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  • Writer's pictureChristiaan Gey van Pittius

Doing it for a like on Instagram - What a farce!

Updated: Aug 11, 2023



Worldwide 3.96 billion people use social media platforms, which is 58,11% of the global population (13+ years old). The Global Web Index shows that the average person has nine (8.8) social media accounts, and 40% of these users use social media for work purposes. According to Statista.com, the most popular platform is Facebook, with 2.7 billion active users, followed by YouTube, which has 2 billion users and Instagram, with 1,08 billion active users (Dean, 2021). The integration of these online media platforms in the lives of billions of people has been remarkably fast. We are still learning how big an economic disruptor it has become and how influential these mediums are in affecting our increasingly globalised world.


In a Guardian article published in 2018, written by Oliver Wainwright, he interviews architect David Tickle, from Hassell, who says he first became aware of Instagram’s influence while presenting an entry to a competition for a new public space in Sydney. He recalls that “One of the judges said he really liked our scheme because it was ‘highly Instagrammable’. We joked about it then, but it’s now become part of our vocabulary and an important way that we think about projects” (Wainwright, 2018).


Instagram, which Facebook owns, currently has captured the attention of 10% of the earth’s population. Instagram has “become one of the most influential forces in the way our environments are being shaped,” says Wainwright. He writes that Instagram has become a primary source of interest that drives clients and designers’ ambitions. “The idea of “doing it for the ’gram” has moved from the preserve of Like-hungry teens to board meeting discussions and multimillion-pound budgets” (Wainwright, 2018).


In a previous post, I discussed the credibility of an architectural trend called “Vertical Forests”, introduced in 2011 by Italian architect Stefano Boeri. I questioned the “green” typology as being based on either science or aesthetic fantasy. The term “green wrapping” (architectural equivalent to the term “greenwashing” in business practice) was identified as a culprit in poor design decisions made by architectural designers due to the aesthetic nature of its “instagramability”.


In my previous post, the question arose as to why online magazine and social media platforms lacked pertinent information on the sustainability of current and proposed projects on which they are reporting. Do we understand the power digital media platforms has on sustainable design decision making?


I hypothesise that architects are influenced by the “Instagram culture” to produce elaborate designs based on visual aesthetics, from the view of specified points, and not to achieve global (EU and UN) sustainability goals and targets. In Ireland, the government has committed to policy development towards a low-carbon future by introducing the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill. The capital has its own Dublin Climate Action Plan, which both clearly has ambitious goals to transform the economy into a sustainable business environment. However, is this being reflected in mass digital media.


My concern is that these platforms’ social influence will inhibit an architects’ professional progression into a post-fossil-fuel economy. The obsession with “follows” and “likes” on social platforms could regress the profession and limit a designer’s tangible relevance in a new sustainable era.


Are architectural designers and professionals being influenced by social media to make less sustainable design decisions?


The data presented below were collected using Similarweb.com: The data reflect the numbers in March 2021. The percentage data relates to the proportion of all traffic to the magazine website from the Social Platforms listed. The data on “follows” was collected from each social platform on 6 April 2021.


Table of Digital Magazines and the number of follows/ volume of traffic


The following table represents the number of articles listed under the keyword searches listed at the top of the table: “Carbon Management”; “Carbon Audit”; “Carbon Neutral”; “Carbon positive”; Decarbonisation; “Embodied Carbon”; Sustainability; “Carbon”; “Carbon Footprint”.


Table of 5 prominent digital magazines and the number of articles listed containing the keywords above



A graph showing the relationship between the number of “sustainable design” articles with the popularity of the digital magazine website



In the graph, you can see that the ‘visitors’ line (popularity of the digital magazine) in relation to the number of articles on sustainable design is not linear. The websites Architectural Digest (AD) and Dezeen, the 2nd and 3rd most popular news sources, has fewer articles on sustainable design than the 11th most popular source, the Architectural Record (AR). The AR has the same amount of articles on sustainable design as Dezeen and AD combined. Combined AD and Dezeen has 10 000 000 visitors per month and AR only 220 000.


It seems that the popularity of a media platform does not relate to the quality of its content; in terms of sustainability and carbon management. Even though architects and designers would indicate that they make environmentally conscious decisions, this contrasts the Architectural Digest platform’s popularity. It contains minuscule amounts of content relating to low-carbon design and sustainability.


Instagram and Pinterest are incredibly popular as being sources of design inspiration. Both these social media platforms are image orientated with none or little text connected to it. This shows that the visual characteristics of architecture are the main driver in design inspiration and not the science of architecture which would need text to convey a message.


In Ireland, the Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN) questions the claims of sustainable architecture as normative building materials are continued to be used in construction. This technical and scientific data would be difficult to convey over a single image on social media. This problem is a challenge that should be put to the online magazines on improving the message of sustainability to their enormous audiences.


In a bizarre twist, Dezeen published an article where the author, Will Jennings (2019), stated, “So what can architects do to pull back from clients’ contractual demands for Instagrammable moments? Can an un-Instagrammable architecture exist? Perhaps architects should design provocatively ugly architecture, buildings that demand not to be photographed by virtue of not conforming to the Instagram aesthetic conventions of form, colour, wow or irony.”


In this transition of the global economy towards a low-carbon future, the ecocentric paradigm shift of the built environment and the prolific digital environment still need to align their goals and functionality. There is beauty in technical sophistication and sustainability – it is just not visible on your newsfeed yet.

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