What do you think of when you think about Amsterdam? Canals, bicycles, coffee shops?
Chances are, the ‘I Amsterdam’ sign also comes to mind: the iconic, two-metre-tall, red-and-white sign which perched outside the Rijksmuseum for over 14 years. Everyday hordes of tourists would come to sit on the letters and snap photos– some estimate that roughly 6000 selfies were taken with the iconic monument each day. The sign was a massive attraction for tourists visiting the Netherlands capital city.
So it might be a surprise to hear that the city has decided to take it down.
In December 2018, Amsterdam removed the sign – citing protests from locals, who believed that the landmark was a massive contributor to the Dutch capital’s infamous overtourism problem, attracting crowds of social-media obsessed tourists looking for another perfect picture ‘for the gram’.
This incident is just one in a larger pattern of events around the world which point to a fascinating side of social media that we don’t normally talk about: the impact of digital media and behaviours on the physical world around us.
The Physical Impact of Being ‘Instagramable’
So far in this blog, we have explored how social media has changed the way we interact with different industries: whether that’s TV makers creating shoppable programmes that tap into audiences’ desires to ‘See Now, Buy Now’; or the way news is being shaped in an on-demand/ consumer-as-creator landscape.
In addition to the above, it’s undeniable that social media is having a distinct impact on the physical world around us as well.
Even though the social media platform launched in 2010, over the last few years ‘Instagramable’ roared its way into the modern, Millennial/Gen Z lexicon: the term refers to the level of attractiveness of a location and its aptitude to be popularly shared on the visual-first social media platform.
This social trend is having a real impact on the way that spaces are laid out and buildings are constructed. Architects are adapting their practices to create social-media minded spaces that can deliver on a new-found need to be ‘Insta-famous’: Farshid Mousavvi a London based architect, posted on her personal Instagram account that ‘Creating Instagram moments has now become part of architectural briefs’: this announcement clearly shows the impact the digital platform has already had on structural planning in the real world.
For the most part, the impact of this new-found focus has been pretty harmless – often resulting in lavish, Cath Kidson-esque walls popping up in the latest trendy restaurants, or recessed spaces where Instagram model wannabees can pose in front of vibrant, neon angel wings.
Sometimes, however, the impact of social media trends on the physical world is much less favourable…
Instagram – Tourist Attractions’ Friend or Foes?
While increasingly cheap flights and better-connected countries have helped encourage tourists to get on the road, there is a distinct feeling that social media is over-inspiring people to go abroad and see the amazing sites popping up on their feeds. As renowned travel photographer Chris Burkland explained in an interview with National Geographic, “Now you’re less than 10 clicks away from seeing an image on Instagram to purchasing a ticket to go there”.
Beyond exposure, the pictures that these travellers will take (and post) when they get there is further impacting decision-making in the travel space: 40% of UK Millennials now report that they are thinking about “how Instagramable a location is” when planning their next holiday.
This means that more and more tourists are being driven to the same key places around the world, in order to snap the same photos that they’ve seen shared by their favourite Instagrammers: “We all want those iconic pictures in the same iconic places”, claims Justin Francis, the CEO of the UK-based Responsible Travel company, it’s now more about “where you want to be seen.”
The result? Major overtourism due to Instagram and a real long-term negative impact on the natural and cultural environments around these landmarks. Beyond Amsterdam:
- Maya Beach in Thailand had to be shut down in order for the beach to recover from the brunt of regular, heavy tourist flow. The destination once known for it’s pristine, blue waters, white sand and picturesque cliffs, now remains closed indefinitely in the hope its ecosystems can slowly begin their recovery.
- The recent ‘Superbloom’ in California stimulated a ‘Gram-rush’ of out-of-state tourists eager to take selfies with the fields of orange poppies. The result? Lots of trampled flowers and government-led shut downs in key areas to halt over-eager photo enthusiasts.
- Gilli Trawangan in Indonesia, famous for its ‘Gilli T Swings’ in the ocean is currently suffering the effects of major overtourism from Instagram with its mega waste problem. The island’s once flawless land, beaches and waters are now polluted with excessive piles of garbage, that the government is struggling to get rid of.
Is this overtourism all because of Instagram? While not completely to blame, social media crops up again and again in commentary around each of these spaces – it’s clear that this digital platform is having a very real impact on the physical spaces it is encouraging people to visit.
Using Social Media for Good
Although the ‘I amsterdam’ sign has sadly left its home at the Rijksmuseum, it’s not goodbye forever. The Dutch tourist board has now begun to counteract Amsterdam’s negative experience of social media’s extreme outcomes and manipulate them into something more positive. This optimistic approach involves touring the sign in and around Amsterdam to help boost tourism in these ‘less-discovered’ areas for local business owners.
This forward-looking plan presents a way in which social media can be used for Good, especially by tourism boards. The visual platform’s power to make people travel could be used to benefit less visited areas around the world by drawing in tourists and helping local communities grow in economic wealth.
This is not the only pro of the powerful digital platform. It can be used for more noble causes within societies such as to help build communities, spread awareness on world issues and to help assist worthy causes for NGO’s and social welfare organisations.
These kinds of impacts can truly benefit communities’ lives across the globe and spread more awareness on issues they are facing.
Although it can be said social media has as many pros as it does cons, maybe it is time for us to stop focusing on this and start focusing on how we use it more. With better emphasis on this, we can begin to learn to become more mindful of how best to use this digital platform to benefit society as a whole.
The Dutch may have begun their journey to recovery from the severe aftermath of social media, but is this a warning to these industries to be cautious of how powerful the digital world is? Or should they just embrace it and overcome its potential consequences?