Column: The Ritualization of Everything

How did the act of pinning a photo of a brownie replace the act of baking brownies? Not long ago, a sentence began to repeat itself in my Tumblr stream. There was no title or accompanying GIF. No punctuation. But in a week it was reblogged more than 150,000 times. “i accidentally messed up my […]

How did the act of pinning a photo of a brownie replace the act of baking brownies?

Not long ago, a sentence began to repeat itself in my Tumblr stream. There was no title or accompanying GIF. No punctuation. But in a week it was reblogged more than 150,000 times.

“i accidentally messed up my life how do i start a new account”

I have no idea where this statement originated or how it got the traction it did. But I paused whenever it passed across my screen. It filled me with more disparate thoughts than I should admit. Most of all it made me wonder why nobody bakes me brownies anymore.

When people gush about the psychology of Tumblr and Pinterest, they actually say things like “tool for mood regulation, self-expression, creativity and social interaction.” Deep down, beneath the astronomical growth rate of Pinterest and Tumblr, we all intuitively know there is some entrenched chicanery; the real psychology of Pinterest is that it stimulates the brain in a way that makes the body feel as if it’s committed something akin to an authentic act of creation.

When we pin an item—and to a lesser extent, reblog/retweet/forward/favourite this item—it comes to feel like we’re in on the original act.

It’s as if we ourselves conceived that image of the rickety old cabin. We didn’t chop the wood and build the cabin. We’ve never inhabited the cabin. We didn’t journey there to take the photo. Did we find the photo in a shoebox at a rundown estate sale? I’m pretty sure we didn’t. Maybe we saw a 29-point cheat sheet about cabins in The Daily Mail (stolen from Buzzfeed, which was lifted off a Reddit thread). More likely, though, it just came up in one of our social feeds. We don’t know where in the world the cabin exists. We clicked a button without so much as a word of context and felt the anticipation that our pin might be repinned, which would be evidence that it really was our cabin.

I don’t think this is especially good for anybody’s business.

To repeat a @kernelmag tweet: “If pleasure from sharing can overcome consumptive craving to purchase, Pinterest could be on to something.”

The premise of Pinterest is that we use it to compare products and in doing so become a viral carrier of marketing messages, “Products I Like” being the iconic default board.
The problem with trying to push a message through this kind of social media is that you aren’t competing with other brands in your category. You’re competing against the brand of your customer, who has no interest in purchasing an idea or a product or a service, but in appropriating whatever tiny bit of your carefully conceived creation into their daily chimera. There is no regard for source, no regard for context.

Experiencing Tumblr for the first time—different demographics/structure to Pinterest, same Petri dish—is overwhelming. Remarkable images flash with such velocity that you aren’t conscious of the nagging lack of citation—or the impossibility of trying to trace them to their source. But quickly giving way to not caring, you feel this sort of Lana Del Rey wheeze, which seems to be in Tumblr’s lungs somehow. “Heaven is a place where you tell me all the things you want to do.”

This is more than the fetishization of window shopping*. It’s the simulation of a real life. This is how the act of pinning a brownie replaces the act of baking one. It’s how the photo of a voter registration card on your Facebook timeline replaces the act of registering to vote. We are rewiring our brains to accept them as the same thing.

Bloomberg reported “customers were 13 times likelier to share an item they bought with friends on Pinterest than on Twitter, and eight times likelier than on Facebook. But a post on Twitter generated far more revenue—$33.66 an order—than Facebook, at $2.08 an order, or Pinterest, at 75 cents an order.”

Before the presidential election had been decided, a cheeky study came out that said Romney had more supporters on Pinterest; Obama’s were on Twitter. And while Romney did get smoked by a Kenyan Communist presiding over a fragile economy, it’s worth noting that voter turnout in the great social media election of 2012 was lower than 2008.

I’m reluctant to chalk this up to hashtag activism, a term that has the dismissive snark of “lipstick lesbianism.” “Hitting the favorite button on the first episode of Mad Men is a remarkably different gesture than expressing digital solidarity with kidnapped children in Africa, but it all sort of looks the same at the keyboard,” wrote David Carr in The New York Times. Noting how #KOMEN gave way to #KONY2012, which turned into #TrayvonMartin, Carr (only half-jokingly) referenced a condition like favouriting fatigue. “Another week, another hashtag, and with it, a question about what is actually being accomplished.”

The social media strategies that succeed over the next four years won’t winnow acts and images from their original context, but will instead help audiences find the more visceral frames of reference. In other words, they’ll be roadmaps for customers who accidentally messed up their lives and want to start a new account.

* Of course, anyone who is serious about shopping is on eBay or Craigslist or Amazon—looking for a spot in the Home Depot parking lot. If you’re cynical, the great model to leverage this deep-seated window shopper is Groupon. (There are sites just dedicated to reselling all the world’s unused coupons.)

Chris Koentges is an award-winning journalist based in Vancouver. For annotations to this column, follow @endicity, and pinterest.com/enduser. His column, End User, appears regularly in Marketing

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