Product-bookmarking sites can give us the pleasure of shopping without the environmental impact of consuming.
At first glance, it would seem that the new generation of product-bookmarking sites such as Pinterest and Svpply are nothing more than new tools to feed the consumer machine, driving us to buy more stuff. But, counterintuitively, my experience with these services is that they actually help me cut my consumption and to direct my money at goods that more closely align with my values.
Here's what I think is going on. 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."
And that's the key thread to connect a few dots on how these new consumerist-inspired digital bookmarking tools -- Pinterest and Svpply -- are actually encouraging anti-consumerist behavior.
While Instapaper and Read it Later allow us journalism nerds easy ways to keep track of all the great writing we'd like to (hopefully) later consume, services such as Pinterest and Svpply are becoming popular for how they allow users to keep track of other things, such as products on Svpply or with the case of Pinterest, recipes, photos or fun DIY or craft ideas. Having used both of these services for a while, I think digital bookmarking is becoming the latest method in how we consume products in the 21st century.
How Bookmarking Became A Consumerist Activity
Digital bookmarking is, of course, nothing new for many internet users. Amazon offers users the option to create digital wish lists. Sites like Delicious have provided social interaction around the act of collecting and storing links. While not exactly bookmarking, Reddit, Digg, and Stumble Upon allow social interaction around sharing links to news and interesting content, but not in a way that has felt consumerist. The new tools are filling that gap. In the expanding landscape of social media, activities that were previously just supplemental features to existing services are being made into businesses all their own.
In addition to bookmarking and wish lists, for the past several years digital consumerism has taken the form of seemingly bizarre rituals like unboxing and haul videos. Millions of people have watched these videos on YouTube showing other humans unpackaging and discussing the products they have recently acquired. This is, of course, just a single example of the countless ways we live vicariously through others thanks to the Internet, but it's worth keeping in mind as we consider how services like Pinterest and Svpply are changing our behavior in new ways.
Shopping as Foraging
A good way to think about why consumerism has become so widespread is to realize that the act of shopping is really just a modern version of the hunting and gathering behaviors we inherited from our evolutionary ancestors.
In an interesting research paper titled "Evolved Foraging Psychology Underlies Sex Differences in Shopping Experiences and Behaviors" (PDF) published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, Daniel Kruger and Dreyson Byker explain how modern consumer behavior is similar to hunting and gathering (emphasis mine):
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).
Now that our economy has declined, we have less money available for unnecessary purchases and more people are realizing they need to consume less for economic and environmental reasons, I think it makes sense that we are seeing a rise in social-media services that allow us to enjoy hunting and gathering behavior without financial costs.
How Pinterest and Svpply Work
To understand how Pinterest and Svpply are a type of hunting and gathering behavior, it's helpful to know how each site works. At its core, Svpply allows its users to share and discover products. There are some other features, like creating gift guides or wish lists, but it all centers around the products and helping people discover well-designed goods.
Pinterest, on the other hand, is much more broad in focus, allowing users to share and find stuff of all kinds. It is based on the idea of "pinning" items to virtual cork boards as a way to organize all the neat things you may see online each day. While I use Svpply more as a virtual shopping tool, on Pinterest I've been using the boards to keep track of DIY projects I find interesting, recipes I'd like to try someday (I Could Eat That) and beautiful pictures of homes, cabins or campsites I find inspiring (I Could Sleep There).
Like other social-media services, both Pinterest and Svpply encourage users to follow and be followed by other users, so everyone's experience will vary based on who they follow.
Can Digital Materialism Prevent Real-World Consumerism?
One of the reasons I like Svpply so much is I have found it to be helpful in buying fewer, but better, things. One way I use Svpply is to find high-quality merchandise from small businesses that manufacture goods in the US. When I actually buy something I find there, the digital shopping that takes place on Svpply is still helping to contribute to real-world consumerism, but perhaps a less-bad variety, if people are using it to find quality goods that will last and supporting small and US-based businesses.