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Rise of the Instagram City

Cities have become obsessed with going viral.
January 3, 2018, 7am PST | Elana Eden
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James Brasuell

If you want to test your city's brand power—that is, its tourism appeal—try searching its name on Instagram. Social media impressions have become a valuable currency for cities seeking to beef up their tourism economies, and to build this particular form of marketing clout, many major cities are investing heavily in outsized, iconic displays designed to function as the perfect backdrop for highly shareable selfies.

"In urban space, our desire to photograph and share virtually everything has spawned a new genre of urban pleasure grounds. They specialize in Instagram bait, a hybrid of ultra-popular immersive art … and increasingly ubiquitous brand activations," Benjamin Schneider writes in CityLab. "These social factories, as they might be called, tone down the art and branding aspects, leaving their social media appeal to do the heavy lifting."

Schneider's definition is part of CityLab's tongue-in-cheek "guide to the #GrammableCity," a collaborative analysis of the photo-friendly public art trends cities are adopting to drum up social media attention and attract ever more tourists. (Among the more fashionable choices: larger-than-life letter sculptures, faux street art in rainbow palettes, and ubiquitous decorative lights.) The writers also explore the phenomenon's broader implications for art, civic institutions, and infrastructure: Cities' obsession with social media tourism, Kriston Capps writes, has grown to the point that some have eschewed crucial city lifelines in favor of flashy new visuals—as when New York chose to outfit MTA bridges with LEDs over funding basic repairs to the crumbling system.

The civic craze over easily replicable, eminently consumable "Instagram bait" isn't likely to wind down in the near future, CityLab authors agree. Rather, as Schneider writes, "Every part of the real world stands to be 'socialized.'"

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Published on Friday, December 29, 2017 in CityLab
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