This is a superb long essay which uses an uncontroversial subject – the interior design of cafes and restaurants – to make a powerful point, namely, how social media can utterly destroy your sense of originality, individuality and ultimately your sense of identity. This article is adapted from Kyle Chayka’s book “Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture”.
Mr Chayka begins by telling us how around 15 years ago, he started behaving a specific way: “I often typed “hipster coffee shop” into the search bar as a shorthand because Yelp’s search algorithm always knew exactly what I meant by the phrase. It was the kind of cafe that someone like me – a western, twentysomething (at the time), internet-brained millennial acutely conscious of their own taste – would want to go to. Inevitably, I could quickly identify a cafe among the search results that had the requisite qualities: plentiful daylight through large storefront windows; industrial-size wood tables for accessible seating; a bright interior with walls painted white or covered in subway tiles; and wifi available for writing or procrastinating. Of course, the actual coffee mattered, too, and at these cafes you could be assured of getting a cappuccino made from fashionably light-roast espresso, your choice of milk variety and elaborate latte art. The most committed among the cafes would offer a flat white (a cappuccino variant that originated in Australia and New Zealand) and avocado toast, a simple dish, also with Australian origins, that over the 2010s became synonymous with millennial consumer preferences….
These cafes had all adopted similar aesthetics and offered similar menus, but they hadn’t been forced to do so by a corporate parent, the way a chain like Starbucks replicated itself. Instead, despite their vast geographical separation and total independence from each other, the cafes had all drifted toward the same end point. The sheer expanse of sameness was too shocking and new to be boring.”
In 2016, Mr Chayka realised that reading the same sort of material on social media and the net had made millions of people the world over veer towards the same sort of tastes thus creating a form of cultural deracination i.e. you could be someone who grew up Bangalore but your tastes would little or nothing to do with your upbringing in Bangalore because you wanted the same experiences that people in London or Singapore wanted: “In 2016, I wrote an essay titled Welcome to AirSpace, describing my first impressions of this phenomenon of sameness. “AirSpace” was my coinage for the strangely frictionless geography created by digital platforms, in which you could move between places without straying beyond the boundaries of an app, or leaving the bubble of the generic aesthetic. The word was partly a riff on Airbnb, but it was also inspired by the sense of vaporousness and unreality that these places gave me. They seemed so disconnected from geography that they could float away and land anywhere else. When you were in one, you could be anywhere.
My theory was that all the physical places interconnected by apps had a way of resembling one another. In the case of the cafes, the growth of Instagram gave international cafe owners and baristas a way to follow one another in real time and gradually, via algorithmic recommendations, begin consuming the same kinds of content. One cafe owner’s personal taste would drift toward what the rest of them liked, too, eventually coalescing. On the customer side, Yelp, Foursquare and Google Maps drove people like me – who could also follow the popular coffee aesthetics on Instagram – toward cafes that conformed with what they wanted to see by putting them at the top of searches or highlighting them on a map.
To court the large demographic of customers moulded by the internet, more cafes adopted the aesthetics that already dominated on the platforms. Adapting to the norm wasn’t just following trends but making a business decision, one that the consumers rewarded. When a cafe was visually pleasing enough, customers felt encouraged to post it on their own Instagram in turn as a lifestyle brag, which provided free social media advertising and attracted new customers. Thus the cycle of aesthetic optimisation and homogenisation continued.”
And then certain people started speaking up against this deracination because they noticed that the new homogeneity was not inclusive: “A South African academic named Sarita Pillay Gonzalez noticed the aesthetic in Cape Town in the late 2010s, when she was working there at an urbanism research organisation. Gonzalez saw it as a form of gentrification, or even an echo of colonialism in a postcolonial country. Generically minimalist coffee shops were popping up on Kloof Street in Cape Town. When we spoke, Gonzalez identified them by their “long wooden tables, wrought-iron finishings, those lightbulbs that hang, hanging plants”. The aesthetic itself was spreading into different venues as well: beer halls, gastropubs, art galleries, Airbnbs….
According to Gonzalez, the style marked “a globally accessible space. You’re able to hop from Bangkok to New York to London to South Africa to Mumbai and you can find that same feel. You can ease into that space because it’s such a familiar space.” …
It wasn’t just the spaces that were homogenous, but also the customers, Gonzalez observed: “If you go into the cafes, they’re predominantly white. But [Kloof Street] is historically a neighbourhood for people of colour.” Only certain types of people were encouraged to feel comfortable in the zone of AirSpace, and others were actively filtered out. It required money and a certain fluency for someone to be comfortable with the characteristic act of plunking down a laptop on one of the generic cafes’ broad tables and sitting there for hours, akin to learning the unspoken etiquette of a cocktail bar in a luxury hotel. The AirSpace cafes “are oppressive, in the sense that they are exclusive and expensive”, Gonzalez said. When whiteness and wealth are posed as the norm, a kind of force field of aesthetics and ideology keeps out anyone who does not fit the template.”
And thus was born a generation of businesses who hate algorithm and spurn the internet: “Pursuing Instagrammability is a trap: the fast growth that comes with adopting a recognisable template, whether for a physical space or purely digital content, gives way to the daily grind of keeping up posts and figuring out the latest twists of the algorithm – which hashtags, memes or formats need to be followed. Digital platforms take away agency from the business owners, pressuring them to follow in lockstep rather than pursue their own creative whims. There’s a risk as well in hewing too closely to trends. If a trope becomes stale, the algorithmic audiences won’t engage with it, either. That’s why the perfect generic coffee shop design keeps changing slightly, adding more potted plants or taking a few away. In the algorithmic feed, timing is everything.
The other strategy is to remain consistent, not worrying about trends or engagement and simply sticking to what you know best – staying authentic to a personal ethos or brand identity in the deepest sense. In a way, coffee shops are physical filtering algorithms, too: they sort people based on their preferences, quietly attracting a particular crowd and repelling others by their design and menu choices. That kind of community formation might be more important in the long run than attaining perfect latte art and collecting Instagram followers. That is ultimately what Anca Ungureanu was trying to do in Bucharest. “We are a coffee shop where you can meet people like you, people that have interests like you,” she said.”
As we look forward to finding out how those rebels against the algos are faring, we note that Britannia in Mumbai, Roshan di Kulfi in Delhi, Arsalan in Kolkata, MTR in Bangalore – all of these institutions owe their longevity to their unique identity and taste, not because they are upto date with the latest trends.
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