Although King and Smith's images look effortless, they are carefully curated, staged and timed, Monroe notes as she watches the process by which they're put together. One snapshot of King with a book takes half an hour. ("Lift your head up a little bit more, look like you're reading," coaches Smith.)
Last year, King and Smith made $18,000. They're already on track to do better in 2017. In January and February alone, Monroe writes, "they lined up ten thousand dollars' worth of endorsements." And what they're selling is an enviable combination of youth, beauty, health, mobility and a hint of rebellion — enough to intrigue audiences but not enough to scare advertisers away.
There are downsides to the business of packaging and selling yourself on the social media market. You live in a perpetual present, unable to save for or even really consider a future in which people won't want to look at you anymore. You contort yourself to please both your fans and your sponsors. And you expose yourself to scathing comments from the peanut gallery.
Monroe acknowledges the underlying uncomfortable truth of this:
There is an undeniable aesthetic and demographic conformity in the vanlife world. Nearly all of the most popular accounts belong to young, attractive, white, heterosexual couples. "There's the pretty van girl and the woodsy van guy," Smith said. "That's what people want to see." At times, the vanlife community seems full of millennials living out a leftover baby-boomer fantasy: the Volkswagens, the neo-hippie fashions, the retro gender dynamics.
Still, the appeal is undeniable. These millennials are succeeding because they're responding to a deep-seated desire in people, especially young people, to see the world, independent, free of the conventional constraints of family, mortgage and career — or to admire those who can.
As a comment on a different #vanlife Instagram posting puts it, "If only everyone had a van!"