To the uninitiated, Pinterest.com is kind of a peculiar website. It’s one part social network, one part digital scrapbook and one part browser bookmark bar. This “virtual pinboard,” as the site describes itself, is almost two years old, but it languished in a corner of cyberspace for much of its existence. Within the past several months, however, its user base multiplied, especially among crafters and DIY enthusiasts, and its popularity took off.
For users, it’s a fun way to get inspiration for creative pursuits like art projects or recipes, or gain practical tips for tasks like home organizing. Or, you can just kill 10 minutes at a time looking at pretty pictures of architecture, pets, sunsets, whatever. But a writer for the Atlantic suggests that Pinterest has a huge, hidden benefit: It might be able to short-circuit our desire to buy stuff.
The article explores the appeal of sites that let you virtually “file away” something interesting to read later. These differ from Pinterest in that there’s no visual or social element, but what they have in common is that a user gathers and curates a collection of media. This process — a step removed from actually reading the filed article — nonetheless yields a sense of accomplishment. (Have you ever been proud of yourself for making a to-do list, even if you haven’t crossed anything off it yet? It’s the same idea.)
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Consider it the evolution of hunting and gathering. The article cites a psychological study that observes, “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.” Pinterest also makes this “foraging” interactive and social — just like it is in the real world.
The writer then floats an intriguing, counterintuitive theory about sites like Pinterest:
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.
Put another way, the ritual of finding, cataloging and sharing an image online elicits a similar feeling of happiness as actually acquiring the chair, dress, cupcake or what-have-you in the real world — without the cost. It mimics “retail therapy” without the slog through the mall or big credit card bill.