Experience Interrupted: Social Media’s Takeover of Sacred Spaces

Artists and architects have always leveraged the boundaries of physical space for maximum effect. In almost all cases, the design of these inspirational spaces has been driven by a desire to affect the human senses, provoke an emotional response, or to deeply contemplate an idea. This goes back to the very origins of arts and architecture. Pyramids are big and pointy for both aesthetic and structural reasons. Cathedrals are lofty and painstakingly detailed to attract visitors, and engender a fear of God. Artists have similarly awed audiences with their precision, skill, or scale of their work.

One could argue that art is fundamentally about inspiration. So, it’s no surprise that brands look to the art world for exactly that inspiration. Target’s Marimekko launch references artist Kurt Perschke’s Red Ball Project. The major footwear brands have leveraged almost as much neon as Dan Flavin himself. And everyone borrows from Jeff Koons. But the bigger issue is how the relationship between these spaces of art and commerce is shifting. No longer are these physical experiences intrinsically valuable. Rather, their value is now intimately related to the social media imagery that’s produced as a byproduct.

But the bigger issue is how the relationship between these spaces of art and commerce is shifting. No longer are these physical experiences intrinsically valuable.

How did we get here? Nearly two decades ago, mobile phones became not just a household item but part of our physiology, imprinting their outlines in the pocket of our favorite jeans. The camera followed, becoming a critical part of the mobile experience – one that outpaced the evolution of consumer-grade digital photography itself. This coincided with the rise of social media and the connection to the outside world of friends and strangers. For many, this became the validation that an experience actually happened, and furthermore, happened to me.

Those forces, coupled with the presence of broadband internet connectivity anywhere, anytime, made high-quality media sharing a natural outcome. And now we are confronted by the rise of “Instagrammable” spaces – those created by both artists and brands to be documented and shared via social media.

As these spaces continue to succeed in helping us manufacture and export media content, more brands will reference more artists – and sometimes in unscrupulous ways. But as the co-founder of an agency tasked with designing brand experiences, I’m forced to ask if “shareability” should really be a governing artistic principle of user engagement. Has the Instagram-ization of experience design somehow endangered not only the function of brand experiences but also the source – the community of artists that often provide inspiration?

The Balance

Now, not every interaction between an artist and a brand is a co-opt. Brands license, collaborate and may openly reference or leverage an artist’s vision for their own efforts in a balanced and fair relationship. For example, graphic designer Emily Forgot and 3D artist Laurie D partnered with Wieden + Kennedy and both parties benefited, creating shareable experiences along the way.

In the art world, the trend toward selfie-dom has also driven decision-making by the artists themselves.

And it’s clear that the art world has received a renewed visibility from the masses that is both a result of, and a response to, the Instagrammable world around it. Simply observe the way the images from Burning Man have become part of mainstream consumption, or how Coachella has developed its own arts program, or the Vice/Intel-manufactured Creators Project has celebrated artists exploring the creativity-technology boundary.

In the art world, the trend toward selfie-dom has also driven decision-making by the artists themselves. They, too, know that the optics of the experience may indeed be the experience. From the halls of our nation’s institutions – the New Museum’s show of Pipilotti Rist’s “Pixel Forest”, Villareal’s installation at Pace, the surreal and colorful projections of Miguel Chevalier, or even contemporary artists from a generation ago finding renewed interest and visibility online – it all reels from the effect of the social media rectangle.

The sheer wealth of imagery exported from the worlds of arts and culture makes it nearly impossible for these ideas not to be consumed by the marketing machine as inspiration. Sensory stimulation and audience – core ingredients of art – aren’t that much different from brand marketing. Certainly, it’s not wrong to draw influence from the art world. But when that inspirational source moves beyond individual enthusiasts, to the professional world of commerce it becomes a very slippery slope towards inauthenticity.

Sacred Spaces

Brands go where their audiences are, and their audiences are on Instagram documenting their own experiences. As a result, brands also invest in spaces that provide their own version of inspiration. But ironically, in seeking our inspiration, we are subconsciously told where to point our mobile cameras, what to crop out, where to stand, and how to maximize “our” visual impact.

Unconsciously, this reduces our choice and focuses our visual stories – which, by design, often become their stories. On the face of it, this is ok – we are their guests and we engage in the quid pro quo of commerce. But, there are unintended consequences. Creators have the ability to point and shoot at anything, capture the world in full resolution, in slow motion, in time lapse, in any shape of rectangle, and even in full 360 panorama. But in these Instagram-driven spaces, the results of these collective photographic social memories have been reduced to the same handful of rectangles the world over. This is bad.

Our social media content is making an exponential impact because of its specificity and repetition.

Just Google image search “Armani Infinity City”, “Asics Cloud Wall” or “Sephora x Coachella – Makeup Stations” and the results are startling: a grid of photos that are all formally identical. Different people, yes, but interchangeable. Search on Instagram and the will result is an even more reduced, and repetitive result. In essence, our POV is being reduced, our frames minimized. Our social media content is making an exponential impact because of its specificity and repetition. It’s a marketers dream but it’s a big, scary difference in terms of the north star for experience-creation. At what point do these social media-driven spaces become inauthentic? And will that struggle for ownership of our authenticity result in an audience backlash for brands?

Experience First

For companies, there’s a firm line in the sand between positive, non-destructive artist collaboration and taking advantage of an artist’s unique POV. When brands knowingly co-opt a style, vibe, expression, flavor, feel, or sentiment of an artist without clear, overt recognition, it’s destructive. While it might be tempting to follow the lead of social media culture and co-opt without credit, brands can’t build real relationships with their audiences if they aren’t maintaining the integrity of the experience.

If a brand wants to position itself as arts-friendly or inspired by art, then it should collaborate with an artist in an authentic manner- one in which the artist is paid in trade for her work.

If a brand wants to position itself as arts-friendly or inspired by art, then it should collaborate with an artist in an authentic manner- one in which the artist is paid in trade for her work. Facebook runs an amazing arts program that enriches its built environments globally. They also happen to work with some of the most notable artists in the world to commission specific works both physically and digitally.

If artistic thinking is the goal, companies should use the building blocks of the company itself to design unique experiences from an authentic, ownable point of view. This can be achieved by using aspects of the company, its people, products, services – or even data – that simply cannot be replicated by another institution. Work with creative partners who don’t put forth artists to co-opt, but who work hard to dig into the core company vision and can design credible expressions rooted in these truths.

When it comes to sharable experiences, I understand the practicality they present. Social media is real, compelling and must play a part in the spaces that both artists and brands bring to life. But, as these worlds continue to collide and borrow from each other, we  have to remember a core truth: the value of an experience is the experience, not the social photographic record of it. This is what makes an experience sacred. Let’s put down our phones for a moment and actually experience.

David Schwarz

Partner at Hush
David Schwarz is an award-winning Co-Founder of HUSH, an experience design firm. He has spent over a decade working with brands to design compelling experiences utilizing content, interactivity, architecture and technology.
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