San Franciscans are ready to stand in line for—and tweet about—anything that’s hip. It almost doesn’t matter if the target is worth the wait. Queuing and sharing your story makes it all the more desirable, and makes you want it more. Even if you can’t get in.

Originally, I wanted to write a blog post about innovations in media, in particular Pop-Up Magazine, a “magazine” delivered on stage to a live audience. However, my attempts to get tickets for the last two shows failed despite the fact that I was online trying to purchase them within seconds of going on sale.

After what felt like eons of sitting there hitting the refresh button on two browsers (for the second time in three weeks) only to get a message that the show was sold out, I started wondering why I was wasting my time on something I just briefly heard about through colleagues and on social media.

And then it hit me: It wasn’t just Pop-Up Magazine. Spending time in virtual and real waiting lines to get a taste of San Francisco’s most popular spots had become an inevitable part of my stay in the city. If there’s no line, is it even worth it?

Bi-Rite Creamery on 18th Street in San Francisco.

Bi-Rite Creamery on 18th Street in San Francisco.

Litany of Lines

One sunny Sunday afternoon recently, I wanted to get ice cream at the famous Bi-Rite Creamery near Dolores Park. The line outside of the shop wrapped around the corner.

A few days earlier, I met up with Julia at Tartine Bakery to finally taste their much talked-about bread pudding and croissants. I stood in line for fifteen minutes just to get inside the front door.

On a Friday night a few weeks ago, I attended Off The Grid, a moving food truck market being held at Fort Mason. It involved ten minutes of waiting in line to get a beer, about twenty minutes weighing the different food options and waiting at the ones we finally selected, and then another ten minutes before actually getting the food.

Later that night, I took a Lyft to a friend’s house in Pacific Heights. On the way I wanted to make a quick pit stop at Bob’s Donuts, because—as I had learned through Twitter—it was National Donut Day. I wasn’t the only one. My plans were once again thwarted by a long line that extended out onto the street.

San Franciscans seem to love waiting in line. People who mock tourists queuing up to get on a Cable Car at Powell Street will wait for just about anything else: a sandwich at Ike’s Place, a cappuccino at Blue Bottle Coffee, or a beer at Hayes Valley’s Biergarten.

Waiting in line for brunch on the West Coast has become so notorious—not only in San Francisco, but also in cities like Portland—that the TV show Portlandia devoted an entire episode to it.

Social Media and the Hype Machine

And it’s not only food that people are willing to wait for. As mentioned, events like Pop-Up Magazine are sold out within minutes. The line at the gates of Maker Faire, even with a ticket, was about half a mile long. When SFMOMA celebrated its last few days before closing for renovation, the line went around the block. For weeks before that, the wait for the video installation The Clock by Swiss artist Christian Marclay ranged from one and a half to up to four hours.

What is it that makes waiting in line an integral part of living in San Francisco? In Switzerland hardly anyone would wait half an hour for a scoop of salted caramel ice cream.

Is it just the sheer number of people in the city? I don’t think so.

You can always find another restaurant, coffee shop, or event where you don’t have to fight the crowds. But in San Francisco, you don’t just want any coffee. You want the best one, or rather, the one everyone else is talking about. It’s the buzz, the hype, created around certain things that makes them more desirable.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines hype as “extravagant or intensive publicity or promotion,” and “often exaggerating its importance or benefits.” In San Francisco, hype emerges mostly through social media.

In this city, where even the fog has its own Twitter handle, every hip restaurant, café, event, or art venue is present on social media. CurryUpNow, an Indian street food truck, has 16,000 followers on Twitter. Ike’s Place, a sandwich shop, has more than 30,000 likes on Facebook. Blogs like SFist, SFoodie, and Inside Scoop SF publish lists daily like “10 Bay Area Doughnuts Worth Celebrating.” And everything gets ratings and comments on Yelp.

Pop-Up Magazine does most of its marketing through social media. SFMOMA even had a special Twitter account for @TheClockSFMOMA that gave regular updates on how long the waiting line was, and tips to make time go by faster. “Bring a friend or a book to make the time fly!”

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This creates a close connection between customers and businesses, visitors and events. People tweet where they go, what they eat, what they do, and how they like it, thereby interacting with the venues, organizers, and other customers. You don’t just consume something, you become part of a shared experience around it. You don’t just stand in line, you tell everyone about it and whether or not it’s worth the wait.

Why Wait?

So are the donuts really better, the ice cream richer, the exhibits more amazing in San Francisco? Maybe. But it almost doesn’t matter. Waiting is part of the experience, part of the story, part of the city. Sharing through social media feeds the cycle of hype, sure, but sometimes it also adds to the fun and makes you feel like part of a community.

After the tickets for Pop-Up Magazine sold out, featured writer Jon Mooallem tweeted, “I’m going to buy a sandwich. If there’s justice in the universe, I hope they’ll make me wait in line for a really, really long time.” He probably did wait in line—but at least he didn’t come away empty-handed.

I’m off to console myself with some Lavender crème brûlée with gingersnap crumble, which I just read on Twitter is the best new flavor at the crème brûlée cart.

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