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The Instagram effect

What happens when a quiet London street is overrun by Instagram influencers? Chris Stokel-Walker reports 

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Elder Street in London
Elder Street in London

The unprepossessing cobbles of London’s Elder Street are a hidden haven. Just a few minutes’ walk from the capital’s trendy Shoreditch High Street and tucked away behind Old Spitalfields Market, the street is little more than 100 metres long.


It’s a tight canyon of cobbles, surrounded by three- or four-storey terraced houses of residents and the occasional office. The parking bays that line the eastern edge of the road are filled with a hodge-podge of vehicles, including Jaguars and a mint green vintage car with a soft top roof, transplanted from the 1950s. 


It’s a picturesque example of English design mastery: weathered brick buildings with gorgeous frontages and original, twelve-paned windows provide the perfect backdrop for selfies. Extravagant doors – some worn down to a quirky patina with the ravages of time and the elements – are framed by classical-looking colonnades on either side of the lintel. Finely-tended foliage creeps up and around some of the doorways, providing a stark contrast for anyone seeking the perfect photo.


Little wonder, then, that this small stretch of road is a haven for Instagrammers.


“We’ve been in the office here for seven or eight years, before Instagram was ever even popular,” explains Victoria Buchanan, who works at The Future Laboratory, based on Elder Street. In that time, Elder Street has transformed from a quiet street for businesses and residents to a backdrop for Instagram influencers looking to take photographs for their social media feeds.


The Instagrammers are, at best, an inconvenience and at worst, an intrusion


It’s caused friction in the local community, with the Instagram interlopers clogging up pavements and making residents feel trapped in their homes. And while it’s at best an inconvenience for those on Elder Street and at worst an intrusion, for Joanne Orlando, a researcher in technology and learning at Western Sydney University, it’s absolutely fascinating. “This is just an interesting example of how digital and real life are blurring, and the digital equivalent to the real.”


There is a marked shift in priorities between digital-first and real-life-first, says Orlando. “It turns the private residential street, which is very pretty, and shapes it into a more commercial space. That’s what happens. It changes the rules of how you interact. For the people trying to capture the shot, whoever is trying to capture the image, the more commercial the space, the more you consider it your own and can do what you want.”


Quiet Elder Street has become an Instagram hotspot
Quiet Elder Street has become an Instagram hotspot


It’s part of an evolution from graffiti, reckons Orlando. “This is a way of intruding or making our mark in and on spaces,” she says. “The modern day version is using the space to take the perfect Instagram shot. And because everyone wants to be creative and take an innovative photo, the ways they intrude on the environment is varied and widespread.”


It’s the opposite of the old approach of taking your shoes off when entering someone’s home – a sign of respect for their property. Because the space has been co-opted into public use, it’s no longer seen as necessary to care for those who live there. And it’s tied to graffiti in more than one way. Socially acceptable “street art” often provides a stark background for people to take amazing Instagram images. A well-drafted mural can put the exclamation point on a perfect selfie – meaning anywhere that attempts to beautify their neighbourhood runs the risk of not just improving their area for themselves, but attracting others like moths to a flame.


Rue Cremieux in Paris has been overtaken by yogis perfecting poses against the door-jambs and influencers pouting and preening


The issue is not just a problem in this part of London. Anywhere you can find a picturesque backdrop, there are new forays between residents who tend to the area and those who want to capitalise on it for their digital social gain.


Across the city in Notting Hill, residents have approached the press to plead for clemency from the onslaught of influencers clambering over their fences and sitting on their doorsteps. Manchester’s Northern Quarter is teeming with would-be influencers looking to get the right aesthetic alongside its collection of hipster-friendly shops and cafes, while Bristol’s famous murals act as a site for influencers to congregate – even if it’s in the middle of a residential area.


In Paris, residents have banded together to tackle what they see as the blight of social media fame seekers who clog up their streets. Rue Cremieux, whose homes are painted in a kaleidoscope of colours and whose residents take pride in their perfect windowboxes, has been overtaken by dance troupes recording music videos in the street, yogis perfecting poses against the jambs of doorframes and influencers pouting and preening. A resident has even set up an Instagram account to capture the most egregious behavior by temporary visitors to the street. 


The residents of Rue Cremieux in Paris say Instagrammers make a mess
The residents of Rue Cremieux in Paris say Instagrammers make a mess
Manchester's Northern Quarter is another Instagram backdrop
Manchester's Northern Quarter is another Instagram backdrop


Those seeking the perfect photo aren’t just harming the residents whose daily lives they intrude into. Increasingly they’re so focused on getting the ideal shot that they’re putting themselves in harm’s way. Academic researchers at Indian and American universities catalogued at least 127 deaths attributed to selfie-taking in a two-and-a-half year period from March 2014; vehicles are the sixth-most potent factor in causing harm in selfies, with falls from heights and into water the two most precarious causes of issues.


The reason why Instagrammers and influencers starting to transform public spaces is hitting the headlines is due to the relative newness of the notion. “We are still working out our relationship with technology and how to live well with it,” says Orlando.


There’s a larger benefit to prettier places than a picturesque backdrop in promoting wellbeing. Research conducted by Chanuki Illushka Seresinhe of the University of Warwick shows that living in areas deemed more scenic and beautiful resulted in better reported health. “I also found that people do report more happiness when they visit more beautiful areas,” she says. “This is after taking into account other factors like income and air pollution, and things like that.”


Identikit buildings aren’t intriguing. It’s the sort of thing that we stroll past in real life, and scroll past on Instagram. But add character and suddenly we’ll stop and pay attention


Seresinhe’s research is based on an analysis of images submitted to crowdsourced rating website Scenicornot using deep learning to analyse more than 200,000 images to find out what is attractive about a place. The most common contributors to a place’s beauty were what you’d expect – trees, canals and brilliant mountains all factored highly – but then there were distinctions as to what made an urban environment beautiful or not. Key amongst them: the character of the buildings in a city. Identikit buildings weren’t seen as that intriguing for a passerby. It’s the sort of thing that we stroll past in real life, and scroll past on Instagram. But add character: an unexpected paint-job here, a quirky weathered surface there, and suddenly we’ll stop and pay attention.


The same is true with the frontages of those buildings. “We do find of course that active frontage is linked with more beauty than blank frontage,” says Seresinhe. “Active” frontages include windows and doors; blank frontages are simply plain walls. “It’s intuitive, but that’s where we want to go: to define things that make sense in urban design attributes,” she says.


Seresinhe’s worry is that the byproduct of beautiful cities – the steady stream of social media – becomes the main purpose of future city design


Seresinhe’s worry is that the byproduct of beautiful cities – the steady stream of social media stars looking to visit for their own snapshot – becomes the main purpose of future city design. It’s essentially putting the cart before the horse, and designing cities for interlopers looking for some impermanent digital memory rather than the permanent residents looking to set up a home there.


“People love to post pictures of beautiful cities and I can see how making an Instagrammable city would be appealing because it would attract visitors,” says Seresinhe. “But there’s a danger as well. I like looking at beautiful places where it’s connected to well-being. I think that’s important. You can make something beautiful but if it’s a bit flashy, it might not necessarily be a place where people actually feel some kind of long-term benefit.”


Bristol graffiti has its own hashtag
Bristol graffiti has its own hashtag
Notting Hill on Instagram
Notting Hill on Instagram


It’s the same worry that Buchanan holds about the future of Elder Street. “There are four of five people a day, often on people’s doorstops, standing in the doorways, leaning on people’s cars,” she explains. “That’s the thing I always find a bit odd. When you’re getting onto people’s property, that can show a lack of respect for the fact that people actually live there.”


That can make the residents feel like exhibits at well-dressed zoo, or spark other worries. Residents can find it difficult to tell the difference between an Instagram interloper hanging around their doorstep and a burglar looking to case their home.


If not threatening, it can be annoying. Nomadic visitors to Elder Street taking photographs are more likely, in Buchanan’s experience, to leave behind rubbish behind after their photoshoot because they don’t live there day-to-day. It’s a problem that has plagued other Insta-famous areas, including Notting Hill, where Instagrammers can deluge the streets on professional shoots that can last hours on the doorsteps of local residents.


“You have all these random people and think where have they all come from? They’re not really invested in the community”


Buchanan often finds herself asking a question as she walks past people preening for the perfect selfie as she tries to get to her workplace. “There’s something about the new world and the old world, and should they really be colliding? Maybe that’s a little old fashioned of me, but you just want to keep it as a place for people to enjoy rather than having all these people you have to assault-course past to get to the office.”


It’s a concern she has – and one that she fears is growing. As a result, she feels protective of the space in which she works. Her fears reached their zenith a week before we spoke, when she encountered a photoshoot just yards from her office of a young woman posing with a dog. “You’re kind of like: ‘What is this really adding to the creative view of the world?’. Our streets are starting to become this slave to the spectacle and a backdrop to the selfie, so that has made it where I feel a bit like, ‘2019, what are we creating here?’”


Buchanan feels a stranger in her own street. “I think everyone wants to feel their space is theirs. We host rooftop parties and want people to meet and talk. And there’s this disconnect where you have all these random people and think where have they all come from? They’re not really invested in the community in a bigger sense.”


“Our streets are slave to spectacle and backdrops to the selfie... ‘2019, what are we creating here?’”


Parisians have pondered walling off their homes and barricading the streets they live in to stop people looking for a quick Insta snap from intruding on their personal, private space. But that’s not necessarily sustainable, and is drastic action caused by severe discomfort. It’s still early stages in the process of figuring out what is private and what is public in the lens of Instagram’s eye – and debate is needed, believes Orlando, to draw up new rules. “Possibly not all public spaces cannot be used freely for photography in the future,” she says. “Maybe it’s only selected spaces, so as the ensure we protect and retain control over our physical environment.”


Other methods could include curfews and nudges to remind those who enter the areas that they should consider the needs of people who live there as well as their own pursuit of the perfect photo. Venetians, in their own way, have long been conditioning tourists to remind them that the city they’re so enamoured with is not a living, breathing theme park: they’ll barge through staged photos and shunt tourists out of the way if they walk too slowly.


Still, we shouldn’t worry too much about the fear of being trapped in our own homes and subjects of a billion Instagram photos. “I think the online space will continue to change,” says Orlando. Children nowadays take an average of 300 photos on Snapchat every day – on top of their Instagram missives. “They may possibly be suffering photo fatigue by the time they reach adulthood.”


The impact of technology on place will be discussed at the Festival of Place where Chanuki Illushka Seresinhe will present her research. Tickets cost £495. 


Tickets to the Festival of Place are on sale now


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