Online Culture

Like most of the world, I came across Pinterest early last year, when there was a lot of hype-y discussion on marketing blogs about Pinterest becoming the next big thing. All kinds of unlikely organisations popped up with their take on using Pinterest to promote your (decidedly non-visual) main business. At the same time, I read a lot of grumpy dismissal of Pinterest by technical-minded blokes. It is for girls (therefore it can be of no interest to manly men). Even now, Econsultancy are offering a £250 report on Pinterest best practice.

Being a dutiful digital citizen, I felt it was my duty to try Pinterest out, for free. So I started to collect little craft tutorials on there. It was okay. I was a little bit embarrassed about the world finding all those teddy bear sleeping bag patterns, but someone’s got to take the lead here. Those things aren’t going to sew themselves.

My first thought was that  it wasn’t exactly going to change the world, although it was a good way of marking stuff to find later. I make glass and silver jewellery as a hobby, so I started to create a few more inspiration boards, on glass art and graphic pattern.


Then one evening, I was in search of some social media zoning-out. I caught up on Twitter, and after a few moments of looking down the page, I got a headache. Too much chatter, too many random links. So I thought I’d pop back to Pinterest and look for some maps. (Maps are quite a thing on Pinterest.)

It was …relaxing and a little bit habit-forming. Unlike Twitter, I didn’t feel like I was poking my head into an information water-cannon. Unlike Facebook, I wasn’t oppressed by my friends’ successful social lives. It was all rather calm and slightly pretty. And, as I searched around for the absolutely perfect cartography-based artefact, I felt that first tug of the truly habit-forming online toy. I have gone to the brightly coloured, hand-knitted side.

Some observations about Pinterest:

1. Somewhat female. (Is that a problem?)

2. Personal without being warts and all.

The Pinterest core mood is a bit aspirational, a little bit Zen, occasionally fist-pumping.  The nearest it gets to ‘warts and all’ are the Wise Quotes/Sisters are Doing It For Themselves things, which can get a bit wearing but is easy to avoid. So it’s emotionally light.

3. It’s all about the collection

I look after my favourite boards zealously, taking out the unwise choices and looking for better ones.  When I’m thinking about something to make in glass, I study my Colour & Pattern collection, and I start to see visual themes and consistencies that I didn’t notice before.

Pinterest Colur & Pattern board

4. It’s competing with a collage board, Evernote and your sketchbook

It’s not really a social network, it’s a tool. I’m now actively choosing Pinterest when I do certain things. It’s a nice way of recording sources for projects. I can go back and review, search, add and annotate. (And I can keep secret boards for projects that can’t yet be shared).

I have used Pinterest to create a board about science communication usage, and it works really well. I’ve seen it used beautifully for historical projects, presenting photographs and sources on the page. There are collaborative boards too, where a couple of friends or a whole panel of people contribute their finds.

5.  A little bit social but not very

Pinterest recommends people you know but in truth that’s not very helpful. Personally I am seeking the eye, not the conversation. And so far the interface is way less needy than Twitter, Facebook or Linked In. It does not yet solicit me in email to plead that new pins are waiting for me (but never say never).

Pinterest science board

6. Very useful for search & discovery.

While Pinterest encourages users to add new content from outside sources, I find it great the other way round. If I want to find some new interior design blogs, I’ll search for a look I like, and then trace it back to the source material. I’ve also used it to track down teaching resources – teachers and homeschooling parents use it to curate classroom tools, for examples.

7. Not the answer to everything – but probably a guide to the future

We are absolutely drowning in verbal information. Visual is different: it gives us a delicious right-brained break from all that scanning and parsing. My own work isn’t madly Pinterest-friendly, but I do now think about it every time I write a post.

Basically, I am betting that the future involves more Photoshop.

How about you? Love it or hate it? I’d love to see any interesting uses of it, too. ( I had never realised that Map Fever was such a shared thing).


Online lions and offline lambs

February 28, 2011

Lion finger puppet

Brave lion. By getdancey_ on flickr

I’ve been thinking about personality, and how it differs between our online  and offline selves.  There is a hope, expressed by all sorts of people, that the internet represents an easy way to understand exactly what people think.

According to this argument, if we listen to internet conversations (scrape them, analyse them, Google-alert them) then we know what’s going on. It’s just a case of data reduction.

I think that’s incredibly problematic, and here are three difficulties that I see with this way of thinking.

1. Online lions may be offline lambs

It feels practically taboo to write this.  In the course of a long and happy internet-mediated life, I have met many people in the flesh that I first knew online.   Many of my closest friends are people that I’ve met like this.

But I have also learned that some extremely important aspects of personality don’t always come through online.  The most obvious example is shyness or social awkwardness.   Here, the online life and soul of the party turns out to be quiet or taciturn when you meet them.

The internet has been massively freeing to introverted souls (and I’d count myself among them), but online vivacity may or may not match the way that person behaves in a real world social situation.

Online hostility also easily dribbles to nothing, whether it’s backbiting on Oh No They Didn’t, misogyny on Youtube, or simple nastiness on the Guardian.

In my Livejournal days, it was practically a given that the most unpleasant, personal, evil  troll in a flamewar would turn out to be a 15 year old girl from Ohio with a locked journal and a penchant for My Chemical Romance.

But some lions really are lions. Wherever they go.

Sometimes, you can’t really tell.

2. We constantly perform ourselves – but some performances are more truthful than other.

Peggy Orenstein in the New York Times has written about  Twitter as a self-conscious performance.   We act for the crowd.  My research colleague Ray Poynter has pointed out that in a sense this doesn’t matter -  all conversation is social, in that it’s spoken with an audience in mind.  The internet is just another location where that is true.

I would argue that, yes, all conversation has an element of performance – but some of those performances are elaborate artifices, while others come close to expressing our essential thoughts and values.

Think of the difference between a job interview and lunch with a close friend.

Our performances are shaped by our ideas of who’s listening, and how free we feel to to express our genuine emotions.

Facebook me is friendly and a little bit formal.

Twitter me can be silly one minute and self-aggrandising the next.

LinkedIn me is a social climbing nightmare.

I’ve written elsewhere about a project I did which involved one-to-one telephone interviews followed by focus groups.  In one interview, I spoke to a guy who had a lot of insight ggained from his time spent on gay dating sites. During the focus group, he didn’t volunteer any of that to the straight-looking people around him.  He simply wasn’t comfortable enough.

We edit ourselves.

3. We want to look bigger than we are

In our working lives, we like to self-present as authoritative and popular.

In our social lives (I have a teenager who lives on Facebook), it’s the same.

In a world where business relationships are founded on Twitter interchange and blog commenting, we  are often playing ourselves as bigger, richer and more successful than we really are.  It can be a guessing game, sometimes: does that man who auto-Tweets his way through the weekend really have a major business?  Or is it just smoke and mirrors?

We might find out, if we meet. (Or we might not)

The truth of who we are and what we value lives somewhere between our status updates and the conversation we might have face-to-face.

I’m tempted to draw some kind of moral (What does this mean for Your Thing), because I think these gaps and misfits have some interesting consequences.  But I don’t think it’s simple.  Thoughts welcome.




Valentine selection: five from the archives

February 14, 2011 How To

I’m cheating today.  On the assumption that you’ll be swamped by Valentine-themed content of all types, I am going to dig through my archives and blow the dust off some older posts that deserve more love.   Hopefully something for everyone. Fair warning: some of these are from 2007, which is like 1850 in internet terms. […]

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