When a London-based architecture collective began erecting a building in their Stratford front yard in 2014, little did they know that they were about to create a global social media sensation. The building was made with a simple timber frame and inexpensive mass-produced material with the intention of serving as a cheap temporary workshop for local artists. However, the artists — being artists — could not resist adding at least a modicum of flair: they covered the façade with a gradient of pastel colors, giving it a faint resemblance to the scales of some tropical fish.
Some months later, the architects noticed a small trickle of people who would occasionally wander into their yard, and get their photograph taken in front of the building. Over time, the slow trickle grew into a steady stream of selfie-stick wielding visitors. Visitors started showing up from all over the world — engaging in synchronized jumping, handstands, and impressive yoga poses with the workshop fish wall as the backdrop. The architects had not intended to lure people to the backlands of East London, but they had accidentally stumbled upon the perfect Instagram fly trap: a wall that met all the criteria of the aesthetics that work well and stand out on the app.
Every social media platform has its own type of content that “works”: content that is more likely to become visible, highlighted, and to go viral.1Petter Törnberg and Justus Uitermark, “Urban Mediatization and Planetary Gentrification: The Rise and Fall of a Favela across Media Platforms,” City & Community 24, no. 4 (2022), https://doi.org/10.1177/15356841211068521 On Instagram, it tends to be things with bright, muted colors and simple patterns — just what the fish scale wall offered. Twitter, in comparison, has a flair for the unexpected, conflictual, and clever. YouTube likes loud and fast-paced personalities in extreme and outrageous surroundings. These logics are in part produced by the platforms’ interface designs, but they are also a question of the cultures that over time emerge through the agency of users, communities, and creators. While each platform has its own preferences and peculiarities, some commonalities can be found across most platforms: nearly all tend to prefer the unexpected, loud, and surprising — their timelines presenting the world as a constant flow of novelty that encourages the type of engagement from which platforms draw their revenue.
As media and urban scholars have observed, these media biases filter and refract the world they represent. Through Instagram, the city is represented as “an indeterminable stream of peak moments [from the] happy, healthy and hip”.2John D. Boy and Justus Uitermark, “Reassembling the City through Instagram,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 2017, 617, https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12185 Social media highlight aspects of the city that work well on the platform, while concealing things that do not. While the hipster aesthetics of the newly arrived gentrifier tend to become highly visible, the communities that they replace are often less likely to be widely seen.
Growing literatures on the “media city”, “digital city”, “mediatized city”, “platform urbanism” and “wanghong urbanism” have highlighted how this affects the very stuff of which the city is made: media do not only represent social realities but become inextricably part of them. The city itself becomes a media phenomenon – in which places and communities can “go viral” and become wanghong, as platforms tend to generate highly uneven distributions of attention and revenue.3Amy Yueming Zhang, Asa Roast, and Carwyn Morris, “Wanghong Urbanism: Towards a New Urban-Digital Spectacle,” Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no.4 (November 2022). As a result, certain places and communities are flooded with visitors, while others are left forgotten as an inadvertent effect of how well they happen to fit the idiosyncrasies of the media platforms’ logics.
In my ongoing research project, I build on this rich research field, but I shift the focus to the question of how the city responds to these new logics and biases: how the investors with the power to shape the built environment take into account social media’s biases in their designs and planning. As part of my recent work, I have interviewed powerful urban investors in restaurants and nightlife in the gentrifying Centro neighborhood in São Paulo about how social media figure in their work.
What I found is that the relationship between social media and the city has come a long way since the incidental virality of the Stratford architects in 2014. The story of the London art collective may be a quirky tale of the accidental stumbling into the then-new phenomenon of urban virality, but the capacity of social media to steer flows of people — and therefore flows of capital — have since become big business. The logics of social media have become integrated into the underlying financial machinery of the city, and central to shaping the built environment of the city. The biases and logics of social media are no longer merely refracting and filtering the city to show a particular representation of it. Rather, they are defining the rules of exchange for the dominant urban currency of our age: attention.
The urban attention economy
In recent years, entire economies and technologies have been built around capturing, manipulating and directing our attention. The capacity to manipulate and succeed on social media – and to thereby control attention – has grown into a virtual industry. Scholars and venture capitalists alike may speak of “data having become the new oil”,4Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Profile Books, 2019). but this oil cannot be extracted without first capturing and controlling our attention. Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok trade in attention, in turn building their business on extracting users’ profitable data to market to advertisers. Contemporary social media can be understood as highly liquid economies in which content creators compete over attention. That, in turn, makes participants on social media competitors in an attention economy.5Georg Franck, “The Economy of Attention,” Journal of Sociology 55, no. 1 (March 1, 2019): 8–19, https://doi.org/10.1177/1440783318811778. And as social media leak into the world, attention-as-capital spreads into every aspect of the economy.
For the São Paulo investors, the question of social media attention is present in every part of their business, becoming such a central form of value that the investors see themselves not primarily as being in the business of food, beverages, or cultural experiences: they are in the business of attention. As a result, every aspect of their business is adapted to work well on social media. The investors invest, build, and design their physical environments to be as sharable and viral as possible, from interior design to which buildings they invest in. Their decoration is made colorful, edgy and surprising, featuring the type of design that encourages social media sharing. The light is designed to work well on a mobile camera. The dishes are designed for Instagram. The restaurants often provide quirky props that guests can use to take interesting pictures: a pig-nose cocktail cup, neon-signs with shareable quotes, or perhaps a giant plastic leopard. They feature “Instagrammable” backdrops for pictures – planned versions of the viral Stratford wall with bright, colorful, muted patterns, but now with the name of the restaurant tastefully woven into the shapes. The investors furthermore described changing the decoration and design of the establishments every few months, as social media requires a constant flow of novelty. Sharon Zukin famously wrote of gentrification becoming an aesthetic, used to tell a story of desirability and rising value to thereby seek to instantiate such a process.6Sharon Zukin, Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989). But now, the aesthetics of investments have been redefined by the logic of social media — by the political economy of attention. In short, urban aesthetics have become social media aesthetics.7Monica Montserrat Degen and Gillian Rose, The New Urban Aesthetic: Digital Experiences of Urban Change (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022).
As the investors explained, even the location in the city and the particular building that they invest in is chosen based on how well they are understood to fit into the social media attention logic. One investor decided to purchase a particular building because it has a curious corridor that he believed would be irresistible for Instagram selfies. To kick-start the spontaneous sharing, the establishments usually hire “micro-influencers” — users who have built up a substantial online following and clout — to share photos of visits to the restaurant and make use of the props offered. The attention that is built up through this investment is central to every part of their business. Like economic capital, it is traded and contacted, and it flows between customers and to suppliers. Specifically, I found three ways in which the investors made use of their acquired attention capital to benefit their business.
First, and most obviously, the establishments themselves are dependent on attention to attract guests. As people today experience and explore the city through the interfaces of digital platforms, invisibility on social media means simply invisibility. The investors described traditional advertising as having become largely irrelevant — you must now find clients by “riding the waves” of virality on social media.
Secondly, attention is a core part of the product that the establishments sell. As the investors put it, guests are no longer going to restaurants or clubs for food or music, but for the possibility to snap photos that will receive a lot of likes and draw social media followers. In other words, guests are purchasing the resources to build their own attention capital, to in turn convert to cultural and social capital. They go to restaurants in large part to be able to take and post attractive photos, to become the envy of others, and draw shares and likes. If a place becomes hyped on social media, users will be even more willing to pay to become part of the viral wave.
Finally, and most surprisingly, the attention capital built by the establishments is also traded with suppliers. A nightclub may put a Heineken fridge next to their “Instagrammable” wall, or give free bottles of Heineken to artists backstage in the hope that they will end up in the background of their posts. In return, the bar gets a substantial discount on their Heineken purchases. Similarly, a restaurant may frame its kitchen with 1,000 colorful plush pigs to encourage guests sharing a photo of it, and in return get the kitchen equipment for free from the supplier. The social media attention is, in other words, explicitly contracted, with a specified rate of conversion between attention and reais. The clubs are not only hiring influencers, but they are also themselves functioning as influencers for brands higher up in the attention economy food chain.
In the social media city, whoever controls media attention controls the flow of people, and hence the flow of capital. My research thus suggests that the logic of social media has become integral part of the urban economy, by defining the logic of and providing the financial infrastructure for the dominant currency of our age: attention. The social media attention economy seeps into every crevice of the city, like a hidden logic shapes every aspect of our world.
While the emerging urban social media attention economy may have first been expressed through quirky peculiarities of incidental virality, it is today a central financialized market — explicitly and contractually interlinked with the flows of other forms of capital.
Urban establishments can today be understood as hubs through which attention flows and is exchanged with other forms of capital. While social media provide marketplaces for attention, they need these physical environments as stages on which the attention can be enacted. The establishments trade in attention capital, built up through and embedded in their physical built environment.
In the social media city, those who control attention also control what urban theorists call “spatial capital”: the power to define places and communities, to decide who feels welcome or at home in a given place. As attention capital is financialized, the right to the city — that is, the right to change ourselves by changing the city — is thus turned into a marketable commodity, thus shaping new drivers of urban inequality.8Petter Törnberg, “How Sharing Is the ‘Sharing Economy’? Evidence from 97 Airbnb Markets,” Plos One 17, no. 4 (2022): e0266998.
Petter Törnberg is a postdoctoral researcher in Urban Geography at University of Amsterdam, whose research focus is the critical study of digital platform through Big Data. Petter is currently working on an NWO VENI project on the production of urban place on digital platforms, studying urban representation in large-scale textual data.
|↑1||Petter Törnberg and Justus Uitermark, “Urban Mediatization and Planetary Gentrification: The Rise and Fall of a Favela across Media Platforms,” City & Community 24, no. 4 (2022), https://doi.org/10.1177/15356841211068521|
|↑2||John D. Boy and Justus Uitermark, “Reassembling the City through Instagram,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 2017, 617, https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12185|
|↑3||Amy Yueming Zhang, Asa Roast, and Carwyn Morris, “Wanghong Urbanism: Towards a New Urban-Digital Spectacle,” Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no.4 (November 2022).|
|↑4||Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Profile Books, 2019).|
|↑5||Georg Franck, “The Economy of Attention,” Journal of Sociology 55, no. 1 (March 1, 2019): 8–19, https://doi.org/10.1177/1440783318811778.|
|↑6||Sharon Zukin, Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989).|
|↑7||Monica Montserrat Degen and Gillian Rose, The New Urban Aesthetic: Digital Experiences of Urban Change (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022).|
|↑8||Petter Törnberg, “How Sharing Is the ‘Sharing Economy’? Evidence from 97 Airbnb Markets,” Plos One 17, no. 4 (2022): e0266998.|