In May and June 2022, stories about Binley Mega Chippy becoming a TikTok and a “viral” sensation started circulating in the British media. Binley Mega Chippy is a fairly typical takeaway restaurant on the outskirts of the city of Coventry, a part of the UK long stigmatised as unattractive and often imagined as the polar opposite of the glamorous and trendy eateries which are typically associated with successful viral marketing. It seems probable that it was this very “everydayness” of the restaurant as a site of viral sensation which in turn made it a site of spectacle worthy of greater attention.
A song which satirised Binley Mega Chippy began to circulate as a meme on TikTok. Viewers of this meme began to visit the site of the chippy itself, producing their own photos and videos through which they shared the meme and produced its further replication. This viral attention produced a feedback loop operating according to a circular logic: a site made strange and remarkable because it is the focus of media attention, becomes as a result the focus of greater media attention. A ready analogy might be “the most photographed barn in America” mentioned in Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) — a site which is deemed spectacular because it is (for somewhat obscure reasons) already treated as a spectacle. This was a comparison made explicitly by several participants in a workshop we held to discuss the phenomenon of the urban-digital spectacle in summer 2022, which formed the basis for this dossier nearly a year later.
Such an inversion of what we might imagine to be the typical logic of the attention economy of social media reflects a broader trend we identified in a recent publication in Mediapolis on the emergence of a new direction in urban-digital spectacular media. Drawing on the example of wanghong urbanism in contemporary China, we argue that we are witnessing a trend of extensive social media attention focusing on cities on the periphery of national and global imaginaries of modern urban life (typically not those cities characterised as Global Cities or World Cities). These sites can emerge as spectacles precisely because they are seen to offer “alterity” in comparison to the typical aspirational hallmarks of urban life and viral marketing. However, attention must be paid to the ways in which this sense of alterity and spectacle is produced, emerging out of dynamics which can be quite accidental, designed as exemplary, or intentionally fostered for commercial reasons.
Importantly, regardless of the origin of the production of these spectacles, their truly viral dynamics can produce unintended consequences. In the examples we discuss from China, increased numbers of visitors have disrupted life for local residents in a variety of ways, and created secondary economies of “checking in” to such sites, queueing for entrance, or providing assistance in curating desirable photos and videos. While the consequences of viral fame have not been so severe for Binley Mega Chippy, there are comparable examples of viral fame elsewhere in the UK where the creation of spectacle out of everyday infrastructure has had effects beyond disrupting everyday life.
The contributions assembled in this dossier demonstrate that the complex politics of urban-digital spectacle is not a phenomenon tied discretely to China or social media spaces, but one which is apparent in a wide variety of global sites and urban-digital dynamics. They show how the digital—whether in the forms of social media spaces and technologies, algorithmic sorting, and (e)commercial logics, or as infrastructure and means of visualising a future— is influencing how the urban is produced, consumed, understood, known about, and engaged with. The central role of social media and similar online platforms in today’s urban-digital spectacle is obvious in the contributions. Petter Törnberg highlights how social media attention playing an important role in shaping business decisions in the hospitality industry in São Paulo, while Kath Bassett elaborates how locative platforms (such as TripAdvisor) affect the practices of tourism industry and create urban-digital spectacle in Edinburgh. Focusing on the phenomenon of wanghong urbanism in China, Chensi Shen discusses the social and cultural landscape, against a particular built environment, created by wanghong economy in Shanghai, while Antonie Angerer examines the convergence of the creators and consumers of urban-digital spectacle as part of a large scale urbanisation project at Xiongan New Area. However, the contributions to this dossier also remind us that urban-digital spectacle goes beyond the interaction between social media spaces and urban spaces. Digital rendering of a spectacular future for African cities, as Kola Heyward-Rotimi discusses in his piece, carries strong political and economic power in shaping urban space, with material implications for ordinary residents. Drawing on her practice as an architect, Anna Liu considers the potential for design projects, whether experienced in-situ or as digital landmarks, to generate environmental consciousness. Lastly, Monica Degen and Gillian Rose emphasise that it is the sensory experience created by different types of digital infrastructure and urban technologies that requires more attention, whether it may be deemed spectacular or not. By drawing together a diverse set of disciplinary and geographically located perspectives, this dossier illustrates how different sites of spectacle are co-produced between urban and digital dynamics.
Amy Y. Zhang is a Lecturer in Urban Planning at the Department of Planning and Environmental Management in the School of Environment, Education and Development, The University of Manchester. Her research focuses on urban politics and governance, urban knowledge and policy mobilities, postcolonial urban theory, and state-society relations of China. Her current and previous work has looked into urban political economy of arts and creativity as well as land commodification in Chinese cities, and has appeared in Urban Geography, Urban Studies, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, and Geoforum.
Asa Roast is a Lecturer in Urban Geography at the School of Geography in the University of Leeds. His research chiefly focuses on urban transformations in China, with an emphasis on housing, informality, verticality and urban agriculture in the city of Chongqing, alongside a wider range of research interests in urban theory, displacement and games. His research has been published in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Urban Studies, Annals of American Association of Geographers and Verge: Studies in Global Asia.
Carwyn Morris is a University Lecturer of Digital China at the Leiden Institute of Area Studies, Leiden University. His research examines the spatialization of digital relations, including digital displacement, digital territorialization projects, digital mobilities, and internet celebrity urbanisms. His work has appeared in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Mobility, Made in China, and The China Quarterly.