Quick question: How many pictures is too many pictures to take at a party? What about if it’s a fancy party? Okay, but what about if it’s a wedding? Is it rude to post Stories at a wedding? Is it rude to ask guests to put their phones away at your wedding? Is it rude if you don’t post any pictures from a party? What if someone posts a picture or video of you while you’re drunk — can you ask them to delete it? What if you post a picture or video of your friend while they’re drunk — do you have to ask permission? Might it all be a lot more chill if we just…all…didn’t…?
Smartphones and the apps on them have affected almost every aspect of how we live, from how we consume information (constantly) to how we apply makeup (more highlighter, stat). While certain expectations have changed, other conventions have not, leading to a unique tension that previous generations have not had to deal with. One place this is manifesting is at social gatherings. For better or worse, parties, dinners, weddings, and other human-on-human events now exist in not one, but two realms: IRL and online.
Whether it’s a casual book-club evening or a 50-person baby shower, the event-thrower often has to consider how the location, food, decor, drinks, guest list, and overall vibe will translate into this whole other realm, one where uninvited people will be the judge of whether that gender-reveal cake was, in fact, tacky.
Meanwhile, those attending events are tasked with sharing just enough to make it seem like a Super Fun Party, without looking like they’re bragging about their own popularity or, God forbid, bothering fellow guests with yet another request for a group picture in front of the balloon tower. (“Do you mind just taking one more?”) If it all sounds a little overblown, well, it is, but it’s also an increasingly real consideration people are making. And given how much we know millennials love celebrating anything and everything, we’re making it pretty often.
One way that the online party has invaded the IRL event is with the so-called “modern photo booth.” “It’s setting up a blank wall with hanging banners/balloons with cute sayings and adding streamers or flowers to make an aesthetically pleasing backdrop for the inevitable selfies and group pics to come,” explains Virginia, who is 23 and lives in Los Angeles. “As far as decorating goes, cute ‘insta-worthy’ spots are definitely in mind when planning a party in which I want people to be able to take pics they'll actually want to post.”
While this setup is ideal for a just-out-of-college apartment rager, with the budget to match, as millennials are creeping ever closer to middle age (I’m sorry), the ways in which we’re pimping out our parties have similarly advanced. Over-the-top gender-reveal antics, restaurant birthday parties with personalized menus, and apartment parties with custom cocktails: We’re looking at you.
“Before social media and the internet, we were limited to the world we live in,” says Jessica Latham, a former Vanity Fair events director who recently founded a modern party-rental company called Social Studies. Latham believes this can be a positive thing in terms of fostering creativity and ambition. “But,” she counters, “to some extent, it also creates a desire for things we don’t have; a need to switch things up in a way that maybe we weren’t before.”
Through Social Studies, hosts can rent curated tablescapes with cheeky themes like Hygge Holiday, Cherry Bomb, and Ladies Who Lunch, delivered to their door for between $30 and $50 per guest. Each look includes name cards, menus, runners, tablecloths, silverware, china, flowers, and more. If you’re wondering what millennial host could afford something like that, Latham has seen customers rewriting the etiquette when it comes to who’s paying for the party. Some customers end up splitting the costs with friends via Venmo for big events they’re throwing, like bridal and baby showers. But the whole thing is cute (and, sigh, photogenic) enough that you can imagine deciding to splurge on a curated theme for a simple dinner with your BFFs, too.
“I think we’re all craving off-screen, in-real-life interaction,” Latham says. “What we’re trying to do is nudge the person who wouldn’t be the first one to open the doors to their home, because maybe they’ve never done it, or they don’t feel like they have the stuff. You can still entertain in a way you’re really proud of.”
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While people of all generations now populate social media — shout-out to your great-aunt Karen blowing up your Facebook wall and your little brother all over TikTok — millennials are the first generation that has had to come up with rules surrounding its day-to-day usage. While some of these rules feel relatively agreed-upon (like: if you start following someone new on Instagram, you probably shouldn’t ‘like’ their past 37 photos because it’s creepy and weird), others are still up for debate. While some say there’s pressure, for example, to create and attend events that carry weight among the curated glamour on Instagram, the assumption that said events should still foster presence, community, and screen-free connection still applies. There’s a disconnect between these two ideals that is the cause of confusion and anxiety.
Nowhere is this more obvious than at, say, a wedding, where you can look around and see one person balls-deep in the infinite scroll, a couple working tirelessly to get the perfect angle on their selfie, and then a sign in a corner that says “No phones, please.”
“As a hostess, I feel a bit offended when people are just scrolling through socials [during my parties], because it seems to say, ‘My feed is much more interesting than what's going on at this gathering,’” argues Virginia. “But there is a difference between scrolling through socials and using socials to interact with the event/the people attending.”
Indeed, if we’re curating our parties and events to be ’gram-worthy, can we really fault people for ’gramming from them? This predicament is also complicated by the fact that there is now a whole class of people who make a living posting their lives online. While the rest of us probably wouldn’t roll up to the party, open up our laptop, and start answering emails, if you have a friend whose hundreds of thousands of loyal followers need to know what they’re up to on a Saturday night, it’s kind of hard to ask them to put down their phone.
“The party is for the guests, not for Instagram. I never post live,” explains Sabrina Molu, a 29-year-old Atlanta-based lifestyle blogger with over 23K Instagram followers, who says that while she stops to capture content during parties, she waits until after to caption and post it. “I want to be in the moment as much as possible.”
According to Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and the author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life, this is the right attitude. Gottsman says it’s rude to be constantly on your phone while with extended company, even if it’s to document and publicize the event (unless, of course, you’re an influencer who is getting paid by the host to do so, and then it would be rude not to). “Your host put on this event, and it could be just pizzas or barbecue, but they spent some money and time. If they see you distracted, it just comes across as though you’re not really engaged,” she says.
As for those increasingly ubiquitous requests to put your phone away and refrain from taking pictures at weddings, Gottsman says it’s well within the couple’s rights to ask people to do that. However, she cautions couples against forcing people to turn over their phones, which has also become something of a common practice at events like concerts and comedy shows, through tech security services like Yondr.
“It’s not okay to take someone’s personal property away from them. An adult should be treated as if they can self-manage,” Gottsman says.
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Once upon a time (like 15 years ago), if you lived in a city like New York or Los Angeles, it wasn’t that hard to go out and party with — or at least party adjacent to — A- and B-list celebrities. Before smartphones, stars had no qualms about doing stupid shit in places where paparazzi couldn’t invade. You know, just like the rest of us. No one could discreetly film them taking shots, or doing whatever else people did in nightclubs back when Donald Trump was just a guy who yelled a lot on TV, in the VIP section. These days, they’re lucky if they can eat a meal at a restaurant, much less go to a club, or even a private wedding ceremony, without being clandestinely Snapchatted.
In a Hollywood Reporter article from this year titled “Before Social Media Killed Hollywood Nightlife,” Melinda Sheckells interviews “Pantera Sarah,” a former promoter who recently released a series of photos featuring the likes of Charlize Theron, Gwen Stefani, Cameron Diaz, and Jason Momoa literally partying like it’s 1999. “The reason we had a lot of people come to our clubs was because they knew they were safe," she explains. “You just can't do that anymore…you can't say no to cell phones. It will never be the same."
Millennials and Gen Z-ers are apparently more sober than our hard-partying predecessors, but just because you’re not getting wild in the club and showing the paparazzi the underside of your nostrils doesn’t mean that phones and social media don’t impact how you feel about letting your hair down. Anyone who has ever unknowingly featured in a pal’s 3 a.m. Instagram Story, only to feel mortified upon recognizing yourself the next morning as the blurry dirtbag gremlin doing a bad dance, knows what I mean. It’s funny, sure, but does it ever result in you feeling way less comfortable doing whatever wacky thing you were doing the next time? And if so, is that any way to live?
“[People ask me] ‘Do I have to ask permission?’” says Gottsman. “Yes. You should ask before you post anything that would infringe on another person’s privacy.” That means asking before you take a photo of them, before you tag them.
The truth is, social media may have ruined partying for celebrities, but that doesn’t have to be the case for the rest of us. It’s not just about putting your phone away or asking permission or any of the other things that seem obvious in thought, but are harder in practice. It’s about recognizing that some moments — whether it’s a close friend’s wedding or just an impromptu Friday night gathering — will be present in our minds whether or not we curate or document them perfectly.
“The reason that I think certain experiences stick with us is because you're 100% immersed and present in the moment,” Latham explains. “Like everything in life, it’s about balance. Snap the picture post, post it, and then put your phone away.”
Who doesn’t love a party? Okay fine, introverts, we see you. But when the recipes work out, the bespoke cocktails are flowing, and you’re surrounded by your people, even those who think they’d rather be at home with their BFFs Netflix and Seamless can’t help but get lost in the feeling. This doesn’t mean, however, that throwing an event — or, for that matter, attending one — is always easy. With several big-deal holidays around the corner, plus the requisite birthdays, bachelorettes, and baby showers, there’s really only one thing we can do: Keep Calm and Party On.