[This is an introduction to SURFER Volume 59, Issue 5, on newsstands and available for download here.]
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine what it would be like if all social media platforms merged into one. Now imagine if, somehow, that monolithic übernetwork became an actual, physical place.
You'd approach the entrance to Instwitterbook and admire the sleek design and warm, inviting colors of the façade. You'd step inside and marvel at the staggering number of people filling the room and interacting with one another—and be perplexed by how many cats also seem to be roaming around. But as impressive as the size, scope and intuitive nature of this place are, something doesn't feel quite right. Upon closer examination of the crowd, you realize that while some people are engaging in a meaningful exchange of ideas, just as many seem to just be screaming at each other, or banding together to focus their collective scorn on some unfortunate soul for their unintended digital trespass. They scrutinize this individual's every word, try to extrapolate damning character traits from their phrasing, and, inevitably, compare them to Hitler.
This place, you realize, is actually pretty terrifying.
Why then, in a time when everything ends up online to be picked apart, would anyone ever want to speak publicly about anything? And when they do, say, get a microphone in their face following a World Tour heat win, why would they want to say anything other than the most-benign, beige-hued, pre-planned response? In an era where people can be so quickly drawn and quartered in the digital square, speaking your mind is a scary thing to do, but it's also a big part of what keeps surf culture interesting.
Since the days of Miki Dora, surfers have always placed a high premium on individuality. But the normalization of online trolling and gotcha hot takes in the media have sucked much of that wild, freewheeling energy out of the room. Instead of bold claims and heart-on-their-sleeve proclamations, pro surfers instead often offer vague descriptions of "I just want to have fun" heat strategies. But that doesn't mean that surf stars are any less interesting than those of previous eras. Once you get them one on one, away from fan fare and live streams, you find no shortage of color and personality.
Front to back, this issue is a collection of conversations with surfers from various walks of life, all with something interesting to say. Mick Fanning talks about the freedom he's found in retiring from competition, not just in terms of having a freer schedule, but in being able to speak his mind without as much scrutiny. Aussie big-wave-charger-turned-tile-worker Laurie Towner discusses getting dropped by his sponsor and reinventing himself as a blue-collar tradesman who makes the most of his time off by scratching into XXL surf. And aerial wizard and social media rabble-rouser Albee Layer talks about the changes he hopes to see in surfing in order to incentivize progression and bring us all into an era of more dynamic wave riding.
Layer has never had any trouble voicing his opinion, even if he knew there'd be inevitable backlash. And even if you don't agree with everything he says, you've got to respect his commitment to giving an unfiltered take. What Layer understands better than most in the modern era is that when people stop speaking their minds, our culture becomes stagnant, and sometimes rocking the boat is actually the best way to get it to change course for the better.
It would be naïve to think that online discourse will eventually become a more civil forum and we'll eventually look back on this era and think, "Well, that was weird," and go online to find comment sections filled with thoughtful, respectful debate. But perhaps there's a virtue in being more like Layer and accepting that people will always disagree with you, often in ugly ways, and then saying whatever the hell you were going to say anyway.