Foraging and Social Media

Cyberforaging on the Rise

Since I first started sharing foraging posts on social media about 15 years ago, I’ve seen the number of foraging-focussed social media accounts grow exponentially.

A lot of previously niche activities have seen a steep upcurve in their online profile, but foraging’s rise appears to have been particularly rapid. This isn’t surprising as  foraging fits social media surprisingly well: it produces a steady flow of highly photogenic and  interesting plants, seaweeds, mushrooms, preserves, recipes and “moments” throughout the year”. Platforms  include Facebook Groups sharing learning journeys and group-sourcing identification help and recipe ideas; foraging teachers sharing free information and promoting their guided walks; Tik-tok influencers making fun and informative videos; and many pages of wild food recipes shared on Pinterest, to name but a few.

The tribulations of the global pandemic saw a further surge for social media accounts featuring foraging, as documented in this research.

Lockdown Foraging – 40 or so useful, accessible wild plants – from a post I shared during the pandemic

In a society that has become increasingly detached from nature, the surge of foraging within social media appears to buck the trend. However, there is a curious juxtaposition between the screen time required to make and/or ingest foraging related posts, and the real world practice of being outside engaging with nature. About 10 years ago I coined the term “cyberforaging’ to describe this phenomenon, where taking a photo and writing a social media post appears to be a significant part of a foraging practice. I intended it as a neutral descriptive term (I am myself a cyberforager after all!), but I’ve since seen it used pejoratively to describe people who’s main foraging motivation appears to be sharing about it on social media. For the purposes of this article I’m using the term neutrally.

This curious marriage of digital and embodied experience present some  challenges as well as opportunities…

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Foraging and Social Media – The Upsides

The rise and rise of social media has allowed once niche pursuits to step into the limelight and opened them up to new audiences. In the case of foraging, this not only brings new opportunities for nature connection, but also for foraging teachers and wild food nano-businesses to reach new people. I was fortunate that as a relatively early social media adopter who likes writing and enjoys the challenge of conveying info-dense messages succinctly (I’m a poet at heart!), I was able to propel my paid events (mostly guided walks) into being a steady business that, while not making me rich, pays my bills and supports a very satisfying lifestyle.

For those that take to it, social media can be a powerful tool.

But I have also met some quite brilliant and incredibly knowledgeable foragers and foraging teachers who just  can’t hack the screen time and constant distraction that being online demands…foragers do tend to be happier in the forest or on the shore.

This post is by no means intended to denigrate all foraging on social media. There are many great people out there sharing sound messages and high quality information. Several years ago I compiled a list of social media accounts (and websites) that I recommend. Its probably due an update, but still worth a look if you are seeking quality, original, well considered and curated content.


Foraging and Social Media – The Downsides

This isn’t specific to foragers, but worth mentioning from the off: screen time is no replacement for actually doing things! Foraging is an embodied practice – you have to do it to understand it. I feel fortunate that I learned most of my foraging skills and knowledge long before the internet started shouting for my attention, and wonder what I would have learned if I’d been drawn away from from books and spending time with plants and fungi? I’m pretty sure I would have learned less, and what I learned would have been less well cemented.

I’ve written about identification apps before, and concluded that, while they might have some use as a small part of a forager’s toolkit, they are at best disconnecting, undermining the process of developing a wide and grounded knowledge of plants, seaweeds and fungi and building relationships with them. At worst they are downright dangerous. But I’ve explored all of that before, so back to social media…

I have similar reservations about using Facebook Groups to identify potential wild food. While these groups are usually populated by lots of kind and helpful people, there is no way of knowing their level of experience. This doesn’t really matter when recipes are being shared, but runs into trouble where help with identification is requested. There sometimes seems to be an element of competitive showing-off to offering identification suggestions. These are often based on poor photos and inadequate information – barely more than guesses. (I’ve explored what makes a good photo for the purposes of identification here).

I have seen some downright dangerous misidentifications on FB Groups. Even the politest of attempts to query or correct these can offend the mis-identifier and it all gets very tense very quickly.  Most of these groups do have sensible guidelines, and I’m quite sure that most folk who look for support on their foraging journey through them are perfectly sensible, seeing it as part of a toolkit rather than a font of all wisdom. I certainly hope so.

But the challenges of cyberforaging go beyond safe identification. Anyone near the start of their foraging journey who is active on social media is likely to be bombarded with a lot weird and wonderful stuff.

Often with learning, and especially embodied practices such as foraging, less can be more. When folk near the start of their foraging journey come on my guided walks, I advise them to choose no more than 5 of the 30 or so  wild foods we might look at, and really focus in on them, spend time with them, get to know them. My friend and fellow foraging teacher Monica Wilde calls guided foraging walks “speed dating with plants” and she’s spot on. But at least with speed dating you actually get to meet your date….

Scaling this up to the sheer volume of information flicking across people’s screens on social media, and it starts to look more like Tinder for people and wild foods! As folk swipe through, I guess there might be the first sparks of beautiful friendships, but I do worry that it might both overwhelms the viewer and underserve the plants, mushrooms and seaweeds.


Foraging and Social Media: Keeping It Real

Posts on social media are generally a poor way to share the nuanced messages around foraging. The “ta-dah” posts that are favoured by logarithms and get hits and follows struggle to cover enough on identification and sustainable practice, and often resort to trite comments like ‘remember to always forage sustainably folks’. I’m sorry, but this is simply not adequate. “Sustainable” is an adjective not a verb. It requires qualification and explanation. For example, how do you forage wild garlic sustainably?

The reality of foraging includes lots more empty baskets, slimy slug-eaten mushrooms, fruitless miles in the rain and frustrated puzzling over hard-to-identify species than social media would have you believe.

Empty baskets don’t tend to get “likes”, but do keep it real… click image to view the post.

This can easily give unrealistic expectations to inexperienced foragers – or false impressions to the non-foraging community.

For every basket of perfect gourmet mushrooms or pristine herbs shared on social media, what you don’t see and rarely hear about are the years the forager has spent learning their craft and locale – developing an intimacy with the natural world far beyond mere ‘nature watching’. They will likely have trudged around wet forests repeatedly, and for many miles, learning their hot-spots and timings for mushrooms, or been chased by incoming tides as they explored seaweeds, often with little in the way of harvests to show for their efforts – at least in the short term.

They will have worked through the complex and detailed observations required to allay anxieties around accurate identification of edible species – which usually make for an intense few years at the start of anyone’s foraging journey. There is no substitute for these years: foraging is an embodied practice – you have to do it to know it.

The propensity of full baskets on social media also gives a false impression to the non-foraging community, and fuel to those who (misguidedly) see foraging as a threat to the natural world. Social media shows them a lot of things being taken, but is less good at demonstrating the deep nature connection that foraging brings, and what foragers leave behind and give back.

So cyberforagers shouldn’t be surprised if they encounter negative opinions.

Many experienced foragers, myself included, are complicit in perpetuating these false impressions – glamour shots of full baskets get more likes! But perhaps we can recalibrate this a little by sharing more empty baskets, talking about fruitless forays and our own learning journeys…? When politely challenged, we should be willing and able to add some detail about exactly how we forage considerately and sustainably.

A well-filled basket – but what is the context? There were 12 of us on this foray, and we explored a vast and fungi-filled forest, sharing out our pickings at the end.

When I’m mentoring foraging teachers I recommend they split their time posting online so that 80% is spent writing longer carefully considered posts on a website (or a book, or a well made film if they are your bag) that they own and curate, and 20% on social media posts that refer back to their more nuanced posts. This has several upsides: they get to repurpose seasonal articles, and aren’t reliant on dodgy (or costly) logarithms to reach an audience. It also saves us from having to remake the same informative material every time something comes back into season, and answering the same questions year after year. By recalibrating our creative output we can actually can go some way to changing wider perceptions of foraging culture, rather than feeding the social media machine anew each year with the same inadequate posts.

Of course social media platforms are rapaciously hungry for new content and don’t care if its just a rehash of last year’s post, so long as its got “ta-dah”! They almost invariable demote posts with links, especially if the links have been shared before. I decided many years ago to take this hit. I’d rather make a nuanced post with links to further information that finds a smaller audience than a trite one that goes viral. Quality over quantity.


Foraging and Social Media: Plagiarism and Accreditation

Another shortcoming of social media is a tendency to pass the creativity of others off as one’s own. This may be down to forgetfulness, running out of space (that demand social media makes for brevity again), or genuinely not being able to work out where an idea or piece of knowledge has come from. But its nice to at least try, once in a while.

My ready-reckoner to tell the good guys and genuine creatives from the plagiarists and wannabe gurus of the cyberforaging sphere (or any other sphere for that matter) is to look and see how often they cite their sources, inspirations, further reading, references and other foragers on their feed. Very few of us are heaven-taught geniuses, so if someone never mentions where their knowledge and/or inspiration comes from, they are probably disingenuous.

I’m not suggesting that cyberforagers should be researching and citing the origins every single recipe, plant or idea they share  – its often very hard to know where ideas come from, and they usually have a bit of “us” in them too. But I am suggesting that folk who never attempt this are probably motivated by narcissism/ego, and may turn out to be a bit of a dick.

Warm acknowledgement and accreditation are the glue that holds foragers together as a community. A little bit goes a long way. A lack of it shows up pretty clearly: word gets around. Only last week several people contacted me to draw my attention to a near exact reproduction of  an original dish I had posted a couple of days before. Wild foods often suggest certain treatments, so perhaps they had arrived at their creation in parallel, but it certainly didn’t look that way and they  were rather enjoying the plaudits of their followers. I left them to it, but their name is noted in my “probably a bit of a dick” book!

The classic example of this is Fergus Drennan’s genius idea of rehydrating jelly ear mushrooms in fruity liquor then covering them in chocolate. A brilliant and delicious bit of original thinking that I see regularly presented on social media without any mention of its origins. Fergus came up with the idea well over 10 years ago and its a hard to find him discussing it on his platforms (he’s that rare thing on social media – genuinely modest!), so of course we can’t expect everyone to follow its lineage all the way back, but its not hard to mention that you got the idea from somewhere else!

Jelly ear “turkish delight” courtesy of Fergus Drennan, and chocolate-dipped elf cups, a discovery I made with Charlotte Flower.

Accreditation, citing of sources and discussing the lineage of recipes and plant uses helps avoid appropriation on a cultural as well as personal level. Much of the knowledge that modern foragers share is ancient, often carried from the past by marginalised groups for whom “wild food” was just “food”. Again, its not hard to mention these sources once in a while. By doing so we help to give proper acknowledgement to foraging cultures, and demonstrate the ancient relationships between humans and nature.


Foraging and Social Media: Trolling and Pickshaming

Social media thrives on conflict and often excels at subduing much of the etiquette, manners and nuance that come with face-to-face communication. This lack of positive social rewards can make for a rather unpleasant scene, especially in comment threads.

This is a big enough and gnarly enough subject that I’ve explored it in a separate blog here: Foraging Trolls, Pickshaming and Social Media

In that post I explore some of the hypocrisy, virtue signalling, holier-than-thou-ism, unjoined-up thinking, and downright rudeness that appears all too often in the comments threads of foraging posts. Its not pretty, but I hope I’ve made it more fun by making my Spotter’s Guide to Foraging Trolls!

Social media is designed to distract by stupefication and/or conflict. Its very easy to spend precious energy bickering with folk with whom we share a massive chunk of our world view, rather than the tackling the true threats to that world view: squabbling among allies while the world burns. Having a go at a forager for “eating nature“, while MacDonalds makes another million. Its so dispiriting to see (and get sucked into) this.


Like it or not, cyberforaging is with us for a while, good bits and bad.

Despite it’s downsides I have lots to thank it for: I share my passion through it, promote mybusiness through it,  learn from it, meet cool and interesting people through it (who often become friends), and provided I don’t pay it too much attention at the expense of non-screen time, it serves me well.

 

Marsh Samphire Harvesting with friends

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