Every week or so, I watch a 30-minute YouTube video of a bearded, humorless Dutch man slowly remodeling two ramshackle stone structures on a mountain in the Italian Alps. I’m not much of a shack-remodeler myself, but I know why YouTube recommended Martijn Doolaard’s channel to me a few months ago. During the peak-stress period of the 2020 presidential election and the early pandemic, the same internet that got me anxious soothed me by directing me to “cottagecore” videos: dreamy, vibey scenes of women with soft voices in gingham dirndls harvesting baskets of dandelions to make tea.
A cabin is not so very far from a cottage, and I’m always game to voyeurize someone else’s version of rural coziness, so I clicked on the kick-off video in Doolaard’s homesteading series, titled “First days at my cabin in the Italian Alps.” But as Doolaard, a graphic designer by trade, offered a tour of the domain he’d just acquired, it became clear that calling his property a “cabin” was something of an exaggeration. The two buildings in question, constructed of stacked stone under slate slab roofs and without electricity or plumbing, are, as even Doolaard himself admits, are “more like barns.” But even “barns” is stretching it, because barns run big, and each structure looks about the size of a one-car garage, with tiny, unglazed windows. One doesn’t even have a proper floor, just boards rotting into the underlying earth. Not only are they not currently fit for human habitation, they probably never were. So the Doolaard videos go harder than cottagecore; call them shedcore.
I’m still watching, though not it seems for the same reason most of Doolaard’s 200,000 subscribers are, at least to judge from the comments. Viewers say they watch the series to relax and calm down, rhapsodizing over the slow pace and sparse use of added music. But I’m hanging in there anxiously, waiting for the moment that Doolaard realizes what a cockeyed idea it is to rebuild these two broken-down old heaps. Surely it would be much easier, more comfortable, and more energy-efficient to build a whole new cabin on the site. (Doolaard claims the Italian regulatory environment makes new construction prohibitive.) If he simply built something new, he could still keep his two sheds, and he wouldn’t have to cut bigger windows into them to keep from feeling like he lives in a crypt! However, given that Doolaard’s previous YouTube series documented a two-year bicycle trip, bringing only what he could carry on his back, from Vancouver to Patagonia, and he got a book out of it, he probably considers difficulty to be a feature rather than a bug.
Watching Doolaard’s cabin series finally crystalized the weirdest thing about this particular manifestation of the booming homesteading and simple-life social media trend, to which I’m a bit addicted. Whether the YouTuber is an elfin Swede living in the forests of the frozen north (4 million subscribers), or a DIY maven who converted her van into a mobile tiny home (208,000 subscribers), or an American artist communing with nature and a composting toilet in the Pacific Northwest (889,000 subscribers), these content creators offer up a highly aestheticized version of lives seemingly unsullied by the modern clamor of traffic, offices, city streets, and—above all—smartphones and other devices. Yet this vision is entirely dependent on the same technology from which it promises an escape.
With Doolaard, the dissonance is especially pronounced because off-the-grid authenticity is so central to his appeal. A typical video shows him brute-forcing dangerously heavy objects, like a cast-iron heating stove, onto a dolly, and wrestling them into the gloomy confines of the less primitive of the two sheds. “Such a welcome break with all the grim problems of western modernity!” one commenter posted on his first video, a video the commenter would never have seen without the help of the algorithm, arguably the grimmest problem in all western modernity.
This is a paradox not just of delivery but also of production. What appears to be a vision of unselfconscious simplicity is by necessity artificial, especially when the sole character is also the videographer. In fact, the less mannered the video appears to be, the more studied it actually is. Simple-life content creators like Doolaard exert tremendous effort to make their videos look unstaged. The photography is often spectacular, thanks to drone technology. In the fourth of his “Two Years on a Bike” videos, over aerial footage of himself pedaling across the vast expanse of a Peruvian salt lake, Doolaard does address how weird this can get. As good as the shots looks, he remarks, sometimes “I’m not happy to be there. Sometimes I think I do it for the photos.” The videos are meant to be a record of a phenomenal, enviable experience, but he’s not actually enjoying himself, partly because the imperative to record the moment has come to matter more than the moment itself.
This has been a longstanding complaint about tourism and the kind of travelers who filter their entire trip through a camera lens. But it’s another matter when the lens is recording what’s supposed to be real life, lived under ostensibly primal conditions. Say what you want about the artifice of reality TV; at least contestants struggling in the wilderness are not also taping, editing, and executing a social-media campaign on behalf of their videos. At a certain point, I became aware that every single image of Doolaard lugging beams out of the trailer hitch to his car and shlepping them down the hillside to his sheds was shot with a camera on a tripod. Here he is, driving down a slope to the site—but actually he arrived a few minutes earlier, framed the shot, backed up the car, and then drove in all over again so this could be filmed as if it were happening for the first time. There’s a quick shot in the first cabin video of Doolaard walking down a path toward the camera and glancing up at it as he takes a bite of toast and turns to the side, clearly keen to get on with the day’s work, in the same way that he might briefly clock another person he hadn’t expected to be standing just there. This resembles nothing so much as the way Stephen Colbert would look up at the camera at the beginning of his old comedy show, The Colbert Report, and say “Oh, hello there!” as if he’d suddenly noticed he was on TV. Only Colbert’s phoniness was a parody. Once, Doolaard even filmed himself “napping.”
The fact that Doolaard has a whole other life away from the sheds occasionally breaks the fourth wall of his video diary. In the twelfth video, filming in the evening, Doolaard hears wolves howling on the other side of the mountain, too faintly for the camera to pick up at first. “I’m not going to put samples, wolf samples,” he informs his viewers. “I hear so many YouTubers do that.” Doolard says he knows the sounds in other videos are fake, “because they always use the same sample. It’s from the Final Cut library.”
Doolaard has admitted that the drafty sheds are (unsurprisingly) too cold to sleep in on autumn and winter nights, so he had to rent a camper in the nearest town. Presumably that camper has wifi, and he spends much of his time there editing on Final Cut as well as studying the videos uploaded by other rusticating YouTubers intensively enough to spot their forgeries and identify the digital source. Behind the scrim of humble, hand-sawn carpentry and dinner grilled over an open fire lies the sophisticated technological apparatus and expertise required to produce and distribute such a sublimely pastoral facade.
And also presumably to fund it, since Doolaard’s videos are interrupted every five minutes by ads for Hollywood movies, lawn fertilizers, diet programs, and even Disneyland—all the consumerist stuff he’s rejecting. If people didn’t buy that stuff, there wouldn’t be ads to help pay for this off-the-grid adventure. Doolaard’s quest may be especially foolhardy, but in this respect, he resembles the other video creators I watch who expertly employ 21st-century technology to rhapsodize about the lifestyle and aesthetics of bygone times. As simple lives go, it’s complicated.