The props most likely to turn up in summertime Instagram photos tend to stay relatively consistent from year to year: The flamingo pool float might be replaced with a unicorn, or the fresh coconut held in front of the ocean swapped out for a fancy cocktail, but the differences are minimal and easily forgettable. (Straw hats with “Out Of Office” embroidered in swirling letters aren’t going anywhere.)
There is, however, a new prop popping up in lifestyle shots this summer: Scooters. Electric scooters to be precise.
They’re on the Venice Beach boardwalk, surrounded by sand and palm trees. They’re in front of brightly colored, geometric-patterned murals. They’re shot as standalone accessories, or taken out in pairs on date night. Make no mistake: These are not your little brother’s Razor A2s. Instead, they belong to an increasingly valuable class of e-scooter start-ups that’s looking to cash in on the rideshare economy by offering an autonomous alternative to cars and bikes.
One of the companies leading the charge is Bird, which was founded by Travis VanderZanden, a former executive at both Uber and Lyft. The e-scooter startup launched in beta in Santa Monica in September 2017 and has expanded at lightspeed: Within just 10 months the company has reportedly reached a valuation of $2 billion, and was one of the fastest startups to reach Silicon Valley’s coveted unicorn status. Meanwhile, other companies are racing to get in on their own share of the scooter funding craze: Lime, a bike-share business, has quickly become a top competitor. The company launched its own fleets of e-scooters, and is currently in a $335 million fundraising round. This week, Uber invested in Lime as part of its own efforts to diversify beyond its existing car-based offerings. There’s also Spin, another company that started out in bike-sharing and quickly scooted into the other two-wheeled transit mode in February. Save some minor color variations — Bird has pops of red, while Spin opts for orange and Lime for lime green — the e-scooters look and work relatively similarly.
At their core, e-scooter companies promise to do what any mode of transit does: Get you from point A to point B, this time on a slim foot-deck that carries you at speeds up to 15 mph. But the desire to integrate them as part of a curated Instagram lifestyle is something novel. Bird in particular seems to be taking advantage of its understanding of social media and internet culture at large to set itself apart and prove that e-scooters have a place in society that extends beyond basic utility.
There is nothing sexy about the origin story of the modern-day kick scooter. Although scooters have gained some credibility in the extreme sports community — no joke — since their rise to popularity in the early 2000s, they’re still more readily associated with the nerdy neighborhood kids in an ABC Family special than a couples’ meet-cute of choice in a Netflix rom-com.
From the current evidence, it’s clear that Bird is trying to change this image, positioning itself not just as a transportation company, but a lifestyle brand as well. Head to the company’s Instagram account and you’ll see that the large majority of photos are the kind you might expect to see on an influencer’s profile. The first photo ever posted in September 2017 sets the tone for others like it that have appeared in the months since: A Bird is parked in front of Noah Abrams’ popular black-and-white palm tree mural on Venice’s Abbot Kinney Boulevard.
With the exception of photos Bird posts whenever the scooters launch in a new city (it is currently active in 22 cities, spanning from Charlotte and D.C. on the east coast to L.A. and San Diego out west), all of the photos on the company’s feed are reposts of images shot and posted organically by users. In other words, women are incorporating Bird into their feeds in the same way they might a circular straw bag or rooftop drink. It’s standard lifestyle Instagram fare, but add a scooter.
“We are inspired by how people are organically integrating Bird into their lifestyles and are happy to celebrate their stories with our community,” a Bird spokesperson told Refinery29 of the brand’s posts.
You probably wouldn’t pose with your Uber or Lyft — or even a classic kick scooter meant for the under-16 set — so what makes Bird any different?
“It’s always fun to watch new brands come out and see that they’re taken in a really interesting or different way than you would predict,” Kate Wolff, the SVP of Client Services at relationship marketing agency RQ, told Refinery29. “I would have never forecasted Bird being anything beyond a utility, except for the fact that it’s so tech-oriented.”
Women are incorporating Bird into their feeds in the same way they might a circular straw bag or rooftop drink. It’s standard lifestyle Instagram fare, but add a scooter.
The “cool” label that comes with being part of an emerging, disruptive start-up is one factor Wolff sees driving Bird’s popularity as a kind of lifestyle prop, while scarcity — you can’t get e-scooters everywhere, yet — is another. The fact that some of the earliest cities with the motorized scooters feature no shortage of pretty backdrops is probably no accident, but also the cherry on top.
Wolff likens the consumer interest in photographing Birds in front of graphic walls, and the brand’s own embrace of these images on its feed, to J.Crew’s 2013 Shiny Ponies campaign. The apparel brand latched on to something women were already doing — photographing their shoes on colorful backgrounds — and encouraged shoppers to show off their #ShinyPonies, a playful term coined by J.Crew’s Jenna Lyons for the shoes that made the cut (Ugly Dollies, meanwhile, went to the design graveyard). To this day, women still tag shoe photos with the campaign’s hashtag. The social media play is not so different for Bird in 2018: Just replace shoes with scooters, colorful tiles with graphic murals, and throw on #LoveBird. (Though a search for the hashtag currently pulls up more feathered creatures than wheeled ones.)
There’s also an inherent nostalgia component driving the product’s appeal. Courtney Eckdahl, 27, a healthcare recruiter in Nashville, first heard about the e-scooters from a friend. “I thought the idea was pretty great,” Eckdahl said via email. “I always loved scooters as a kid and now I had the chance to ride them again all over town, not to mention they are much cheaper than taking an Uber or Lyft, especially if you are just going a few miles down the road.”
Where e-scooters differ from other forms of transportation is in their convenience and cost: Bird scooters are dockless, meaning you just need to locate one nearby on the app, and can leave it right at your destination, instead of having to park it at a specific spot. (Bird pays contract workers, often teens and young adults, to collect and charge the e-scooters, a practice that’s become known as “bird hunting”). You can ride at speeds up to 15 mph, and each ride starts at just $1, with .15 cents extra per minute. After spending hours on the scooters with friends, Eckdahl Instagrammed a picture with the new prop that Bird later shared to their own account.
“I think we discount that travel is often times exhausting and stressful,” Madeline Brozen, the Associate Director for External Relations at UCLA’s Lewis Center and the Institute of Transportation Studies, said of the alternative e-scooters provide. The fact that you get a little bit of a speed rush, experience the scenery around you, and can be part of a social media moment, are added bonuses.
But if you set aside the massive amounts of money being funneled into e-scooter companies and look past the carefree photos, there are some practical considerations that could put roadblocks in the way of continued growth — and Instagram postings.
“The main drawback about the scooters is that there aren’t enough safe places for people to ride so people are taking them, illegally, on the sidewalks,” Brozen says. “Some places, this isn’t too much of an issue, but in dense places, this can create conflicts in the limited amount of sidewalk space.”
San Francisco and Denver have both banned e-scooters for the time being, as an increasing number of cities grapple with how to regulate the unexpected mode of transportation popping up on their streets. There are also safety concerns to address: Birds seem fun, until you trip over one left laying in the middle of the sidewalk, or fall off while riding without a helmet. (Bird — and the law — say you have to bring your own helmet to wear, but most of the photos featured on the company’s Instagram account and elsewhere on social media have no style-cramping head protection in sight.)
Still, this is a trend that’s unlikely to grind to a halt anytime soon. E-scooters are disrupting how people travel the “last mile”, a catch-all term for any distance that feels far to walk but too short to drive, and, by giving the transit a lifestyle spin, setting the stage for a lasting cultural moment.
“It is much harder to diversify yourself by utility or service offered as tech rises and becomes more accessible,” Wolff says of the challenges of standing out from the crowd. “From a positioning standpoint, what you need to do is look for pre-established human behaviors. Look for something where you can organically become part of the conversation instead of physically inserting yourself in.”
It’s just a matter of time before “Birding” becomes a part of the global vernacular on and offline, right alongside Ubering.