At Instagram hotspot, LOLs trump likes

City Talk | Michelle Fitzpatrick 28 Nov 2019

Crammed into a supermarket trolley, Kiki Malliora squeals with laughter as she rolls past her sister at Cologne's pop-up selfie museum, where visitors says having fun outweighs the hunt for "likes" in a changing social media landscape.

"Sure, the setting is fake," says the 38-year-old office administrator. "But what matters to me is that the picture is real and that people can see I'm having a good time."

With bubblegum-pink balloons, neon-colored ball pits and retro American diner as eye-popping, ready-made backdrops, the Supercandy

Museum is an Instagrammer's dream.

But the attraction's three-month run comes as a new wave of social media users prize authenticity over staged photos, and celebrity influencers are increasingly honest about the effort that goes into keeping up a picture-perfect feed.

American singer Demi Lovato attracted almost 10 million Instagram "likes" when she posted an unedited bikini shot revealing her cellulite, while Hollywood actress Drew Barrymore showed herself crying on a "difficult and not so pretty" day.

Instagram is even experimenting with making the "like" button invisible in response to concerns over its mental health impact. Critics say younger users especially report feeling anxious or self-conscious if their posts don't perform well.

"When I see those elaborately staged pictures, I just think: god, that must have taken a lot of work," says Malliora.

Younger sister Nathalie, who keeps her Instagram account private for pre-approved followers only to see any uploaded photos and videos she shares, nods in agreement.

Pop-up attractions like the one in Cologne have sprung up across the globe in recent years, offering anyone armed with a smartphone a plethora of brashly colored, playful settings to liven up their social media presence.

The Supercandy Museum returned to the western German city this month after a previous six-month stint drew over 42,000 mainly female visitors, with full-price tickets costing 29 euros (HK$250).

The man behind Supercandy, Frank Karch, says ticket sales were "noticeably up" for the second edition, this time located in an industrial building in the city's hip Ehrenfeld district.

"Eventually this craze too will run its course," he admits. But the emergence of creators championing unfiltered, real-life pictures isn't a threat to his business model, he adds, arguing that social media was diversifying so much there was a niche for everyone. "The overarching mega-trend will stay the same it has been since the invention of painting: wanting to have a nice picture of yourself," he says.

Social media expert Klemens Skibicki, a professor at the Cologne Business School, agrees but says the gulf is widening between those who see social media as a hobby and those who use it as a tool to promote themselves or a brand, with some influencers earning enough to quit their day jobs.

Eschewing "selfies," which anyone can take, influencers tend to opt more for "posies" taken by someone else, often a professional photographer, he notes, to keep posts looking polished and aspirational.

At Supercandy, German reality TV couple Ginger Costello Wollersheim and Bert Wollersheim -- who have 85,000 followers between them -- play with piles of pink US$100 bills as their photographer snapps away. "If you don't post good pictures for a while you get fewer likes and people unfollow," says Ginger, 33, smiling broadly. "So we're here to make beautiful, creative photos."

Long-haired husband Bert, 68, a regular face in Germany's tabloid press, says they are not "fanatical" about chasing "likes" because "coming here is fun. It changes our story up a bit and that's good for us professionally."

But not everyone sees any appeal in what is essentially a giant photo studio.

Chatting with friends in a busy Cologne shopping street, high school student Anna-Maria, 17, cringes at the thought of forking out money to pose against an artificial backdrop.

"That's way too fake," she says. "I prefer spontaneous snapshots, where someone is laughing or in the middle of doing something. "And I'd only post a selfie if my friends were in it too."


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