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The Sunset Tower Hotel, in West Hollywood, has a no photo and video policy to respect guests’ privacy.Courtesy Sunset Tower Hotel

This past February, at the runway show for Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s label The Row in Paris, attendees were asked to refrain from capturing any content on their phones. Instead, they were provided with pencils and notebooks to jot down their impressions. It was a tough pill to swallow for members of an industry that thrives on seeing and being seen virtually as much as in real life. Reactions were mixed. “I would love to show you pictures of #TheRow because it was a very good show, but sadly because of their no social media policy, I can’t,” tweeted New York Times fashion director Vanessa Friedman.

The Row’s lo-fi runway show is just one example of the movement toward phone-free experiences at events and in places like restaurants, hotels and nightclubs. Since smartphones have become ubiquitous, I’ve been forbidden from using mine in all kinds of social spaces. At the SSENSE store opening party in Montreal, my iPhone was stashed away in a pouch sealed by a magnetic lock and key – an effective ploy to encourage presence while Venezuelan musician Arca performed throughout the David Chipperfield-designed space. At RSO, a techno club in Berlin, the venue’s coat-check staff covered my phone’s lenses with a sticker while issuing a stern warning: Get caught snapping a pic and the party’s over. The request was considerably more cheeky at Harry’s Original Bar in Venice, communicated through signage recommending that guests forgo any cellphone pics “in solidarity with Kodak workers.”

It’s no surprise that privacy is often the main reason for the ban. Today, tap-happy fans report every minutiae of their celebrity sightings – where they’re having dinner, who they’re with, what they’re ordering and the size of the tip they’re leaving – to gossip platforms like Deux Moi, which then passes them along to its rabid Instagram following of two million users. Fashion and culture journalist Amy Odell predicts that the next big luxury brand will have figured out how to leverage the idea of privacy. “If luxury goods derive value from scarcity, and true privacy is scarce, privacy is luxury,” she wrote on her Substack, Back Row, in January. “Being completely unfindable and stealth feels more rarefied than being, even if not famous, just public in some way.”

To cultivate that luxury, West Hollywood hot spot the Sunset Tower Hotel has a strict policy in place of no filming and no photography anywhere on the property. “We are very protective of our guests’ privacy and want to ensure they have a sense of security while staying with us or dining in our restaurant,” says Kelley Gattis, director of sales and revenue. “This ensures our guests feel comfortable and well taken care of throughout their experience with us.”

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Toronto’s Soho House. At all Soho House locations around the world, guests are not allowed to take photos or videos inside the club and must go to a designated area to use their phones.Courtesy Soho House

Private members’ club Soho House also does not allow photography or videography at any of its 43 locations in 17 countries around the world and has designated spaces for members to take or make phone calls. Beyond privacy concerns, this practice is meant to encourage presence. Chief membership officer Samantha Stone explains that fostering connections is a benefit she believes has become even more important to members after years of social distancing. “We get so caught up in our phones and our computers outside our houses that there’s something really special about seeing our members fully present and engaged with one another over a shared meal or drink inside,” she says.

Michelle Lhooq, an author and counterculture journalist who reports on global nightlife, digs into the psychology of why the urge to whip out our phones at social events is so strong in the first place. “I think that phones create a second reality that exists in conjunction with our material realm,” she says. “And people kind of disappear into that second space because they’re bored, because they’re anxious, because they want to show what’s going on to another audience.” It seems that even when you’re on the guest list, FOMO happens as a fear of missing out on capturing and sharing content.

Of all the functions she’s attended with a no-phones rule, Lhooq says the shift is most palpable on a dance floor. “Dance floors are pure energy,” she says. “When phones come out, they really function as blockages. Whatever current is going through a sea of bodies and whatever, when all these white screens go off it’s really distracting.” You could say they’re murdering the dance floor.

But one needn’t let being filmed by a stranger be a buzzkill. When Anne Hathaway was caught by an amateur videographer dancing to Lady Marmalade at a Valentino fashion-week party last year, the Oscar-winner could have thrown an A-list tantrum. Instead, she continued to enjoy the moment. “I’m in a nightclub and I’m dancing and this is the world,” she says she told herself that night in a Vanity Fair cover story. “Don’t stop, don’t perform. Stay where you are because you feel great.”

Lhooq believes that, if we can master the art of subtlety, it is possible for documentation and a good time to co-exist. “Rather than this binary of phones, no phones, we need to learn how to use our phones unobtrusively – without disturbing people, without violating someone’s ability to feel like they’re free and without disrupting the aesthetics of what’s going on,” she says, pointing to the dancer-like fluidity of a seasoned party photographer working a space.

The friction between capturing content and enjoying the moment may very well find its synthesis when wearable technologies, like Apple Vision Pro, become more widely adopted. Until then, on your next evening out, consider the vibes before whipping out your phone.

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