The long goodbye…

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.

19 Replies to “The long goodbye…”

  1. This is indeed very sad but you’ve explained yourself quite eloquently Phil. Chrissie and I had certainly benefited from the service and have managed to contribute but only in a shamefully small way. We’d gladly help more if you felt it would make a difference but, unfortunately, I’m happy to accept your assessment of the situation. So, if nothing changes, I’ll leave you with our sincere thanks for all the effort you’ve put in for the benefit of so many of us. Best wishes to you, Sarah and the children for the future.

  2. It is a shame, but as another self employed person, I can totally understand and I am staggered you managed to keep it going this long.
    So I wish you all the best, and hit those hills. 🙂

  3. Hi Phil, I remember those initial conversations over a dog walk in Northamptonshire. You are very passionate I knew exactly what you wanted to do. It must’ve been a very difficult decision, but you did it. You followed through on your dream you made it happen. Little on the social web self-sustaining without some form of aggressive data scraping or marketing. I think many people would agree that it’s much better your platform existed for eight years and then delivered everybody their data, than it not existing at all. Well done look forward to seeing your future projects.

  4. Hi Phil

    So long, and thanks for all the hard work. (Bet you thought I was going to say fish 🙂 )I’ll keep my subscription going until May. All the best for the future. Pete

  5. Hello Phil,

    I can totally understand where you are coming from and thanks for the mention and the years of providing Social Hiking. The idea for the hill bagging had been floating around my head for years even then, just checked back through Evernote and there were notes for a site I have always been intending to create going back to 2009 but in reality it was before then. I never found the time to do it properly, one of the proposed features was hill bagging which I suggested in the hope that you would implement it, unlike me.

    I can remember Phil Turner being one of the biggest advocates of Social Hiking, always testing and suggesting new features. I always felt sorry for you, it seamed like every trip we walked, Phil would be asking for another feature that you shortly afterwards implemented.

    The whole “Social Web” as you mentioned appears to now be lots of seperate silos owned by large companies, rather then the “Open” web that was hailed.

    Unfortunately in recent years I haven’t been the biggest user, mainly due to the areas I walk not having the greatest phone coverage and finding an inReach too expensive to run for me. For years I have been running my own personal logging, maybe I could expand it for others or explain how to do it for other to use as a basic replacement.

    All the best for the future, time for yourself is the most important thing rather than sitting in front of the computer all day and night, taking my own advice recently. Hope we can still catch up for that drink soon.

    1. I am sure others would appreciate alternative tracking options, although even apps like Locus Pro now offer tracking options, so there are lots of options out there. I will definately let you know when I am next up in the North East. Best wishes.

  6. I discovered Social Hiking a few years back and have been using it as part of my walking arts practice, aggregating social media from fellow walkers and building up combimaps of walks. I have not met any of you other socialhikers but I would like to say that I have enjoyed occasionally dropping into your walks and seeing the view. I guess its another sign of the times and the slow closing of the space that social networks originally opened up. This is indeed a sad sad day but I get that you need to draw a line under it and walk on to other things. So as you do I just want to applaud you for this bloody amazing thing you produced and the wonderful service provided. It is a tremendous achievement to be really proud of. Thankyou.

  7. Dang… sorry to hear that you’ve decided to close the site, but I understand. It has been a useful resource for me over the last few years, and I’ll miss it when it’s gone. I’m a bit surprised that you didn’t try implementing a paid service (vs voluntary payments), but I guess as you say it needs a bit of a rewrite to go more stable, it makes sense that getting the funding required to do this full time would be a challenge. 🙁

    I’d be interested in getting an extract of all of my trail log GPX files, along with titles and descriptions. I’m not too worried about the linked tweets and images, but only because I’m not sure what I’d do with the data. Please let us know if you’re going to be able to put in place a ‘download all of my data’ service, or if we need to go track by track.

    So – then the question is… what next?

    I’d like a service that I can use to organize tracklogs, and manage along with meta-data such as location, trail head location, trail head height, trip max height, elevation gain, distance, difficulty and notes. Then to display on an online map showing trail head locations, peaks & track logs, filterable by activity type and general location.

    Embedded photos & tweets would be a benefit, as would live Spot tracking, but I think that would be stretching it. The only other service I’ve discovered is this chap’s – but he just built it for his own use
    http://blog.mastermaps.com/2015/04/real-time-satellite-tracking-of-your.html

    At the moment I’m logging my winter trails in an excel spreadsheet on OneDrive which I occasionally port into a google My Maps, and link thru to the maps on SocialHiking. I also display the category of trails in an embedded map. Google MyMaps does a reasonable job of showcasing the trail-heads and metadata from the spreadsheet, but it isn’t suited to also showing the trails.
    http://andy.bryant.name/snow

    Any suggestions?

    1. Hi Andy – thank you for your lengthy support! As you say – a paid option might have worked, but it is time consuming to implement easily.

      There will be a ‘download all’ export option for supporters.

      Have you looked at sites like mapmywalk and similar? They do stat logging far better than Social Hiking ever did!

  8. Hi Phil

    Very sorry to hear that you’re planning to wind down Social Hiking. I’ve used the site nearly 6 years and I’ve yet to find an easier way of quickly uploading my GPX files and displaying them on an OS map.

    I can certainly relate to your situation as I’m also a self-employed web developer with a string of side-projects that I rarely have time to devote to. But I was just wondering if I can be of any assistance in at least keeping the site online. I work for a web hosting company which comes with a few perks. Depending on the resource requirements of the website I may be able to offer free hosting. It would be good to at least keep the site live, even if it receives no updates going forward.

    Let me know if that would be of any interest to you. I’d be happy to do what I can to help.

    Many thanks,
    Will

    P.S. Tried to email you on blog@philsorrell.com but it was rejected.

    1. Thanks Will. The hosting cost was mostly covered by supporters so it was less of an issue. Unfortunately the site needs constant maintenance to keep going (not to mention needing lots of changes to comply with GDPR), so there are other factors at play, but thank you for your offer anyway.

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