Do It For the 'Gram: How Social Media Ruined Overlanding
It’s like an infectious disease. A black cloud, swallowing up millennials from all walks of life, with promises of fame, notoriety and fortune. It projects relentlessly into your newsfeed, a glossy facade of happy, adventurous, hip, young people living the sort of life you’ve always wanted. But beware…they are not like us. They are a different breed of people adventuring off-road, and they have the audacity to call themselves “overlanders.”
No, these are not the overlanders you’ve always known. They aren’t the quiet, resourceful, lightly-treading, self-sufficient, experienced off-roaders that we have tons of respect for. This is a newly-formed, vain culture, who use Instagram filters to simulate depth of field when showing off that new microbrew IPA they found at Whole Foods. They were born in the deepest depths of the internet and are the latest embarrassment to the off-road way of life.
Let me preface this by saying that I’m not your typical 28-year-old, modern off-road enthusiast. My truck is as old as I am, I work on it myself and the bank doesn’t own it. I’ve wheeled in six different states, owned over a dozen different trucks in the last six years, and I spend more of my money and time on this hobby than any single other thing in my life.
While I try to use the best parts available to me, I don’t have all the latest gear on the market, and truthfully, most of the parts and accessories I’ve acquired over the years were obtained from Craigslist and the like. Most of my wheeling buddies are the same way. We've honed our skills over years of learning on the trail. We've helped each recover from some dire situations, miles from the nearest cell-phone signal and we give help more often than receive it.
You might call us “old school,” or maybe even obsolete. But the fact is that I belong to a core group of off-road enthusiasts who are absolutely obsessed with escaping our day-to-day lives and finding adventure in the great wide-open.
"Overlanding" Has Changed
With that being said, over the years I’ve noticed a trend developing within our community. The advent of social media, while proven to be crucial to the growth of the off-road industry, has not arrived without its drawbacks. One of them being the birth of a new kind of off-road enthusiast that I find it difficult to hold a conversation with, much less assimilate into.
These self-proclaimed “overlanders” largely do not come from enthusiast beginnings. They have no desire to do any major wrenching of their own nor do they truly try to learn the ins-and-outs of recovery and 'wheeling. Instead, they’ve found a way to buy-in to the community, with hopes of impressing the masses on social media with their fully-built overlanding rigs made for the purpose of fame and notoriety.
In case there's any ambiguity of what I'm describing, let me give you two extreme hypothetical examples to provide some distinction:
Bill grew up with a love for cars and trucks. Since the day he got his first old truck, he’s enjoyed spending his weekends tinkering and wrenching on it, improving its off-road performance all the time. Bill now has years of trail experience with several vehicles he’s owned and modified, spending most of his free time in the outdoors with his buddies, breaking things, fixing them, breaking them again, then figuring out how to make it stronger, all by method of trial and error.
Bill learns from experiences and researching solutions from other enthusiasts like him. He takes photos and videos of his outings as keepsakes, and also posts them on his social media channels for his off-road buddies to see. Bill has no care for follower counts, likes, views or any of his content going viral. As long as he’s out enjoying his hobby, life is good.
The Social Media Kid
Mark was never interested in cars as a kid. He had other hobbies growing up, such as baseball, video games and traveling to tropical vacation destinations with his parents. In his 20s, Mark still has little automotive knowledge, perhaps enough to change a flat tire or check his oil. He's always liked the idea of being outdoorsy, following various camping and adventure pages on social media, all the while idolizing individuals who get lots of online attention from their outings.
He notices many of them have off-road vehicles, ready to take on all kinds of terrain, allowing them to get to remote destinations and take these amazing photos and videos of their adventures. He envies their fame and free-spirited way of living.
Mark starts following more overland pages, to the point of deciding it’s time to trade in his frugal and trusty Prius for a brand new (and financed) Toyota 4Runner. He pays a shop to install all the latest and greatest parts on his new rig, and before long, he has a fully-built overland vehicle, complete with a roof-top tent, snorkel, limb risers, traction pads, commemorative patches and California compliant plastic fuel cans. He joins communities of other overlanders and receives a special badge with a member number on it.
It's Not All Bad
While there's nothing inherently wrong with either of these beginnings, where I draw the line between a real enthusiast and somebody who merely wants to portray one takes place after the rig is built and the tires are back on the ground. It doesn't matter how much money you did or didn't spend on your rig, whether you built it yourself or supported a local shop to do the build for you. What matters is how you conduct yourself once you're out on the trails as one of the people of the overlanding community.
Back in 2005, Scott Brady, CEO of Overland International, started an online forum called Expedition Portal. It has since become the largest community of overland off-roaders, and has been the source of countless achievements and improvements in the off-road industry.
His goal was to create a space for like-minded folks who enjoy adventure traveling to share experiences, inventions, solutions, reviews and other resources between each other, no matter how simple or advanced their vehicles and level of experience may be. I am a member of Expedition Portal, and have found it quite useful on my trips for years.
The members of this community were the pioneers of overlanding, and they operate on a set of core values that are both important to off-roading as a hobby, and to the conservation of our wildlife and public lands. Our industry simply would not be where it is without them.
Overlanding Means Something Different
However, this recent influx of young people on Instagram posting photos and videos in the name of overlanding could not be further from the above. Frankly, many of them are posers in my book, who take their fully capable vehicles to a nearby patch of dirt, only to take 200 photos with their roof-top tents and gear laid out, then pack it up the next day and go home. Those photos show up on their social media accounts, attached to numerous hashtags cleverly designed to promote their page and get them what they crave most… more followers and likes.
It's not exactly “overlanding” in the sense of how it was once seen. It’s rare to see these individuals embark on a journey that challenges their capabilities and the capabilities of their vehicles. Staying within their “comfort-zone” and coming up with inspirational taglines to impress people online seems much easier than risking their $60,000 brand new rig for the passions and thrills of adventure.
At this point, you might be thinking to yourself, "Matt…I think you’re getting a bit too worked up over this stuff.” You’re probably right, but I’m not the only one who’s starting to get annoyed by these snorkel-touting wannabes. The grassroots members of the off-road community are starting to notice a difference between those who are really passionate about this hobby, and those who simply want to reap the rewards without putting in the work or taking on any of the risk. Are they as upset about it as I am? Again, probably not, but I’ve been around long enough to have a good gauge on what advances this industry and what brings it down.
Like the Ricers
One reason I'm so concerned is it seems very similar to what happened with tuner cars in the early 2000s. When “The Fast and the Furious” franchise first came to theaters, it shined a bright light on a once small and grassroots community of auto enthusiasts who were serious about performance. That light quickly gave way to hordes of imposters who simply wanted to look the part, but had little performance work done to their cars and no racing skill either. This group became infamously known as “ricers” within the car enthusiast community. Unfortunately, these so-called “overlanders” are headed in that same direction.
So is there anything we can do to mitigate or stop this trend from becoming synonymous with off-roading in the public eye? In the near-future, I do not believe so. The community of real, passionate off-roaders will continue to do what they’ve always done alongside this new breed of mall-crawlers until enough ridicule and judgement is passed to make a clear and defined distinction between the two… just like what happened to the ricers. As a traditional off-roader, whose biggest passion in life is to travel to unseen, remote destinations on this beautiful planet, all the while risking life, limb and mechanical failure, I can only hope that this fad of internet off-roading follows suit. And soon.