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.
TreeHugger was founded with the intention of showing how modern environmentalism doesn't have to mean the abandonment of style or comfort of good design. In fact, sustainability demands those things, because caring about the environment doesn't mean you won't ever buy anything again, but it should mean that you will think about your purchases. Buying less, but better, is much smarter than buying cheap, mass-produced junk that is bound to break or wear out and be replaced with more cheap junk. In general, investing in quality-designed products is the wiser environmental choice because they will last longer and require fewer natural resources to produce and maintain.
Instant Gratification With Bookmarking Can Replace Actual Consumption
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. On Pinterest, too, I see people adding pictures of things that would be considered aspirational in nature, from exotic locations, to well-designed decor and even photos of beautiful fitness models posted to inspire us to exercise more.
Can Digital Consumption Make Us Happier in Real Life?
In an excellent post at The Daily Beast titled, Consumption Makes Us Sad? Science Says We Can Be Happy With Less, professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, Barry Schwartz explains research on consumerism that shows experiences provide longer lasting happiness compared to things. Here's Schwartz on why "doing" often beats "having":
First, though doing is just an episode in life, we continue to "consume" the things we do by remembering them, and sharing our memories with others. Second, doing is almost always social, and I've already indicated how important social relations are to well being.
It's no trip to the beach or hike in the woods, but are we not enjoying a type of pleasurable experience when we look at our Pinterest boards or Svpply collections and see all the neat things we've collected? Plus, like real world hunting and gathering, these sites provide a social element, as well, which hits even more pleasure triggers as we are able to see what our friends have added and think that they are seeing our additions, as well. The ability to like, reshare and comment on these items adds even more to the social experience.
Bookstaber writes, "consumption is increasingly oriented toward virtual goods -- consuming YouTube videos, tweets and social networks, games and reality TV shows. These take little in terms of labor -- or for that matter, capital -- to produce. And the labor that is required is largely supplied by us as the consumers. Another instance of outsourcing."
He goes on to make note of how conspicuous consumption is waning.
And one notable area of consumption that by definition differentiates the classes, that of conspicuous consumption, is going by the wayside. Yes, I believe we are seeing the twilight of the era of conspicuous consumption. Not that Gucci and Chanel are going to go out of business, but for most people that sort of status statement is increasingly becoming irrelevant.
I don't disagree some forms of conspicuous consumption are fading, but in the context of how we present ourselves online, 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.
So what does this all mean for our culture and the people and businesses that actually design and manufacture all these nice things we are consuming virtually? I'm not sure. On one hand, I think it is probably good for content producers that are making digital products, such as recipes or blog posts about DIY projects that are gaining new readers and page views through the curation work being done by users of these sites. For the people that make tangible goods or provide services, I can only assume they are hoping all this virtual consumption is going to result in some real world increases in sales.
For the environment and consumers, this is mostly a good thing. Back in his Daily Beast article, Schwartz explained why the fun of things is short-lived:
Hedonic adaptation is just a fancy label for what we already know: we get used to things. The new car gets us all excited--for a while. But before long, it's just our ride. The new tablet or smartphone is so enticing that we can't keep our hands off it. But before long, it's just another way for people we don't want to hear from to lay responsibilities on us. There's no denying that we get tremendous pleasure from the things we have. But the pleasure is disappointingly short-lived.
And unlike things, these online experiences can be enjoyed repeatedly as we log back in to these sites over and over and over. No doubt all of these tools are ripe for abuse and make it way too easy to waste precious time looking at stuff, but from an environmentalist's perspective, if virtual consumerism means a real world reduction in wasteful consumption, it's a welcome change for a dangerously changing world.
Images: Alexis Madrigal.