Friday, February 1, 2013

Cost of Admission

It has been almost 11 months since I posted about joining Pinterest. (For an idea of why I would bother writing about this, give that first post a read.) I intended it to be the first in a series of posts about how I use Pinterest, but I can now see this was a bit ambitious for the months leading up to Bookie's birth.

However, Wednesday was the first day of Spring semester here at my university, and I am once again co-teaching the course I helped design with my research partner Teresa, called Rhetoric & Social Media. In the past the course focused on Facebook, but this time we've expanded the sites we're studying with the students to include Twitter, Instagram, and---you guessed it---Pinterest. Since the course is getting me back into a meta frame of mind when it comes to social media, I decided to pick up the thread on this post series and see where it leads.


Image courtesy of a CC0 1.0 Universal 
Public Domain Dedication
When I received an invitation to join Pinterest back in March 2012 and clicked on the invitation link, I was faced with my first decision related to the site: Facebook or Twitter. Huh? I thought we were talking about Pinterest... Well, it turns out I was being asked by Pinterest to choose between signing into this new site with my Facebook credentials or with my Twitter credentials. At the time the site was 1) invitation-only, and 2) did not let users create accounts using their email addresses, but required users to choose between Facebook and Twitter as a means of signing up. I hunted around for a way to bypass the choice and continue without having to make it, but I came up short.

I call this type of gateway the "cost of admission": in order to gain access to the functionality and network of users the site offers, you need to give something in return. Social media by its very nature is "free" in terms of monetary cost but it is never "free" in terms of personal data. That is our currency as users on these sites: the information about ourselves (and our social connections) we are willing and in many cases required to share in order to proceed. Part of becoming information literate social media users is becoming aware of this cost of admission. Almost a year ago Pinterest was not shy about this fact, and was bold enough (and confident enough in its product) that they did not offer users the option to create a stand-alone, un-connected Pinterest account. (It's worth noting that since then, the site is no longer invitation-only and you can now sign up for Pinterest with just an email address. But this wasn't the case when I signed up.)

I chose to create my Pinterest account by connecting it with my Facebook account. Although Facebook has a lot more of my personal data and more relevant data about my social connections than Twitter does, ironically (considering the above) it was precisely because of this that I chose to sign up via Facebook. This is where you can see what you're "buying" with your personal data and what you stand to gain in the transaction: while I was giving Pinterest richer data about me by choosing Facebook, by so doing I was simultaneously better customizing my Pinterest account to improve my experience on the site. In this case, the data I gave enabled Pinterest to identify other Pinterest users I already know, thus giving me the option to connect with them there. I knew that I'd be a lot more interested in finding my Facebook connections on Pinterest than I would my Twitter connections (because of the differences in how I use both sites), so I chose Facebook. So while there's no denying it is a cost, there is also a benefit to be had as well, which is why the user-website relationship "works".

So perhaps the question at the center of this relationship is: Do you trust the site in question to be a good steward of your data?

For my part, I generally do. Which says a lot more about my personality and outlook than it does about the sites I am connecting with. But I'm aware of these facts about myself and the trust I put in sites like Pinterest, and I'm continually reevaluating that trust with each new innovation or development on these sites. And I still believe that this awareness affords me more control and agency in using these sites than if I lacked it.


I definitely didn't expect this reflection to get so..."big brother"-ish, but, it is what it is. *shrug* I bet my next Pinterest post will be a lot lighter, since once I set up my account the site quickly became the online place I go to de-stress (pin ALL the things!!!). I'll share more about this next time.

But I'm always a sucker for good conversation about the politics surrounding information and data---a topic I am only beginning to scratch the surface of in my research (both personal and professional). And so I'll end with a question or three...

To my readers: Did anything I wrote above surprise you? How do you handle the conundrum of giving social media sites your personal data (including information about your social connections) in order to better customize and improve your experience on those sites? Is the "cost of admission" worth what you get in return?

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