I remember it was bloody cold – minus 4 according to the car just before Alex (my very good friend @winkysmileyface), my dog and I bedded down for the night in a campsite just across the road from a pub somewhere in the North Downs. Despite the cold I was buzzing – hours before, whilst we sat in the warm pub over a pint and some dinner, I had pulled out my old net-book and loaded up a website that had the route we had walked that day, on a Google map, as well a few markers for some tweets and twitpics I had shared. It was 20th February 2010, and I had just shared the first Social Hiking map.
The concept was originally built for a charity hike of Offa’s Dyke we were planning. Rather than raise some money then disappear off for two weeks, I wanted to involve our sponsors with our walk, not just day to day on social media, but as part of our whole adventure. I had been using ViewRanger on my N95 and had been playing around with their Buddy Beacon feature – at the time it just put all your points on a single map (with no curation or concept of separate tracks), so I got in touch with them about whether it was possible to access the underlying data. They built the functionality I needed and, after a few weeks of hacking together some code, I had a prototype.
Even before our charity hike, several people on Twitter started getting interested in what I was doing. Notable Tim Cooper (@ukjeeper), who was the first user, and Phil Turner, who was looking for a similar solution for Colin’s adventures (@Tramplite). I also started receiving great ideas from Twitter on how to improve it – it was @andrewish who suggested adding support for OS maps for example, and @documentally who encouraged me to support Audioboo.
On Offa’s Dyke, Social Hiking was a huge success. We found we had a regular group of people following our progress and interacting with us, which really helped us keep going. We were getting links to local information and history, met a friend of a follower who lived on the route, and most amazing of all had a surprise visit from a friend who tracked us down using the map on her iPhone.
Unfortunately Offa’s Dyke also triggered my first neurological episode – ultimately leading to a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis (a bit ironic considering Offa’s Dyke was in aid of The MS Society as my brother was diagnosed the year before). It was scary – losing significant sensation in your lower half, struggling to walk on uneven surfaces, not being able to drive and, at one point, needing a stick to get to the shop three doors down from my house. Despite all this going on, I still managed to put together the first public version of Social Hiking for anyone to use for free. It went live in October 2010.
It all got very exciting. In 2011, I commissioned a professional design (still mostly in use today) and the site was being well received – it was ‘My Outdoors Product of the Year’ and people on twitter continued to contribute ideas – the best of which was automatic peak bagging suggested by Steven Horner (@stevenhorner). It was also in 2011 that Jilly Sherlock (@sherlocktales) began her epic cycle across the globe – all shared on Social Hiking. In 2012, I was interviewed by Phil Campbell (@philcampbell), who suggested the idea of encouraging supporters to help support the site (some of the site’s supporters have been financially supporting the site ever since!) and I gave a talk at a conference about the site. In 2013, I was interviewed on the Outdoors Station and on my local radio station, and I was nominated as TGO Outdoor Personality of The Year (thanks to my nominee) – losing to Bear Grylls (and 8 others!).
Behind the scenes however things were a lot harder. I was a freelance web developer in my day job and, whilst it was not that noticeable at the time, I poured a huge amount of my work time into building the site in those early days – in fact in one year my income dropped by almost 40% (which unfortunately led to a few bad decisions with credit cards). Beyond the kind donations from supporters (which almost covers the monthly hosting bill), I have never received any money for Social Hiking and ultimately I had to take on more and more paid work to keep treading water. At the same time, I was distracted by the voices that whispered in my ear that Social Hiking could be ‘big’, and I wasted a lot of the spare time I did have with conversations, plans and development that would never come to fruition. Ultimately Social Hiking is a niche service – loved by a handful of loyal supporters and users but with a high technological barrier to entry (thanks to the hoops required to set up location sources like ViewRanger or SPOT – who would rather you use their own services).
Since 2014, beyond keeping on top of support tickets and a few bursts of unplanned adhoc updates (usually done on all-nighters), I have had little time for Social Hiking. This is not out of choice. When you work for yourself (and have debts) – you take all the work you can get, so it is not unusual for me to work long hours, weekends and only take a week or so holiday a year. I also have Multiple Sclerosis – which has two major impacts on my life. For the positive, it gives you perspective – I spend far too much time in front of a computer, so I am going to take every opportunity I can to get outdoors and go hiking, camping and swimming. One day I might not be able to. For the negative, MS gives me fatigue. Not the crippling fatigue many people with MS get, but enough that I have limited hours outside work for anything that requires significant concentration (like coding). I also now have kids who deserve more of my time than I can give them as it is.
Early in 2016, thanks to a change in circumstances, I actually had the intention of committing at least a few days of work time a month to Social Hiking. It was a nice idea, and it lasted a few months before a work opportunity surfaced that was too good to miss. That opportunity has ultimately led to the formation of a new company, and all the extra demands that running a company puts on your time. I now have less time than I ever did 🙁
So here we are at the end of 2017. The Social Hiking code base is a mess thanks to years of short bursts of development (it still mostly works though!) and I have finally accepted that I will never be able to free up the spare time needed to update the site so it works properly in the modern world of mobile devices (let alone the small matter of GDPR compliance next year or actually adding any new features). The only option is a complete rebuild, something that I could only contemplate as a work-time exercise hiring in resources to support me. Which means I need some funding.
And here we come to the crunch. I do not think that the site has enough general appeal to raise the amount of money it would need nor the future potential to be worth an investment. I know there are people that love the site, but only a small handful have ever been willing to help financially support the site (barely covering costs). Even during a recent discussion on Twitter, it was only really a small handful of users involved. Ultimately the Internet is a different place to what it was earlier in the decade – the social web never lived up to its promise, and companies, determined to drive users into their silos of data, have won. Social Hiking’s goal was to put all your shared media into a single place and display it on a live track of your hike, but this is becoming increasingly harder each year. The world’s most popular social network is a closed silo, Twitter is a shadow of itself, and every year another Social Media site closes or evolves into something else (this year Audioboo(m) finally made the transition to podcast host rather than social audio by closing free accounts, and Bambuser, the last social video site, announced it was closing).
Perhaps most telling is that, recently, I have mostly stopped using Social Hiking for most of my own adventures. Without my own enthusiasm there is little hope.
So, it is with so much regret and sadness, that I have to announce that Social Hiking as it stands will be closing on 27th May 2018 (after the TGO Challenge). It has been an amazing 8 years (despite the lows) and I have made so many friends along the way, but it feels like the right time to move on. You are already able to export the underlying location data as a gpx file for each map, and I will work out a way for supporters (past and current) to export much more of your data (I am open to suggestions on what format you might want) or continue to be able to embed your historic maps for a longer period of time.
Thank you so much everyone who has been part of the Social Hiking story, especially those wonderful people who have supported the site for all these years. I have mentioned a few, but there are so many more people that I am grateful to.
It is a sad sad day.