Digital Architecture and Online Behavior: A Study in Pinterest

FOREWARD: The following is the first post in a series exploring the relationship between the digital world and civic/political activism and engagement. Much tangential material included.

In trying to understand the recent explosion of the online social pinboard site “Pinterest”, I would like to take a leaf from Lawrence Lessig’s idea of the four modalities of regulation.

four modalities of regulation lawrence lessig

Lawrence Lessig writes about how 4 modalities regulate behavior in the “real” world as well as online: the law, the market, social norms, and what he calls “architecture”, or structural possibilities. Whereas Lessig’s concern is primarily on the modality of Law, in considering Pinterest I am primarily concerned with the modalities of Norms, Market, and in particular Architecture, or the structural possibilities of Pinterest as a virtual space.

As Lessig explains, the 4 modalities all interact with and influence each other. For example, Pinterest’s most newsworthy feature has been that it is becoming a new norm in social media use, particularly amongst women. In the past 12 months, Pinterest has become the 3rd most widely used social media site, far outstripping the rate of growth of any other social media site to date. This new norm can be accounted for partially by the Market- by the fact that Pinterest provides an absolutely free service, and incorporates the potentially more costly (both in terms of time and money) functions of the magazine, online shopping, and real-life collaging. And again, both this norm of use and some of the features of the market modality are determined by the actual architecture of the site.

The most obvious architectural innovation of the site is that it is virtual. This inherently makes the activity of finding and saving images and other materials much less costly (there is no quick way to search through a magazine for all the blue items, and the act of clicking “Pin it” is infinitely easier than cutting out an image, organizing it and storing it for later viewing). However, it seems to me that this feature cannot really account for the sudden popularity of Pinterest. The site is in fact very similar to Pinterest in terms of its basic functioning; it allows users to aggregate and organize images in a social setting, displaying them on their page and viewing the pages of others, as well as create their own “feed” of images from blogs that they follow. This suggests that the real thing drawing users to the site is something else.

I would suggest that the most obvious draw of the site is again, simply that it is the social norm. It is arguable that Facebook does not have nearly 1 billion users and Google+ only 170 million because Facebook is such an amazing tool with great digital architecture and Google+ is a terrible tool, but simply because it is the social norm.  Increasingly, other sites across the web enforce this norm by requiring Facebook login in order to comment or use their services (as Spotify has notably done), or by making it very enticing to log in with the click of a button that automatically detects your Facebook account, rather than create yet another account with yet another username/password. Similarly, Pinterest’s main thing going for it is likely the huge pre-existing community of like-minded users- that is, female. The initial user-base of Pinterest has established a set of social norms for the site- female oriented, focusing on content such as clothing, home decor, recipes etc. It is not the architecture of the site that has determined the content but social norms surrounding it’s use, and it seems that these norms have helped to make this community as popular as it is today.

That being said, there definitely seem to be architectural features of Pinterest that have made the site as popular as it is today.

1. The “pin it” button. This button can be easily added to your tool bar, and when clicked it automatically detects all the images on a page and lets you select which one you want to post. This is incredibly easy, whereas most other sites still require you to grab the particular url for an image in order to share it on twitter, facebook, tumblr, etc. This requires a certain amount of know-how, and a certain amount of effort. With this button, even my grandmother can easily get pinning.

2. The “pin it” feature goes hand in hand with what is perhaps the most significant architectural feature of Pinterest: the automatic click-through function. On tumblr and other image-sharing sites which require you to use the specific image-url, clicking on the image only leads to a standalone url of the image. Pinterest, which has detected this image for you from the page in which it was originally found, automatically also allows you to click on the image and see where it came from. This means that for the images which catch your eye, you are not just limited to passively reposting or “liking” the image, but you can engage with it more deeply, perhaps reading the reviews on the recipe, perhaps discovering a new arts and crafts blog, and- here’s the kicker- perhaps even buying the item itself.

This is an interesting choice for Pinterest, since it makes the user more likely to actually be drawn away from the site- but it seems that this open-boundaries architecture is part of what makes Pinterest all the more addictive for the users, who are presented with new and fresh content each time they click on an image, rather than just skimming along the surface of pages and pages of images.

And yet, it seems that this click-through feature has actually brought a lot more content back to the Pinterest site itself, through brands who have jumped on the opportunity to display their products on the largest digital window-shop of all. The click-through feature is a boon not only to users, but to the content-producers as well. Pinterest has quickly risen to being one of the top sources of referral to retail sites.

There is no doubt that Pinterest’s seemingly small architectural feature of the automatic click-through has contributed greatly to the site’s popularity among users and content-producers. However, it is not clear that the “click through” form of engagement actually ever fully translates to engagement with the “real world”. There is little clear data showing that Pinterest is actually driving sales, although in a world where brands pay Google every time anyone clicks on an ad and visits their site, perhaps it isn’t that important that consumers actually pull out their credit card when using Pinterest.

Regardless of commercial action, it seems that even Pinterest users themselves have become dissatisfied with the extent  of engagement which Pinterest encourages. Pinboards allow you to collect and display pictures of beautiful homes and beautiful meals- but hoarding pictures of these things on a virtual board is not quite as satisfying as actually having them. Pinner’s joke about needing to get offline and actually do the things on their DIY-boards, or about needing a “pintermission”. The usual complaints of “addiction” abound among Pinterest users, in the usual half-joking half-serious kind of way.

In an interesting twist, Honda has actually created a promotion offering “some of the most active pinners $500 to take a 24-hour Pinterest break, to get out and do some of the stuff they’re pinning about”. (I will not even get into the complexity of the engagement/marketing mind-game involved here.)

Pinterest’s content and architecture inspire a new kind of online engagement- and yet the engagement seems to remain largely sequestered in the virtual world, rather than the “real”, physical world.

This leads me to the topic to be explored in my next post:

How do the architectures of our digital world encourage engagement with the “real world”? More pressingly– what is the potential of the digital world to encourage activism and civic engagement, and make changes not just to our own lives, but to the lives of others?

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