With more than 2.5 billion smartphone users worldwide, citizens are sharing countless social media images of their cities everyday. As they create and share knowledge and images of their cities, they are boosting what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called their cultural capital.
A recent study conducted collaboratively by the University of Cambridge and Nokia Bell Labs sought to apply Bourdieu’s argument to cities, claiming that his theory, known as the hysteresis effect, to urban communities. Bordieau argued that social success is determined by two factors: economic capital, or how much money people have and can spend, and cultural capital, or what people’s interests are.
The researchers argued that neighborhoods with high concentrations of the creative class would likely contribute the most to the city’s economic development.
The researchers chose almost 1.5 million photos from Flickr taken by people attending cultural events in London and New York between 2010 and 2015. They used these photos as tools to observe people’s ability to identify distinctive features of urban space that are normally not mapped or surveyed by censuses.
What the study found is a direct correlation between cultural presence – in this case represented by social media images – and the economic growth of neighborhoods.
Deprivation levels were measured in both cities – using data from London borough’s Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) and New York tracts’ Social Vulnerbaility Index (SVI). The data shows the reliance of London on cultural and economic capital to predict economic development, while in New York, economic capital was sufficient.
Can Social Media Images Spur Economic Development?
A 2016 article published for the Regional Studies Association found that, in the past couple of decades, place branding is often adopted on local and regional levels to attract business.
Almost half of the world’s global population are active social media users. Aalto University Professors Linda Elisabet and Ashish Kumar indicate the importance of social media users forming a brand community, as they are able to generate online social networks and community practices, which in turn can influence brand image.
The branding process ensures that a city attracts both local and foreign visitors to visit key destinations and attend cultural events. Social media interventions have expanded available media channels for consumers to archive and circulate contents.
With the addition to geo-tagging to social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, users are able to produce content-related data about their locations by creating what is referred to as metadata for photos and videos. This process has created a social space online for organizing, searching, and presenting data.
Corresponding to Bourdieu’s theory, brands and users that have more followers have more power on social media, hence are more effective at influencing perception of places.
A 2016 study conducted in the city of Izmir in Turkey examined the role of social media images within an urban branding context to reach all potential visitors. An Instagram account was created by Izmir Metropolitan Municipality.
Following the account’s content analysis, the results showed that the city’s brand managers were utilizing Instagram to create a spatial connection between social media users and the city on both an emotional and informational level. They later shifted focus, utilizing social media to announce some of the events that will take place in the city by circulating images and videos.