People no longer want to just do things. They want to live new experiences

From websites specialized in hyperlocal tourism to TikTokers who recommend the latest and best plans, cities are reinventing themselves as more and more people grow thirsty for unique activities

New experiences
A group of people looking at their cellphones, perhaps for something to do on TikTok.KARRASTOCK (Getty Images)

In mid-May, a girl threw a party in Madrid that drew 1,400 people. The girl’s name is Bárbara, although on TikTok she is known as Barby Gant or, simply, and as she defines herself: the girl who knows the best plans in Madrid. She has 131,500 followers on TikTok, and some of her videos have almost one million views. In them, she recommends cafés, restaurants, cocktail bars, terraces, exhibitions and others plans in the Spanish capital that she defines as “secret” or “clandestine.” If Barby Gant recommends a restaurant, it is possible that in the following weeks it will be difficult to reserve a table. If Barby Gant recommends a rooftop terrace in Madrid, a few weeks later it’ll be packed. And if she recommends a curious place where they make a some kind of specialty food — be it cinnamon rolls, a New York-style bagel or a cronut (a mix of croissant and doughnut) — people will flock to the establishment and soon enough the line will be down the block. It’s the TikTok miracle.

Like Barby Gant’s profile, there is a plethora of accounts on social media — especially on TikTok, but also on Instagram — that invite you to discover (or rediscover) a city, to see it with different eyes and to experience it in a different way. They are not dedicated to newcomers, even if some tourists use them to plan their travels. “Most of the people who follow me are from Madrid, and they write to me saying, ‘I can’t believe I’ve been here all my life and didn’t know this place,’” Gant explains. The word “experience” seems to be the key: people no longer want to do things, they want to live experiences. “The videos that have gone viral on my channel tend to be of two types: the first, when a plan is free, and the second, when it’s something out of the ordinary, something special and different: an experience,” she explains. She gives the example of a restaurant where, as in Richard Curtis’ film A Matter of Time, the diners dine completely in the dark, or a series of clandestine concerts that are organized on various rooftops in Madrid and whose location the guests find out only 24 hours beforehand.

This boom in unique plans in Madrid is not new to Martín López Cano. Just over a decade ago, this journalist by training became unemployed. Naturally curious, he used to buy all the local newspaper supplements and kept small clippings with the most interesting plans in Madrid, whether they were restaurant openings or exhibitions. “My friends knew about it and always asked me: ‘Hey, Martín, where can I go for dinner?’ or ‘What can I do this weekend?’” he tells EL PAÍS. López thought of doing something with all that information and with the free time he had. And so he started a blog: “I realized that at that time there was little local information about the city on the Internet,” he explains. He called it Madrid Diferente [A Different Madrid].

“I started writing reviews on places that had just opened,” and, of course, since he had no competition, people were really drawn to his site and that allowed him “to grow very quickly,” he explains. Martín López says that, during those years, every time he published a post about a restaurant on his blog, the restaurant’s reservations would fill up for a whole month. He says, however, that the Internet has changed: when he started, blogs were all the rage, but now social media has taken over. Thus, he has had to migrate his platform to social networks: Madrid Diferente currently has 206,000 followers on Instagram and just over 6,700 on TikTok. “Simply put, we are communicating with another language and through other channels. What is undeniable is the number of people that a video on TikTok or Instagram can reach,” he says.

A possible explanation for why people crave new experiences — which in turn has fueled this type of content on social media — could be the pandemic. According to Gant, Covid-19 played a “super important role.” “In the end, after two years practically locked up, people were eager to make plans and came out of their homes wanting to do [new] things,” explains Gant. For Martín López Cano, the pandemic may have been an incubator for new projects that are now coming to light, but the real change in the way we experience leisure in cities, especially in the Spanish capital, took place much earlier: “With the liberation of commerce in 2012, the center of Madrid began to wake up on weekends. Before, leisure was very much related to nightlife and, suddenly, daytime gained ground,” he explains. “Suddenly, on a Sunday morning there was life. Stores, cafés and restaurants began to open, and, later on, generational changes also took place. In the eighties people went out a lot. Now, young people don’t go out as much, they take more care of themselves and look for more plans to occupy the whole day.”

What does this interest say about us? What are we looking for when we try to fill our lives with special, original and unique plans? “The so-called experience is extremely relevant in all contemporary marketing,” explains Beatriz García, a member of Observatorio Metropolitano, a project that brings together various multidisciplinary groups in a space to reflect on the transformation we are seeing in today’s contemporary metropolis, starting with the case of Madrid. According to the expert, what’s being sold nowadays “is an experience, a sensory period of time.”

Social media has enhanced our need for new experiences partly by always making us compare our lives to others’, to everything we see on our feeds, and by feeding our fear of missing out on something. It is also something that has been transferred to our cities in a short period of time. Cities have had to adapt: “Before, the travel experience meant you would go to another place, [experience] another culture, meet new people and live in conditions different from your own. Travel was considered an experiential process because it involved growth, development, often transformation.” Now, explains Beatriz García, these experiential periods are encapsulated within our day-to-day lives, due to the precarious situation many young people find themselves in because of a lack of employment as well as a lack of both time and economic resources. “In this increasingly limited search for disconnection, especially in the maelstrom of the city, we want that coffee to be not just the coffee you have before going into the office, but a kind of sensory experience, our own special moment.”

This need for experiences, exacerbated by social media, has led us to inhabit cities differently — not so much as citizens, but as tourists within our metropolis, checking the boxes of what we should do. As Beatriz García explains: “There is a permanent selling of novelty as novelty for novelty’s sake, which is an important part of the capitalist production and marketing system”. The new replaces the old, the latest replaces the old, and the original replaces what we always used to do.

A terrace with views of Madrid's skyscrapers.
A terrace with views of Madrid's skyscrapers.Artur Debat (Getty Images)

“And a curious paradox is created between the idea of exclusivity (secret plans, unique plans, different plans) and, on the other hand, the standardization to which tourism tends, which ends up offering the same thing in every city in the world,” García continues. “In the end, we move in prefabricated scenarios that are identical to those of any other place.” That exclusive plan for a classical music concert on a coquettish terrace in the center of your city happens at the same time in Paris or New York, and that green-colored matcha coffee permeates the social media feeds of half the world or, at least, half the world on Instagram.

Martín López is clear that he does not want to feed the monster of the algorithm and the city as a novelty and, in a way, he still sees Madrid Diferente as that small blog that reported on local news for the local: “We seek to inform, not to generate content, because we are a medium, not an amateur account, nor are we dedicated to this so that we can be invited to a restaurant.” Barby Gant, for her part, wants to think of her followers more as a community, in a discourse that appeals to the loneliness often felt in a big city and the possibilities of creating a real network: “I’m always pushing people to make plans alone and thus meet [new people]. I spend a lot of time also creating groups of unknown people through Telegram, and I’ve come across a lot of people who have said, ‘Hey, I met this great group thanks to you.’” Changing the way we inhabit our own city — that would be quite an experience.

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