Pikachu on a Bus
Pokémon Go launched in July 2016. The gameplay was engagingly simple – it encouraged people to rove across their home town in search of the colourful titular beasts. Once you encountered one, it started in motion a mini-game mechanic geared to be easy enough that, more often than not, you vanquished the Pokémon and added it to your roster. There were scores of them out there; the aim – though surely you don’t need reminding of the iconic trading cards / TV show / Gameboy game – was to catch them all.
Pokémon Go is (was) a fairly disposable, inessential game. Once you have got over the mechanics and the cool gimmick of being able to see the beasts in the real world, there’s not a lot there. I suspect – though I may be wrong – that if you ever did download it, you haven’t opened it for a while; you may have removed it from your phone entirely. Along with the simplistic mechanics, it is also limited by the sheer finitude of the universe of Pokémon characters: if the guiding principle of the game is to catch ‘em all – or even a decent, representative chunk of them – it doesn’t help if there aren’t that many to catch in the first place.
It’s only recently occurred to me that another reason that Pokémon Go flamed out so rapidly is that we already have an app installed on our phones that offers us exactly the same functionality – it’s just much, much richer, by a factor of tens or even hundreds and thousands. It used to be called Burbn, and when that was its name it was a clone of localised search-and-discovery app FourSquare. It was only after its founders decided to pivot specifically to photo-sharing that it got the name you’re more likely to know it by, which is Instagram.
The user experience in Instagram is identical to the user experience in Pokémon Go: you roam your home town (except this one works in other towns, too); perhaps you have been told where you might find something especially exciting; perhaps you are travelling under your own steam. When you find the thing you want to capture, you are generally able to: lighting and eyerolling dining companions aside, there really aren’t many barriers to getting a solid ‘gram of a dish, or some pretty flowers, or some cool décor. And then it’s yours, part of the gallery of similar denizens you have already collected; except this game allows you to share the stuff you’re proudest of with like-minded hunters who will reward your perseverance with cartoon hearts cuter than any Pikachu.
It gets better. Unlike Pokémon Go, the fodder for Instagram is endless. Or has become endless, as a technology shaped by people has in turn shaped people and spaces in its image. Now, the entire machinery of the contemporary food scene is geared towards the interests of the prospective Instagram collector: restaurants design their décor and plate their food with it in mind; buzz-generating lists highlight the must-eat dishes; fellow users share pictures daily, highlighting a whole host of new things to collect.
And it's gamified and codified a totally new set of behaviours in restaurants: if the photo is what matters, why spend twenty quid on a dish that tastes delicious if one that will get more likes costs half the price (and tastes half as good)? If the photo is what matters, and no one will see the room you took it in, why bother going to places where comfortable décor is priced into your bill? If the photo is what matters, once you’ve been there, got that shot – why wouldn’t you just move on? There’s so much more out there – and you’ve got to catch them all, even if you actually can’t ever possibly – so what cause do you have to linger?
This is not – historically speaking – the sort of consumer behaviour that has allowed restaurants to thrive. In the past, (as now) a restaurant’s business model was simple: to provide food and drink at a price which allowed an operator to make a margin. Since they were located in specific places – tied, wedded to that location – they traditionally relied on local trade, which generally meant they depended on repeat visits from locals; it was only the most celebrated restaurants – those deemed worthy of a special trip by Michelin, say – that saw their mix overweight on people from outside the concentric circles of a series of expanding (but still local) catchments. Since the longer someone stayed at their table, the more likely there were to order more food and more drink, things like comfort and friendly service were of paramount importance: provoking a customer’s early departure would be uneconomic, counterintuitive.
And so restaurants have had to change, too. In an economy where a significant chunk of the pleasure of the experience of eating out comes from taking photos of the process; in an economy where – if you get their attention – there can be a never-ending queue of people waiting to add you to their collection (people, it goes without saying, who have travel from far further than your local catchment), then the old business model is turned on its head. Why cultivate locals? If the photo is what matters, why waste money, time and effort on the other stuff (including making the food taste, rather than look, good?). Why try to keep people in any longer than they intend to? They are probably the party now seeking to get out of there as soon as possible – because what cause do they have to linger?
You can see this new paradigm in the aesthetic of relatively cheap, high-churn, low-comfort spots like Bao and Padella; in the rise of dining collectives like Street Feast that aggregate a murderer’s row of potential ‘grams in a single location; in dishes that look colourful and glorious but taste desaturated; in the ubiquity of those fucking Steelite plates; in the stripping back of decorative dining room flourishes in parallel with the elevation of visually striking colour palettes on the plate: Matcha green and charcoal black, blue wine and rainbow bagels. And, yes, this present moment may blow over – to be seen as regrettable, in retrospect, as Sexy Fish – but all the structural indicators are in the other direction: as novel new openings pile on top of novel new openings (all more cannily social media-enabled than the last), and as the upcoming restaurant apocalypse decimates the mid-market, leaving in its wake relatively cheap, high-churn, low-comfort spots, there is unlikely to be any scarcity from a supply point of view.
And demand? Here are some things that I, a thirty year-old man, have done. I have Instagrammed dishes and produce I did not eat. I have removed garnishes from dishes because they would have intruded into the shot. I have constructed wholly artificial vignettes, reorganising dishes on a table for the sake of the ‘gram. I have forbidden my dinner companions from so much as lifting a fork until I have photographed a dish. I have Instagrammed a photo on airplane mode, putting it through one set of filters and edits, and then reInstagrammed that unuploaded Instagram, putting through another set of filters and edits. I have emailed myself particularly special photographs that I have not got round to Instagramming because I was afraid of losing my phone and with it, the photos.
The point is that I was not always like this. Even six months ago, I would have been too ashamed to take PHOTOS OF MY DINNER in front of my parents; a few weeks ago, I was taking multiple shots of a parade of (very good, very photogenic) dishes at Clipstone. My behaviour has got more obsessive the longer I have used Instagram – I spend longer agonising over both the taking and uploading of photos than at any point in the past. The app has its hooks in me; the microdoses of endorphin have accumulated and accumulated and now I need them; I feel it like an itch on my brain. It’s quite bad.
Of course, there are still proper grown-up restaurants, and proper grown-up people. But it feels like something has changed, in a way that itself feels kind of irreversible. Going for dinner without your phone is as unthinkable as taking a photograph of something beautiful and not sharing it with your followers, a sure sign of restaurants and diners inadvertently conspiring together to shape new habits. We are all children of the Instagram Era now, even if we don’t want to be. Restaurants are, too. You can call something a fad as long and loudly as you want, but if it lasts longer than your business, does that really matter?