Michael Litman reflects on what it means to be a hoarder in the era of the social web, explaining why Pinterest has exploded now and what it means for us as digital materialists.
You may have recently been hearing all about this hot new shiny thing that everyone’s talking about called Pinterest. There’s no denying it’s hot right now but work began on it way back in December 2009, followed shortly after by a closed beta status in March 2010.
I’ve been on Pinterest for around a year now, tracking its progress throughout. I noticed it started to only pick up steam towards the end of 2011. Back then, I billed it as the hot social property of 2012, and, so far, it’s lived up to that billing. Tuhin Kumar, a designer at social news app Pulse, describes Pinterest like this: “Imagine getting to do window-shopping of all the best and most creative things in the world without having to go to the mall. That’s what Pinterest is.”
It’s certainly gaining traction. I recently put a presentation up on Slideshare billed as “The Ultimate Guide To Pinterest” which had over 30,000 views in its first week of release. This is a culmination of research after I immersed myself in its functionality, features and possible uses for individuals and brands over time, including statistics, facts and demographic information that had value for mass consumption.
What has fascinated me about Pinterest is that it has broken out of the mould that the likes of Tumblr finds itself in and is being populated largely with a typically non-early adopter crowd. “Normal” people are becoming addicted to it, not just the usual industry types. Data from Comscore suggests that more time is being spent on Pinterest than the likes of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr and Google+ combined. That’s huge. Plus, Pinterest is driving astronomical traffic numbers to brand properties, beating the majority of the networks listed above.
This made me question a few things. Why now? After all, it’s been around for years. What is it that people are addicted to? What makes Pinterest different from other sites with similar functions? It’s not about the tools but the behaviours that they bring to the fore, but what buttons is Pinterest pushing?
I’d first echo the sentiments of Ken Carbone, a critically acclaimed graphic designer, who told Fast Company: “The whole thing is advertising, but I don’t feel like I’m being sold anything directly, even though each pin will eventually take me to the source. I feel like a service is being provided for me to totally enjoy something that I am passionate about and find images I didn’t know existed.”
Building a collection
Collecting things is an instinctual human habit. My dad used to get enjoyment from coins and stamp collections, curating them to proudly show off to the world. That completist feeling when he had a whole collection made it all worthwhile. Back then, “the world” was limited largely to my mother and brother. But now, for people like my dad, it literally is the world.
I’ve always been a bit of a hoarder and collector myself. Perhaps we all are. I collected POGS in the school playground, then Merlin Premier League football stickers, going to “swap shops” with friends to find the stickers I was missing to complete the collection. Now, the consumerist equivalent is DVD box sets of Mad Men and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Things have moved on a bit since the times of stamps and stickers and whilst the notion of collecting, curating and showing off is nothing new, we’re overwhelmed with more information, books, articles and presentations than we’ll ever be able to get through in a lifetime. You know what I mean: all those bookmarks you save on Instapaper; all the tweets you favourite on Twitter to go back to but never do.
Megan Garber, formerly writing for Nieman Labs, calls bookmarking: “a kind of anti-engagement. It provides just enough of a rush of endorphins to give me a little jolt of accomplishment, sans the need for the accomplishment itself.”
Building it now
Now we’re collecting on Pinterest instead. That feeling of pseudo-accomplishment that Garber talks about happens when you create and start filling out a board – which is why I think Pinterest has tapped in to that real-world, physical need to collect, cultivate and curate. It has established itself as the perfect platform for digital materialism. And I think that’s pretty powerful.
Ken Carbone told Fast Company: “Not only does this stuff look great in the way it is presented, it takes me to this different world. I could waste a lot of time here. It’s visually very engaging.”
Pinterest relies on users creating and curating content that interests themselves and others, so once a number of people comment and re-pin, it has a domino effect and encourages others to create. People are, however, currently re-pinning more than creating. In fact, over 80 per cent of pins are currently “re-pinned” from others. The more content that is subsequently created, the more it reminds people to keep coming back to see what’s new.
The uprising of the curator is an interesting trend in itself. With all the information at our disposal, it’s sifting through it to find the gems and reporting back that becomes valuable. People like Maria Popova of Brain Pickings and Tina Roth Eisenberg of Swiss Miss are consistently surfacing needles in the digital haystack. It’s an emerging trend now for brands too: Josh Sternberg wrote for Digiday recently that Brands Want Content Curator Jobs.
A 2009 research paper by Daniel Kruger and Dreyson Byker entitled “Evolved Foraging Psychology Underlies Sex Differences in Shopping Experiences and Behaviors” explains how our modern consumer behaviour is similar to the hunting and gathering of our ancestors:
In current foraging and horticultural cultures, a large portion of daily activity revolves around finding and preparing food (e.g., Hill & Hurtado, 1996). In modern societies, much less time is spent on food acquisition and preparation. Modern humans still devote considerable time and effort to foraging, although the foraging context is now in the settings of shopping malls, grocery stores, and Internet sites (Hantula, 2003).
In other words, we’re now foraging on the Internet, instead of out hunting for our next meal. Which is ironic, because my food and drink board on Pinterest is one of my most followed.
So Pinterest isn’t only starting to dominate the digital materialism space: it’s also eschewing the need for real-world consumerism. The instant gratification of putting a product in a board as Garber mentions above gives you endorphins that would normally be reserved for when you spend money on buying the product in real life. So, perhaps counterintuitively, Pinterest could stop you spending money.
Pinterest is also aspirational in nature. It’s not just about the stuff that you want and can afford. It’s as much about documenting the places you would go to, the house you would live in and the things you would buy if you had the opportunity. I’ve seen enough boards like “bucket list” and “what my future house will look like” to realise that it’s not just about the here and now, but also about visual benchmarks and escapism. All of these things make us feel good.
A reflection of me
While bookmarking services like Delicious, Instapaper and Read It Later allow you to keep track of articles, creating your own search engine for future consumption and reference, Pinterest and the like are (whilst similar in concept) much more in tune with your personal interests and hobbies offline. If you put up a mirror to my Pinterest page, you’d see the kinds of things that make me tick. And with that comes the things I like to wear, read and listen to, the places I want to go, the people I look up to and more.
In contrast, my Facebook profile has none of this. It’s funny: without all of Facebook’s privacy settings, I seem to be more open with the information I provide. I see Pinterest as more of a reflection of myself.
The fashion industry in particular relies on consumers buying products as personal identification: you are what you wear. But now you can convey that sense of individuality and style on an online board to a sizeable audience with ease and no cost. This is why I think Pinterest and the like can actually accelerate the notion of digital materialism while slowing real-world materialism.
Not everyone is a curator or collector who advertises their personal characteristics through what they own and display, so these new platforms aren’t for everyone. Women seem keener on it than men. Women are 21 per cent more likely than men to post photos. 83 per cent of users in the US of Pinterest are female. This is somewhat different in the UK, where 56 per cent of users are male.
People are doing what they have been doing for hundreds of years – collecting – but now it’s easier than ever, and beautifully visual and social.
The interest graph
Maybe it’ll become ubiquitous habit. Maybe “pinning” will be the new “liking”. Time will tell. But while the jury is out, Barry Schwartz at the Daily Beast, in his article “Consumption Makes Us Sad? Science Says We Can Be Happy With Less”, tells us we are happier doing, rather than having:
The higher a person’s income is, the bigger the disparity between the joys of doing and the joys of having. The pleasures associated with our own acts of consumption tend to be short-lived whereas the pleasures derived from doing something for others linger.
Now, we all know people who “are what they own.” But there is reliable research indicating that people who are like that—people who have what we might call materialist values—are less satisfied with their lives than people who don’t.
And the big things that we as individuals can do centre on reminding ourselves of what is really important and satisfying in our lives, and aiming to achieve those things instead of a Mercedes in our driveways.
You may or may not agree about the desirability of having a Merc in the driveway, but if Schwarz is right, and the pleasure from sharing can overcome the consumptive craving to purchase, Pinterest could be on to something.