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Made-for-Instagram: Can pop-ups engineered for social be more than selfie factories?

By Heliz Mazouri / August 20, 2018

The Museum of Ice Cream started it all.

Perhaps not the first of its kind, but certainly the museum experience that fueled a trend and introduced the public to the concept of ‘made-for-instagram’. Opened in New York in 2016, it was an instant hit. (Insta-hit?…. I’m so sorry.)

It took no time at all for a barrage of perfectly curated photos and videos to inundate our social feeds—pepto-bismol pink rooms with ice cream cones hanging like pendant lights and boomerangs of people swimming through pools of rainbow sprinkles captivated us. By sheer fear of missing out, you wanted to experience whatever lollipop, Willy Wonka fantasy these people were sharing.

This sort of aspirational content used to be reserved for lifestyle bloggers and Instagram models. But making these photogenic spaces accessible to the general public—where everyone is encouraged to capture the best photos they can—makes us all content creators. And brands want in on that.

I’m the exact demographic these spaces are popping up for—i’m a Millennial, I’m an Instagram purist and i’m eager to share some vaguely curated bits of my life with the world.

But i’m also a (healthy) skeptic. Sometimes I question the superficiality of a culture driven by Instagram likes. But at the end of the day, I’m a willing participant in all of it and buy tickets to made-for-social playhouses like any other red-blooded American.

As Instagram-worthy spectacle exhibitions like this gain a new dimension with the aid of social, brands are getting involved. But to do this successfully they have to cut through the superficiality and elevate the experience people are beginning to refer to as “selfie factories.”

Happy Place

Until recently, pop-ups like these seemed to only exist on either coast. Between San Francisco, LA and New York, the midwest had been a fairly “ungrammable” no man’s land.

That’s why when I came across the vividly, almost obnoxiously happy, scroll-stopping photos a Chicago friend posted from a geotag labeled, “HAPPY PLACE,” I immediately called my sister and recruited her to check it out with me.

“What is it?”

As a non-heavy social user, my sister wasn’t aware of Happy Place or spaces like it. So I sent her a news segment showcasing the Museum of Ice Cream, thinking it would click for her then and suddenly she’d be thrilled to go and capture snapshots of us together in a whimsical space that we could remember forever.

It didn’t click.

I suppose I couldn’t blame her. As someone who wasn’t active on Instagram, this phenomena of people paying to take pictures solely for the purpose of garnering affirmations in the form of likes was completely outside my sister’s grasp.

But I wanted the affirmation likes. So I dragged her with me despite the lack of enthusiasm.

It would still be fun, right? I mean, it’s Happy Place.

Doing it for the ‘gram

My sister’s lack of interest didn’t matter to me. I was set on making her my personal photographer for the day. Because curating our lives for social isn’t something we hide anymore.

It’s become a universal truth that what we share on the internet is the best version of ourselves and our lives that we can filter into existence. We don’t envy whether or not others have better lives than us, we’re envious when people’s lives look better.

There’s something to be suggested here about the relationship between ephemeral consumerism and instant social gratification. We’re so swept up in aesthetics that’ll earn us likes, we tend not to think twice about buying a new outfit for just the right vibe in a photo we plan to post, or hiring photographers to create content that captures our best selves, our “brand.”

Or, in this case, buying a $35 ticket to a pop-up to set-up DIY photo shoots that may or may not result in “good enough” photos to share.

It’s about creating an illusion, an illusion that we buy into despite being aware that it’s, well, an illusion. It’s that cross-section of aspiration and insecurity that these pop-ups live in.

We “do it for the ‘gram”, so it doesn’t phase us if these exhibits aire on the side of fleeting and meaningless. Getting a shot that makes our lives look enviable even for a moment is now interchangeable with having a good time.

When describing my weekend plans for Happy Place to coworkers I was met with more than a few quirked brows. Which is particularly notable when you consider we work for a social media management brand.

“It’s a bunch of Instagram backdrops!” a coworker exclaimed from across the room when she overheard me struggling to explain the concept.

Well, she wasn’t wrong.

Oh, the humanity

These spaces erected to cater to a culture obsessively chasing insta-affirmations are missing something.

Happy Place was a little rough around the edges, but that doesn’t matter in a 1:1 photo and the space clearly capitalizes on that. Every single room was built with sharing in mind—vivid colors, cool patterns, mirrors and some moving parts—think streamers and disco lights to pop out from behind on an infinite boomerang loop.

What you don’t see on social media are the dirty concrete floors, fluorescent lights, the exposed scaffolding just out of frame and the stifling heat inside a West Town warehouse.

You also don’t see the long lines or the huddles of people scattered in corners, heads down over their respective phone screens. Not a word exchanged between them, save for the occasional, “How’s this caption?”

Being in a room full of people absorbed in their phones, hardly interacting with the “interactive space” around them didn’t feel happy. It felt palpably unhappy. And the instant gratification we’re used to from social likes and comments and shares isn’t enough of a reward to make us forget how lonely it felt to earn that like. (Perhaps disregard in the moment, but not forget.)

I felt misled on the “interactive” element so far. Each of these made-for-instagram pop-ups, (including Happy Place) is advertised as an “interactive” experience. But the most notable thing about the experience is the lack of interaction. And I think that’s exactly what these spaces need in order to succeed as an immersive, experiential moment.

This made me question if the other pop-ups that I hadn’t yet had the pleasure of visiting (but have admittedly salivated over on the ‘gram) weren’t all they’re hyped up to be. That maybe it wasn’t this pop-up that was lacking, but maybe all pop-ups are lacking. Maybe this concept we thought we loved is flawed.

Digital media brand Refinery29 fared slightly better in meeting the high mark for “interactive” with the launch of their own pop-up museum, 29Rooms.

Originally a kick-off party for New York Fashion Week, now turned ticketed event, the expansive pop-up includes installations from contemporary artists, brands and even celebrities.

Most rooms contained interactive elements, like Emma Roberts’ room, inspired by her Belletrist book club. The room featured a life-size typewriter that visitors could walk across and journals attached to the walls where people were encouraged to fill in their own stories.

The involvement of artists and real art installations makes the concept feel less like the pop-up is copping the term “museum” and more like the pop-up is iterating off the term “museum” for today’s digitally-driven generation.

Experiential brand extension

Museums and art exhibits aren’t designed for social media, understandably. But the raving social success of exhibits like Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms demonstrated a hunger for these types of exhibits. In some cities, people waited in line for as long as four hours for their chance to get a photo inside Kusama’s famous mirror room. To some, it proved there was a market waiting to be served.

“I was noticing that exhibitions like Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Fireflies on the Water’ were all of a sudden garnering these big crowds,” Piera Gelardi, the Executive Creative Director and co-founder of Refinery29, told Wired. “I thought that was an interesting opportunity for us to expose people to new types of artwork and concepts, but also create a space in which they could kind of be the star of the show.”

The goals of these spaces vary. Artists, and the museums that host their work, exist to provoke thought, ask questions, explore materials and moods. While the aims of installations like those at Museum of Ice Cream or 29Rooms are a little more complicated by commercialism.

The New York version of the Museum of Ice Cream was supported by 30 corporate sponsors, including Dove, Fox, and Dylan’s Candy Bar. In the room “Tinderland,” sponsored by dating app Tinder, visitors could sit on an ice cream sandwich swing made for two and use an app to find their “true flavor match.”

Seven of the rooms in Refinery 29’s 29Rooms are sponsored by brands—including a runway sponsored by Aldo, where visitors can practice their model strut underneath an arch decorated with shoes.

The degree to which these brands impact the experience differs by city, but the existence of brand sponsorships changes the meaning of these spaces, and the reason they exist at all.

For these manufactured experiences to work you can’t gloss over the thing that makes them more than a bunch of Instagram backdrops: interaction. These exhibits need immersive, sensory elements so there’s more of a goal than to simply take a photo.

Museum of Ice Cream’s way of curbing this disconnect was by investing in the space architecturally. Thinking outside the 1:1 box, the pop-up created a multi-level, city-specific experience. Each room takes up an entire floor—clean, intelligently-designed and hardly any scaffolding in sight.

It’s easy to scoff at the Insta share-fest, but for all parties involved, it’s proving to work out. Refinery29 reported that with the all the sharing during the three-day run of their pop-up in 2016, one in two Instagram users saw some aspect of the rooms. As far as advertising, or even self-promotion goes, that kind of organic, user-generated exposure is bar-none.

More than a selfie

So 29Rooms and Museum of Ice Cream attempted to prove that these pop-ups are more than social impressions and pretty photos. They’re capable of—and should—foster interaction.

Imagine if the goal of the space stretched beyond taking a great selfie and instead was to create something in response to the art, perhaps? You have to ask, why aren’t these things designed in a way to make us interact with each other or the experience around us? Why is our Instagram feed a bigger priority than the moment itself?

Luckily these places haven’t just resulted in pretty tagged photos, they’ve sparked conversation. Being a fly on the wall of those social conversations can help in finding a path with pop-up museums that feels more meaningful to people. The more of these spots that pop-up, the clearer idea visitors have of what they want out of the experience.

Leveraging social tools like listening means you can tap into the evolving needs of visitors, both current and potential, learning exactly what they’re getting out of a brand’s presence in the space or what they feel like they’re missing.

In 2015, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam banned cameras as part of a campaign called #StartDrawing. The museum encouraged guests to sketch rather than snap pictures of its works of art in an effort to keep the institution from devolving to a “passive, superficial experience.

Rijksmuseum handed out sketchbooks and pencils to visitors and used platforms like Twitter and Instagram to spread the word. But the primary aim was to get guests to unplug in order to fully connect to the art and the moment.

And people seemed to appreciate it, sending their praise through Twitter.

A lot of these alternative pop-ups are created with photo-taking in mind, so a no-photo stance may not be the best solution here. But the idea of making the snapshots the cherry on top rather than the whole sundae—and meeting the public on social to listen to what they have to say—can keep you from churning out or being a part of a half-baked experience.

Pure, unadulterated, absolutely curated fun

Leaving Happy Place, I perused the #WeAreHappyPlace hashtag on Instagram to see the photos others got that day.

Just as I suspected, perfectly curated, VSCO-edited content. These familiar faces all looked so happy, like they were having the most fun. For a moment, looking at the photos even made me jealous.

I was there! I did everything they did and witnessed the distinct lack of fun it took to capture some of these blissful shots. I still felt a pang of jealousy.

Scrolling through the photos in my own camera roll, hoping for better shots, I asked, “Did I not have as much fun? Can I even say I had fun if I don’t have the photos to prove it?

Maybe the #WeAreHappyPlace snapshot of a woman in a giant confetti bubble looks effortless and pure and joyful. But I know for a fact that woman was in there for several labor-intensive minutes, taking shot after shot to make it so. The smiles didn’t last longer than the shutter.

In striving for authenticity on social, we’re actually presenting the complete opposite. And we shouldn’t be blind to that because at the end of the day social media can disappear, but the value of human interaction and connection never will.

I thought all I ever wanted was to be surrounded by people who ‘grammed with a sense of shamelessness.

I love Instagram for being a platform that opens up my world and allows me to open up the world of others in some small capacity. I’m happy to share pieces of life through my own lens, curated or not, and see that resonate with people. It’s the same satisfaction I get as a writer—threading hard-to-articulate experiences into words that paint a picture.

Maybe the question was never what the relationship of these spaces to social media says, but instead, what do we get out of these spaces? Do they make us think, reflect and see the world differently like a traditional museum does? Or does the experience inside amount to a 1:1 square on your Instagram page and end there?

In the end, i’m glad I went to Happy Place. I have conflicting feelings about what spaces like this are trying to accomplish and the ripple effect it has on the way we live our lives through social. But when done right, we’re able to see the collaborative nature and fresh perspectives they offer.

By working with a diverse range of artists and brands alike and investing in the space itself, places like these can create installations that play with all the senses and ultimately foster connection. In some cases, the museums themselves can even establish their own identity and brand outside the pop-up, like Museum of Ice Cream has with their own pints at Target.

Selfie-centric destinations.

Millennial influencer houses.

A bunch of instagram backdrops.

Whatever you want to call them……

These pop-ups exist for a reason. They’re the byproduct of, and a testament to, a culture that demanded it. Instead of disregarding them, we’d be better to have our fun and make it mean something. The goal can’t just be to go from room to room, chasing the perfect “candid.” There must be thoughtfulness from every brand, artist and visitor involved.

As I write this, I’m scrolling past ads for a brand new new pop-up coming to Chicago called wndr museum. “Where beauty meets imagination” their site proclaims.

With promises of an experience that brings art and science together, I put my name in for pre-sale tickets. (this time my sister isn’t invited.)

Heliz Mazouri

Heliz Mazouri

Heliz is a staff writer for Adapt by Sprout Social. Prior to joining the tech industry, she developed content for scrappy start-ups to behemoth Fortune 500’s, to international media outlets. When she’s not seeking compelling stories to tell about social, she’s seeking compelling conversation and a coffee.
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