Uses and Limitations of Social Media to Inform Visitor Use Management in Parks and Protected Areas: A Systematic Review

How to cite this study

Wilkins, E.J., Wood, S.A. and Smith, J.W. 2021. Uses and limitations of social media to inform visitor use management in parks and protected areas: A systematic review. Environmental Management 67(1): 120-132.


This study reviews the scientific literature of studies using social media to measure visitation patterns and visitors’ experiences in parks and outdoor recreational areas. The majority of studies they reviewed (79%) used a single social media platform, with Flickr being the most common. The authors provide five “best practices” which are a list of recommendations to help improve future research in this field.


This study is relevant to those interested in understanding the benefits and limitations of using social media to measure visitation patterns in parks and protected areas. The set of “best practices” can inform researchers of common limitations and recommendations to improve the reliability of their results. 

There are tradeoffs in terms of types of users and posting behavior in using different social media platforms. For example, their results indicate that Twitter is used to measure visitor sentiment, while Instagram and Flickr are often used for questions that can be understood by analyzing image content. Social media platforms that use GPS tracking like Flickr, Wikiloc, MapMyFitness, and Strava are more applicable to mapping the spatial patterns of visitation.


This study is a review of 53 scientific papers that used social media data to estimate visitation levels or visitor perceptions in parks and protected areas in 23 countries. The most common locations were the United States (13), Australia (6), and Portugal (4).

Trail Type

In the 53 papers reviewed, the most common setting was national parks, followed by urban parks as well as public rangelands, national forests and grasslands, conservation parks, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and an archeological park. Activities conducted in these spaces include motorized and non-motorized trail use, camping, fishing, and birdwatching.


The purpose of this study was to evaluate the commonalities and limitations in the scientific literature of using social media to measure park visitation. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, Utah State University, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.


  • 79% of the studies used a single social media platform. Flickr was the most used social media platform (35 studies), followed by Twitter (10 studies) and Instagram (8 studies). Additionally, most studies analyzed the locations of social media content according to the geotagged coordinates of the post or the routes users took while in the park or protected area. 
  • 78% of the studies reported downloading social media directly through Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). Others downloaded data directly from websites using InVEST,  Google Earth, or SAS. Of the studies that mentioned using software, the most popular were R (51% of studies), ArcGIS (47%), Python (25%), SPSS (10%), Excel (10%), and QGIS (10%). 
  • Many of the studies (73%) that collected primary data used it to validate or compare to social media. Only 13 studies relied on social media alone and did not use other datasets. 64% of the studies used secondary GIS data, visitation or survey data from agencies, or satellite imagery. 19% of studies collected other primary data on visitor use such as using trail cameras and counters, surveys, semi-structured interviews with visitors or park experts, focus groups, and qualitative interviews with people who post on social media. 
  • 80% of papers aggregated social media over entire parks and protected areas. These studies predominantly looked at differences in visitation between multiple parks and protected areas and were often not interested in temporal patterns of visitation.
  • 86% of papers explicitly noted limitations, biases, or concerns with using social media. The most commonly cited limitation is that social media may not be representative of all park users. Some limitations in the “other” category include noise from bots/spam accounts, accessible areas having more photos, social media use varying due to environmental conditions, and that these data require technical skills and infrastructure to store and analyze.
  • The authors highlighted five best practices: 1) The spatial and temporal resolution of all analyses should be clearly stated and researchers should explain why they choose particular resolutions. 2) User-days of social media to estimate visitation should be used as previous studies using this method tend to show high correlations with visitation measured by other sources. 3) Measures of association between social and other visitation data, including temporal resolution and number of observations, should be reported. 4) When analyzing grids or multiple sites, the sensitivity to spatial scale should be assessed as arbitrary spatial units may introduce bias. 5) Coded workflows for data collected and analysis should be available publicly to enhance transparency and reproducibility. 


The Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISM) method was used to search the literature. Relevant articles were found using the Scopus database and ProQuest Agriculture and Environmental Science database. Articles were found that contained at least one of the following terms in the title, abstract, or keywords: social media, Flickr, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Panoramio, Strava, MapMyFitness, or Wikiloc. Papers also needed to include: park(s), protected area(s), or public land(s). A search was conducted on January 14, 2020, yielding 582 papers before removing duplicates. Another search on May 1, 2020, returned 16 new papers. Papers that investigated the use of social media to communicate with visitors or market destinations, papers related to protests, political uprisings, or clinical health studies, or papers that analyzed review site data (like Tripadvisor or Yelp) were not included in the analysis. The 58 remaining relevant papers were categorized into: using social media to estimate visitation, understanding spatial patterns of visitation, and understanding aspects of the visitor experience.

Added to library on November 21, 2023