The city of George Town, in the Malaysian state of Penang, has long drawn tourists to its streets, where sherbet-colored shophouses, intricately tiled courtyards and historic temples and mosques prove irresistible photo fodder. But in recent years something else has been attracting camera-toting travelers: dozens of street art murals that practically beg to become selfie backdrops on Instagram.
On a recent trip to Penang, a short flight from my home in Hong Kong, I watched young travelers patiently line up on a sidewalk in George Town’s historic Armenian Street. One by one they crossed the street to stand in front of a mural of two children painted in trompe l’oeil style to appear as if they’re riding a real bicycle that has been fixed to the wall. The tourists would throw a leg over the bike, or pretend to pull on the seat, or simply stand and flash a smile and a peace sign. Their friends would snap a photo.
And then, presumably, they’d upload it to Instagram. Searching the hashtag for Little Children on a Bicycle, the mural’s name, yields more than 500 results. The hashtag #PenangStreetArt brings up more than 42,000.
Penang is one of a number of cities capitalizing on the wild popularity of photo-based social media apps such as Instagram, which has 800 million users (that’s more than a tenth of the world’s population). It’s part of a wider phenomenon of public and private spaces being designed to appeal to users of such apps. This phenomenon is subtly changing our visual landscapes—on the streets, in restaurants, in stores, in museums and more. Call it the “Instagramization” of the world.
Restaurants have been at the forefront of Instagramization. Since social media mentions can make or break a restaurant’s success, owners have become attuned to what visual aspects of food and décor appeal to customers. This means restaurants have become lighter and brighter; candlelight may be romantic, but it doesn’t make for good food photography. Restaurant designers are going for photo-friendly background materials like slate and whitewashed wood, and using plain white plates. Some are deliberately incorporating Instagram-appealing visuals that feature the restaurant’s name or logo—floor tiles, neon signs—hoping they’ll wind up in a snap. Chefs even cop to creating dishes specifically designed to go viral—rainbow-colored “unicorn food,” over-the-top “stunt food” (think waffles topped with a slice of cake, anything wrapped in bacon that isn’t normally wrapped in bacon).
“For things to sell these days, it has to be Instagrammable,” a Los Angeles restauranteur told the website Thrillist.
Retail stores have the same incentives to get their spaces and products on social media. They’re encouraging picture-taking with whimsical furniture or cut-out clothing silhouettes designed for visitors to stand in and snap photos. In an era where some say social media is killing traditional retail, they’re doing what they can to harness its power.
“[Instagram] is making the client really aware of the importance and the power of design, whether it’s in wayfinding or branding or experiential design” says Laureen Moyal, founder and partner at the branding and design studio Paperwhite.
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Moyal, the designer behind some of New York’s most-Instagrammed restaurants, says businesses have been paying attention to how things will look on social media for several years. But it’s ramped up “very aggressively” over the past year or so, she says.
“Whether menu design or choice of light fixtures or tableware, people are really trying harder than they ever have because they realize it’s making a very notable difference,” Moyal says.
Museums have gotten in on the game too. Large-scale, immersive exhibits such as "Wonder" at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery two years ago, featuring pieces like a room-size thread rainbow and mountains made of index cards, have become Instagram hits in recent years. Their popularity has inspired a rise in similar exhibitions—large, colorful, interactive. Even museum building design and architecture is becoming Instagramized. The Getty Museum in Los Angeles rearranged mirrors in its decorative arts gallery to make mirror selfies easier, while San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art added terraces designed as selfie spots. On its website, the Birmingham Museum of Art in Birmingham, Alabama describes its summer art series as “Instagram gold” and offers an online slideshow of the top places in the museum to take a selfie.
"It's impossible to prevent [photo-taking] so why not get with the program and the 21st century and allow it as much as you can?" says Nora Atkinson, the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft at the Renwick Gallery.
Atkinson says she and many other curators do worry that museumgoers deny themselves a deeper experience of the art by only experiencing it with a phone in front of their faces, and often try to think of ways to bring a better balance. Her next exhibition is called "No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man." While it will allow photography, it will also encourage visitors to be in the moment by engaging physically with the works, touching sculptures and adding their own messages to a billboard.
Perhaps the apotheosis of Instagramization is an entirely new category of cultural institution, the made-for-Instagram “experience.” The best-known example is San Francisco’s The Museum of Ice Cream (#museumoficecream, 93,000+ posts), a series of rooms that basically function as photo sets: a pool filled with rainbow sprinkles (they’re plastic), a white unicorn you can sit on, a ceiling hung with pink bananas. The “museum” has been wildly popular, with six-month runs selling out in 90 minutes. The digital media company Refinery 29 has run a pop-up installation called 29Rooms (#29rooms, 29,000+ posts) for several years, featuring spaces designed for picture-taking and sharing: a giant typewriter you can walk on, a snow globe you can sit inside, neon signs with ‘grammably inspirational sayings like “care no matter what” and “a well-made choice can be beautiful.” In Asia, so-called “trick eye museums” of trompe l’oeil paintings intended as photo backdrops exist in cities large and small. Here in Hong Kong, the popular trick eye museum on Victoria Peak lets you insert yourself into Van Gogh paintings and pretend to dangle over the mouths of 3D painted monsters, all for the camera.
When I talk to Patrick Janelle, he’s just gotten back from a trip to The Museum of Ice Cream. Janelle is no ordinary Instagrammer. He has 460,000 followers. He’s been Instagramming professionally for about two and a half years. When he photographs a salad it can easily get 5,000 likes.
These days, everything is experienced twice, Janelle says. First in real life, and second when we share it on social media.
“So even if something isn’t designed especially for social media I think there’s always an emphasis on ‘how does this render digitally?’” he says.
Instagram seems to be changing what aspects and elements of a city travelers find worthwhile. Travel media is increasingly producing stories with titles like “The Most Instagrammable Street Art in LA” and “The Most Instagrammable Places in London.” Notably, these lists often include places well off the standard tourist track. A recent piece in TimeOut Hong Kong listing the “top 10 best places to Instagram in Hong Kong” included places like a public housing estate with bright colored towers and a cargo pier known as “Instagram pier” (#instagrampier, 9,500+ posts) for its photogenic sunsets. These aren’t places that people, either tourists or locals, would have necessarily been likely to spend time before Instagram. Previously ignored bits of urban infrastructure—manhole covers, crosswalks, subway tunnels—become sought-out spots.
Moyal says she and her team frequently see tourists near their studio in Bushwick, a Brooklyn neighborhood not traditionally considered a tourist draw. Many of them are there to photograph the neighborhood’s colorful graffiti (#bushwickgraffiti, 4,700+ posts).
“I don’t think the graffiti is made for that purpose,” she says. “But the fact that people respond to it positively makes it easier to justify and so it influences the creation of more art.”
Michiel de Lange, a professor of new media studies at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, says many cities are trying to brand themselves via visual storytelling. One increasingly popular strategy is so-called “pop-up urbanism,” where a city turns empty lots into temporary beer gardens or makes a busy street into a pedestrian playground for a weekend. Such events are often irresistibly Instagramable.
“A former student of mine called this phenomenon ‘Urbanism made to Like,’ based on the idea that projects like these can be easily shared and liked through platforms like Facebook, and hence generate the buzz they intend to achieve,” de Lange says.
But some say the Instagramization of the world is leading to a troubling homogeneity. Writing in The Guardian, art and design writer Kyle Chayka suggests social media is spreading a generic hipster aesthetic across the globe. You can travel from London to Los Angeles to Hong Kong and find coffee shops, hotels and offices with the same Instagram-friendly reclaimed wood, industrial lighting, white walls and “pops” of color.
“Why go anywhere if it just ends up looking the same as whatever global city you started from?” he asks.
Then there’s the idea that social media encases you in a bubble–you see where people like you are going, what they’re eating, what they’re liking, via Instagram or Facebook, then do the same yourself. As de Lange points out, this is antithetical to the values of urban theorists like Jane Jacobs, who posited that one of a city’s greatest purposes was to bring diverse groups of strangers together.
Then, of course, there’s the belief that viewing the world through your phone’s camera is an impoverished way to live. Instead of snapping pictures you should simply be looking, critics say.
Janelle, as big an Instagram booster as they come, does think there’s value in not always trying to snap a picture. He’s the cofounder of the Spring St. Social Society, which creates pop-up events around New York and Los Angeles, throwing dinner parties in old subway stations and putting on secret cabarets. His events aren’t always photo-friendly, he says. Often, the lighting will be quite dim. Because, hey, it’s romantic and beautiful that way.
“Ultimately what we want are really wonderful experiences,” Janelle says. “And sure we want to be able to document them on social media, but we also crave things that are just really wonderful and special in real life.”