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Hashtag tourism: Using Instagram to explore our neighborhoods

When our phones take us places

The colorful sculpture Seven Magic Mountains by Ugo Rondinone, in the desert outside Vegas
Seven Magic Mountains by Ugo Rondinone, in the desert outside Vegas
Alissa Walker

A few weeks ago, I found myself standing in the desert outside of Vegas at dawn looking at this and trying to figure out how I got there.

Okay, it’s not that kind of story. I didn’t have a Hangover-like blackout where I woke up miles from my hotel room; I took a Lyft. Although I am pretty sure when I asked my driver to take me to this location at 5:00 a.m. he thought I was going to dig up a dead body or something.

What I was trying to recall, as the sun rose, the hum of the 15 Freeway growing louder in the distance, was where I first learned about this place. As the light started to turn the muted pastel pillars into bright neon towers, more people arrived, all of whom likely discovered this place the same way I finally realized I did: Through a hashtag.

This is a public artwork called Seven Magic Mountains and it’s luring thousands of people out into what was previously the middle of nowhere. Although you can see it from the car if you’re driving from Los Angeles to Vegas, most people I talked to said they first saw it in someone else’s feed on Instagram.

Thanks to Instagram, we get to see that this composition is by far the most popular.

People are also doing some pretty imaginative things with their visit. Here are some Pantone chips.

Hey #aigapantone thanks for this! #7magicmountains #sevenmagicmountains #ugorondinone

A photo posted by Viecher (@viecher) on

I love this one, using the stacks to recreate this emoji.

#emojisinthewild

A photo posted by Justin Pao (@justinnpao) on

We can see that people are coordinating their, um, outfits with the artwork.

Harness set for sale at www.miss-overdose-shop.com Shot by @kyrian_bobeerian. Model @ophelia_overdose

A photo posted by Ophelia Overdose (@miss.overdose.shop) on

People are using their phones—and their creativity—to turn this place into a destination.

It reminded me a lot of another public artwork that turned into a social media sensation last summer in LA. It was called Liquid Shard.

This installation in the downtown park Pershing Square was made from thousands of strips of holographic mylar.

Which also makes it impossible to photograph; in a way, video is way better for this one.

Now the thing about Pershing Square is that supposedly everyone hates this park and nobody uses it—in fact, there was just a splashy multimillion dollar competition to redesign it.

But look at this—there are families having picnics there.

"Liquid Shard" designed and built by Patrick Shearn

A photo posted by CLAUDIA (@claudiavalnzla) on

There were people here day and night for weeks. There were yoga groups that met here in the morning. It looked like some place you’d want to be.

☄☄☄ ( by my talented sister)

A photo posted by Anita Liao (@anitaplatypus) on

Maybe all you need to do to create a destination is string up some shredded balloons to turn a forgotten park into a place? The people and their phones take care of the rest?

I’ve been testing this theory in my own backyard. This is literally my backyard.

I live on one of the art alleys in the Historic Filipinotown neighborhood of LA (known as HiFi) where the walls and buildings have been covered with over 100 murals.

There are about 85 artists featured in these murals, many of them international, all of them with their own loyal Instagram followings.

'amazing' in the alleyways of the Gabba Arts District #WRDSMTH #GabbaArtsDistrict #tbt

A photo posted by WRDSMTH (@wrdsmth) on

Every weekend I see people walking through these alleys, getting out of their cars, walking around a neighborhood they never knew about, talking to people they would never have met, and sharing it all on social media.

#gabbaartsdistrict #Artwalk @dashknowdirection @yakkubs

A photo posted by Matty Daniell (@youmustcreate) on

When it comes to foot traffic especially, this kind of attention can actually make a difference.

This is the Electric Street mural in South Philly, created by David Guinn and Drew Billiau.

It was installed on an alley that was known for vandalism, trash, all sorts of illicit activity, and, of course, being very, very dark.

Lil time lapse of the new installation, "Electric Street"

A video posted by Maggie Long (@maggslong) on

Since the mural was installed six months ago, people have been coming to see it every single day.

New Philly art at dusk. #perfecttiming #ElectricStreet

A photo posted by Jenni Jones (@ferevs) on

The walls, which in the past had been routinely graffitied, have not seen any graffiti since the mural was installed.

And because it’s neon, it specifically attracts people there at night, which is when most of the problems were happening. Since it went up, there have been no problems. The artists are currently fundraising for the next phase.

This mural has not only become a destination, it’s fighting crime.

Placemaking is the term that urban planners use for this—turning a public space into a “place.” The traditional model is that you spend lots of money planning the space, more money physically improving the space, and even more money programming the space.

Now, thanks to a little device we have tucked in our pockets, this can happen with a much lower bar of entry—paint-covered rocks and strips of mylar and tubes of neon and people waving around their iPhones. Or... whatever “phone” we’ll be using next?

I wrote about the placemaking impacts of then-nascent Pokémon GO, the augmented reality game that has enlivened public spaces. In a recent interview with creator Dennis Hwang, he said that the one thing that turned out to be imperfect about their vision for the game was the interaction with the phone itself. “It saddens me a little bit when I see a lot of hunched over people outside,” he told The Verge. “They’re having fun, they’re outside in a great public park, but we’re always wanting a little more direct engagement with our immediate surroundings.”

It’s true: Just look at the images of people congregating around these new urban destinations—so many of them are looking at their phones. But that might change very quickly. With Snapchat’s Spectacles (and previously Google Glass, and whatever Apple’s making now), we’re on the precipice of another revolution, where our interaction with people will be as seamless as our relationship with places.

I wait for the bus here all the time now and I never mind the wait.

A photo posted by Alissa Walker (@awalkerinla) on

But even with these clunky handheld devices, the work we are doing is remarkable. We are curating our own cities. We are changing the definition of “place.” We are getting people out on foot to explore overlooked corners of our neighborhoods.

So LA in every way

A photo posted by Alissa Walker (@awalkerinla) on

So while you’re out going from one place to another, be sure to notice the places in between. Look up and look down. If that dingbat sings to your soul, post a photo. If that bougainvillea stops you in your tracks, geotag it.

Sidewalk shrine #HelloHiFi

A photo posted by Alissa Walker (@awalkerinla) on

Help people discover those moments that will connect them to where they live. Just that alone can make our cities happier, safer places for everyone.

A version of this story was presented at the Google SPAN conference in Los Angeles.