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Home Is Where the Photo Booth Is: How Instagram Is Changing Our Living Spaces

The visual influence of the social network has moved from public events to curated “experiences” to … the living room

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last spring, Brooklyn-based publicist Kelsey Marrujo began planning her 30th birthday party. First, she settled on the theme of “prom do-over” in an attempt to override the unfortunate memory of the bad date that caused her to “ugly cry” 12 years ago. Then she sent out Paperless Post invitations to friends, complete with the custom event hashtag #18goingon30. Finally, she reached out to her best friend, a photographer named Danlly Domingo, to arrange the party’s most essential element: a place to take a glamorous photo.

“I knew it would have to have a photo-activation component,” she told me. “So that guests could snap pictures and have some kind of takeaway post-party.”

The two agreed upon a color scheme of champagne gold and black. Domingo acquired a camera and a tripod, about 300 balloons, and what he described as an “Insta-friendly” gold mylar curtain. He used these supplies to transform a corner of Marrujo’s living room into a glittery backdrop and set up a “drunk party people–friendly” photo booth program on his laptop. The ultimate goal was to eliminate any hint of Marrujo’s charming but small Clinton Hill apartment.

“I wanted it to feel enclosed,” Domingo told me. “So whatever material or wall covering I found had to be able to cover the whole frame and not show any of the apartment so it wasn’t immediately recognizable as a house party.”

To Marrujo’s delight, the setup produced a slew of Instagrams the next day. “It was really fun to see the posts afterward,” she told me. “I got a number of direct messages asking me ‘What is this?’ I think people were unsure if the event had taken place in a venue or not.”

Marrujo’s party is one of a handful of private get-togethers I attended in 2018 that included a dedicated Instagram wall, where guests could take photos good enough to graduate from the Instagram Stories feed to a post on their permanent grids. For her annual holiday party, Cosmopolitan senior editor Jessica Goodman cleared out her home office and covered one of its walls with CVS wrapping paper. “We just wanted people to have fun,” she told me about the setup, which she’s done in some form for the past three years. “I also think setting up something that people can interact with at a party can be an ice breaker.” For a last-minute New Year’s Eve party, Brooklyn-based dietician Eling Tsai put up gold streamers and balloon letters that spelled out 2019. “I wasn’t originally intending on having an Instagram wall, but when I logged onto Amazon Prime to see what could be delivered to me within 24 hours of the 31st, Instagram wall accessories were nearly the only thing available,” she told me. “I didn’t hate it!” Danielle Tullo, a senior editor at Her Campus, serves heart-shaped pizzas at her annual Galentine’s Day party, alongside golden balloons that read “#GALS.” “I’ve always loved beautiful things, and now that we have Instagram, they can live on forever,” she said. “A good Instagram photo is like the new party favor.”

Photos from people who ordered golden curtains.

The so-called social media moment—i.e., a studio-esque photo op—was once a concept companies used as a marketing tool at promotional events. But as Instagram has grown in size over the years, so has its influence on the physical world. Natural wonders have become perilous backdrops for geotag trawlers. Restaurants, retail stores, cafes, festivals, and museums have adjusted their interiors to cater to customers searching for photogenic experiences. From Meow Wolf to the Museum of Ice Cream, a whole cache of Instagram playgrounds now exist to replace experiences with photo ops altogether. Like a millennial pink cloud, the influence of the image-based social network has gradually enveloped the world’s public spaces, leaving neon light fixtures and hashtagged murals in its wake. Now, it has finally reached our private lives.

“It’s coinciding with these designed-for-Instagram pop-ups like 29 Rooms and the Museum of [Various] Food Items that offer these environments built just for the ’gram,” Domingo told me. “I think people are now conditioned to look for these built-in moments and environments if they want to document a particular event/outing on social.”

The inherent value of an at-home photo op has also been coded into pop culture. This past summer, The New York Times ran a colorful photo spread of the 2,400-square-foot SoHo penthouse that advertising agency Village Marketing renovated so that the influencers it worked with could use its spacious kitchen, slick hardwood floors, and plush furniture as a backdrop for “lifestyle”-related photoshoots. The hosts of Stay Here—a new Netflix reality TV show that centers on the beautification of Airbnb-type rentals—encourages contestants to add murals or art pieces that guests will photograph and post on social media, drumming up free publicity for their listings. A generation of extremely online people have internalized the minimalism displayed on social media and in advertisements, WeWorks, and Airbnbs and applied it to their own private spaces. Now, people are building makeshift photo booths in their homes, so that every element of their life can twinkle from within the confines of a small, square-cropped image. Wall hangings, lettered balloons, small marquees, and photorealistic vinyl prints have become in-demand accessories for those who desire an online presence filled with high-quality images but who don’t necessarily have access to the real-life venues displayed in your average influencer’s feed. The result is a curated but extremely public offering of our most intimate spaces that makes you wonder: If your home doesn’t have a social media moment, are you really even living in it at all?

Not long after Joanna Galbraith gave birth to her second daughter in 2015, she and her husband, Johnny, began brainstorming creative ways to commemorate her baby’s monthly milestones. Back when film photography reigned supreme, they might have simply written the date and location on the back of a physical print, and slipped it into a photo album. But in the era of digital photography and social media, Galbraith felt it was much harder to denote that information in a meaningful way. Johnny recalled posing with black-and-white letter boards in Little League photos, and, after doing some research, tracked one down at a vintage store. The couple hung it on the wall of their New York apartment and updated it with a new message when it came time for their daughter’s monthly photo op.

“People would come over to our house and be like, ‘Oh, that’s a really cool poster that you have on your wall,’” she told me. “And we would tell them, ‘It’s actually not a poster. You can change out the letters.’ People just didn’t really know what letter boards were.”

The Galbraiths eventually became so enamored of the board that they decided to quit their jobs in New York and sell them. They moved their family to Salt Lake City, tracked down a manufacturer who was still making a version of the signs for courthouses, and launched Letterfolk in October of that year. As part of an initial marketing push, they sent their product out to a handful of Instagram influencers in the lifestyle and interior design spaces, hopeful it might create some buzz. That was all it took to jump-start the business. The letter boards began to pop up all over the internet and in the physical world. Joanna Gaines—the former cohost of HGTV’s Fixer Upper and a queen among the home-improvement set—shared one on her Instagram feed. Within the first 12 months of launching, they were doubling sales figures every quarter and had accumulated 100,000 followers. In the first two years of the business, their biggest challenge was keeping their supplies in stock.

“It grew very quickly,” she told me. “People organically just wanted to share what they had put on their board because it was personal to them. They didn’t just want to share it in their home. They wanted to share it on their feeds, in their Instagram photos. And then, if someone liked the quote on the letter board, then they would share that person’s photo because they like the quote. It just got passed around much more quickly than we were anticipating.”

Letterfolk’s boards was one of the first modifiable accessories—in addition to the LED-powered My Cinema Lightbox—that became a permanent “social media moment” prop in domestic spaces. The boards have been used to make pregnancy announcements and commemorate special occasions, placed ever so carefully in flat lays and closely cropped snapshots of plant-flanked wall decor. They also became the go-to medium for influencers and celebrities to display quotes like “Eat cake. It’s somebody’s birthday somewhere,” or the classic Mean Girls refrain, “On Wednesdays we wear pink.” Galbraith said she sees this usage as proof that people were craving permanence and fighting against how ephemeral digital photography has become.

“We love digital stuff,” she said. “We’re not trying to get people off of digital, but we’re kind of trying to help there be more of a balance in people’s lives. It’s having digital but also having those tactile things that are real and tangible.”

In lieu of professional studios, many people rely on the fickle lighting and surfaces of their dwellings as a backdrop to these dioramas. Belinda Love Lee—a graphic designer who posts photos of her paper products alongside lifestyle snapshots for her 41,000-plus followers—shoots most of her content at home in Toronto. When she first began her business, she’d place a huge piece of cotton paper from the dollar store behind her subject matter and hope for the best. But eventually the backdrop deteriorated, and she grew tired of posting the same plain background in her feed. That’s around the time she discovered Instasets, a Slovenian company that sells small vinyl squares printed with photo-realistic patterns of lush surfaces like wood, tile, granite, and marble. While her household offered one or two natural backdrops for photos, Instasets made it easy to switch up the style of her posts.

“Not everyone has the budget or the space to have a huge photo studio rollout,” she told me. “When I found Instaset, it was a really good alternative because it’s small, it rolls up, you can fit it in the corner of your space, and you can bury your backdrops.”

Instasets is one of a handful of Instagram-centric companies like Mini Backdrops and Ink and Elm that create small, temporary surfaces meant to look like the dining tables, kitchen tiles, marble countertops, or wooden mantels you might find in a well-decorated residence. They are essentially reusable, attractive Band-Aids that bloggers, stylists, and self-proclaimed content creators can paste over any dingy surface in their home to make it look more lush. Thirty-five-year-old Danaja Oblak first came up with the idea for these mini photo backdrops when she got pregnant and began a mommy blog to document her journey. “When I was creating content for our advertisers, I stumbled on a problem: how to present products in a more creative and attractive way,” Oblak, who runs her business out of Ljubljana, Slovenia, told me via email. “So I designed [the] initial set of photo backdrops. They instantly transformed dull product photos to something that inspires and motivates.”

She launched an online shop for the backdrops this fall, selling them for about $30 a piece to content creators, influencers, restaurant owners, craftspeople, brand managers, and advertisers. The designs in her shop are named to evoke the textures of popular destinations, like Parisian Patisserie, Arizona Lodge, and Hamptons Porch. Though some are meant to appear abstract, Oblak says her best sellers—specifically the Carrara Marble and Ash Graphite—are meant to function as a kind of trompe-l’oeil, elevating the environment of a photo, and, by association, whatever’s displayed in it. “You can use Instaset backdrops even for, well not-so-pretty products, and yet the result is pretty amazing at the end,” she told me. She plans to release new collections every month to stay on top of Instagram’s ever-changing trends.

According to Tullo, who was previously an editor at House Beautiful, what we see on Instagram ultimately affects our expectations for our own homes. Recently, she’s seen more people using peel-and-stick adhesive papers or “backsplashes” in their rentals to paste over dingy headboards or kitchen tiles to heighten the look of a wall or a room. “Hacks, like ways to elevate the space without actually being able to change things, are becoming really popular,” she told me. “I know someone who’s putting that same traction paper that’s like wood paneling behind their bed. In real life you can see little air bubbles and you spot them, but in photos it looks so fluid and so real. It looks like they have something that they don’t actually have.”

A veritable smoke-and-mirror economy now exists for social media users who want to show off their lives. Both letter boards and texture-printed vinyl backdrops are accessories meant to make our usually static spaces appear dynamic and fresh—a font of photogenic life events worth posting about online. The at-home photo booth is a natural evolution: Rather than functioning as a prop to make your life look more Instagrammable, it obviates the existence of a dwelling altogether. You are not in your college bud’s poorly lit kitchen sipping beers, but at a glamorous black-tie event.

On a personal level, it’s a completely human desire: Everyone wants to look good in photographs, and a golden curtain is a far more flattering backdrop than the ’80s-era plastic laminate cabinets of a dilapidated rental. But the proliferation of social media moments in our domestic spaces means that our photography will eventually contain fewer forensic markers of place, time, and personal effects. (Unless, of course, you use a letter board to denote that information!) Strip these images of their geotags and metadata, and they become much harder to place in reality. From a visual perspective, that means the images we share will become flatter, more uniform. Lev Manovich, a professor at City University of New York who analyzes Instagram photos on a mass scale, suggests that this is already happening. A 2017 study in which he evaluated the brightness, saturation, and hue of Instagram photos from 81 separate cities found that they were gravitating toward a unifying aesthetic. “We have this suggestion that visual variability is decreasing,” he told me then. An Instagram wall provides a festive party vibe, but not necessarily a memory.

Ultimately, the uniformity of visual pop culture is far too ominous to consider when planning a gathering, the announcement of a milestone, or a flat lay. In an online environment where accounts live and die by engagement, modifying our households to be public facing, rather than personal, is rooted in the simple desire to look nice and be noticed. A few shimmery streamers from Amazon, a $250 letter board, or a faux marble pattern will get you there, no matter how far from the reality of your living space.

“Instagram is inundated with new content all the time,” Marrujo told me. “If you don’t have an image that pops, people just scroll past.” Maybe the indifferent scroll is what we fear most of all.

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