Presentational place

Tallinn, Estonia

Today, walking in the old city of Tallinn, enchanted by the narrow cobblestone streets and tall brick buildings, my gaze drawn upwards by the spire of a church, I noticed a small spherical object floating lazily upwards. A balloon? But near colourless against the grey sky, and shifting shape, warbling, rippling in the wind, I realised it was a soccer ball sized bubble. What a strange thing. Adrift from its creator and soaring precariously upward above the city it was a pleasant sight, like a small detail placed carefully in the corner of a painting, a charming addition to the scene as a whole. A few more minutes of aimless sightseeing and I noticed another, not as strange this time – where there is one there should be two, it was scooting along at street level pursued gleefully by a small child wrapped up in a winter jacket. Soon after I found a cluster of the undulating orbs rushing toward me from the same direction. Swept by the wind, they phased between a bright rainbow of colours like excited squid. As the bubbles passed I spotted a gathered crowd and beyond that, their creator, like a conductor of sorts, with two large sticks aloft (fishing rods, it turns out) from which the bubbles vigorously emerged. The man was a street performer and peddled his bubble creations for tips. Small kids stood by enchanted, waiting eagerly for a chance to jump and strike the bubbles from the sky, and tourists waited also, with their phone or camera ready. The bubbles emerged from a sudsy apex at the meeting of the two sticks in a blaze of phosphorescent colour. Slick with detergent and fanned by the winter wind they billowed out quickly, reaching three metres of length in a second or two. A long multicoloured ribbon in carnivalesque colour. A psychedelic bottle blown of flimsy, airy, wavering glass. At times when the wind was less strong (or perhaps when the conductor moved his rods in a different manner) the bubbles likewise emerged differently, sometimes popping out concurrently in a burst of 10 or so globes ranging from tennis ball to swiss ball in size. Sometimes the conductor blew onto them gently and part of the outer wall would spill over into the centre to create a bubble within a bubble. Immediately brilliant, fluorescent, thick with detergent, a riot of colour, the bubbles lost some of their brilliance (evaporation?) if they lived long enough to find themselves swept along the street. But then it wasn’t long before a new batch emerged to delight the crowd, the conductor repeating the process every minute or so.

Whether purposefully or by chance, the man was set up on the very corner outside the Tallinn City Tourist Information Office. This was interesting to me as the bubbles contributed very obviously to what I have been thinking of lately as “presentational place”. That is a location which has been shaped specifically to facilitate online self-presentation. How did those bubbles do that? Because they were bright, cheerful, whimsical and inviting, they suited the type of image that people like to present online. In their dynamic, roving nature they were also interactive. Tourists waited with baited breath and chased them as they appeared, posing in front with a cheeky outstretched finger, or a mock hug, for a friend to snap. The bubbles moved with a rhythm and logic of their own (albeit one influenced by the breeze) and the tourists followed, a game in which one could never be sure of the outcome making it all the more enjoyable. The conductor had set up a small speaker playing feel-good pop music, encouraging the participation of those who stopped. Sometimes the bubbles had to be dodged or ducked. Riding the wind tunnel created by the building-lined street they swept along as if a natural part of the landscape, adding to the atmosphere and catching the attention of passersby. Kids lined up like stray dogs waiting for scraps, delighted if they were able to snatch one of the rippling shapes out of the air with a tiny pop of splattered detergent. Many people took photos, and these airy colourful globes surely added an eye-catching dimension to the snaps in which they appeared. Perhaps the conductor’s act had even been developed with tourist photography in mind? Perhaps it was requested by the Tourist Office? Was it just coincidence that the shiny yellow-pink gradient which shone from the bubbles so accurately evoked the colour scheme of the Instagram  icon on my phone? Perhaps so, but the connection was unmissable in my eyes.

There is nothing new about commercial places being designed to attract attention in order to provide a focal point for sightseeing and tourist photography. Take, for example, Wall Drug, an American roadside stop located in the small town of Wall, South Dakota which, for nearly a century, has utilised a heavy campaign of marketing on highway billboards to draw in tourists. The stop has offered a diverse range of promotional services such as free ice water, 5c coffee, historical exhibitions, and life-sized models of real (dinosaurs) and fantastical (jackalope) creatures to encourage tourists to stop. This disparate amalgam of atrractions and promotional strategies means that the site is famous for being, “nothing other than a celebrated place” (Franklin & Crang, 2001) with its appeal based on brand recognition and attention value. While the atmosphere at Wall Drug is famously kitschy and liable to change, its novelty and strong brand name meant that many tourists were eager to promote the location through word of mouth, bumper stickers or even home-made highway billboards, thus contributing to its ongoing success. Meanwhile, back in Estonia, the bubbles released by the conductor transformed the otherwise normal street corner into a “presentational place”, a backdrop against which online tourist photos could be taken. It can be seen that such a place also utilises attention value by deploying an interesting visual feature which adds value to tourists’ photos. In order to explore this idea of presentational place further, a good place to look is recent developments in the restaurant sector. Here, articles in the mainstream press explain how modern eateries are increasingly focusing on details such as lighting, camera angles and showpiece features or dishes which look good within the square Instagram frame in order to entice customers (Brown, Fast Company; Newton, The Verge). In a similar way to Wall Drug, these developments arguably come at the expense of substance, in this case, the food served in these eateries. As Brown highlights, in such a presentational place, what the meal tastes like is indeed less important than how good it looks:

“Of course that [taste] might not even matter. For a certain iPhone-wielding section of society, proof of purchase is the only thing that matters. …  Restaurant owners now understand that if they play their cards right, their customers will not only pay for a meal but beam their plates to hundreds or thousands of followers.”

As a good-looking meal translates into visual social media more easily than a good-tasting meal, restaurants’ preference may slide toward the former in order to secure the promotion of eaters. The same may be true of presentational places in an experiential sense, as long as a good photo can be produced, the rest of the experience may not matter as much. Where presentational places differ from the kitschy attractions of old, however, is that their boundaries are extended into the digital environment where promotion occurs largely at the hands of amateur users rather than the entity itself. Thanks to social media, physical places also have an virtual component (virtual place) formed at the junction of both professional and user-created representations. This consists of the place’s official website and social media channels (if it indeed has these), and, likely more substantively, of user created narratives such as images sorted by hashtags, personal narratives collated on a review site, blog posts, comments or personal messages. The networked nature of online place can mean massive exposure for the physical location (as happened with Trolltunga) which is great for businesses but sometimes hard to deal with given the realities of actual physical space (capacity limits, infrastructure, impact on adjacent properties).

What then is the consequence of presentational place for tourism? If places are designed to facilitate online self-presentation, then the logic of the online platforms where this presentation occurs then comes to imbue these tourist places and the social interactions that occur there. Online self-presentation is far from value neutral and is shaped by the platforms which host it and their imperatives as commercial entities. In visual social media, presentation takes a surface focus on the visible elements of a given scene. In the case of the restaurants above this is translated in customers seeking the Instagram-focussed imperatives of nice lighting, shiny colours, attention-grabbing features and murals or product packaging featuring pleasant, witty phrases. Such features are ‘taught’ to tourists by highly followed social media tastemakers and become repeated in the hermeneutic circle of representation, infiltrating the form of tourism as a whole. Thus, tourist performance and narratives must be seen as being shaped by the imperatives of social media platforms and the algorithims, economies, influencers, user cultures or platform practices through which these imperatives are enacted.

How does this relate to the bubble conductor? Perhaps he souped up the detergent to make the bubbles more vividly colourful to get more tips? Or, perhaps, like the rock ledge at Trolltunga he finds himself, by pure coincidence, to be something that looks good on Instagram and is helpless to the developing circle of representations produced by the tourists who visit? Either way we may understand that presentational places play an important role in ICT mediated tourism and will likely be increasingly sought after by tourists as important showpieces within the consumptive mode of sightsharing.


The conductor with crowd participant (the author also had a go!)


Bubble background


Place enhanced


Bubble filter


A presentational place at Tallinn Airport. A cleverly designed environment (indeed, a gate) which invites the user to take a photo of a charming natural scene from a perspective that make it seem realistic. The rustic bridge and calm forest are then juxtaposed with the airline desks and (potentially open) door leading to the airplane. The interplay of distinct elements creates a fun and striking image which can be used on social media. Notice the request for tourists to “share your experience”  provided alongside the #visitestonia hashtag.  Eye-catching presentational places like this one are a staple of the sightsharing mode of touristic consumption and may be created as part of a promotional or business strategy.


From the pink circle


From sightseeing to sightsharing

Looking back on my experiences at Trolltunga, I am convinced that travel is a vehicle for defining self. This idea is shaped by a variety of intersecting moments witnessed as part of my fieldwork. Below I shall try to explain them. Following which, I will also explain the way in which, catalysed by the integration of social media into the tourist experience, tourism (and the presentation of self entailed) shift from a consumptive mode based on physical presence toward one enacted through physical presence and the sharing of personal narratives travel narratives. In this new mode, simply visiting and viewing a tourist location does not satisfy tourists’ needs, value is achieved via the recognition of one’s exploits from others.

Trolltunga feels like a cross between a rugged mountain hike and mainstream tourist destination. The juxtaposition of these disparate elements on site, (personified in the contrast between specialist hikers and sightseeing tourists in groups) emphasised the value which the picture at the end holds as part of the touristic experience. People who seemingly weren’t interested in outdoors culture (or who were outdoors novices) looked out of place in the quite extreme conditions. Despite inadequate equipment (sneakers rather than hiking boots, umbrellas instead of rain gear, shopping bags substituted for backpacks) and moments of self-doubt, seen in strained faces or pained pauses on the side of the track, it felt like most people were determined to soldier on until the very end. While the views on the way are breathtaking in their own right, they cannot fully capture the the site’s iconic appeal. Inevitably it is the photo opportunity on the rock ledge at the end of the hike which defines Trolltunga. On the other side of the coin, I wondered why the seasoned hikers bothered with Trolltunga at all? Having met some, well-provisioned, and coming from very far away, to hike on such a crowded track. There must be many similar, more peaceful Norwegian mountain hikes available for keen hikers. Presumably, it is the photo opportunity that forms the common element which draws this broad range of people to the site. So, if the photo opportunity is such a strong motivator, then why? The rock ledge at Trolltunga is a “sublime stage” and is hence a powerful place for performances of self. The photographs captured at Trolltunga are valuable as artefacts for online self-presentation. Images from such a visually impressive (and, increasingly, famous) landscape can be used as an eye-catching showpiece that bolsters the online self through attention to the feat itself and the connotations which it alludes to and inspires in viewers. These connotational meanings can be shaped by the presentation of the photo (through elements such as the caption, tags, or comments), and also through the contextual background of Trolltunga. I would argue that travel material is frequently deployed within the identity construction project given its positive connotations of worldliness, exoticness, adventure and self-growth. The Trolltunga rock ledge presents a particularly striking travel image, which, given it’s stage-like quality is also well-suited for presenting the self. A perfect combination for social media.

Self performance has been approached in theory on tourism as a mode of creative, individualised consumption. Such theory supports a view of travel as a form of identity construction. Indeed, travel provides a liminal space which is well-suited to identity development via its connotations to the hero and personal transformation. The unfamiliar encountered in foreign scapes promises a respite from familiar environments and social interactions, and a window for change. Today, as travel is shared across online platforms and the audience follows touristic experiences almost in real-time, the identity construction project of the journey is further foregrounded. Identity construction is thus interwoven with how tourist places and events are consumed. The main mode of touristic consumption has so far been conceived of as sightseeing. Within sightseeing, consumption of the tourist destination is achieved by being physically present in the landscape, and, usually, obtaining some kind of momentos (such as photographs, postcards or souvenirs). The touristic destination is seen (and felt, tasted, smelled, heard etc) and at some point after told, preferably, with the use of items (photos, souvenirs, etc) from the location. Based on my experiences at Trolltunga, and considering the integration of ICTs into touristic experience as both a method, and, motivation for touristic consumption, I consider a new development in touristic consumption: “sightsharing”. As noted in the above account, travel stories are far from a new phenomena and these were an important facet of sightseeing. This sharing was, however, an accessory or residual benefit to the consumptive act of visiting the site. In the ICT era, the practice of storytelling is integrated within the act of consumption itself as tourists share narratives on site and in a way that is interactive, allowing for dynamic co-consumption of touristic experiences via ongoing exchanges of storytelling and feedback. With the social media audience available in this way, physical presence is no longer sufficient as a way of experiencing touristic place. Now social media adds value by providing a channel which amplifies the moment and allows for benefits like feedback and esteem. Thus, in sightsharing, travel stories are not only a motivation or goal of experience but a dimension of experience as self-presentation and feedback routines are interwoven throughout the journey and influence how it occurs. As a consequence, tourism experiences and landscapes themselves change shape as they are influenced by the possibilities available within online interactions.  I realised this in Trolltunga as I noticed a number of tourists undertaking the hike with props, or special outfits. Why else would you bother carting this extra weight on such a difficult hike unless the end photo was so important? Similarly, the turn-taking, and posing behaviours which take place at the ledge itself highlight the presentational nature of this place. With sighsharing, we will see the rise of Gopros, drones, tripods and other image capture tools as important elements of touristic experience and concomitantly a decline in more typical tourist souvenirs like postcards, models, magnets or t shirts which had complimented (or introduced) travel stories previously.

Within the sightseeing era, the expense and equipment necessary for analogue photography rendered photographic practice more deliberate and less spontaneous. Moreover, these images could not be shared until they had been printed and the audience encountered. The experience was being there first and foremost, with sharing a distant second. Within sightsharing, the portable, easy to use nature of smartphones facilitates photographic practice and allows people to engage in this behaviour whilst on the go as well as allowing potentially immediate sharing of images. Being there and sharing become one and the same, travel stories an automatic (or automated, i.e. geo-data) part of tourism. Sociotechnical developments including the increasing availability of smartphones, user-friendly editing software and internet access, and a culture of personal profiles and life-sharing fomented by social media platforms, drive the phenomena of sightsharing in which travellers share in order to consume. With the availability of info, narratives need to be personalised with the travellers’ own stamp, thus the trend of recording self image. Just being there, seeing the site, is no longer enough. Pics or it didn’t happen.

  Sightseeing Sightsharing
Mode of consumption Presence Story
Record of experience Momento (photo/ postcard/ souvenir) Personal image
Time of sharing Shared after experience Shared during experience
Benefit of sharing Static capital gain Dynamic, interactive capital gain
Theoretical context Tourist gaze Participatory culture/ Platform society
Tourists’ relationship with the touristic site Audience Performer