Although picturesque photos and videos of the Haʻikū Stairs regularly go viral on social media, a pair of UH researchers say that people seeking out information about the illegal “Stairway to Heaven” hike are more likely to be discouraged from making the trip.

“Local media outlets have largely speculated that pictures and information posted on social media platforms tempt people to go on illegal hikes in Hawaii, such as the extremely popular Haʻikū Stairs,” said Rachel Neo, Assistant Professor of Communications at the UH Mānoa College of Social Sciences. “Our study challenges these assumptions by showing that online information actually dissuades people from going on such illegal hikes.”

Rachel Neo

Neo and Assistant Professor of Communications Kelly Bergstrom used a case study approach to examine how online information sources such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were used to decide whether to hike the city-owned stairs. Their paper was published in the Journal of Leisure Studies.

Neo said one of the study participants even reported, “I admit, the hype makes me want to go up even more but, as a geologist, I think the stairs have sections that are dangerous if not fixed and secured to the mountain. For me, they aren’t worth dying for.”

The study distributed an open-ended anonymous online survey via mailing lists, social media and Hawaii-specific discussion boards. The researchers then conducted a thematic analysis of 111 responses.

Study participants were asked, “What kinds of online information about the Haʻikū Stairs were you looking for?” and “How has such online information informed your decision about whether or not to hike the stairs?”

Respondents largely indicated that the online information dissuaded them from hiking Haʻikū Stairs, and that many were seeking information to better understand the reasons why the hike is currently closed to the public.

Neo said the research results have direct implications for policymakers.

Kelly Bergstrom

“It is quite possible that local government leaders and journalists are overestimating the deleterious effects that such online information might have,” she said. “Given that more than 70 percent of our study’s sample were from Hawaii, these findings suggest that residents might be much more sensible and cautious than assumed. People who live here seem to be much more cognizant of the risks associated with hiking the Haʻikū Stairs than tourists.”

Neo said communication campaigns should be designed and implemented to target unsuspecting visitors, who are more likely than residents to be tempted by online information about the stairs.

The study’s next steps include conducting an online experiment to examine how specific message and interaction features of popular online review platforms, such as Tripadvisor, influence people’s decisions to go on illegal hikes in Hawaii.

Bergstrom examines dropout and disengagement from digital cultures, with an emphasis on digital games. She is co-editor of Internet Spaceships: An EVE Online Reader published by the University of Minnesota Press.

Neo’s research interests lie in social media, political communication and public opinion.

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