Just before the end of Instagram's wild year — bought by Facebook for $1 billion, publicly eviscerated by its community for new privacy policies — the photo-sharing app posted a list of the 10 most Instagrammed places in 2012.
Although top honors went to two locations in Bangkok — Suvarnabhumi Airport and Siam Paragon, a mall — the rest of the list read like a local guidebook. Southern California was home to five of the 10 locations on the list: Disneyland (third), Los Angeles International Airport (sixth), Dodger Stadium (seventh), Staples Center (ninth) and the Santa Monica Pier (10th).
In fact, the only locations not in Bangkok or Southern California were Times Square (fourth), AT&T Park in San Francisco (fifth) and the Eiffel Tower (eighth).
OK, I know what you're thinking. A Thai mall is more popular than Disneyland? And Dodger Stadium's more photogenic than the Eiffel Tower?
Well, not exactly. I joined Instagram last year and have spent the last year diligently, if not scientifically, studying the app (you all take far too many unappetizing food photos). With my iPhone in hand, and my trusty Lo-Fi filter at the ready, I set off to find out why Instagram loves L.A.
Southern California has two things going for it when it comes to pumping up our Instagram stats. According to stats from Alexa.com, Instagram is very popular in L.A., ranking 33rd on a list of most-visited sites by local residents. (In L.A., New York and Atlanta, Instagram ranks 33rd, higher than any other U.S. cities.) Also, Los Angeles had a record-breaking year for tourism , with 41.4 million people coming to town in 2012. (New York City had 50.9 million tourists in 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available).
Instagram is kind of the perfect app for L.A., says Marissa Gluck, managing partner of media research company Radar Research (and L.A. Weekly contributor). “It's highly visual and we live in a city that celebrates visual culture. It's social, and it rewards a certain amount of narcissism — which we also have in high supply.”
Those factors could make for an extraordinarily high number of photo sharers uploading selfies-with–palm trees. But putting our image-obsessed tendencies aside, it would appear that Instagrammers have an exceptionally high desire not just to take photos here but also to let people know they took them somewhere in L.A.
To become a popular location according to Instagram's metrics, a variety of user-influenced factors comes into play. In its 2012 list, Instagram counted only photos that were geo-located to a specific place. So if you look at the Instagrams taken at LAX, the 2012 rankings don't count when a user simply takes a photo at LAX , even if he uses a caption (“Stuck at LAX”) or a hashtag (“#lax”) to describe it. The user must choose to add the photo to his “Photo Map” and pick “Los Angeles International Airport” “Los Angeles International Airport” from a location-based list. (Instagram actually uses the locations created by Foursquare, the app in which you can “check in” to places.)
Therefore, on-site connectivity probably helps (although the service does let you tag the photos later). This might explain why Disneyland came in at No. 3, even though Disney World's Magic Kingdom in Orlando gets a million more visitors per year, according to a 2011 Theme Entertainment Association report. Disneyland has excellent cell service throughout the park, whereas online forums about Disney World often complain about the spotty coverage.
Then there's the device issue: Instagram works only on Apple and Android operating systems. The fact that the top two locations are in Thailand — as visually dramatic as they are — likely is due to an increase in tourism plus a spike in the ownership of these particular smartphones in Asia. (Many Thai celebrities have recently joined Instagram, boosting its popularity.)
So with all those qualifiers — and putting aside Disneyland, since it's an obvious overachiever (and it's in Orange County) — why are so many L.A. locations on this list?
Sure, we might have enthusiastic sports fans, but the reason two of our sports venues made it is likely just a numbers game. Nobody's posting photos of Staples Center , of course — it's what's happening inside that counts. And it's the only arena in the country to host four professional sports franchises (two NBA teams, one NFL team and a WNBA team) and both the Lakers and Clippers, plus the Stanley Cup–winning Kings, all made it into their respective playoff seasons last year, meaning extra games. Not to mention the rest of the 250 events Staples Center hosts each year. Lady Gaga's Born This Way Ball rolled into town recently, flooding the Staples Center tag with thousands of little monsters.
Using that theory, it makes sense that Dodger Stadium is on the list: It holds 56,000 fans — making it the largest-capacity baseball stadium in the country — and saw fairly healthy attendance in 2012. (So why did the Giants beat the Dodgers, at least in Instagram terms? The Giants won the World Series, adding playoff games and pushing AT&T Park to No. 5.)
But there's another reason Dodger Stadium is so appealing, says Josh Tucker, social media coordinator for the Dodgers. “We have one of the most beautiful backdrops of all professional sports. Most teams don't have picturesque mountains, where you can see sunsets. And the ballpark is so photogenic as well.” I'd agree, as Dodger Stadium is one of three original Major League Baseball stadiums still in use (only Fenway and Wrigley are older), and every brick-faced Stadium 2.0 built in the last decade looks pretty much the same. In fact, the stadium is undergoing its first major renovation to preserve the distinctive, midcentury angles that frame the palm-fringed hillsides of Chavez Ravine.
There's also a concerted effort on behalf of the Dodgers to encourage Instagram activity, Tucker says. “We have a very passionate group of Instagrammers.” This season, the Dodgers are launching a rewards program, where people who post or comment on Instagram photos can win points.
As part of the stadium's renovation, Tucker says, the Dodgers are adding a WiFi network and cellular antenna , specifically to improve connectivity from mobile phones. “Not only do we encourage social interaction, we want to reward people for being at the stadium,” he says.
So what about LAX, which has neither numbers — it's only the sixth-busiest airport in the world — nor incentives? Of course, airports give you time to waste, accounting for the shots of boarding passes and layover beers. Plus LAX added free WiFi this year.
But again, like Dodger Stadium, I'd say architecture and topography are on our side. The hovering Theme Building, featured in plenty of Instagrams, turns an L.A. arrival into an episode of The Jetsons. Just as many photos are taken sailing in or out of town, a wing slicing diagonally through the guaranteed Pacific vistas or the glittery, black carpet of sprawl. Is there a more dramatic way to enter or exit a city?
Up next: what about the Santa Monica Pier?
I had convincing, data-backed theories for almost every L.A. location on the list. The one place that kept confounding me was the Santa Monica Pier. Sure, it's got sand and a solar-powered Ferris wheel and a Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. But why there?
I asked Alex Fraser (@urbanpirahnatwo), a Minneapolis writer and photographer in town to play in an Ultimate Frisbee tournament, who positioned himself just south of the pier to catch the sunset on a recent Sunday. While he shot high-res photos with a DSLR, he also snapped away on his iPhone 5 for fun, uploading a few super-saturated photos of the beach. He doesn't always geo-locate his photos, but he did here. “If it's an obvious landmark, I usually will,” he says. “I take what seems to be Instagram's best suggestion for location name.”
He got the shot just as the sun slipped behind the horizon. He applied a bluish Hudson filter and uploaded his finished photo. Capturing the 80-degree January day, the orange light evaporating in a cloudless sky, Fraser was not surprised that half of Instagram's top locations were in Southern California. “All popular tourist destinations with a lot of sunshine and blue skies,” he says. “Seems to make sense in particular for Instagram, where you'd want to post a photo that you were there.”
Looking at the hundreds of photos geo-tagged to the Santa Monica Pier that day, I saw it, too: It's one of the few places in L.A. that reads, universally, quintessentially, as Los Angeles. (Even though it's in Santa Monica.) I scrolled through the photos of people posing with the setting sun, dancing on the edge of the continent, where it tumbles into the Pacific Ocean. Tourists, locals — everyone makes it here at some point. This is a place where you can definitively, flawlessly show someone that you were having a good time in L.A.
Once upon a time we bought postcards. We used other people's photos to brag about where we went, dropping them in the mail so they could make their way back home, while we were still somewhere having fun. Now Instagram lets us snap our own postcard — maybe even with us in it — and instantly mass-dispatch it to everyone we know. Applying a golden filter soaks the image in nostalgia, and geo-locating it is like the postmark. The caption is the message. Monday night, @johnnykryptonite wrote this below his shot of the dizzying lights of the pier: “Wish you were here.”