In my previous post on Digital Architecture and Online Behavior, I introduced a small case-study of the site Pinterest, and how its social norms and site-architecture have contributed to a new and extremely popular form of online engagement. Specifically, I suggested that the “click through” feature of pins is a strong draw for both the users and content-producers. This seems to give the otherwise mere static-images displayed on boards a life and draw of their own, creating an outward-leading network of new information and social ties, and furthermore increases the potential that people may actually go on to purchase items displayed on the site. This architectural feature allows for a certain depth of engagement with online content, and even encourages a direct translation into real-world physical action, such as making a recipe for an alluring-looking pie repinned, or even buying a new dining room table found via Pinterest. However- I also point out that this “realness” encouraged by the site only seems to go so far. I point to the lack of evidence that Pinterest refferals actually lead to increased sales, and the evidence that users seem to be dissatisfied with the rate of conversion between pinning images of delicious recipes and clean homes and actually taking the time to implement the dreams they pin.
At the end of the post, I suggest that this particular case-study in Pinterest opens up questions that are pressing to understanding the effect of the Internet on our lives more generally, i.e.;
How do the architectures of our digital world encourage meaningful engagement with the “real world”? How do they fall short, or even promote activities that may detract from our engagement with the “real world”, and from our quality of life?
And to push this question a bit further- 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?
It seems increasingly clear that the Internet does not exist as a place separate from the “real world”- and that it in fact has a very real and palpable (even inescapable) presence in our everyday lives, whether or not we are looking at a screen. Whereas the Internet still exists as a sort of ethereal escape world filled with monsters and infinite alternate identities for those who wish it to be, Pinterest is an excellent example of how the Internet has penetrated into more down-to-earth forms of human existence- scrapbooking, wedding planning, and window-shopping. We also increasingly see the ways that the Internet to engage us in a new ways with immense issues and powerful forces, and to shape our political and social environment. I want to explore how it is that the two polarized images we have today of the Internet- as a tool for fun and leisure, and a tool for changing the face of human history, can be reconciled.
Pinterest is an interesting tool because it seems to me that it’s popularity today depends partially on it’s ability to create a bridge between our indulgent online activities and the basic activity of living happily in the “real” world. How does it create this bridge? What lessons can be learned from this tool to understand how we can build bridges between our virtual actions and the pursuit of greater human happiness on a global scale?
This question is not purely intellectual for me. I work for a non-profit running their social media presence, trying to engage “the audience” with our brand and ultimately with our cause. We maintain several platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Each platform has it’s own unique audience with it’s own unique challenges. Pinterest is perhaps both the most challenging and most potentially-rewarding. Our Facebook platform is largely connected with people who already have some close ties and familiarity with our brand; it is furthermore practically impossible for us to get outside of this existing circle of people, because de facto our content does not get broadcast to people not already within our social circle. Twitter is a much more open-broadcast kind of platform, but it is hard to communicate in the exclusively text-based, 140 characters or less ways that Twitter demands; this is much more akin to shouting headlines into cyberspace for those interested, and it can be hard to engage people in a consistent and personal kind of way. Pinterest however seems to have a lot of promise for a non-profit like us. Let me suggest two of the main reasons why:
1. IMAGES. Of course- images are engaging, a thousand times moreso than any string of text. Pinterest is so addictive because you can allow your eye to sweep across an endless array of images and land on whatever strikes it, whereas text-feeds like Twitter require more careful attention and parsing. This makes it a poor tool if you want to send a more complex or intellectual message (even infographics, the increasingly-popular happy medium between message and image, do not jive well with Pinterest-formatting). However, Pinterest’s “click through” feature again comes to the rescue here. I can post a picture of anything, and if a user is interested enough they will hopefully click through to either my board or to my site (if I have linked it from there, of course). This means that I have more flexibility in what I can post, yet still hope that people will click-through and engage on a deeper level with the themes of my boards, with the company message we display, and even click-through to our company website. I can mix images from things vaguely related to our brand, to images generated by events our company hosts, to photographs of the actual people we are helping with our company. These different types of images appeal to different sorts of people, with different agendas and willingness to engage with our company. It can be hard to encourage real action (ie, the spending of time or money to support our cause) purely with images, but by blending the various “levels” of images on our boards we can hopefully speak to a wider audience, and slowly engage people on a deeper level.
2. An open Social Network minus the Personal element. While Pinterest does feature a “social” component, in many ways it has the basic openness of a Google image search. Typically the images are not personal in content, so the content your friends post may not necessarily be any more “relevant” (or personally enjoyable) than the content a stranger posts. Part of the draw of Pinterest is that it leads you outward socially, helping you to find images you like, and possibly connect with people you have never met about personal tastes in kitchen decor. Pinterest is simultaneously social without being personal. It seems to me that this actually leaves people free to be more personal, since they do not have to worry about you viewing pictures of them or seeming inappropriate by commenting on a picture belonging to a stranger. The images and objects of Pinterest form a sort of neutral middle ground on which strangers can be open with each other- precisely the sort of territory perfect for a non-profit.
These two features of Pinterest make it extremely promising ground for getting people engaged with a good cause. And yet- notice that both of these features largely promise more ease of access. This means that although total strangers may now be repinning my pins and following my boards- does this even really matter? At what point does this action become concretely meaningful? When they attend events? When they donate to our cause? What if they simply share our content with a friend, and thereby increase the likelihood that their friend will attend, donate, share?
The Internet can make issues and ideas engaging in a way that standing on a street corner with pamphlets cannot; it can close the space and time gap between problems a world away…..and yet just because engagement is more widespread and easier, is this actually MEANINGFUL for concrete social change? Some even worry that by lowering the bar for engagement in a cause, we are not letting more people in, but lowering the bar for ethical action, allowing people to feel accomplished when they have done nothing at all for the “real” world.
What constitutes truly meaningful engagement and action in the virtual world?
To what degree can purely virtual action have a meaningful impact on the social and political conditions of the world? (Is there such a thing as a “purely virtual” action?)
These are questions that will deserve increasing consideration in our time. I think phenomenon like Occupy Wall Street and Kony 2012 (also) have brought these questions to the fore-front, and our understanding is only beginning, and the endless changes in the architectures and nature of our Internet engagements means that as the Internet evolves, our answers must evolve too.