Tal Oran had big plans for the summer. The American travel vlogger decamped to the Philippines in early 2020, with the hopes of hitching a ride across the South China Sea to film a series of travel videos in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia. This is the type of content the 23-year old specializes in for the 170,000 people subscribed to his six-year old YouTube channel; in a previous timeline, Oran documented the hidden surfing alcoves in Sri Lanka, the bustling seafood markets of Barcelona and his favorite halal carts in New York City.
But the world turned febrile as the leave date for his great Southeast Asia expedition approached. By early March, Oran says he came to terms that his travel career would be suspended for the foreseeable future. “Staying in the Philippines for Good?” reads the title of a recent Oran video. He shrugs at the camera against the tiny accoutrements of his layover apartment: “I don’t know what to do.”
“[Travel vloggers] can’t share the stories of the world, or the locations that we’ve been to, or that we want to go to. So we have to stretch our creativity within the bounds of our homes or Airbnbs or wherever we happen to be stuck,” he tells me on a typically sweltry Pinoy morning. “It’s a really interesting experiment. Within four walls, I have to make a fun video. Usually I’m running out into the streets or into a market. I’ve had to bank a lot on my personality, to keep people positive and motivated.”
And so, Oran films himself testing out medieval-era home remedies to boost his immune system. He tries to replicate a very American Passover on the far side of the Pacific. Sometimes, he just stares into the webcam, and freaks out about the interminable nature of this pandemic along with the rest of us.
After years of enjoying the most aspirational existences in influencership — to see the world with Google’s advertising dollars — travel vloggers, who are predominantly white and tend to obsess over twee, Clarendon-filtered Instagram destinations, are finally, mercifully relatable. They too are locked inside. They too mark their days with anxiety, dread, flashes of manic optimism and pangs of bleak humor, as quarantine leaves a permanent imprint on our brains. Perhaps that’s provoked a recalibration within the YouTube wanderers; after endless dispatches from the distant corners of the earth, they’ve been forced to turn inwards, and consider what really matters.
I first met 31-year-old Trevor James in Chongqing, China. He runs a four million subscriber-strong YouTube channel called The Food Ranger, where he and his wife explore the remote regions of the country in order to bring Westerners an up-close view of regional Chinese delicacies. Chongqing was just another stop on his never-ending itinerary; throughout 2019 and 2020, he intended to visit everywhere from Uzbekistan to Italy on a global noodle tour. Unfortunately, coronavirus stepped in the way. And so, at the moment, James is hunkered down in his Malaysia home, coming to terms with the reality that his food diaries simply cannot exist under a shelter-in-place order.
“I was like, ‘The travel industry is going to bounce back, it might be a month or two max,’” says James. “Around the beginning of March, I realized that this was serious, and this was going to be a long-term thing. For us, working in travel, and doing travel content, it’s a big game-changer.”
There are no good answers to James’ predicament. He assembled his base due to his expert Mandarin abilities and his willingness to try everything that comes his way — even pig’s brain. Now, he needs to sustain his business with none of those tricks in his arsenal. So, last month, James began a playthrough of the recent remake of Final Fantasy VII on his Instagram. He’d later double-down with explorations of his Animal Crossing archipelago.
This was a revelation. I’ve watched James’ channel for years, but it took a virulent outbreak to establish that we were both gamers, and that we were both capable of bonding over Midgar. It was bewildering to consider that for as much time I had committed to our parasocial relationship, I still didn’t truly know the man until now. That’s been one of the few rewarding elements of the quarantine, explains James. For the first time in his YouTube career, fans are learning what he likes to do when he’s not working. “I’ve gotten messages from people saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you play games!’” he explains. “We wouldn’t normally show this side of us.”
James knows that the lockdown, and his brief rebrand as a public gamer, was an inevitable consequence of coronavirus. Yes, technically he could still be booking flights and eating sheep guts, but those videos would be fundamentally unappetizing and uncouth in the current climate. Entire countries are under a strict, punitive lockdown, and the social fallout of carefree Pinterest-types gallivanting as the global death toll ticks past 300,000 would be, for the lack of a better term, a bad look.
Relatability is the prime currency of content creation. And currently, there is no easier way to feel seen than by knowing your favorite travel vlogger is also logging 12 hours of Animal Crossing a day. “Producing content at home is much better than going out and filming stuff, even if we could,” James says. “Content at home is more real [right now]. People can relate to it.”
Most recently, James has invited a chef into his home to teach himself the finer nuances of Malaysian street food, to create a facsimile of the videos he made in a calmer society. (He’s also competed in a spicy noodle eating challenge with other influencers, and has blogged about his thoughts on maximizing a fledgling YouTube channel on his website.) James admits that the content he’s pumped out in quarantine doesn’t do as well as the flashy exocticism of his provincial adventures, though he and his wife are far from an emergency situation with their cash flow. This was echoed across every travel vlogger I spoke to; there isn’t a single ad-supported industry that hasn’t been decimated by the economic slowdown. Everyone is feeling the hurt.
But frankly, that might be one of the only mercies of the coronavirus pandemic. I know for the first time in my life that I’m mulling the glaring reality that money is largely fake and meaningless. Such a notion isn’t lost on the travel vlogging contingency either — i.e., that living life in a constant state of leisure might not be paradise. Mark Harrison, who runs a 133,000 subscriber strong channel under his own name, felt that crisis stronger than most. In April, he revealed that he’d been diagnosed with COVID-19, and last month, he detailed the impact the sickness had on his mental health in a quiet bedroom upload. That video didn’t do nearly the numbers he’s come to expect on his channel, but those material concerns are ancillary to the moment. Who cares about the algorithm at a time like this?
“While it’s the lowest viewed video on my channel and I even lost a few subscribers, I received some of the most meaningful messages I’ve ever received in my whole life,” Harrison explains. “People were telling me that they cried during my video, and that it felt good to know they weren’t alone. People were also glad to know that someone who seemed like ‘they had it all together’ struggled mentally just like anyone else.”
James also expects to bring the camera indoors more, long after pandemic recedes. He likes the newfound intimacy he’s built between himself and his brand. It’s nice, he says, to not pretend that everything is okay. Or as he puts it, “It’s motivated me to build stronger connections with our followers — to show our life for what it is.”
The coronavirus has unmasked the false utopia of YouTube content. Let us never grow envious again.