The Vandemic: Fuel for Privilege
You snooze your alarm again, the warmth of your blanket protecting you like a shield from the wintry outdoors. After a good stretch, accompanied by a strange pterodactyl noise, you blink open your eyes to see you’re in the same bed, same house, same tea-stained pyjamas as always, stuck in some never-ending Groundhog Day nightmare. You wipe the drool off your cheek (so glamorous) and switch off that damn alarm, grabbing your phone to see if the rule of six has finally been repealed.
But what if there was another way? Imagine waking up to honey sunlight pouring in through your curtains as your eyelids flutter open like butterflies batting their wings. An oat milk latte magically appears in your hand, you thank the law of attraction for rewarding you as you open your front door. You emerge to a wondrous sight: a snow capped mountain next to a lake, next to a waterfall, next to a wildflower meadow. You sip your latte, thanking yourself for packing up your life and buying a van those many moons ago.
As a result of the current global pandemic, many travel vloggers have turned to ‘Van Life’, a lifestyle becoming increasingly popular on YouTube as creators find themselves trapped in their home countries. Forced to find new ways of producing content that appeals to their already established audience, travellers are saying farewell to flying and hello to driving, exploring natural beauty that is much closer to home.
Using drone footage and 4K resolution, vloggers show off gorgeous beaches and wildlife with exquisite image quality, rivalling that of professional documentaries. Milky waves crash into cliff sides, roaring ferociously as they spray salt into the wind. You can almost taste the sea on your lips and feel the gale catching the nape of your neck, transporting you inside your screen. Pair this with a clickbait title and some lo-fi beats, and you have a stellar van life vlog taking shape.
Nowadays, it is expected of vloggers to continuously update their equipment. Acquiring a drone license and a DSLR camera are now a basic requirement in the toolkit of YouTube filmmaking. This is a drastic change from the platform’s humble beginnings, where innocent adolescents would record grainy, pixelated videos on their webcams or phones. Travel vloggers of this bygone era would film themselves in unflattering close up as they reacted live to the natural wonders of the world, their faces taking up the entire screen, before they spun their camera around to show their viewers a nauseating glimpse of the landscape.
Vloggers are the main characters of the stories they tell, and it is their personalities which draw us into the narrative. When Covid-19 struck, and with nothing to film, travel vloggers could no longer be the stars of their own shows. So, turning to van life was an easy way to maintain viewership and continue feeding the egos of creators who felt personally victimised by the pandemic.
Admittedly, crafting an audience of millions is no easy feat, and the YouTube empire manufactured by these influencers would have undoubtedly crumbled beneath their feet if they hadn’t found a new way to create content and earn that sweet sweet AdSense money. But even after buying a van, which is not advisable during a global pandemic in the first place (travelling being currently frowned upon), vloggers played the sympathy card, finding themselves upset that the nasty little coronavirus ruined their plans once again.
There is a well-known recipe for a Youtuber fishing for sympathy:
Step 1: Set up your £1700 Sony camera and, with your head bowed, languidly make your way over to sit in front of a plain background. The viewer will be waiting with bated breath for the heart wrenching sob story you are about to tell.
Step 2: Sigh or cry (this depends on the desired effect you want to achieve, the latter a staple of apology videos too).
Step 3: Utter the timeless line: “I’ve already tried to film this video so many times.”
Your audience will be ready to donate, forgive, or send you loving messages in the comments section as you open your heart to the internet. That is, unless your “sob-story” is that you have to drive your shiny new van home to your parents’ house for Christmas as borders are closing because of guess what? A GLOBAL PANDEMIC. I sit in my blanket burrito, tutting like an elderly grandma who disapproves of the youth of today as they wipe away their crocodile tears and ask me to subscribe.
While the vloggers in question acknowledge that no longer being able to adventure across the world is a first world problem, as a viewer it feels insensitive for them not to recognise that having a home (their van), as well as a parent’s house to go back to for Christmas, is an enormous privilege. In the United States alone, there are over half a million people experiencing homelessness, many of whom are forced to live in their cars out of necessity. (And as I’ve already mentioned, no one should be travelling during a pandemic anyway). I don’t want to dismiss the many small businesses in tourist hot-spots who have suffered massively over the last few months, but the fact that peoples’ livelihoods are suffering only makes the problems of travel-vloggers-turned-van-lifers seem even more trivial. Vloggers have the option to change the direction of their content, dropping thousands of dollars on a converted sprinter van while still bagging brand deals from multinational conglomerates. Small, independent businesses don’t have this luxury. They are the ones experiencing real hardship without any marketing lifeboats, trying desperately to keep their heads above water.
Influencers have the power to help small businesses as they embark on their van life journeys. They can buy locally and use their social media platforms to promote independent shops and restaurants. Van life also comes with the potential positives of being more eco-friendly than flying and of promoting a minimalist lifestyle. But when practiced on a massive scale, a lifestyle which was once a low-impact alternative becomes destructive. By sharing glimpses of hidden gems found down dusty dirt pathways and along gigantic highways, van-lifers expose natural landscapes that would have otherwise been out of sight. In doing so, they invite their viewers to follow in their footsteps and explore these untouched corners of the world. Suddenly, secret spots found as a result of an accidental wrong turn are overcome with tourists, travel videos acting as maps to unspoiled beaches and their subsequent wild-life. Viewers flock to the scene in droves, desperate for that stunning Instagram while they unknowingly erode the land beneath their feet, leaving granola bar wrappers scattered in their wake.
Longing to escape our monotonous day-to-day lives is understandable, particularly in the current climate. Van life vlogs are a perfect distraction from our reality, transporting us to faraway lands in a neat 10-minute montage. But the influence and prevalence of these videos is causing untold damage - both in the context of the pandemic, and the climate crisis. The best option for travel vloggers is to stay cosied up inside this winter, using their influence to protect the victims of this pandemic with nowhere else to go.
As an introvert doing a drama degree, Sally is always overanalysing TV and Film, unable to escape her semiotics module. She has a vested interest in YouTube, from travel vlogs to cooking channels to Minecraft “Let’s Plays”, she’s got you covered. Sally finds time for herself through yoga and kayaking. She can otherwise be found with her nose in a book about feminism or ecology, hoping one day to become a writer or playwright too.