Instagram Makes Me Like New York Less
But Instaplaces may make for a more dynamic world
The den was the defining room of 20th century America. Constructed as a chapel for the radio, the TV, and eventually remodeled with a side nave to worship the Gaussian hiss of the PC, it brought us together, all smiles around a spectacle. That room feels as antique today as the hushed cathedral it replaced must have then. We’ve all become lay priests, writing and delivering the media sermon assiduously in all the world’s rooms, our vibrating pulpit in our pocket.
Is it possible to design a space that can’t be Instagrammed? I’d pay a lot for an unshareable niche to visit. I want a room that refuses to dance for any camera, so absent of visual significance that it couldn’t be worth sharing under any circumstance. Nothing too old or too new, no hints of an aesthetic or era, no objects too branded or too Muji-ly unbranded. You’d have to scrub the place of visual ironies, too: a trendy color or a piece of dated furniture might just be funny enough to inspire a Story.
My fantasy of an Unshareable Void is a dimly lit, entirely empty, white room with no discernible textures and nothing on the walls. An ordinary American room with every object subtracted. Alas, with the judicious use of some Kimoji flash, the aggressive baldness of a non-space like that snakes back around to being unique enough for a killer selfie.
Of course no architecture can contain our boundless desire to share and see every visible thing in the whole damn world.
New York is starting to feel less itself the longer I live with social media. I still love this city, which contains the majority of my vividly memorable life history. But the experience of walking the ever-changing street, of dipping into the right restaurant, is losing the luster of only-here, only-now which is supposed to define this place.
At first, I mistook this change as just firmly hitting my thirties. Joan Didion famously labeled her fresh-out-of-Berkeley enthusiasm for New York “the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.”
I wasn’t able to pin down the feeling here; I found it on a trip to Hong Kong. Arriving at a sprawling bar cheekily hidden behind a mall umbrella shop, it struck me that the place looked really good. Blue velvet banquets almost-but-not-quite-uncomfortably low to the floor, room-length narrow mirrors with Art Deco trim, underlighting coming from seemingly everywhere that gave faces and cocktails just enough glow.
Then the anger hit: Wasn’t I just at this place in New York a few months back? The brass, the glasses, the touches of light all the same?
No, not exactly: I was simply in another aggressively shareable place, designed explicitly to convey itself completely with the sound off.
It’s much more than all the bars and restaurants filling with the same distressed white brick and gently curved brass fixtures. The city around me is becoming the touchable, livable world of the phone. Experiencing a famous city is not brushing by visual cliches from some movie, it is inhabiting my feed.
Instagram had eaten Hong Kong, as I suddenly saw it had eaten my beloved New York. It’s eating every place. Viral, visual platforms are heedlessly modifying our physical world, to make it a better background for sharing.
Poke bowls are food-gram readymades. Given almost all of their ingredients are raw, opening a restaurant to sell them doesn’t require a ventilated kitchen, complex building permits, or large square footage. Boom: That Mailboxes Etc around the corner is now serving up fresh, strip-mined ocean and the gorgeous color wheel lunch shot becomes edible.
CrossFit is a video meme with a physical manifestation. It’s an image of getting fit, pushing your limits, looking as hot as that guy or girl on your phone, that you can step in to the frame of. Take the level of ambition up slightly, pay a $3,000 licensing fee and you can start one of these visual playgrounds of raw fitness yourself, in spaces equally available thanks to last century’s excess of retail.
My gilded eye might focus on a a certain uniform Instagram aesthetic sliming over trendy bourgeois spots, but the transformation is spreading to all scales and classes of human geography.
Dubai is a razor-thin, Babel-tall strip of buildings at the border of the desert and sea, a planned cityscape that begs to be snapped. Persian Gulf states with a tabula rasa like the UAE prioritize building shareable places intuitively, and have the capital to execute social-media-serving terraforming faster than the more organic and democratic cities. Dubai’s supertalls, like the pin buildings rising everywhere in New York, are entirely unloaded of the utopian ideology of modernist skyscrapers. The city of the 21st century is made of machines for sharing, not machines for living.
In New Zealand, authorities attribute astounding growth in tourism to the South Island to the simple fact that it sparkles on Instagram, reshaping more rural geography to accommodate the influx.
The Double-Edged Sword of Instaplace
The comforting belief that a place is unique is now untenable, the contrary evidence at hand with just a tap. My favorite coffee spot, my ideal meal, my perfect little stroll in that just-so neighborhood park is a copy or simulation or extension of the place an attractive stranger is simultaneously inhabiting on my phone.
Our definition of place is being radically transformed from something personal and experiential to something more fleeting and shared. Here, optimistically, I sniff software. Modularization. Abstraction. Portability. That nearly the same bar can exist in Hong Kong as in New York could be a feature, not a bug. I might want to egoistically cling to a belief that this city is unique and it is mine, but the technology determining our world is not so aesthetic.
Many of this first wave of Instaplaces occupy small square-footage, lower rent spaces that otherwise might go vacant, suggesting more of the city is becoming usable in new ways because of this transformation. Turning derelict spaces into new ones for culture at the margins is the norm, but the speed and variety visually-shared living unlocks is breathtaking.
If Instagram — not as a media platform, but as a means to agglomerate and react to the desires of billions of people — designs the city, could it be more democratic, more distributed, more dynamic?
Or are we going to live in places that are beautiful to share, but insipid to live? (Bali, the world capital of cliched vacation bliss grams, is currently dealing with millions of tons of plastic trash covering its beaches, hidden just out of frame.)
As place becomes more and more an amalgam the physical world and the phone world, I can’t retreat to an Unshareable Void. Social media is inextricable from my feelings of place, of being rooted or not. I’ll just need to find my hold on a more insta- New York.