs to start way before that.
We did a survey a few years ago of pre and post-avalanche level one for people that took every course in Colorado. And, you know, several people in the class said, “I’ve got my level one; I’m good to go.”
No self-reflection, no, nothing. I can see their social media post, “Just completed my level one. I’m ready to go.” That’s a dead-end street. Yeah, the education community could, I think, address that a little bit more.
WildSnow: Pull the lens back to the macro level and consider all your research. Are you a glass half full or half empty when it comes to making progress with this human-driven aspect of managing risk in the backcountry?
Johnson: I think it’s nearly full.
The basic takeaway from our work, whether you’re a helicopter guide, backcountry skier, or snowmobiler, is that most people do exactly what they should be doing. They’re getting the education and managing terrain. They’re looking at conditions and dialing it back when conditions get sketchy. And that’s why the accident rates are decreasing as a percentage of users; it’s minuscule.
The education community has made significant progress with this. Ian McCammon’s work opened the door for this. And, you know, Powder Magazine and Black Diamond stepped up with that human factor series. Great stuff. I mean, just great stuff. And I think it had a real impact. I don’t think you could find an avalanche educator anywhere who doesn’t talk about decision making.
So all good. And that’s why I say that we put way too much emphasis on accidents because most of the fatalities and injuries and the big events that we hear about are not accidental. They were conscious choices. It was somebody who had all the information they needed and still skied something and had an unfortunate outcome. That’s not an accident. That’s a choice.
WildSnow: I’m curious about how you delineate a choice and an accident. What if you make choices during a tour? And maybe you’ve already answered this, but a group bases a decision (call it a choice) on a falsehood; they make an incorrect assessment. Maybe they miss a layer in the snow pit analysis. They have based their choices on flawed information.
Johnson: That’s an accident. We all get fooled. One of the forecasters up here was snowmobiling somewhere around Cook city, and his partner got buried up to his waist in a remote trigger; they were totally surprised.
These guys had the information they needed, but they got surprised. That’s an accident. But when somebody has all the information they need, and they’re letting that commercial element or that ego element drive them to do something against all rational thought, that’s not an accident. That’s just a stupid decision.
I don’t have a prescription. I am one of those people who believe, “you know, if that’s the decision you want to make, that’s your decision.”
I’m not ever going to tell anyone not to ski something. I may not ski it. And I might say something like, have you thought about this?”
But I’m never going to say, “don’t do it.” Or rarely, let’s put it that way.
And if we’re in a situation where maybe we have to do something a little sketchy, I’m going to do it. I’ve been in that situation, too, where, at least, I know my limits, my skill set, and how I will implement this decision. And I have more confidence in myself than I have in you. You know, that comes from an old climbing mentor.
He was very adamant that you know when to take control of this situation.
The beautiful thing about skiing is there’s no reason to be in that situation. We can always turn around. We just often choose not to.
There’s been progress with avalanche education, which has been spectacular. The one weak point, I see, is that there’s too much of this one-and-done mentality. You know, “I’ve taken level one. I’ve learned what I need to learn.”
The information presented in those courses changes, and people need to learn new things. That’s the value of research. So refreshers and stuff like that cost money, but have you priced ski equipment lately?
So you throw a couple of 100 bucks for a refresher weekend, and some people balk at that. That’s insane.
Look at the Cherry Creek rescue up in Canada a few years ago. Right before they went into Cherry Creek, the rescuers did a partner rescue course and saved four people. That’s pretty good value.
I think the education community could probably develop some new products that may take less time and are more affordable. The one weak spot in the sport right now is the lack of continuing education.
WildSnow: I, too like to stay abreast of what’s going on. And that first COVID winter, I purchased an online avalanche class. It was quite good for making me think about all the concepts and best practices, knowing that it was not field-based.
I think that course has been modified a bit so that you can take the online class and then connect with a specific guide to reinforce and practice the learned concepts. I think the argument is that you’re coming into, say, the equivalent of an avalanche one course or something with much more know-how than you might get in an alternative situation.
What are your thoughts on that sort of online model?
Johnson: I think it’s great. Good online education is really good. It really is. I do that a lot. And there is a lot of preliminary stuff you can watch, so you can walk into a level one and save a lot of time standing around.
If you can demonstrate that by watching videos, you know, for example, my procedure for deploying my gear and all that stuff. It’s great. Yeah. It probably should be a little bit cheaper for people to get into that.
I do think AIARE actually does that. They have an online component before you show up in a field class. Our awareness courses in Bozeman use a big room at the University where they’ll lecture to 100 people. And then groups of those people do a two-day field weekend. It’s fantastic. Know Before You Go gets you primed. It gets you thinking.
Jason Albert comes to WildSnow from Bend, Oregon. After growing up on the East Coast, he migrated from Montana to Colorado and settled in Oregon. Simple pleasures are quiet and long days touring. His gray hair might stem from his first Grand Traverse in 2000 when rented leather boots and 210cm skis were not the speed weapons he had hoped for. Jason survived the transition from free-heel kool-aid drinker to faster and lighter (think AT), and safer, are better.
Great interview and good job seeking prospective from a completely different field of study. Really helps us think outside the box a bit. Jerry mentions two things that stirred my thoughts, one is surfing and the other is the internal satisfaction. I have always admired soul surfers, the ones who never competed on the circuit but surfed for the joy it brings and really dedicated their life to the craft. Surfing for them is a lifestyle more than a sport. I have always believed that there are soul skiers as well and have always aspired to be one. When this path is followed, the motivation for skiing is intrinsic rather than extrinsic and thus runs completely counter to social media. I actually think social media in some ways is killing the soul of skiing. There are fewer people putting the life together around skiing purely for the joy it creates, the communities it builds, and the creativity it inspires and instead shifts to an ego driven proxy life. Perhaps if we emphasize the complete mountain life and focus on intrinsic rewards, we can shape a healthier reason to get out and do what we do. We need to bring back the wisdom of spending time in the mountains.
Thanks all and keep up the good work!