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The City Authentic: How Cities Learn to Act Like Reality TV Stars and Instagram Influencers

Authors: David A. Banks*, University at Albany, SUNY
Topics: Urban Geography, Tourism Geography, Social Theory
Keywords: rust belt, authenticity, political economy, tourism, branding, spotification, attention economy, digital
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Cities, like the people that live in them, are subject to the attention economy. Social media platforms aggregate users’ tastes and reconstitute them as advertising and curated content. What happens on our screens, however, are not limited to the virtual and intangible. Our desires and aspirations —once they are collected, collated, and sold to businesses, governments, and each other— reappear in shop windows, urban economic development plans, and interior design. In this presentation I show how cities are transforming themselves to appeal to modern desires for authentic urban living through the attention-grabbing tactics of YouTube influencers and reality TV stars. Like the City Beautiful and Rational City movements of the last century, the elites in charge of the City Authentic movement use the latest technology —social media and smartphones— to transform the way we experience cities, choose where to live, and who profits from it all. The result is Jane Jacobs’ aesthetic at the scale and moral valence of Robert Moses.

This presentation begins with some examples of what the City Authentic looks like to the average person: Instagram ads for industrial-looking loft apartments, locally made craft beverages, and tote bags displaying city pride. I then outline the government initiatives in the North American "Rust Belt" that are indicative of what I am calling the City Authentic movement. Finally, I point to some of the likely directions City Authentic politics will take us including the “spotification” of real estate and algorithm-managed segregation.

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