Amid all the noise surrounding Web3, something fascinating is emerging: a new kind of immersive adventure storytelling. An innovative effort is underway to leverage the same technologies that get gamers excited about buying an outfit for their avatar to instead reward people for engaging in real-world outdoor experiences. The shift is going to have an enormous impact on how writers, photographers, and filmmakers tell their stories—and equally as important, how they connect with you, their audience. In this episode, Outside Interactive CEO Robin Thurston and adventure photographer Chris Burkard share their hopes for the coming transformation.
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Michael Roberts: From Outside magazine, this is the Outside Podcast.
If you’re a regular listener to this show, you know that what we like to do most on the Outside Podcast is tell stories of epic adventures, wild trips, and the very powerful things that happen to us when we dare to venture out our doors.
But today, we’re going to do something different. Because there's a big change brewing in the world of adventure storytelling, and it's time to talk about it.
I'm Michael Roberts, and I've been an editor with Outside for more than 20 years. Over that time, there have been major changes in the way that we bring you the stories that inspire and fascinate us. And now, we're at the very early stages of another shift that’s going to have an enormous impact on how some of the most powerful adventure stories are told, and even more importantly, how storytellers connect with you, their audience.
We need a brief history lesson to set the table here.
So, back in the day, Outside was just a magazine. We printed issues. Then, we delivered it to your door.
When the internet became a thing, we started Outside Online, where I got my first job, back when I still had AOL email address.
It wasn't all that different than the magazine: you came to our site to read stories and look at photos. Eventually, we added video.
And then came social media, also known as Web 2.0, which made everyone a publisher. And we weren’t just reading and looking and watching, we were sharing and liking each other’s stuff.
A lot happened as part of this transformation. For starters, the photographers and writers and filmmakers who had been telling their stories through traditional media companies were suddenly able to connect directly with audiences. Also important: it was no longer a one-way conversation. Very cool! Except these , these new platforms owned and controlled the relationships, and they took almost all of the money involved in the form of advertising.
This brings us to today, the early stages of Web3, an internet that has been defined as being "owned by the builders and users." Now, it’s super easy to get confused by what’s happening, and to get bogged down in trying to understand blockchains and crypto-currencies and NFTs. So I’m gonna mostly stay away from all that.
Instead, I want to tell you about the Outerverse, which is Outside's ambitious effort to use all this new technology to do what we've been doing for 45 years: to convince you to get out there.
And for that, I'm going to bring my boss into the conversation.
Robin Thurston: Wait, but are you the only one on this? I just want to make sure.
Mike: It's just me.
Robin: I have not showered either. So you know, you can take that to the bank.
Mike: Yeah. Okay. Well, I got gotta, I, I, I got a busy week, so I was up early doing stuff. So don't, don't worry.
We did this interview at 7:30 in the morning
Introduce yourself, sir.
Robin: I'm Robin Thurston. I'm the CEO and founder of outside interactive.
Michael: When Robin talks about the Outerverse, he lays out a vision that is the opposite of what we've been hearing about Web3 and our increasingly digital future.
Robin: We want to enable real world experiences. When people climb actual hills or ride, you know, actual events or, hike the Pacific coast trail and the Outerverse is a culmination of how to leverage that technology reward people, but ultimately to get them to do outdoor things, not indoor things.
And my, my current concern is when you look at somebody like Facebook and Instagram they're really spending 25 to $30 billion a year, basically trying to get consumers to stay in doors on VR headsets. And to me you know, that's a tragedy. I mean, one of the partners we're working with, has some data that suggests that the average American teenager is spending less than 60 minutes a week outdoors, 60 minutes a week.
I mean, think about that.
Michael: It's an extremely unpleasant thought. To push back against this, Robin had a big idea. What if we created a marketplace for digital goods, or NFTs, that allowed the same storytellers who've been contributing to Outside for years, plus a diverse mix of new creators, to sell works that motivated us to actually put our phones down and seek out wilder environments.
Robin: You know, in the gaming space, there's a concept called play to earn. And, play to earn essentially means that as a player of a specific video game, that you get essentially benefits for the amount of playing time and the things that you build within that game. And so the sort of new concept that is arising out of Web3, is the ability to think about other things in a similar manner. And so, in the fitness space, it has recently been called move to earn or fitness to earn, or what I like to call outdoors to earn, where we are building an infrastructure and technology around the concept of the more time you spend outdoors, the more you get rewarded.
And those rewards could be everything from, you know, getting access to our editors, to getting gear that you are, you know, entered to win into to group activities that only you get to go to because you have put a certain amount of time and energy into the Outerverse. So the outer verse at its most simplistic, you know, framework is a method of rewarding people for outdoor time.
Michael: Now, I know what some of you are probably thinking: that anything to to with blockchains is an environmental disaster because of the crazy amount of energy required for crypto-currency transactions. But that's not true; it actually depends on the blockchain system you're using. Everything being done in the Outerverse will be on the Solana blockchain, where a transaction uses the same energy as about two google searches.
Later this month, in a giant first step to building the Outerverse, Outside is launching a creator marketplace that you can preview now at outside.io. The creators who join will be empowered to offer works that come with unique access to immersive storytelling and real life experiences. Robin firmly believes that if we get this right, we really can help get a lot more people off the couch. He's also convinced that the creators who join the marketplace will develop a much deeper connection with their most committed fans.
If this all strikes you as theoretical or speculative, well, I feel you. But I'm convinced the shift in media that's just now beginning is going to be a really big deal.
And it's not just people who work for Outside that feel this way.
Chris Burkard: Yeah. My name is Chris Burkard, I'm a photographer. My work is taking me to explore a lot of different avenues in terms of creativity, directing and speaking. And, and in many ways, just trying to tell meaningful stories. I'm located in central California, a small town kind of halfway between LA and San Francisco. And this is where I call home. And I spend the other half of my year in Iceland.
Michael: Even if you don't recognize Chris Burkard's name, chances are you've seen many of his photos. He got his start in the mid-2000s as an intern with Transworld Surf magazine and went on to shoot for a number of print titles and corporate clients. He was early to embrace digital photography and later, social media, where he has fostered an enormous audience; he currently has 3.8 million Instagram followers. Chris is also a Web3 enthusiast. Later this year, he will do his first NFT drop on outside.io.
Perhaps more than any other prominent outdoor media professional, Chris's career arc has bent along with the shifts in the industry that have led us to where we are today. And that includes the time in 2007, when he was in his early 20s and got offered a job that would make him enemy number one for a whole lot of California surfers.
Mike: You know, you were a young guy and you get offered what feels like a dream job, a staff photographer job at Surfline. You're incredibly excited about it, but you're kind of stressed out too. So could you talk about why you were stressed and then a little bit of how it played out?
Chris: Yeah. For those who don't know, you know, Surfline is still like one of the most-viewed surf report websites in the world. And, obviously at the time, they were at the forefront because they were installing cameras all over the world, so people could check the surf report.
And it's a necessary evil, like everybody uses it, but a lot of people hate it. Right. They hate it because it kinda like takes you out of the immersive experience of going to the beach. It makes waves more crowded. Inversely. It also gets people outside, gets people surfing and gets people to know that the waves are good.
I'm going to go surf. Like what a joy
Michael: Surfline hired Chris to be their first-ever staff photographer. The site had begun adding editorial coverage, including reviews of surf spots, and Chris, who had been struggling to make ends meet submitting his work to print magazines, had his first regular paycheck. But, it came with a price.
All of a sudden I was thinking about what camera equipment can I buy? I had a travel budget.
I can make more than just scraping by. It, it opened up a freedom for me that was huge. Like, like going from literally being at poverty level, um, surf photographer, you know, seeing metal on my tires everywhere I went, because I couldn't afford to buy new ones. This was like some sense of, of new found joy.
There's a dark side to it though. And I knew what that was and it was the. You know, if your name is plastered all over these images, it's very different than a magazine that comes out 30 days later, 60 days later, Surfline was so here and now. It was right here, you know, in the moment there would be an article about that swell or about that place.
And it's your job to kind of be on it. So you're rushing around driving up and down the California coast, documenting this place, documenting Mavericks, and then you're in your OB and then you're down in San Clemente and then you're at Trestles and then you're at Rincon.
You're going to potentially create a target on your head for people to be like, ‘well, I don't want that person here, you know?’ And, there were real threatening, scary moments where I would come back to my car and the entire thing would be waxed, you know. People would let the air out of my tires and people would leave threatening notes on my car. I'd go to the beach and there'd be a huge, you know, fricking black pipe on the sand, some like sewer pipe and it would be spray painted like, you know, F Chris Burkard card sort of thing. But yeah, like I've had knives pulled on me, like very real threats, not just somebody being mean on the internet, you know?
And I was just like, oh my gosh, like, this is not what I want. I don't need to deal with this type of selfishness that you get from, from localism. Right?
And, you know, it was affecting my life, my, my young family, me and my wife. And, um, I was married at 21. Like I was like, I don't want to keep bringing this stress home to her, right? And so ultimately when I started to explore places that were far off the beaten path, you know, as romantic as that sounds, I was also just kind of running away from the threats that I was feeling at home.
And luckily there was something in store for me out there.
And that was a really exciting thing to experience, like, to find something out there at the end of the earth and feel like it was kind of for you.
What Chris found out there was very cold water. He put together a series of surfing expeditions to British Columbia, Norway, Iceland, and Russia. For reasons he didn't at first understand, he became increasingly drawn to the harshest possible environments to ride waves.
Chris: What was it that gave me so much joy? What was it that made me feel so alive there? Why is it that when I look at these images, I feel so connected to them.
I can remember the experience. I can feel it. You know, I can feel the snow crunching under my feet and the wind hitting the back of my neck and it feels visceral. And I had to sit with that for a while.
It was a slow process to realize that there's something out there that I really loved and I got to keep going and looking for it.
So I started to explore deeper, further locations, ones that were obviously far from the equator and ones that offered a bit more risk. Ultimately what it boiled down to is that when the images and the process of creating those images, when it asks more of you, there's meaning to it. You know, it comes obviously at a cost and that cost was my time and energy and emotion. And I think that that is exactly what I took away. Like I gave a piece of myself to make some of these images.
That's what these places asked of you. You know, whether it was cold or whether the logistics were challenging or whether you had a long travel day or whether you're swimming and I don't know, shark infested waters or whatever it was. The photos meant more to me. The experience has meant more to me.
And I think that that's what eventually made me fall in love with being in these harsh, remote parts of the world.
Michael: The images that Chris captured on these expeditions made his career. In addition to operating in wild places that were extremely difficult to get to and borderline nuts to surf, he had developed a unique style among surf photographers with shots that told the story of a landscape instead of the usual hyper focus on an athlete. But all this happened only because he was willing to take huge risks—both physical and financial.
Chris B: I wasn't going to places that were guaranteed. I was going to places that were very much risky, very much cost, more money, costs, more time, effort, energy. The magazines were not excited about it because they wanted me to go to these top 20 places where they know for sure they can fill their pages with great images and the advertisers will be happy. But when you're suggesting, you know, remote Norway or wherever it was, it was terrifying to them. And it was terrifying to me because I would go on trips and they'd be like, Hey, if you don't score, if you don't get waves or photos, like we're not gonna pay for this. Like, this is on you. So I was literally like, not telling my wife that basically I was funding these trips myself, and then with the hope that I would come back successful.
I think that sometimes people envision that you fall into this beautiful rhythm and then everything becomes easier. Like, it didn't become easier. It actually became much harder. But . I felt energized. I felt excited. Whatever I'm doing here, even though it's hard, even though I've got like, frostnip on my fingers, like I have a smile that won't go away. I feel joy.
Michael: Chris was following his passion, but he remained very aware of the ongoing challenges of making a living in an ever-shifting industry. His expedition teams began capturing video to feed the growing demand for online content that went beyond words and photos.
But it was an entirely new storytelling platform that would ultimately set in motion a stage of his career that he'd never imagined
Chris B: I remember vividly being in Iceland almost a decade ago. And a surfer was like, Hey, there's this thing called Instagram. You should use it. It's really cool. And I was like, ‘man, my editor would kill me. If I shared a single photo of the trip before it went to him.’
Michael: We'll be right back.
Michael: In 2012, photographer Chris Burkard organized an expedition to Russia's remote Kamchatka Peninsula, where he believed he would find waves that would have him coming home with images of surfers backdropped by Siberian volcanoes. He was right.
But it was the shots he was sharing while he was still in Russia that made this trip so different. A couple of the team members came up with the hashtag "kam-shaka" for the photos they were posting on Instagram. Chris was still relatively new to Instagram at the time, and he had long followed the print magazine rule of keeping everything under wraps until an issue was on newsstands. So he was a bit uncomfortable putting photos out there, especially because he was planning to publish a story in Surfer magazine. But he got into the flow of it, and soon the hashtag kamshaka was blowing up the internet.
Chris: And what was interesting is when the article came out at the magazine, it was one of the most well-received issues of surfer magazine, because people were excited about it. People had heard about it. People went to the store to buy it for this exact article that we had kind of pre promoted via social media.
After Kamchatka, Chris had thousands of new Instagram followers. As continued to post images from other trips, along with detailed reflections of the experiences he was having, hundreds of thousands of more followers came along. For Chris, there was something happening that was a lot bigger than having a tool to promote his next project.
Mike: You're sharing your work directly with an audience. And beyond that, you're interacting with them. You know, they're putting comments, you're replying to comments. How did that impact you? Like what did that feel like and how did that shift your approach to everything?
Chris B: I've always said that social media, all it is is a glorified texting app. That's all it is. The truth of the matter is that if you like people and you are a people person, you will probably find success in this platform because this platform is about people. There's no algorithm, there's no bot that's going to compensate for just simply connecting with people, seeing what their interests are, talking to them, engaging with them. Like I checked my direct messages every day.
And when it is a real question about a place or something I've shared, like I love getting back people that, that call and response. That's what I thrive in. I mean, that's, that's what it's always been about for me.
Every person I work with and most people that I interact with on a day-to-day basis, actually, almost everybody are people I’ve met from social media. And what I mean by that is like deep, meaningful, immersive, intimate experiences I've been able to have with people I met from social media. I've traveled to the farthest reaches of the world with people that I've connected with from social media. Right? Like that's, I don't know how else to tell you that, like it's a very real and very awesome tool for that.
Michael: That's true. And yet, social media has fallen short of its grand promise in a very important way. In outdoor communities, the early dream was that Facebook and Instagram would inspire and facilitate adventures like never before. Suddenly, we had these spaces where we could all share our wild stories and rally around a common love for natural environments. Unfortunately, all that sharing and liking and commenting ended up becoming the ultimate trap for our attention. And one that usually makes us feel disconnected from real-life experiences.
Chris understands this better than most. Last year, he published a book titled Wayward that recounts many of his greatest trips. In the opening chapter, he writes about the origins of his wanderlust, which came from staring for hours at magazines like Surfer, National Geographic, and Outside. Only to realize that, if he wanted to know what it really felt like to be in those far-off places, he had to go there himself.
Chris: No photograph is going to make someone grow closer to a place. Right. It's just not until you act upon it. No amount of dreaming about distant shores is going to make them less distant. You have to go. That's the reason I started traveling in the first place. I mean, that is literally why I picked up a camera, not because I wanted to pursue some creative course of life, but I, I really just wanted to see the world outside of my small town.
Michael: This brings us to one of the great hopes for Web3: that it will open up new ways for creators like Chris to help us get that much closer to embarking on our own adventures. The thinking is that, with blockchain technology, a creator can make an extraordinary piece of digital art that’s a lot more than just something to look at.
How does that work? Let's go back Outside CEO Robin Thurston.
Robin: Let's say that the initial group of people that buy someone like Chris Burkard’s photos, or another creator's photos, um, let's say that because he actually knows who these users are and can engage with them, you know, very directly he can ask them to vote and potentially fund through the, the acquiring of other NFTs where his next adventure is.
And all of those people can participate. Along that journey while he's actually in the field, that they can engage with him and help direct that adventure. My view here is that the community interaction will fundamentally change the storytelling.
Michael: This is already happening. Climber and photographer Levi Harrell covered the cost of a recent trip to Alaska entirely by selling photos from it as NFTs to his community of followers. Back in January, professional snowboarder Travis Rice announced that there would be a series of NFT drops during his Natural Selection Tour, contests that took place at big mountains across the U.S. and Canada. Purchasers received exclusive content and one holder won a trip to join the riders for a week of cat-skiing in British Columbia.
And coming this fall, Outside will sell tickets to the Warren Miller Film tour as NFTs. They'll be digital collectibles that function to get you into the show. But more significantly, there are plans to build utility into the tickets so that holders who ski a certain number of days next winter are granted access to additional content and possibly given a chance to win a dream heli-skiing trip.
Robin: This is truly what I view as the differentiator to what we are building with the Outerverse. We're not interested in having you sit on your couch. We're interested in having our creators and our platform. Reward people for this actual outdoor activity time.
Somebody said to me the other day, they're like, ‘why don't you just tell people to get outdoors?’ And I'm like, ‘that's kinda like telling somebody to quit smoking.’ And what I mean by that is that there is so much energy, money, and resource getting you as a consumer to spend more time on a screen indoors. I don't care if it's Netflix. I don't care if it's Disney, all of that is about getting you to spend more time indoors.
And we are essentially just using this technology to basically incentivize you to get outdoors.
Michael: Later this year, Chris Burkard will make his first NFT drop on outside.io. He's still developing the collection, but says that it will pull from the expeditions that he chronicled in Wayward. And while nothing he's offering will automatically get you on a real-life adventure, each NFT will invite you that much deeper into the experiences he's had.
Chris: You know, with the NFT doesn't come a passport and a plane ticket to go there. What comes with it is maybe hopefully, the most deep and immersive thoughts around, maybe a life lesson from each place that I learned.
You know, if I'm going to be sharing images from Kamchatka, Russia, I'll probably be sharing about like why and how I stuck myself in a jail cell and had to get deported to Korea, you know, like what happened? Why, what did you learn from that experience? Is it just a funny story? Yeah, it's pretty funny, but ultimately it's more than that. It's about what, what did you gain from that experience?
I also think that it allows me a deeper connection to those people who are interested like, I want people who care about travel. I want people who want to go there. I want people who I can have discourse with, who want to know about this. I mean, to me, that's the people I want to connect with.
So if anything, it's almost a calling card to, in some way, hopefully connect more intimately. More closely with people that are seeking the same experiences that I am.
Chris:This is kind of where the promise of social media left off is what I hope NFTs become. And I think that’s the beauty. By partnering with outside and knowing that outside is investing into a series of events and a series of activations ones that ideally I can be a part of and the collectors can be a part of like, that's awesome. That's incredible. Right? Because that's really where the emphasis on outside, being outside, you know, ultimately comes down to is like, we are trying to push these towards an audience that that does. Yeah. They love technology. It gets us out there, but, but more than that, we care about fostering meaningful experiences, the ones that change us.
And we all know that that comes from being out in nature.
If you're interested in learning more about the Outerverse and Outside's creator marketplace, there's an abundant amount of information at outside.io
If you don't already follow Chris Burkard on Instagram he's @chrisburkard
Robin Thurston, besides being the CEO of Outside Interactive, is a podcast host. His new show, The Outerverse, which launches later this month, features conversations with artists and entrepreneurs leveraging the blockchain to get more people exploring, exercising, and pursuing a healthy lifestyle. You'll be able to find it wherever you get your podcasts.
My name is Michael Roberts, I wrote and produced this episode. Music by Robbie Carver.
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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.