Olivia Marcus, a 24-year-old broadcast journalism graduate working at a media agency, had a weird day on TikTok this January. A “day in the life” she posted was reposted to Twitter by a journalist from Rolling Stone, and the hate comments started to flood in. “I spent, like, I’m not joking, 36 hours reading comments being like, I cannot believe these people think the stuff about me,” Olivia said.
The video was of a day spent alone in New York, part of a series she’d done in the same vein, where Olivia is seen sipping coffee at brunch, shopping at Kith, and checking into a hotel for the night for a “staycation” in the city. It looks like a nice day out.
But the comments in response to the journalist’s tweet pointed out a not-so nice reality: We’re in a pandemic, should we be checking into hotels instead of staying inside? What about the amount of money that she spent in a day, is that really reasonable or realistic for most New Yorkers today?
The content Olivia creates, and the differing responses from people across the internet, is that of the #NYCDream. The hashtag has over 1.3 million views on TikTok. Along with the more widely used #NYC, it encompasses days working from home, bougie nights on the town, and anything in between. The (mostly) women creators are put together, fashion-forward, and filled with recommendations of things to see or do.
During the pandemic, with New York becoming less accessible to the rest of the world, the aspirational qualities of the city of Gossip Girl and Sex and the City are even more heightened to their audiences of other young women. But the dream has undergone a seismic shift.
When Gabby Whiten (@gabbywhiten) started making content in New York, it was for herself. “I thought, I want to have these memories for myself, but how cool would it be if I could also post them on YouTube? And expand my content that way?”
A full-time PhD student at NYU’s School of Medicine, and a content creator since her sophomore year of undergrad, Gabby’s content pivoted after the pandemic began. “I think a big appeal of New York is obviously, you know, getting out, seeing the city. And so when the pandemic came around, it hit New York City incredibly hard. To watch it go from this hub of culture and excitement, to kind of a ghost town, like, it felt like there should be tumbleweeds rolling down Park Avenue.”
Her blog, gabbyinthecity.com, which usually featured visits to restaurants like Jack’s Wife Frieda (her favorite in Soho) and Sweet Chick (her Lower East Side go-to), had to change direction, and keeping up with some of the trends on social media was a way to keep her content fresh. “Banana bread was made,” she laughs. “But there were a lot of trends that popped up.” Outfit styling, at-home coffee creations, and Hulu recommendations fell alongside days in Gabby’s life as a PhD student, or visiting some of New York’s landmarks.
Olivia’s inspiration for the NYC content she posts at @olivialmarcus came from TikTok itself. “I saw two random New York videos, like ‘Here’s how I spent my day in New York’ on my For You page, and was kind of like, ‘Oh, I can make a video like that.’”
The trends of the #nycdream are, in a word, pretty. Cafe Kitsune in the West Village is a favorite: the loopy font on the windows, the latte art. If you’re in the mood for a shopping haul, thrifting at Awoke Vintage in Brooklyn. For an artsy day, a masked trip to the Met steps, or down the serene swirl of the Guggenheim. New York is there, behind the screen, and it looks delicious. Certain places have blown up because of their social media connections. The owner of Here nor There, a trendy boutique in the East Village, told Bedford + Bowery that “like, everyone that comes in found us on TikTok.”
To the people stuck inside, the posts are something to envy-scroll through, or critique as they see fit. It seems like the city that was once the epicenter of the pandemic has carried on, as glamorous as always, even if there are masks in the back of Ubers or outdoor restaurant booths. In comparison to the doom-and-gloom headlines about the death of New York during the pandemic (mentioned in at least one presidential debate), it’s a breath of fresh air to see the city as a dream destination, instead of something associated with so much pain.
Renata D’Agrella (@rendagrella), a production assistant and NYC vlogger, knows her audience mostly views New York from the outside looking in. “A lot of my audience doesn’t live in New York City. I get a lot of comments that are like, ‘Dreaming I was in New York.’ I feel like it’s a form of escapism. So while they’re stuck in wherever they don’t like, they think about moving to New York, and they see these girls on TikTok, or TV shows, living this dream life.”
But her audience also appreciates seeing the reality of life as a young woman working in New York. “My first video that went viral actually wasn’t romanticized at all. I had the most horrible day,” she laughs, recounting how a pair of missed buses forced her to take the subway for the first time since COVID. “When I got off the subway it was pouring rain, like lightning was striking the poles. It was just a horrible, everything-could-go-wrong kind of day. And when people saw it, they were commenting, ‘Wow. This is the real New York.’ It’s the train delays, the rain, the busy work culture.”
Like Renata, Olivia feels that her audience appreciates a more even-handed view of life in the big city. “I feel like I have kind of a realistic version of living here, for the most part. There’s a line of understanding like, this is a video that romanticizes New York, and then this is my realistic version of it.” She created a Sent It or Spent It series to be transparent with her audience about what she’s been gifted by brands and what she buys herself. For every trendy day in Soho, she shows one of her working from home with her boyfriend.
Chloe Kent (@chloyorkcity), a 28-year-old booking producer, both subverts and understands the dream. She’s found her niche in non-aspiration, as evidenced by her satirical series “A Completely Non-Aspirational Morning in NYC”). “My followers, like, they’re just disgusting hooligans, just like me,” she explains. “I don’t think that they’re there for me to, like, tell them how I do my hair in the morning.”
But Chloe knows that for her mainly young, female viewers, she can be a source of aspiration– starting with her penthouse apartment with a gigantic fluffy couch and sweeping city views. “Being a New Yorker with a cool apartment and a cool job, I understand what it looks like if you’re a teenager from the Midwest, because I was a teenager from the Midwest,” she explains. “I think a lot of people probably follow me for just the weird commentary, but there’s something aspirational about being a New Yorker to a lot of people. If I’m being perfectly honest, I think a lot of people are here for the apartment content.”
The creators themselves can be defined as “micro-influencers,” with anywhere between a thousand and 100,000 followers. And in a city of influencers and the influenced, what’s ten thousand followers to, say, Bella Hadid’s 38.9 million? Chloe (who has 33,200 followers on TikTok and 1,700 on Instagram) agrees– kind of, not really. “I look at these buildings with thousands of people in them. And I think to myself, Okay, it might not be a lot to have tens of thousands of followers, or it might not feel like a lot. But my followers couldn’t all fit in that building, you know? And that’s a weird way to think about it. Even though it doesn’t really feel like that many to me, it’s still like not an not insignificant number of people.”
After Olivia addressed the video that was reposted, by rating all of the mean comments she received, the comments flipped in her favor. She understands that that’s just what social media can do. “That is the nature of TikTok. I’ve watched so many 15-second videos be taken to define a person’s entire personality…It really made me think about social media and my role in it as a whole, because I felt like I was being taken out of context.” She explains, “I was being commented on like I was a public figure, but I’m not a public figure.”
The moral judgement of who does what in the latter half of the pandemic, with changing guidelines and differing expectations, is evident in what Olivia experienced. She was masked throughout her day alone, and was following both state and city guidelines. Would someone else choose to spend their dream day in New York right now the same way? Maybe not. Maybe they’d do more, or less, or none of it at all.
It remains to be seen what the #NYCDream will look like as movie theaters, performing-arts venues, and even amusement parks reopen in the next weeks. Right now, the most exclusive spot in town isn’t the latest outdoor dining chalet or luxury spa. It’s the vaccination line. Creators are boosting the TurboVax app to their audiences, and showing off their vaccination Band-Aids.
The day of our interview, Renata received her first dose of the COVID vaccine. She believes that by showing off her vaccination card– and a suitably trendy, cold-shoulder OOTD, or outfit of the day– she was assuring doubters of the vaccine’s safety and encouraging them to get the shot.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” she explains. “And young people are very influenced by what they see on the internet.”