I don’t mean to brag, but I have been in a house before. In fact, before the coronavirus pandemic sent us all into lockdown in the beginning of 2020, I had been in several houses, some of them owned by friends and family, and others rented out to me by strangers on AirBnB. In my travels, I had stayed in nice places and not-so-nice places, but what they all shared in common was the fact that many of the places I visited before 2020 did not have my stuff in them.
At some point in the past few months, however, I began to forget what other people’s stuff looked like. That is until the dreaded algorithm fed me a post from a boutique hotel called Ecohouse Merisi. Located in Merisi, Georgia, approximately 6,000 miles away from where I write to you right now, the hotel is the kind of Instagram bait that is so picturesque on the feed that you would probably think it was fake. On top of a mountain, women in bikinis splash around in a hot tub looking out over wild lush hills. In another photo, an entire bedroom encased in floor-to-ceiling glass is suspended over the scenery, and the mountains are capped with pure white snow. I scrolled with the same mindlessness that I used to reserve only for Tumblr back in the day. Lulled into reverie by a dwelling so far away, I realized that though I never left the house anymore, my Instagram feed could do the traveling for me.
By necessity these days, travel of any kind is verboten. (And if you are traveling, you better have a good reason or I’m coming after you.) In New York City, there was a tradition of old where millennials with disposable income would rent cars and drive two hours due north from their cramped apartments to stay in well-stocked and aspirationally designed houses, with dishwashers and ceramic mugs and generic but vaguely cool art on the walls. This well-worn custom was a form of dress-up in itself—trying on the life of richer couples who could afford to have not one KitchenAid in their homes but a second one in their rentals—but also a sense of escapist relief. Doing mushrooms on a velvet cloud couch in a house that costs ten times your yearly salary was one way to forget about the expensive claustrophobia of urban living even for a weekend.
With that release evaporated for now, something new has risen in its place. Zillow Stalking, the much-discussed phenomenon of millennials endlessly browsing real estate sites for houses they can never afford, is one. But for the even lazier (and perhaps those who are attempting to be generous to themselves and the reality of their existence) the Instagram accounts of rental houses—started by the house owners, as if they were new puppies—have grown into their own category of social media celebrity. Places like Ecohouse Merisi, a boutique hotel that I will surely never visit, have become famous in their own right for simply being anywhere but here.
“Back in the day, you just called up a bed and breakfast to stay, and it looked how it looked when you showed up,” Kate McCann, a real estate agent at Philly Home Girls and owner of her own rental property in the Catskills, explained. Now, because of the proliferation of influencers displaying enviable lifestyles, a stained duvet cover and a bunch of old doilies will no longer do: owners making a first or second income off their properties are producing a lifestyle out of one home too. One might think that seeing the same thing over and over again would be boring, hence the appeal of general design accounts. But, McCann said, The Hunter Houses, an Instagram account for a rental in upstate New York with over 100,000 followers, has so many followers from afar because of “the human element” on the account, even if you aren’t planning to actually rent it yourself. “It’s all about the couple that owns it and who stays there,” she continued. “It’s like being in a club. ‘We’re like them.’ It’s an echo chamber of all the stuff you like.”
“I am definitely a house whore,” Moira Sedgwick, owner of a gingerbread cottage in the Pocono Mountains called Sedgwick Chalet, joked by phone. Sedgwick follows several accounts specifically in the cabin category, where rental property owners post scenes of Pendelton blankets draped across mid-century modern sofas in front of fireplaces that crackle and burn. An owner of her own idyllic rental house, she is always curious to know what other places have to offer in the way of comforts that keep faraway visitors scrolling and liking, if not visiting right now. “I want every door opened. I want to see the progress.” For many, Instagram has taken the place of watching interior design TV for ideas and escape, as the algorithm reinforces and confirms your own tastes.
When Sedgwick decides what kinds of photos to post herself, she thinks particularly about what might inspire a potential guest to feel at ease in a time of great unease. “People need more comfort since we’re going through this collective trauma together,” she said. “It’s important to show not just a fire pit outside, but the fact that we have an outdoor shower. How can I make sure that you don’t have to have any human interaction? Your little pod can be here, contained and safe.” Even if a visit isn’t within reach right now, she said, “You’re free.”
Sedgwick’s chalet is nearing 7,000 followers on Instagram, in part, she says because of the help of “cabinfluencers,” a subset of lifestyle influencers who tour the cabin circuit and photograph cozy spaces for the wanderlust seekers on their own feeds—a sort of ouroboros for house envy porn. Warner’s Camp, a renovated 1800s guest house in the Adirondack mountains, boasts 25,000 followers on its Instagram thanks to the cabinfluencers. “There is a thriving cabin porn community on Instagram,” Amy Brightman, co-owner of the camp, told me by phone. “We’ve hired a few photographers and done a lot of swaps to come stay at the property. They take photos and sometimes those photos go viral on our feed.” The uptick in visits to the Instagram are motivated by a need for escape, Brightman said. “The living conditions in the city are really difficult. Everybody is craving to connect to nature, so I think that even if you’re not leaving, it’s fun to imagine that you are.” At Warner’s Camp, well-lit photos of an outdoor cedar sauna inspire a conflict between longing and anesthetization.
East Coast cabin culture may have its own acolytes but for urban dwellers on the West Coast, Joshua Tree National Park has become its own wanderlust release, with plenty of tan-colored Instagram porn to ogle at. Lindsey Woitunski owns four cabins in the Joshua Tree area, and even she bookmarks houses that she hopes to visit when all of this is over. “I feel like I’ve been trapped inside for so long,” she said, so she focuses on all the plans she’s going to have in the future.
In the meantime, she can understand why her Instagram account—@joshuatreecabin—has seen such an uptick in followers since the pandemic began. She and her husband bought their first cabin in 2012, so they got to the trend of Instagramming their house early. The handle wasn’t yet taken, so when people search on Instagram for a “Joshua Tree cabin,” Woitunski and her husband’s houses are always the first to pop up. “People who live in more dense areas love the idea of space,” Woitunksi theorized about why people scroll on her account. “It’s really fun to dream about it.”
Glamorizing other people’s houses, whether they are for rent or not, is not new. But using these accounts as a window into a different life within the confines of lockdown certainly is. That’s why over a million people follow the Instagram account previously known as @roomporn (now known as @SHLTR by Roomporn™), the social media offshoot of a site by the same name. On the SHLTR by Roomporn™ feed, houses and villas and hotels in far flung places inspire heart and star-eyed emojis comments in the hundreds.
The most liked post on Room Porn’s Instagram in 2020 was of the Black Villa, a modernist house built into a patch of hills in the Harriman State Park, right outside New York City. It’s spacious and lush and basically empty, certainly no obnoxious humans can be seen. “Part of what’s driving people to Room Porn is that escapism and aspiration,” Todd Klawin, founder of the media brand that runs SHLTR by Roomporn™, explained. “People have been sitting in small apartments in major city areas, reading glossy Better Homes & Gardens magazine for several generations now.” Klawin believes the house-as-celebrity trend is also motivated by our desire to explore our own latent design skills. “It’s a self discovery thing as well,” he said. “You start to tune into your own personal style.”
As Instagram continues to dominate, Brightman believes the glossy magazines that we previously turned to for interior decorating tips are becoming a thing of the past, even as those magazines themselves migrate to Instagram. “A lot of people follow us for design inspiration,” she said. “Influencers and AirBnb hosts are dictating these design trends instead of magazines in the 90s.” For Klawin, he thinks that even if the design options are legion, the algorithm that dictates what we look at on social media is actually narrowing in and echoing back your own tastes to you. So if you want to say, sit in a hot tub in Georgia, you’re going to be served Instagram posts that show photos of people sitting in a hot tub in Georgia.
“It’s just fun, isn’t it?” Klawin said of scrolling through room porn on SHLTR by Roomporn™. “There’s an infinite amount of content for us.” And by extension, an infinite number of places to fantasize about. I don’t even have to get up from lying completely flat on my back in bed to go there.
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