Once upon a time, back in 2015, I started writing a series for Gizmodo called Connected States. I had effectively just blown up my life and moved into a van for what I thought would be a one-year experiment. The series was ostensibly about documenting the way technology connects us all, and using tech to meet new people and have experiences I wouldn’t have normally had. The series ended at Giz, but the adventure lived on. And on. And on. In fact, I just finally put a bow on this one-year adventure, more than five years later.
While these adventures and misadventures will be explored fully a book I am currently writing (hi, publishers, call me), my dear friends at Gizmodo asked me if I’d be interested in writing about some of my observations from living at the crossroads of vanlife and social media. And now here we are.
The #Vanlife Social Scene
When I started my journey hashtag-vanlife was already a bit of a thing, but it wasn’t nearly as much of a thing as it is now. It was before stories in the New Yorker and New York Times would boost it into the collective zeitgeist. In those first few years I had to explain what I was doing to most people. In these last couple years, I could just say, “I’m one of those vanlife people,” and everybody would nod, knowingly. When I first hit the road, though, I figured I’d end up seeking companionship with those of my own ilk.
I was wrong. It turned out that I would never go to a single vanlife meetup and I would rarely interact with other vanlifers online unless they were just starting out and had questions, or unless we had a mutual friend and were exchanging tips on where to camp, and those were exceedingly rare. I honestly don’t know why I mostly chose to avoid other vanlifers. It wasn’t personal, and I liked most of those that I did meet. Maybe I just wanted my trip to be wholly my own, and I felt that banding up with a crew would lead to groupthink and it would somehow make my experience less unique or original. I don’t know. But I will say that I don’t regret it. I would see social media posts with other vans rafted up together, and they looked like they were nice people having a good time, but for whatever reason, it didn’t call to me.
Growing Your Audience
Early on in my van career, I felt that I had to build my social following. That if I didn’t I would be missing a great opportunity to raise my profile and get my name out there. For each person there has to be a motivating factor to drive that feeling. For me, it was because I wanted to achieve enough of a following that it would be easier to pitch the projects that I wanted to do, be it a book I’d write or a TV series I’d host. So, I worked on it. I’d study the hashtags other vanlifers and landscape photographers would use, and slowly but surely my follower count would go up.
But I never felt good about it. I loved sharing my photography, and it made me happy when people resonated with a photo I’d taken. The hashtags, though; those always felt icky. It felt like thirsty pandering. I wanted my photos to be liked and shared on their own merits, not because I’d included some trite, meaningless hashtag like #awakethesoul (which has been used 1.4 million times according to Instagram).
Yet, when I didn’t use them, it seemed that I would be punished by Instagram’s inscrutable algorithm, and my posts would be seen by fewer people, even if they already followed me. I’d swing between periods of resistance and resignation, ambition and lethargy. Eventually, I decided that if I was going to be posting at all then I guess I might as well suck it up do the thing that gets a few more eyeballs on it, so these days I try to include a handful of relevant hashtags, but it still makes me feel dirty.
I know, I sound jaded, but it hasn’t all been bad! Broadcasting my trip on social media also brought me to some incredible people and great experiences. In the early days of my journey, I was very open about posting what town I was in and where I was headed next. This yielded some fantastic results.
One time, while getting my oil changed in the middle of Michigan, I decided to let the internet decide which direction I should go: South to Detroit or North to the Upper Peninsula? More people said North, so I headed that way. Some guy named Nick, who I did not know, said, “Hey, if you’re heading North, then you should check out Traverse City. Its film festival is starting tonight.” Sounded fun, so I thanked him for the tip and said I was heading there. Nick said, “If you’re going, you should try to link up with my friend Brett.” OK, why not? Well, Brett and I met and became fast friends. I ended up spending the next few days with him, his girlfriend, and their delightful crew, exploring sand dunes, shutting down bars, and dancing on tables.
When I was heading to Nashville for the first time, a bunch of people on Twitter told me I had to check out Santa’s Pub and Robert’s honkytonk. So, I did. At Santa’s I ended up doing karaoke all night with a pair of couples from Nebraska (I sang The Humpty Dance, which really divided the room), and at Robert’s I got a ride back to my van from some friendly locals.
Just a couple years ago a photographer named April said if I’m ever in LA I should come diving with her and her husband Adam. We’ve been close friends and regular diving buddies ever since. I really am grateful that social media brought these people and these experiences into my life.
Stalkers Are Real
This is something I’ve never discussed publicly, and I’m not going to go into too much detail here, but suffice to say that a few years ago I had a stalker situation that was deeply traumatising and would forever change my relationship with social media. Basically, someone, acting anonymously under the cover of ten different fake Instagram accounts (some of which were impersonating me), launched a months-long campaign of threats and targeted harassment against me, friends, co-workers, exes, and bosses, with the clear intention of ruining my life. It didn’t work, but it was truly awful.
Instagram (and its parent company Facebook) did nothing to help, even with the extraordinary privilege of my journalist credentials giving me a direct line to higher ups at the company (the average person has even less of a chance of help). The cops were also completely useless. Even the so-called cyber-crime division moved at a glacial pace. Through means I can’t get into, I was eventually able to confirm who was behind it, but the anxiety and insomnia it sparked probably took a couple years off my life.
That was the end of me announcing where I was or where I would be going. Having been chased around the country once was plenty, thank you. My trip was no longer audience-participation. That meant no more recommendations from the public for places to go, things to do, or people to meet. The trip became more secretive and isolated than before, and it changed the feel of it. It became a little less fun, and I became far more guarded with my audience, always looking for wolves hiding. I went from posting nearly daily to just a couple times a month. It didn’t ruin the trip, and I would go on for another two-plus years, but my relationship with social media never fully recovered.
In my early days of Instagram and vanlife, whenever I posted a pretty photo, I tagged its location. I didn’t really think about why I was doing this, it just sort of seemed like what you were supposed to do. Indeed, many other photographers at the time were doing the same. As Instagram tourism started to become more popular, though, there was a growing movement within the outdoor photography community to stop geotagging images. Crowds were showing up, overwhelming delicate ecosystems, trampling wildflowers, making a mess, and engaging in risky behaviour. Basically, things had gone too far. So, I stopped geotagging my photos unless it was something obvious like the Brooklyn Bridge or a big ski resort, and have encouraged others to do so, as well.
There’s also reason to believe that social media can be used for good. Back in 2017 our 45th president decided to have his shill of a secretary of the interior “reevaluate” 27 of our national monuments to see if they really deserved to be protected. This was, effectively, at the behest of big businesses that wanted to turn as many of our public lands as possible (many of which were incredibly sacred to Indigenous nations) into oil fields, mines, and clear cuts. The Department of the Interior had an open comment period, but it was mostly going unnoticed because of all of the other attacks on the environment and general news Trump was drumming up.
I realised I was in a unique position to help. Because I was mobile that meant I could visit each of these incredible places and create a short video for each one that would highlight its unique features, and drive people toward the DOI public comment page. So I did. I logged more than 9,656 kilometres over the next month, and slept very little, but I did indeed manage to make 27 one-minute videos for Instagram and Facebook and take a ton of photos. In the end, more than 2.8 million people left comments on the government’s monument review, the most of for any public comment period ever up to that point. I am in no way claiming to be responsible for much of that (there was a very large, coordinated effort), and the Trump administration ignored the comments anyway and shrunk a handful of monuments, because of course it did. But it was a reminder that good things could come out of these services. (edited)
Using Your Platform
In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the resurgence of the racial justice movement I became keenly aware of how the people I followed on Instagram were responding. There were those who spoke out loudly and consistently, knowing that they might get a lot of hate and lose a lot of followers, but did it anyway, and I really respected that. But most of the influencers I watched avoided the topic completely. Some responded to the pressure to speak out with in the most self-centering, victimy way imaginable, “I was off on a photo trip and I didn’t post anything for a few days, and I guess now I’m ‘a racist’ because I didn’t say anything,” one vanlifer said before… continuing to not say anything.
Do not accept this. If you aren’t actively using your platform to make the world better, then you don’t deserve your platform. If your social media profile only exists to trumpet your own glory and line your own pockets, then it isn’t really social media, it’s ego media. If you don’t speak out when you see something you know is wrong, because you’re afraid that your sponsors might pull their dollars, then you’re taking blood-money. In your silence you are complicit, and everybody can hear it. Listen, learn, and use your platform to amplify marginalised voices.
Over the years, I have taken several extended breaks from social media. The reality is that it’s really good for you, and really bad for building your following. Social media companies hate it when you do this. When I go away for a while and then come back, even though I haven’t lost any followers, my posts get fewer eyeballs on them. Again, I blame the mercurial algorithm. It wants you to post every day, use the hashtags, and @ your friends, and it throws shade when you walk away for a while.
But you can walk away. And after a little while, you will realise how arbitrary it is, and how removed from reality. Your photo gets fewer likes and… you’re ok. You aren’t bleeding. Maybe you don’t get as big a hit of social media dopamine, but the less of that you get the less you need it. Gradually, you might start posting the photos that you like, that make you happy, rather than the ones you think will be popular, or will draw in strangers through a hashtag. The more times you walk away, the more you realise that you can leave any time you want. That social media needs you (the billions of you) more than you need it. That you don’t need to be submissive to it. And, at the very least, your relationship with it might start feeling healthier.
And so, here I am. I just moved out of my van and into an apartment, and I am still on social media. I now consider it a useful tool, but not an indispensable one. I still enjoy seeing my friends’ faces, being inspired by artists I admire, and laughing at all the creative dumbassery. But when it stops feeling good and starts feeling toxic, I walk away. And I’ve stopped feeling bad when I do. It will still be there when I want to come back, and so will the road when I start feeling restless again.