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The real story behind all those #Vanlife photos on the internet

“This lifestyle is appealing to people because it's cheap and because they don't have a lot of options for settling down and building a solid life,” said Rachel Monroe, who wrote about the #vanlife phenomenon for The New Yorker. CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images

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The internet, and Instagram in particular, is awash with pretty pictures of pretty people in pretty surroundings … with a van in the shot.

The hashtag in question is vanlife, and really, it’s much more than people just grabbing a shot on a road trip.

Rachel Monroe wrote about the phenomenon for The New Yorker and talked with Kai Ryssdal about why brands are paying Vanlifers for their content, why the photos aren’t as candid as they might look and why she thinks it’s a “trend born out of the recent recession.” Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: Tell me what vanlife is, first of all, would you?

Rachel Monroe: #vanlife is a hashtag that spawned a movement that is increasingly popular on Instagram. And it’s most basically people who live in vans and take pictures of themselves living in vans. But it also has come to stand in for this whole lifestyle that involves traveling, camping, outdoor yoga and not having an office job.

Ryssdal: And, at least as told in your piece through these two folks, Emily King and Corey Smith, it is profitable, I guess. I mean, they make a living doing this, these two people do.

Monroe: Sure. They are part of this trend towards influencer marketing, where they get brands to sponsor some of their posts. So they will take pictures of themselves with a bag of chips or a water bottle, one of their sponsors in the background and have a hashtag. And they get paid for that as a kind of ad.

Ryssdal: And the travels then essentially become a product.

Monroe: Exactly. I think of them as kind of this new wave of advertising where — that are sort of aspirational peers. So they are these people who kind of slide it into your social media feed. They look like your friends, but they look kind of better, and they have more interesting lives. It’s difficult when you’re trying to sell an image to advertisers. Only certain things are going to fit into that image, and it’s going to be the most idealized, beautiful version of things. Reality doesn’t necessarily sell.

Ryssdal: It is also, you say, a phenomenon born out of the Great Recession.

Monroe: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I was interested to learn that that couple that I traveled with had some significant student debt that they were dealing with. They graduated college in the middle of the recession and without a lot of prospects for kind of solid career jobs that would provide for them for the long term. And I think that’s another story that doesn’t always get told in the pictures. This lifestyle is appealing to people because it’s cheap and because they don’t have a lot of options for settling down and building a solid life. So they turn it into this kind of aestheticized version of freedom that looks really good online.

Ryssdal: Could you do it?

Monroe: Would I do it?

Ryssdal: Could you? Yeah.

Monroe: Well, I don’t think I have enough Instagram followers. I don’t think my brand is strong enough. But no, it’s a lot of work! It’s so much more work than I would have even thought. I mean, they spend hours on every single post because they have to edit it, they have to negotiate with the sponsors what it’s going to look like, what the caption is going to say. There’s just so much work that goes into looking effortless.

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