Stack, board, feed: Collecting in the digital age

Posted on 29/03/2012

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The Pinterest board - yet another way to collect and share

With computers at our disposal we’ve given some of our weirdest habits a new home. Fetishes and kinky pleasure aside, there is nothing stranger or more nonsensical than collecting.

A brief history of collecting

Just think of the monkeys. Every time evolution and human behaviour get a mention i go back to that scene in 2001 A Space Odyssey (I’m imagining that all evolutionary changes happened the same way). What suddenly made Homo erectus start collecting shiny coloured stones? Maybe the giant monolith had something to do with it.

But perhaps it’s not that easy to explain. We don’t know when or why apes decided they had enough free time to start gathering rocks and sorting them. Did this give them some kind of evolutionary advantage over others? Is it a standard animal instinct? Probably not; this “gathering of non-essential items” can’t be matched with any wider purpose. It’s not a spiritual activity like art and it doesn’t build teams like sport or warfare. Collecting makes very little sense.

The value of collecting

It might be an evolutionary joke, but there’s certainly money to be made from it.
Collection and ownership are essentially one and the same: the more you collect the more you own. In a consumer driven society, possessions are everything, so even if you’re collecting old newspapers there’s bound to be money in it.

When it comes to collecting, every object is governed by three main factors, which influence the collector: the personal value, group value (what’s the collective taste of these collectors) and scarcity (abundance is not the collector’s friend). It’s a kind of holy trinity of economics with scarcity the all-powerful central force.

Digital messes it up

Hello digital age; goodbye rarity. The Internet gets everywhere: your home, your work, even underground (selected stations only), which means if something is online then it is also everywhere.

As a result, the Net has deformed the way we think of ownership. You can host (that’s to say, hold/ support) a file, but that file is not exclusive. If it can be read and used then it can be copied and transferred in some form. Hence the sticky issue with online piracy… (but that’s a different blog post entirely).

So when rarity, ownership and, ultimately, value are removed from the equation, what happens to the process of collecting? Why hasn’t it begun to evaporate like other analogue behaviours (letter writing, phone books, talking to people, etc.)?

Collecting, it seems, is a natural instinct. We might not be able to exclusively own our collections, but we still go through the motions of searching, gathering and sorting. In this weird online surrogate world, collecting becomes curating, gathering becomes exploration, and possession is replaced with distribution (sharing). Collecting was once about ownership; now it is about being able to share what you find and sort.

Bizarrely, people are now collecting more than ever (never before has it been so easy or so cheap). Name any topic, object or person and someone, somewhere will have a digital collection about it.

Categories, methods and processes

Online collections appear similar to the analogue kind but they’re built differently:

1) Exploring and searching – both of these are intrinsic to the collecting process. Online, these are even more important than owning: anyone can “own” a digital file but first you have to find it.

2) Collecting precedes sorting – First we gather anything and everything until we’ve established the beginnings of a collection. Then we realise we’ve gone too far and included too much, devaluing our collection. The result is we have to sort and filter our collection to give it any value, removing what’s worthless and promoting what we like most.

3) Sharing follows sorting – now that we have a collection (of sorts) and we’ve organised it a bit, what do we do next? Without ownership and rarity, there’s seems not point in just collecting online. We can’t enjoy it in the same way as a physical object; we can’t even invite our friends round to admire it. Instead of the personal pleasure that comes with owning something, we rely on the pleasure and admiration of others to fulfill this need. The approval of others, through following, likes, comments, and shares, is now the real payback from collecting online.

Collecting networks

Here I’m going to stretch this analysis one step further:

What if all social networks were based on the updated principles of digital collecting?

Of course, dedicated “collecting networks” clearly do this (Pinterest, Delicious, Evernote, Catch and so on). However, I’d argue that mainstream networks like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr do as well:

  • Discovery: sharing what you discover and discovering what other people share. Each feed, blog or wall is a collection of that person’s interests, allowing you view other people’s collections and curate your own.
  • Following: finding and adding interesting people to your collection.
  • Lists and galleries: an outlet for your collections, whether it’s photos or Twitter profiles.

And finally…

  • Followers: it’s about collecting as big an audience as possible. We’ve turned social connections into an obsession.

Is this interpretation one step too far? Perhaps I’m over-analysing them, but ultimately the Internet is itself a collection: a big bundle of words, images, sound and code. The Net can’t stop itself from collecting data – it’s like a house gathering dust – it happens constantly and without you even doing anything.

In the past, a collection had boundaries. People focussed on a particular dynasty for their Ming vases or one brand of cigarettes for their cigarette cards. The job of an online curator is never-ending. It might be easy to start but it knows no bounds. Godspeed you Internet collectors, you’ve got your work cut out.

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