“I think the best way to succeed at all of this is to imagine that every Instagram photo is a precious plate photograph, that every Tweet is a polished chapter of a book, that every video on Facebook is a painting I had to sweat over for hours.”
Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, there was no such thing as the internet or smartphones. All sorts of strange things happened back in those primitive times. Couples talked to each other at meals; friends made plans in advance about where and when they would meet for a drink (and then stuck to those plans); and people went on adventures without feeling the need to live-Tweet what they got up to.
Those times, boys and girls, are gone.
Fear ye not! This is no grumpy moan about the state of adventure today, nor about the good old days. Although, for the purposes of what I want to discuss here, I do need to begin back in the distant mists of time…
Between the years of 2001 and 2005 I cycled round the world. It was a heck of an adventure, the biggest of my life. I did that ride for many reasons. Most of them are not relevant to this blog post (testing, proving, searching, masochism, escapism, idealism et al). But one of the reasons is relevant: I wanted to tell a story. I wanted to become a travel writer. I was a voracious travel reader, and I wanted to see if I could make the jump from a dreamer of dreams to a teller of tales.
Back then the way to become a travel writer was simple: you went away and did an exciting adventure. Then you came home, wrote your story, and ran the gauntlet of trying to find someone to publish the book.
Those three things more or less determined your prospects of becoming a travel writer – the calibre of the adventure plus your writing, and the slightly-linked-slightly-random-slightly-luck-of-the-draw-slightly-who-you-knew lottery of the publishers.
So I set off out into the world, eager for the juiciest adventure I could sniff out. During the day I’d do the adventure-y stuff, and then in my tent each evening I diligently scribbled it all down in my diary before falling asleep.
And that was more or less that. Four years later I bought my first ever computer, sat down at home, and began to try writing my first book.
The internet was escalating quickly back then, but it was still a mysterious beast to most people. I did have a website for the expedition (www.roundtheworldbybike.com) because I wanted to promote a charity, because I wanted to become a travel writer (so the website was an early foray into speculative self-promotion), and because it was an easy way to keep friends and family updated on my progress via occasional online reports (the word ‘blog’ did not yet exist). Roughly once a month I would pen my thoughts and experiences. I then emailed my article to the very kind lady who had volunteered to run my site. And at some point in the next few weeks she would add it to the website.
Nobody would know an article had been added unless they checked my website: there was no social media to promote it through. I didn’t care. I just loved writing the reports, trying to distill all that I had seen and done and felt into a succinct article. It was one of my most enjoyable ‘hobbies’ during those long years alone on the road.
I took a few photographs along the way, too, because that’s what tourists do. I wasn’t particularly bothered about photography: I only took 3000 pictures in four years (these days I sometimes take that many in just a couple of days). The photos on my website were updated about three times in four years to an eventual grand total of roughly 20 pictures after 46,000 miles.
When my camera broke whilst sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, I didn’t bother replacing it for the first six months of South America. I pedalled through glorious, photogenic Patagonia without a camera. If I travelled through Patagonia today without a camera I’d be tearing my hair out and weeping with frustration!
So what changed?
- The way adventure is portrayed today
More on me and my motives later. But first, some thoughts on the way adventure is portrayed today.
In some ways nothing has particularly changed in a hundred years. People have always used the best available technology to capture the magical things they have seen and done out in the world’s wild places, from Darwin packing a paint set, to Hurley’s plate photographs, to Tim Peake’s Instagram account. And they have done it for a similarly varied range of reasons, from Scott’s team posing for sponsor-pleasing photographs to Cherry’s cathartic writing, to Messner’s ego-driven desire to prove himself to be better than his peers.
What has changed, to a staggering degree, is the cost and ease of sharing a story, and the ease of reaching an audience.
In the past, if you wanted to paint a picture of Patagonia, photograph your expedition pals, or write the tale of your trip in a book it required time, talent, commitment and cash. Not any longer. In less than one minute now I could take a selfie of me writing this (in a park in Rome), concoct some trite slogan about how tough / happy / inspirational it is in this far-off exotic land, add a sponsors’ hashtag or two to keep them sweet, and then post it to my potential online audience of over 300,000 people (and that’s even before it “goes viral” with people effortlessly sharing it).
Now, you will have your individual opinion about whether I should post this selfie, about how you would respond to it, and what it would say about me / my adventures and so on. But one thing we can probably all agree on is that if I instead had to do an oil painting of me in the park, or take the time to write 3000 words in a book describing the scene, then I probably would not bother doing it.
I believe that because sharing adventure stories today is so easy, the quantity of stories has sky-rocketed, whilst the calibre of those stories has declined dramatically.
What implications does this have for improving the quality of our adventure story-telling?
Before we sprinkle ourselves and our adventures across the internet like confetti, I believe that everyone (adventure-sharer and adventure-consumer) would benefit if we paused before posting, and imagined that what we are about to share with the world required a large amount of effort to create. If that were so, would the story still be worth telling? A couple of examples:
- Edit your pictures and videos before you post them. Far better to post one stunning shot than 20 mediocre ones. Imagine you only had a few rolls of film to photograph the whole expedition. How would you best use it? What would Frank Hurley do? Did he take thoughtful, powerful photographs of the environment and his teammates, or did he use up all his films on endless bloody selfies?
- Think before you write. Edit before you publish. Imagine you have one chance to impress an agent and a publisher before your words see the light of day. If you can’t be bothered to read and re-read and edit and polish, then nobody else is going to read it either.
I mentioned earlier that I have also changed, and the way I approach story-telling has changed, too. I hope that some words on this may help you think a little more clearly about how and why you choose to document your adventures.
I have travelled with people who showed zero inclination to document the journey. They didn’t write diaries or take photographs. For them, the journey was the reward. For them it’s simple adventure, pure, and uncluttered. I have never been like that. Ever since my very first adventure (living for a year in rural Africa when I was 18) I have enjoyed snapping a few photos (A sunset! A giraffe! My friends and me at Victoria Falls!) and I have felt the urge to write a personal diary of my experiences. For the first five years of my travels, this was all that I did.
Then, as described above, I set off to cycle round the world. I wrote very detailed diaries and intermittent online updates, for I harboured a vain and unlikely dream of “becoming a travel writer”.
I came home and wrote a book. Leap forward a few more years (for, despite what many people seem to think, it takes time and perseverance to make stuff happen), and ‘adventure’ became my job. And this is when everything changed.
The challenge for me, for any of us, who turn our hobbies into our careers, is to be ‘professional’ (to pay the bills) whilst not losing the ‘amateur’ (doing it for love).
In order to earn a living from adventures, I have to share my stories and try to get them to as wide an audience as possible. This serves several purposes:
- Making me look (hopefully) adventurous and interesting increases my chances of someone booking me to give a talk (my main source of income)
- Reaching a wider audience increases my chances of selling books (my second source of income)
- Creating pretty pictures and films increases my chances of a brand deciding to give me some cash and make a film for them (my most recent source of income)
- Posting a certain quantity of content online fulfils contractual obligations I have for these brands and other sponsors
Clearly you, as adventure-consumer, don’t care about any of that. All that is important from your point of view is to enjoy photos, films and stories from adventures. For you to enjoy them they have to be high quality and neither too scarce nor too numerous.
The challenge then, for me, is to fulfil my professional obligations without losing the love of what I do. And, at all times, to remember that what people want is content that is high quality and neither too scarce nor too numerous.
I do not wish to be an old fogey harking back to the good old days of adventure before Instagram. Nor do I want to be an overly-narcissistic, self-promoting, hashtagging, selfie-ing knob. I want to do adventures because I love them. I want to share my stories online because I love doing that (but without spoiling the actual adventure experience). And I need to do all this in a way that helps me pay my bills but without being irritating to those on the receiving end.
I think the best way to succeed at all of this is to imagine that every Instagram photo is a precious plate photograph, that every Tweet is a polished chapter of a book, that every video on Facebook is a painting I had to sweat over for hours.
Finally, as a practical example, here is how I am going to document my next adventure:
- Post one photo a day on Instagram (which has the benefit of automatically posting to my blog, Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook too. [Make sure you use this handy trick to make the photos show up properly on Twitter.]) I will not be checking any of those sites to respond to comments, messages or emails. That would seriously impinge on the adventure itself.
- Film the trip to make a film afterwards. This is a big decision because it has a significant impact on the journey itself. But I love filming trips these days.
- Write a diary each evening in the hope that I can write a book afterwards. This has negligible impact on the trip, and is something I would do regardless of whether I wanted to publish anything about the trip.