I have feelings about Selfie Wrld, an Instagram selfie studio tucked away in the Tysons Corner Center mall; feelings I considered while attempting to make a sultry, thoughtful face while uncomfortably posed on a hard red plastic couch shaped like a pair of lips, in a red room, beneath a red neon sign that said “Feelings,” because nothing about this place is subtle.
Selfie Wrld: Where living your best life looks a lot like someone else’s
Many people have done this same pose, on this same couch, and not even in the same city: Selfie Wrld is a chain with 30 franchises from Anchorage to Tampa, and a spin through Instagram shows the lips couch is a staple of their other locations, too. Because the props encourage certain poses, your selfies might be identical to someone’s in Indianapolis or Boston or Denver. There are only so many ways to pose in each room, only so many eye-catching outfits you can wear in one session. Selfie Wrld bills itself as a place to express yourself, but it’s where you go to look like everyone else. Which, of course, makes it perfect for a mall: It’s a Build-A-Bear Workshop of visual cliche.
You’ll pay $25 for the privilege. In return, you’ll get an hour of access to a fun house of approximately 30 photo backdrops, as well as a loaner adjustable tripod and bluetooth clicker for your phone. The spaces range from a minimalistic black-and-white striped room, to elaborate film-set scenarios, like a fake ’50s malt shop, or a private jet. And there are neon platitudes everywhere: “Shoot your shot.” “It was all a dream.” “Good vibes only.” “Junk in the trunk.” “Don’t quit,” with some letters strategically crossed out to make the message “Do it.” One room is covered in pay phones, beneath a neon sign that says “Hotline Bling” — a song that was released two presidential administrations ago.
There is also a ball pit. There is always a ball pit.
These types of immersive photographic venues used to be billed as museums, or at least as “experiences” where you’d get more than just photos. Early on, they were in museums, like Snarkitecture’s installation, “The Beach,” in the National Building Museum. The Museum of Ice Cream was ostensibly a quasi-educational experience, even though most people who went made a beeline straight for the sprinkle pool. The Color Factory, which currently has locations in New York and Houston (with one to come in Chicago), enlists local artists and designers to collaborate on its sites. Even small, quirky spaces like New York’s now-defunct Egg House had a (completely incomprehensible) story line, or at least a proximity to crappy installation art.
But there’s no storytelling or through-line for Selfie Wrld, which drops the pretense that you’re there for anything other than the ‘gram. Which is kind of refreshing, to be honest. Just let it be about narcissism! The notion that these spaces were about experiences, and that experiences are superior to objects, was always a false one. Visits generated images — digital objects — that were stylish but no more virtuous than the pictures snapped on roller coasters. Experiences are still commodities.
And Instagram has moved on, anyway: Those perfectly-posed and polished photos are no longer what drives the app’s aesthetic, which began gravitating away from such manufactured fare before the pandemic. Yet Selfie Wrld and similar Instagrammable spaces continue to open around the country and draw crowds. For the covid-cautious, selfie-taking is generally an indoor, maskless experience. If you go on a weekday, you typically won’t encounter too many other people, but weekends can get hectic. Some guests even hire and bring their own photographers — one of the visitors during my session appeared to be doing a Sweet 16 photoshoot with a professional. But professional skills aren’t necessary, because what Selfie Wrld lacks in creative fulfillment, it makes up for in good lighting. Your photos may look like everyone else’s, but they will also look nice, albeit blandly.
That is, if you’re okay with being a little corny. The best spaces were the most minimalistic, but most contained a baffling array of props. What to do, for example, with the old-timey telephone in a room full of ferns, or the giant crayon in a locker room? Is it even possible to pose with a sign that says “Lit AF” and retain your dignity? At one point I found myself twirling on a hoop swing in front of a sign that read “The Freak Show,” vaguely embarrassed and also suspicious of people for whom this kind of thing comes naturally.
Though Selfie Wrld has only been open in Tysons since June, the rooms already showed wear and tear during a late fall visit. A rainbow-colored space had dark scuff marks on the floor — fix them in Photoshop, I guess? — and the cherries on top of the fake ice cream in the malt shop had disintegrated (some rooms have since received a seasonal refresh). There are changing rooms so you can get shots with multiple outfits and maximize your content, a phrase that instantly depresses me when I think of a teenager saying it. The soundtrack, while we were there, was mostly songs that are popular on TikTok.
In total, a friend and I snapped more than 700 photos of ourselves during a single session, and it was fun, I guess, to swing on some swings and pretend to be low-ranked contestants on “America’s Next Top Model.” But that was mostly because we weren’t trying to “create content,” or take photos that had any semblance of perfection.
By the end, we were sick of looking at ourselves and left feeling as empty as our phone batteries. We went to get matcha soft serve at a kiosk around the corner. It was so green, so pretty, so very Instagrammable. We couldn’t help ourselves. We snapped a few pictures.