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Whose facade is it, anyway?

Homeownership in the age of the Instagram “travel influencer”

My boyfriend’s mother, T, lived in one of three dreamy, 1892 eggshell-white Carpenter Italianate houses on Savannah, Georgia’s Rainbow Row. Their shutters were painted powder blue, pink, and seafoam green, respectively, their tiny porches wrapped in Lady Banks rose vines, the tabby sidewalks before them glistening with fragments of oyster shells.

In a routine that defined 2017, T spent a bright, warm May morning at a chemotherapy treatment at the Lewis Cancer and Research Pavilion, then came home to recuperate on the couch next to her living room windows. Outside, a woman was bouncing around on the sidewalk in front of the colorful trio of homes. Laughing and shouting art direction to her photographer across the street, she was an arm’s length from T’s seafoam green shutters and thin window glass. When we came by for dinner that evening, T told us about the photoshoot, the commotion, and how, eventually, she’d pulled herself up and peered out the front door to give this girl and her friend “a look,” which seemed to scare them off. The three of us giggled over it.

A couple weeks later, a family friend sent us an Instagram post. Travel blogger Michelle Halpern—a 30-something “matcha-obsessed Libra” with roughly 30,000 Instagram followers as of August 2017—was caught mid-skip just outside T’s living room on Rainbow Row, mugging to the camera. The caption on her May 15, 2017, post read:

A little story behind the Insta: This was about 3 seconds before the little old lady living in the green house came out and scowled at me for taking pictures in front of her home (which mind you is famous in Savannah and mentioned on all of the trolley tours). If it were me, I would have taken advantage of the tourist attention and started a mimosa stand or something!...What’s your opinion on regulations around locals’ homes that are popular in the area? I totally understand the desire for privacy but at the same time if your home is as pretty as this, you can’t expect people to ignore it, can you?

Over a hundred comments flooded in: “I think if a house is pretty, people should expect others to admire it!” “Especially if it’s famous enough to be mentioned in a tour, they’ve gotta let it go!” “Yeah really they shouldn’t live in such a pretty house.” “If it’s this beautiful, always take the pic!” was the clear consensus. And people were wild about the mimosa stand concept.

About six responses of 104 mused tepidly over questions of privacy and nuisance. The comments that received the warmest reception from Halpern, though, were more like @amanda.sulek’s: “I think the lady should have been outside enjoying the beautiful weather instead of inside yelling at people having fun,” to which Halpern responded, “Totally agree Amanda! Hoping I don’t turn into a curmudgeon someday.”

T, the “little old lady” in question, was a physician, a daughter and granddaughter of physicians. She was a graduate of University of North Carolina Medical School at Chapel Hill, a loyal member of Savannah’s Christ Church congregation, chair of its Flower Guild, and an avid gardener devoted to native flora and pollinators. She was an active participant in the effort to preserve and advocate for Savannah’s history, which allows us to enjoy it today. For many years, she volunteered at Hospice of Savannah.

Social media has become an inseparable part of how we live, work, and interact, but what and how we post is not explicitly governed by the same codes of conduct that interacting with people face to face is—if it’s governed by any code at all.

Hospice of Savannah is where T was—and where we were with her—when her battle with a bone marrow cancer called multiple myeloma ended in early 2018.

Of course, no one who chimed in, Halpern included, could have known how beloved T was, what kind of day she was having, how far she was at that moment from opening a sidewalk mimosa stand. Still, the caption and comments felt insensitive, entitled, and like the crossing of some undrawn ethical line. Why not let a confrontation like this dissolve in quietude? Why share the photograph? Why, after being so rattled by a scold, use the image of the house in a collaboration with One Kings Lane? After responding to initial e-mails last year, Halpern did not respond to requests to comment for this story.

Halpern’s brand, Live Like It’s the Weekend, asks the question: “Wouldn’t it be freaking awesome if people [...] felt free to follow their passions every day, not just on the weekends?” Her curated target audience is the “creative female traveler,” her feed a litany of styled jet-setting and starry-eyed wonder. Sometimes she breaks to reflect on the personal, disclosing a struggle in a caption, reminding us that we shouldn’t assume a person is as they appear—that they may not be the look they’re giving you. For Halpern, discussing the personal details of her life—including the difficult ones—is right on brand. She shares her thoughts openly with her followers, right alongside a post plugging a jumpsuit she loves or a spa she just visited. And her followers seem to love it.

They liked the post of T’s house too (1,581 times, last I checked), but to identify a private home and evaluate the behavior of its owner isn’t the same as evaluating a resort stay or an outfit, things given to her or that she paid for. The act ate at me, and at T’s family. What right did she have?

Halpern has every right to snap such a picture from public property. We all do. She has every right, as the copyright owner of her photographs, to use them for commercial gain. She is perfectly welcome to use a social media caption as a platform to rally moral support from digital disciples, a feature of social media we all love. Save for some forms of name-calling, and any certain nuisance (excessive noise, blocking the sidewalk, and so on), the law allows for all of this.

But since Instagram exploded into the world in 2010, photography—travel photography in particular—has evolved faster than the law can accommodate. Where the law falls short, we have ethics—moral principles that guide our conduct in business and life. And in the application of our ethics, we have etiquette—a societal code that shows us how to be polite.

This concept of etiquette can feel anachronistic, relegated to “real life,” to a pre-internet time when small communities relied on social codes that helped people coexist. Social media has become an inseparable part of how we live, work, and interact, but what and how we post is not explicitly governed by the same codes of conduct that interacting with people face to face is—if it’s governed by any code at all.

For travel bloggers and photographers of all tiers, especially those shooting in residential areas, any sense of shared etiquette stops at simply obeying the law and, if you’re really courteous, abiding by the direct requests of property owners.

At the colorful Choi Hung apartment complex in Hong Kong, posted signs forbid cellphone photoshoots. A quick scroll of the geotag confirms the signs have been ignored. In Paris, some homeowners along the residential lane Rue Cremieux, also Insta-famous for its bright colors, have posted “No Photography” signs in their windows. A Dubai-based cosmetic dental surgeon and travel blogger writes on her website, “Some of the houses on this street have signs of no photography and videography, so try to be respectful!” Above the text is a photo of her posing on the steps of a home on Rue Cremieux that doesn’t seem to forbid photography, obstructing its door by leaning against its door frame.

In New York’s West Village, the Perry Street private residence that served as the exterior for Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment on Sex and the City has been so inundated with fans of the show that, as of 2014, the homeowners had their facade blurred out on Google Maps and installed a chain across their front steps with a sign that reads “DO NOT go on the staircase please.” But guess what: People go on the staircase, including mega-influencer Sarah Jessica Parker, who staged a series of photos promoting her shoe line on the steps. At the time of the incident in 2015, the Perry Street association and the home’s residents were livid; Parker declined comment.

Travel blogger and micro-influencer Valerie Furgerson, @redgypsea, says she’s never had a negative interaction with a homeowner: “A sort of influencer photographer’s code that I live by is, if you’re going to be shooting in a residential area, know what shots you want to get ahead of time and be quick about it. Not all tourists live by this code,” she says. “We definitely saw full-on photo shoots happening at Rainbow Row in Savannah, complete with big reflective umbrellas. I have found that if you are respectful of the residents, they will also be respectful of you.” I came across Furgerson’s feed by searching for pictures of Rainbow Row and reaching out to users who did photoshoots directly on the shipping pallet-sized front porches of these private homes.

“I don’t mind people just taking photos,” said T’s pink-shutters neighbor (whom I’ll keep anonymous), “but really I find it an invasion of my space when it’s on my porch.” If she’s returning on foot to her home and sees someone on her porch taking pictures, she hangs back until they’ve wrapped up their activities. But on more than one occasion, she’s been startled to open her front door to a person, or a group of people, posing in front of her. “The other thing,” she says, “is that it opens up liability issues that I don’t even want to think about.”

Porches are private property. There are some situations in which property owners can be liable for injuries on their property, even when the person injured didn’t receive permission to be on the property. That’s a worry the homeowner must live with for owning the adorable house. The neighbor didn’t ask for this, and beyond feeling flattered by all the admirers, she doesn’t stand to benefit from the attention—at least, not without opening a mimosa stand.

Something about this dynamic feels broken to me, so I reached out to Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute for etiquette (and co-host of the institute’s Awesome Etiquette podcast). “There are no laws preventing this from happening,” Post agrees, “but the considerations being ignored are that you don’t know what someone’s day has been like, and in photographing someone’s house, you are asking to photograph someone’s private life in some way.

“Where I, as an etiquette expert, feel awkward,” Post says, “is where [the Instagram influencer] is saying the woman in the house should be grateful, should take advantage of this, should serve us mimosas. We can’t expect that everyone should just cater to us because we’re doing something positive with a picture of their home.”

The act of photography might feel like appreciation to some, but when it is done without true acknowledgment, consideration, or respect for the subject, it is just an act of collection. As Susan Sontag put it, “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed… It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.”

Robert Khederian, former engagement editor at Curbed, shelter writer, and real estate agent at Stribling & Associates in New York, curates a personal Instagram feed of 100 percent houses, approaching 30,000 followers. Some of the house photographs are sent to him; some photographs are his own, but they are all people’s homes. Managing them is a responsibility, and so he abides by a code. “I’m hyper-aware of privacy on the internet, and I would always respect it,” he says. “But I also have this love of beautiful homes. Every case is a little bit different, but throughout, I always want to make sure I’m protecting the specific address of the location and the identity of the person who owns the house. I make sure the image is just of the house.”

Khederian avoids street signs, mailbox names, license plates, and even, where possible, house numbers in his posts. And he doesn’t disclose personal information about the residents without their consent.

One person making space for geographic anonymity on Instagram is, again, just a gesture, especially for a well-known or oft-photographed property. But this level of conscientiousness is a first step toward a code of etiquette that goes beyond the baseline of obeying the law: Like the etiquette we employ in “real life” interactions, Khederian’s code acknowledges, considers, and respects not just the inanimate property but the people who make their lives there.

The act of photography might feel like appreciation to some, but when it is done without true acknowledgment, consideration, or respect for the subject, it is just an act of collection.

Affording life as a travel influencer, much less turning a profit, is grueling work. Sponsorship is one way influencers monetize their Instagram feeds, and it’s far from the only method.

With 1 billion monthly active users worldwide, Instagram is the third-most-popular social network out there, but when it comes to driving sales and engagement for products and brands, it’s an untouchable No. 1. Marketers are closing in on a total of $2 billion spent working with influencers in 2018; by 2020, Brittany Hennessy, the senior director of influencer strategy and talent partnerships at Hearst Digital Media, estimates it could increase as much as fivefold, with Instagrammers making between $500 and $30,000 per post.

The Federal Trade Commission is the only entity that has so far set out guidelines to police how influencers generate income on the platform, filing now-settled suits against Warner Brothers, Lord & Taylor, and others in 2016 for allegedly obfuscating the fact that posts promoting their products or partners were #sponsored. Now, influencers must follow specific disclosure protocols in their captions. This doesn’t address the deluge of covert advertising happening on the platform.

If paid content isn’t part of the business plan, influencers might make money via affiliate marketing. I scroll through photos of color-coordinated outfits at Rainbow Row, adorned with exclusive promo codes or affiliate links. Bloggers receive a kickback every time a reader clicks to buy that ASOS dress, those Shein espadrilles, this pair of Nordstrom sunnies.

But most often, the returns are in-kind: free stays and other perks from tourism boards and hospitality brands. While Savannah’s Kimpton Brice promotes its hotel via its influencer partners’ feeds, it encourages photographers to hit the most picturesque destinations in town, like, just down the block, T’s and her neighbors’ sun-washed townhouses. Dozens of photos show women in virtually the same pose standing in virtually the same spot at Rainbow Row.

Just because it’s been done (a lot) doesn’t mean it appeals any less for every newcomer; in influencer land, there are no points for originality.

“People want to see what they already know,” says travel blogger and photographer Sara Melotti, whose Instagram account has just over 42,000 followers. Melotti boldly posted an exposé last year on how a “mafia” of influencers banded together to game the algorithms and boost each others’ posts. It closed some doors for her professionally, she tells me via Skype, but she’s doing fine. Her voice crackles against a din of crickets, frogs, and birds outside the room she’s renting for $7 per night in a cottage in Southern India—she’s there working on her memoir.

“Just like when everybody’s wearing the same trend,” Melotti tells me, “everybody does it because everybody else does it... Which is very sad to me because there’s so many more beautiful things than the ones we already know.” She’s describing a psychological principle called the mere-exposure effect, a studied phenomenon by which people can develop a preference rooted in familiarity: I like this merely because it has been shown to me repeatedly.

Polish-American psychologist Robert Zajonc began researching the effects of exposure on preference in the early 1960s—his work spanned the Mad Men era of advertising. In 1989, further research found that the effect is strongest when unfamiliar stimuli are presented briefly, like when we scroll through an Instagram feed. Unfamiliar boyfriend, unfamiliar panna cotta, unfamiliar concert hall, then, lo, there she is (whoever she is): that woman standing, bottom left of frame, her back to the lens, long hair draped between her shoulder blades, likely wearing a fun hat, gazing upon [inspiring vista]. You’ve seen her before.

“If you put yourself tiny in the picture with your back to the camera,” Melotti says, “the person who looks at this picture is most likely to think, ‘Oh, this could be me.’ It gives them a dream of being in the place. And it works.”

Most of the photos in front of Rainbow Row don’t follow this ‘Back of woman with long hair in fun hat’ paradigm. Rather, like many posts by @livelikeitsthewknd (or @srathardforlife or @kristine_janice or blondeandbliss), they take after a different, pervasive Instagram formula: Girl frolicking in meticulously selected outfit against [inspiring backdrop], partner tags or affiliate links frolicking with them.

“A sort of influencer photographer's code that I live by is, if you're going to be shooting in a residential area, know what shots you want to get ahead of time and be quick about it. Not all tourists live by this code.”

—Valerie Furgerson

As cultural critic Daisy Alioto writes about Instagram influencers for Medium, these aspirational images Melotti describes became popular because they evoke dreams of places we’ve been and want to be. But inspiration erodes as more and more of those posts are driven not by beauty or the thrill of exploration, but by commercial incentives. “When everything can be sponsored,” Alioto writes, “suddenly nothing seems authentic.”

“Will this go on forever?” I ask Melotti of the seemingly infinite stream of repetitive travel photos flooding my Instagram Discover page.

“It’s fragile now,” Melotti says. “So many people have inflated numbers, inflated popularity.” Indeed, from buying followers for dollars per thousand to photoshopping themselves against fake Parisian backgrounds to posting fake sponsored posts for highbrow brands in order to appear more successful, it seems that everything about travel influencing can be inflated. “Hotels and agencies—the people who put the money in,” Melotti says, “are eventually going to realize there is no ROI.”

Optimistically, she also foresees laws that will regulate the industry. “And,” she says, “I think people will get bored of it. A while ago somebody told me that trends never stop on Instagram. But lately my friends are unfollowing all the travel Instagrammers—they’re sick of seeing the same thing over and over.”

“Today everything exists to end in a photograph,” Sontag wrote. A recent survey by Schofields found that 97 percent of the 1,000 millennials surveyed share their vacation pics on social media, and for 40 percent, the most influential factor in determining where to vacation is how “Instagrammable” the destination is—a factor with nearly twice the weight of the second biggest factor on the list: the cost and availability of alcohol.

The year Instagram launched, its most beloved Norwegian rock formation, Trolltunga, was seeing around 800 visitors per year. Six years later, that number had reached 80,000, and rising. A once little-known Balian cave Sara Melotti photographed in 2017 has since been shot in the exact same way by some dozens of visitors per hour at its busiest times, or so Melotti estimates based on a “heartbreaking” video a friend sent her of the scene.

Today, Savannah has fewer than 150,000 residents and, the tourism board claims, upward of 14 million annual visitors. Nearly all of them come through the historic downtown district. If they chose their destination for its Instagrammability, a visit to Rainbow Row will be on the “musts” list.

These are perilous levels of attention—levels that threaten to drive residents away, to hollow out city centers. In Barcelona, locals are slashing tour bus tires to protest the effects of overtourism. In San Sebastián, Venice, Amsterdam, and Mallorca, citizens are picketing at the airport and scrawling anti-tourist graffiti. And in Florence, hundreds of locals are being displaced from the historic district by vacation rentals. This is how a city loses its soul.

“Now, a lot of people travel because they want to take the same Instagram picture,” Melotti says, echoing Sontag’s premonition in On Photography that visiting foreign places would become nothing more than a strategy for accumulating photographs. “They don’t travel with a traveler’s mind. They don’t care about the culture, they don’t care about the people, and they don’t care about the environment, so they don’t protect it.”

Influencers who come into a community to get something, and who refuse to acknowledge or be curious about the people who make it up—or, worse, who consider those people obstacles—are refusing to participate in the best part of travel: Appreciating what, or who, makes a place different from any other.

Not all bad tourists are Instagram influencers and, of course, not all Instagram influencers are bad tourists. But without a code of conduct—some etiquette—even a simple snapshot can have a resounding impact.

Now, on T’s street, there is a garden planted by her neighbors—“T’s Garden”—a memorial patch of pollinators and a handmade butterfly house. Behind it, three colorful houses catch the eye not only because of their shutters, or the blessings of southern exposure, or the fire hydrant that means cars won’t be in the way: These adorable houses are homes. They were built for a family in 1892, lovingly rescued and restored by a family in 1967, and since lived in by Savannahians with their own histories. Truly appreciating these homes means appreciating the people inside them, too.

Alexandra Marvar is a writer and photographer based in Savannah, Georgia. Follow her on Twitter at @cannoneyes.

Corrections appended: The number of Instagram followers given for Michelle Halpern’s account in mid-2017 was incorrect; we have since updated the follower count to the closest trackable number, in August of 2017. Halpern also did not give a direct “no comment” to the reporter’s request for interview. The original article also described a “commercial partnership” with One King’s Lane; that description has been updated to a “collaboration” since no money changed hands. Curbed regrets the errors.

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