Recently, two new digital bookmarking services - Pinterest and Svpply - have become popular tools for people to save, share and find photos of products, recipes, DIY ideas and all sorts of other stuff. When you see all the product photos and marketing material people are saving on these sites, at first glance, they seem to be just another way to feed the consumerist machine, but I've found they are actually helping me reduce my consumption.
In an essay over at The Atlantic Tech, I lay out my theory about how these tools are a new form of hunting and gathering behavior that we inherited from our evolutionary ancestors. But the part I think will appeal most to TreeHugger readers is how these new methods of digital consumerism can actually help reduce or improve our real-world consumption.
I start the essay by explaining how a post by Megan Garber about Instapaper helped spark my line of thinking:
Last month, Megan Garber, now of The Atlantic but then writing for Nieman Lab, posted some interesting thoughts about how the use of bookmarking tools like Instapaper and Read It Later can arguably be considered a form of anti-engagement, since they help users put off reading the material they are bookmarking. As she explained, "a click on a Read Later button... provides just enough of a rush of endorphins to give me a little jolt of accomplishment, sans the need for the accomplishment itself."
That hit of endorphins from saving something with a digital bookmark was something I was feeling when I added something to my Svpply or Pinterest page, which is a similar rush one might get from actually buying something, but without the need for money or any actual consumption. Here's how I explained that at The Atlantic:
The more interesting angle to the shopping via bookmark idea is that in some instances bookmarking is even replacing real-world consumption. Just as Megan Garber explained the endorphin hit we can get from adding a great story to our Instapaper queue, I have found that adding items to my Svpply page gives me a similarly pleasant rush of some pleasure-inducing chemicals. When I spot something online that I think has nice design, might be worth-buying later or would make a good gift, I'll happily click the Buy Later button in my browser to add it to my Svpply page. Once it is there, I am able to revisit the product later and decide if it is really something I want to buy. I have often removed something later that, in an earlier time, I may have actually bought, not realizing I didn't actually like the design as much as I had thought or simply that I didn't need it.
Another area where I see both Svpply and Pinterest filling a void is similar to Garber's idea of "Aspirational Read" stories. My Svpply page has a bunch of aspirational products that I don't plan to ever actually buy, either because or price, practicality, or environmental impact, but that I find visually interesting enough to have added to my Svpply page simply so I can see them from time to time.
I conclude with some thoughts on how because of our poor economy and the increasing concern for the environment, for some people, simply participating in this digital consumerism of "hunting and gathering" neat photos and ideas online is enough to satiate the desire to engage in conspicuous consumption of actually buying stuff they don't really need or want.
I think we've entered a new era of hyper-conspicuous digital consumption. While the poor economy may be reducing our urge to buy an expensive car just to show we can, the new additions to our ever-growing arsenal of social-media tools are giving us new ways to show the world what kind of things we like, what clothing or jewelry we would wear (if we could), what kind of cars we would drive (if we could), what kind of homes we'd live in (if we could) and on and on. If there wasn't a social element to Svpply or Pinterest (or Twitter or Facebook or blogs, for that matter) I think far fewer people would take the time to use these tools for personal organization. It is the overtly conspicuous nature of sharing the pretty things we find that makes these tools fun to use in the first place.