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The Domestication of Geocaching

an opinion by Philipp about the development of Geocaching

First of all: I'm not saying the good old times were better. I can think of annoying things which disappeared over the years but aren't covered here like crappy user interfaces. Fifteen years ago geocaching was substantially different to the game we play today but that doesn't mean today's game isn't fun anymore.

But let's start at the beginning. It is fair to say that I am one of the old-school cachers. Having started in 2003 I have seen a lot of changes like the introduction of LED torches, the launch of Google Maps in 2005 or the release of the iPhone and the substantial introduction of the geocaching app in 2007. 12 years ago finding a cache was completely different process. First you had to figure out how to get there. Where the hell is that box? Seriously: There wasn't a map function on! You had to take the coordinates to mapquest and figure out how to drive there yourself - true old school navigation since most GPS units didn't have maps let alone paperless cache descriptions. Print outs were the flavour for years. When I moved to Australia six years ago a couple of old binders with cache descriptions and scribbled notes met their maker: the recycling paper bin.

You probably get the vibe. At the beginning of geocaching having a dedicated GPS unit was an absolute necessity therefore the cachers of the early hours were either hikers, mountaineers, sailors, offroaders and other outdoor enthusiasts who had a unit anyway or geeks who liked the combination of modern technology and a real-life outdoor game. There was a lot about placing fine containers in outstanding locations which encourage adventure and getting out there. Placing a bunch of caches - something we call a power trail today - was actually frowned upon. Don't get me wrong: The actually annoying caches always existed. Like the "guess what I was thinking when I was on LSD last month puzzle cache". There weren't that many but there weren't that many caches either. I think their percentage decreased over the years but that's just personal perception. Yes there were also easy - so-called "Sissi Caches" - but that didn't mean they were hopeless mint-tins placed in the parking lot of the local supermarket. On a side note: Multi caches which had a micro as a final hadn't seen the light of day yet.

Although geocaching has always been a number's game the numbers weren't that big. E.g. in my early days I made it into the German top 100 with roundabout 100 cache finds. The number one cacher hadn't even found 1000 caches - an unbelievable number at that time. Today you would have to clock up over 37.000 finds to make it to the bottom of the top 100. This trend has been emphasised for years by power-trails and the set-up of itself: Next to each log you find the number of finds and the first thing you see on a profile page is ... exactly: the number of finds. If you want to see the hides you have to click one page further. We are constantly comparing ourselves by the pure find numbers disregarding caching experience to a certain degree. Just imagine the impact of replacing the find stats in all places with the caches placed multiplied by the average favourite point percentage :)
Today we're looking at the milestones quite often - you're probably seeing the posts on facebook wahooing x-hundred/thousand of finds on a regular basis. In order to get these milestones and join the elaborate club of 1% cachers above 1000 finds you have to go out there and rack up numbers. Geocaching hasn't been domesticated suddenly. Like taming every beast it happened over time. I want to give you at least one number to back up this theory of domesticated geocaching:
  • I placed a cache back in 2012 - the Spread the Love Challenge You have to find caches which haven't been found for 6 months or longer. At that time there were 450 in Victoria. Although the number of cachers increased and the number of caches grew slightly less than that, the number of unloved caches went through the roof: There are over a 1000 today.

What changed?

Check out this post about geocaching stickiness I posted earlier this year. You can see a sudden increase of cachers from 2007 onwards. Now what happened back then? Correct. The release of the first iPhone and the introduction of smartphones to a wider population in general. Groundspeak is making money out of app sales and premium memberships. Increasing the customer base is the main target for this company to increase revenue and ultimately profit. People in general are number driven: You're not running 10 km, you're taking your time and pace as well. You're not just riding a horse, you're competing and getting scored. Groundspeak is just satisfying a demand for measuring progress in order to keep the customers interested.

Now where is this going?

The beauty about geocaching is that you can find another if you don't like the one in front of you. Although the percentage of people chasing numbers is increasing, it shouldn't have a negative effect on the cachers who actually leave the suburbs. Shouldn't. The unfortunate reality is that the constant exposure to mint-tins, half-hearted cache descriptions and short logs leads to the conclusion that this is acceptable and normal. These spam-caches are creeping out and not only making finding the good ones more difficult but also blocking beautiful areas which could have sustained a nice box and a good caching experience. Prolific hiders get more and more frustrated by short or copy'n paste logs and eventually stop placing good caches since their only reward - nice to read and individual logs - is taken away. You can see where this may head if you look at the German situation. There the whole thing might have gone pear-shaped already. The caching population reached its peak in 2014 and declined by 10% this year.

By now you're probably saying I'm "painting the devil onto the wall" and you're right: I should put this into perspective because over the last few years we formed a great community of Victorian Cachers which has never been that close before. There are amazing hiking, climbing and other adventurous caches out in the wild which didn't exist years ago. There are heaps of caches out there and there are far more great caches than you can ever find. Caching can't be that bad otherwise I would have quit.
So. This is obviously my opinion and now I'm interested in yours. Please comment below.

Think before you log - seek an adventure not a number
Think before you place - create an experience not a number

Cheers :)

P.S.: Thanks Robin for coining the term "Domestication of Geocaching". It really nails it.