What’s in a Selfie? At the FOMO Factory, Balloons, Bubbles and a Birthday Party
By Lauren DeFilippo
Photography By Katherine Corley
Abby Efron wrote “Cutie with a Smile” on a name tag.
Then she left her adulthood at the door.
Efron entered The FOMO Factory one early evening in October because she’d heard about it on Facebook. The 21-year-old sociology student wanted to see for herself what the so-called “immersive art pop-up” in downtown Austin, which bills itself as a place where anyone can be anything.
The 4,000-square-foot space in the Historic Red River District opened Sept. 14. Its creators hoped to generate an environment where people would pay $28 to take selfies among eight themed rooms decorated to evoke birthday parties, toys, playground, school dances, vacation, music, first days of school and bath time, with clear balloons to represent bubbles and giant rubber ducks.
The FOMO Factory is based on childhood nostalgia, according to its main designer, Rachel Youens, and her partner Kara Whitten, creator of DIY crafts and home décor brand Kailo Chic.
“Adulthood is hard, and adults deserve a time to be a kid again, to reminisce, to forget, to feel beautiful,” Youens said.
Spaces similar to The FOMO Factory have been designed for the selfie generation in the Instagram era. There are over 2,000 images on Instagram with the #fomofactory hashtag alone. For example, the Color Factory, which debuted in San Francisco in 2017, is designed to be reproduced on social media and enjoyed through interaction.
Youens said the FOMO Factory is “trying to transport someone via an immersive environment that extends not just to the things inside our four walls, but to the people, the sounds, the smells, the tastes.”
Youens said she attended a camp recently that involved no social media or other trendy technological distractions.
“I was introduced to the healing power of play, which really strips yourself of your adult identity,” Youens said.
The term FOMO, “Fear of Missing Out” suggests missing an opportunity and is especially prevalent in the age of social media, often as a hashtag.
Visitors to the FOMO Factory capture photos within the “installations,” which is what the FOMO founders call each room, and the fear of missing out on childhood memories is mended by a picture, creating new memories with old ideas.
A whimsical world of balloons and streamers accented with every color palette imaginable greeted Efron, a University of Texas at Austin student who ascended the rainbow wooden steps of the 108-year-old building. She started in the birthday room. After just celebrating her own on Oct. 3, the San Antonio native was enthralled by the large balloons, a cake to pop out of and the cupcake scent.
“I felt like it was a great escape from reality and temporarily took away the stress from adulting,” Efron said.
Jarret Mallon, 47, said he fell in love with the back to school room because of the memories it evoked.
“A lot of it reminds me of high school in the 80’s,” said Mallon, an Austin actor and arts non-profit executive director. “They have song lyrics on the walls and a locker filled with notes, we used to write notes to each other before texts.”
The value in a selfie comes from a moment and a place. It freezes an attitude, an emotion, a environment or even a memory.
“Everyone knows when they get that good shot of themselves,” she said. “That’s worth something. This is a secret way to secretly get people in, but I get them to unlock and have a tangible experience.”
Back on that October evening when Efron walked through the last room to the exit, she stuck her name tag to the wall.
She was no longer “Cutie with a Smile.” Now she was Abby Efron again, an adult with rent to pay and a job to show up for in the morning.