The latest tourist hotspot is not a lagoon in Iceland or a beach in Bali – it is a staircase in the Bronx, New York. More specifically, it is the concrete flight of steps that Joaquin Phoenix, caked in clown paint, dances down in the film Joker. The scene has become a meme, and scores of influencers and imbeciles are flocking to the #jokerstairs, as it is now tagged on Instagram, to recreate the image. Such is the fervour that the location was briefly marked as a religious site on Google Maps.
Bronx locals are not thrilled by their staircase going viral. One resident put up posters explaining that “it is disrespectful to treat our community … as a photo opportunity”. Someone else, clearly fancying themselves as a yolker, threw eggs at tourists while yelling: “Y’all not spending no money in my store but come and take pictures!”
There is nothing new about disrespectful sightseers. Nor is there anything new about movie locations becoming tourist attractions. However, the speed with which a scene can break off from its original source, take on new life as a meme and transform an offline location into the seventh circle of selfie hell is a modern phenomenon. Some people call it the Instagram effect. Wired described it recently as “meme tourism”. Other people – me – call it “Yet another sign that humans deserve to go extinct”.
There was a time, not so long ago, when we all at least pretended that travel might broaden our horizons. Now tourism seems to be about building our personal brands. Forget “meme tourism” – this is more like me-me-me tourism: getting likes by jumping on the latest viral trend or showing how edgy you are by snapping selfies at Chernobyl. “All the world’s a stage,” as a famous influencer once put it. That is more true than ever, but only a privileged few are the players – everyone else is merely #content.
•Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist