The third way: could Outdoor emerge as an independent political platform?


On Wednesday in Denver, one day ahead of the Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show, the first-ever Americas Outdoor Recreation Confluence will draw eight delegations from Vermont to Oregon for a day that’s all about establishing common ground. 

Driven by the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, the Confluence is an invite-only event designed to gather all states with an up-and-running outdoor industry initiative at the State level.  
From the perspective of an attending delegate -- it’s awesome, needed and certainly welcome. States like Vermont have a ton to gain from attendance, ranging from simply reinforcing their position at the leading edge of the Outdoor movement to identifying best practices and serving up some on-the-job training for coalition members who are policy first-timers. 

From the broader perspective -- I know what you're thinking --  an Outdoor gathering with the goal of finding common ground doesn't exactly sound like a headline. Even a rook knows that Outdoor is plenty good at agreeing with Outdoor.  But this Colorado Confluence feels different.  Not just because of organization, energy and concept. But because of the timing. 

Imagine the same event being held anytime in the last 25 years, and you’ll conjure up a picture of a far different rodeo.  Interesting and informative, sure, but absent of the undeniable national context.  Like sticking your hand in a cold April river, it’s physically impossible not to feel the energy. We’re all leaning in.  

Now for the next metaphor. On any given day, it would be super easy to notice a crowd climbing a ridgeline with their heads down into the wind.  Even at a distance, you could probably figure out a general idea of where they’re headed (“up”), but you’d be guessing wildly to really know what each individual is actually thinking. 

Welcome to Outdoor, a truly varied group of interests and individuals. Capitalists and hippies, for-profit and for-fun, do-gooders and climb-highers, fishermen and fat bikers, morning break surfers and lunch break walkers, trail runners and trad climbers, van lifers and RV retirees. Lots of people. Lots of differences.  And lots of challenges for anyone trying to build a conveniently tidy list of where Outdoor stands on every single issue.  

On the other hand, if you narrow the scope down just a little bit -- and center it around the group’s deep personal and professional ties to the Outdoor world --  there’s a pretty happy crowd inside a pretty big tent.

Imagine the same event being held anytime in the last 25 years, and you’ll conjure up a picture of a far different rodeo. Interesting and informative, sure, but absent of the undeniable national context. Like sticking your hand in a cold April river, it’s physically impossible not to feel the energy. We’re all leaning in.

And there lies the rub.  Fact one:  There’s not much agreement out there these days, other than agreeing that the stakes seem to get higher every time you wake up and turn on the news.  Fact two:  within arm’s reach of Outdoor, there’s a lot of people, a lot of agreement and a lot of leaning in going on.  Broad is beautiful.

So say you were thinking about building something a bit more solid for Outdoor to stand on.  Wrapping your head around the simultaneous outdoor shows going on this week (OR + Snow Show in Denver, SHOT in Vegas) you might start with a cup or two of Outdoor’s economic impact-- you know, big picture talking points like “Outdoor is manufacturing. Outdoor is trade. Outdoor is jobs. Outdoor is retail. Outdoor is innovation and entrepreneurship.”

You’d of course want to make sure to have a heaping helping of stewardship in the mix -- a historically strong commitment of both Outdoor businesses and participants  …  “Outdoor is blue sky. Outdoor is clear water. Outdoor is our greatest natural treasures, as well as the town path built by volunteers. Outdoor is protection when we can, and adaptation when we must.”

Although it’s frequently baked into the final results, you’d be remiss not to connect the dots with public health (“Outdoor is inspiration. Outdoor is participation. Outdoor is access for all”).  And, don’t forget a tasty topping of Unity (“Outdoor is not a Democratic issue.  Outdoor is not a Republican issue. Outdoor is not bipartisan -- Outdoor is non-partisan).

Admittedly, those are soft targets.  To really hone in on the idea, you’d want to get more specific, and to do that you’d be wise to enlist some experts -- people from around the country who are on the front lines of the Outdoor Rec movement, people who’ve rolled up their sleeves to think about this stuff and how it relates to local issues for years -- and see what they have to say. Where do they stand firm? Where do they wobble?  Where do they differ … but mainly, where do they agree?  You might even gather those experts in a central location, a day ahead of a huge Outdoor industry and Outdoor community gathering. 

The idea of a unifying, independent, non-partisan Outdoor platform might be a fantasy, sure. But not the deposed-princess-with-platinum-hair-on-a-flying-dragon kind.  It's more of the maybe-I’ll-quit-my-job-and-move-to-Jackson kind:  a recurring daydream that’s rooted enough in reality that there’s something worth paying attention to in there.

The victory of high touch

In the last couple days, the map of “how the future voted” has gotten tons of play on Facebook.  You've probably seen it.  And if you're a Democrat, you probably "liked" it, along with 200,000 others.  But it’s a sham.

The “future" voting map is a supposedly a statistical illustration of how 18-29 year old voters swung hard for Hillary on Tuesday, and how that means the future will be a bright blue "D" from sea to shining sea. What it doesn't mention, however, is that only 19% of the 18-25 demographic actually bothered to vote: the lowest of any age group. So what's being spread around as a fact that Democrats can curl up with as they lick their election wounds, is just a fifth true. A little less, actually.

But because the piece is something many social media users would like to be true, because it appeals to emotions first and foremost, it gets shared and "liked" and elevated in the Facebook algorithm to a noble height of truthiness. Clickbait stories like the "future map" are everywhere for a reason.  They work.  

Let's face it.  One of the big areas of scrutiny from the 2016 election is the current state of social media -- how it made an indelible imprint in some areas, and how it was clearly impotent in others.

As a generation of social media natives, we’re definitely overdue for a social media checkup. The 2016 election has provided a valuable moment to take a look under the hood as a group, and in the mirror as individuals, to evaluate how we're using this tool. It's time to really understand the positives like connecting with friends and family, as well as the negatives -- how it reinforces the ideas we already have, how it insulates users from diversity in thought, and how it is steadily ushering in a new age of emotion over reason.

We've all felt the thrill of posts that get a ton of attention, and we've all felt the stank of posts that go nowhere. We've learned that joy and anger and passion (and cats!) get the most likes. And so, we continually adjust our internal algorithm, consciously and subconsciously, to perform.

In the morning after the election, Trump staffers praised their victory as one of "high touch defeating high tech."  In other words, while the digital tools at our fingertips were certainly amazing and powerful in many ways, they simply couldn't outperform real world face-to-face persuasion that was going on in the red states.

Since August, I spend a few dozen hours behind the wheel in Utah and Colorado, New York and Pennsylvania ('m pretty sure that the only place where it's illegal to be on social media is while you're driving a car).  As a road tripping distraction, I decided to keep score every time I saw a presidential election yard sign.  At first, I thought it’d be an interesting straw poll to measure the support for each candidate, but after a couple hours in the car I realized there were almost no Hillary signs to count at all.  In those areas, Clinton had no touch.

It’s a lot to take in, still.  How did our country become so clearly divided? How were analysts so completely wrong?  How come everybody on my Facebook feed was wearing pantsuits on Tuesday and Hillary still lost?

While you can't simply point a middle finger at social media -- you can definitely pause and think about it a bit.

If you're looking to connect with others like yourself, social media has proven itself to be an incredible and robust tool.

But nobody ever increased market share by only speaking to their current customers. And to change somebody's mind, you've got to meet them on their turf ... wherever that may be.