Growing up, pictures and movies about surfing were rare. The only photos were in Surfer and Surfing and the only place to see footage was in the latest surf video. To get gear (from new brands no one heard of), you went to the local surf shop. Surfing was for surfers. Fast-forward to waves crowded by boards purchased at WalMart and landlocked states where everybody’s mom wears Billabong. What happened? Social Media. Social Media is threatening the authenticity of surf culture. The ability for anyone to broadcast themselves is altering who surfs and why. Houston, we have a problem.
Surfing has always been about something other than being seen. More art than sport from the beginning, Polynesian kings were the most skilled at a non-competitive pass-time that kept their people close to the oceans on which their lives depended. Modern surf culture evolved, in part, as a reaction to the Cold War and consumerism following WW ll. Surfing was a way to maintain a connection to the natural world, escape modernity, and reconnect with the source from which we came.
As an outsider culture and a meritocracy, skill, heart, and nerve earned respect among surfers. It was Man vs. Nature at its most pure. A solitary pursuit to harness nature’s energy, propelled atop waves that traveled across hundreds of miles of open ocean. Danger limited spectators and media, and most surfers were fine with that.
Increasingly, social media’s culture of self-admiration and mass exposure is causing a cultural shift, and a new participant is emerging. Surfing used to be about going on trips with your buddies, exploring new breaks, breaking into the newfound lifestyle – all without a worry in the world. Whether it’s the Caribbean, Central America or California, adventuring to new places has migrated to showcasing it for others, rather than experiencing it for your self.
Short attention spans, fueled by social media’s always-on access, have enabled ambitious individuals (some who don’t even surf) to infringe on surfing’s well-known calm and collected lifestyle, co-opting surf culture for profit in six and 15-second increments. There’s more concern about Views and Likes than experiencing the stoke, the rush, and the oh so rare thrill of “entering the greenroom.” Before kids paddle out, they’ve got to take a selfie.
With all the exposure, new sponsors and brands are showing up to participate. There’s a lot that’s good about athletes getting paid, but some less discerning brands care more about being associated with surfing than with promoting the best of the sport. Is surfing doomed to exploitation and overexposure?
No. All is not lost. The stoke will survive. Surfing’s soul remains pure despite distractions from kooks and money. True surfers still surf for the experience. They wake up earlier, paddle out farther, endure colder water, go where no one else dares, and confront nature in a way no other sport or athlete can match.
Despite the social onslaught, signs of resiliency abound. The independent surf shop endures as the temple of culture, indoctrinating and equipping future generations. Science is making it easier to find the best waves worldwide, and the return of fin-less boards shows a reverence for the purity of surfing and a deep respect for tradition, even as data fuels innovation in board technology as never before.