The world is square: how Instagram is shaping travel and architecture

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Instagram is literally shaping the memories we capture. For starters, the ones worth ‘immortalising’ are all square; anything more fleeting can tell its story only in portrait. And if an experience doesn’t fit in that little box, it’s often deemed unworthy of our virtual memory banks.

As a result, experiences and products — especially in the restaurant space — are being designed specifically to encourage this type of sharing. At the small end of the scale are outlandish menu items like freakshakes, rainbow bagels and burgers so big they’re almost inedible.

But we’re also seeing more permanent examples of this trend; more and more new restaurants are appearing with bold, kitsch wall art and interior décor crying out to be photographed. And this isn't an accident; like many other new spaces worldwide, when Madelyn Markoe and Jessie Barker launched their Media Noche restaurant in San Francisco, they instructed the designer simply to make it ‘Instagrammable’. A wall covered in banana print, some decorative floor tiles and a large flamingo mural transformed the space into Insta-heaven. One year later, at the time of writing, most of the top posts geotagged to the restaurant focus on the interiors rather than the food.

But it’s not just minor decorative elements that are being chosen to fit this bill. A recent article by London-based architect Farshid Moussavi revealed that creating Instagram moments has now become part of architectural briefs. Her studio, Moussavi says, has been instructed to create shareable features in buildings. This feels like a shift in the fundamental fabric of creativity – where Gaudi was inspired by form in nature, Zaha Hadid by abstract notions of movement and local landscapes, will a new generation of architects be bound by briefs that inspire hashtags?

And people aren’t just happening upon these places – they’re seeking them out. Instagram (and social media more broadly) has had an effect on the things we travel to see, not just in our own cities, but in our trips abroad. For years, we’ve talked about millennials looking for experiences off the beaten track, moving away from tick box sightseeing and tourist honeypots.

Yet now the pendulum seems to be swinging back the other way – lots of us have just found new honeypots. Beco de Batman in São Paulo is a haven for graffiti artists – a canvas of constantly changing local art. Now, it’s a backdrop for Insta snaps and undoubtedly one of the reasons São Paulo reached #4 of the most Instagrammed cities in the world in 2017.

The question is, what is the value of first-hand experience in all this? Has seeking out shareable photo opportunities become more important than actually experiencing that place? Amsterdam’s giant ‘IAmsterdam’ letters have been successful in generating free publicity and luring tourists to the city’s museums (or at least to their grounds). Aside from the permanent airport and Rijksmuseum sign fixtures, a third sign moves to different central hotspots month-to-month, as if encouraging tourists to linger in new parts of the city via the promise of a shareable photo. The hashtag has well over 1m posts to-date; but are people actually taking note of the sign’s new environs, or just seeing the sign but with an inicidental new background? Do shareable buildings and moveable signs undermine the cultural experience of a place?  

It seems that while millennials are associated with being less materialistic and more focused on experiences, this pressure to flaunt ‘experiences’ in the form of shareable, aesthetically pleasing content has become a new form of materialism, in many ways just as superficial. But what does that mean for brands, tourist boards and restauranteurs across the world, looking for consumers to interact with the brand and create free publicity?

It all comes back to authenticity. When the hype subsides, hollow experiences will give way to experiences with enough substance to weather the storm and inspire repeat visits: the freakshake that tastes as good as it looks, the restaurant that has a compelling story behind its design (as well as good food), the building that reflects local craftsmanship and tradition. All these can still be irresistibly Instagrammable, but will above all need to be meaningful experiences if they’re to draw people back.

Emily Sheen, Flamingo