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Instagram City

The social-media obsession with showing off is making its way to urban storefronts. August 15, 2018
Technology and Innovation
Cities

New York City’s Egg House is a peculiar place. For $18, guests can obtain entrance and enjoy the “instagrammable photo opportunities.” Outside, the yolk-tinted “pop-up” storefront is immediately arresting; inside, guests pose with enormous egg cartons and wade into pools filled with white and yellow plastic balls. Cities across the U.S. are increasingly playing host to such pop-up stores, where, for up to $45, customers can pose for and take pictures for Instagram. Buttressed by slick marketing campaigns showing troupes of young Instagram stars posing with novelty features, these new establishments are harnessing the millennial yearning to differentiate.

The surreal, eclectic, consciously unserious installation art featured at these venues is typically interactive and bathed in gaudy, honeyed colors, tailored to catch the eye of someone scrolling through an Instagram feed. Often, the pop-ups bear positive messages tailored to lifting up—some would say infantilizing—the millennial ego. Hence the store called Happy Place (141,000 Instagram followers), which opened in Los Angeles, moved to Chicago, and will decamp to another city soon. It features an adult ball pit and a yellow bathtub surrounded by yellow rubber duckies.

In others, the art veers into political causes. The Museum of Illusions in Los Angeles (47,000 Instagram followers), for example, lets the woke millennial pose as if punching President Trump. In Chicago, 29 Rooms (110,000 Instagram followers) features an exhibit dedicated to “smashing the stigma around emergency contraception” and a room with a giant neon “I Stand With Planned Parenthood” sign. 

The pop-ups’ style of self-aggrandizement isn’t new. The selfie has enjoyed its cultural moment since camera phones made every minute of daily life recordable. What is new, though, in the pop-ups is the existence of expensive stores dedicated exclusively to staging self-portraits for social media.

These stores reflect deeper instincts driving urban millennials, for whom social media plays an increasing role in conferring social status. Instagram has become a point of cultural cachet, whereby status can be measured by follower count and the glamor of one’s photo stream. The frenzy reached a new peak in June, with the unveiling of a Los Angeles mural to which access is restricted: only those with more than 20,000 Instagram followers can take a picture in front of it. A security guard is on hand to enforce the rule and keep the unfollowed at a distance.

The competitive desire for social status dovetails with an intense need to be special. Ayn Rand once stated that she would “give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline . . . What other religion do we need?” Now, common cityscapes simply aren’t enough; the beautiful loses its beauty if it has been photographed too often or if others can readily pose with it. Thus, the need for Insta-stores, which reflect an increasingly self-indulgent mass culture. Popular music is reflecting these changes, as seen with hits like The Chainsmokers’ #Selfie, and lyrics from Drake’s new song “Emotionless,” where he raps, “I know a girl whose one goal was to visit Rome/Then she finally got to Rome/And all she did was post pictures for people at home/’Cause all that mattered was impressin’ everybody she’s known.”

In his new book Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen suggests that one of liberalism’s flaws is its implicit elevation of individualism over man’s communal tendencies. The self becomes the prized end. For today’s increasingly secular millennials, disconnected from the mediating institutions that previously conferred social connections and a sense of purpose, meaning is more often found through one’s ability to portray difference and uniqueness. The resulting anxious scramble for social capital and self-worth has thus found expression in, among other things, giant eggs and garish bathtubs.

Time will tell whether Instagram hot spots prove to be a fad or a fixture in the urban landscape, dotting major American cities and becoming tourist attractions and cultural touch points among the young. Like $15 avocado toast, these new monuments to self-indulgent urban excess are expressions of a millennial cohort that, beneath its exuberance, is paying the dues of modern secular anomie.

Photo Courtesy of the Egg House

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