Shopping, in all its forms - the things we choose to consume, the things we don't - is a hidden architect, shaping and reshaping the world with a power that politicians can only dream about.
The mash-up of social networking and online shopping
We live in a society ordered by one activity above all others: consumption. Shopping, in all its forms - the things we choose to consume, the things we don't - is a hidden architect, shaping and reshaping the world with a power that politicians can only dream about.
Over the past decade, the rise of online culture has transformed the way we buy. Just consider how the Amazon recommendation engine - the much-copied function that tells you "customers who bought War and Peace also bought Dead Souls" - revolutionised the way we browse for and buy books. No wonder, then, that there is huge interest in mashing together internet shopping with another transformative online phenomenon: social networking.
Now, a spate of start-ups want to do just that. Most are using variants on a model that involves scrapbooking - collecting favourites from around the web - and feedback from the online "crowd".
The web entrepreneur Tara Hunt's new Buyosphere (www.buyosphere.com) is a Q&A shopping platform that lets users come to the site, upload a picture of themselves, and ask: "I'm looking for a pair of shoes to go with this dress." Other users of the site will respond; the original user can network with respondents, and buy if they choose. Or there's the London-based Lyst (www.lyst.com), where users can follow designers, fashion stores and stylists, and "lyst" their favourite products for others to see. Meanwhile, Go Try It On (www.gotryiton.com) puts the "wisdom of the crowd" in your pocket: users can post smartphone pictures from a shop changing room and ask: "How do I look?" As well as getting instant feedback, users can browse each other's looks for inspiration and recommendations.
And, of course, there's Pinterest (www.pinterest.com), the current queen of the mash-up between social networking and online shopping. That site has just received a US$100 million (Dh367m) investment from the online retail giant Rakutan.
Two powerful drivers are helping to propel this new trend. First, the rise of online consumer curation. That curation is, really, an age-old behaviour manifesting itself in a new way: for as long as there have been stamps and scrapbooks, human beings have loved to make attractive collections of desired objects and, recently, thanks to social networking platforms, we can do that online. Now brands have realised that user-generated curation and sharing constitutes a powerful new way for consumers to interact with their products. Platforms such as Buyosphere and Lyst offer users a curation heaven, while giving brands the chance to piggyback on it, so that the end result of all that collecting and sharing is a click-through to buy.
Second is the surprising failure of Facebook to corner the social shopping space. In 2011, a host of major fashion brands - including Gap and JC Penney - set up shop on Facebook, only to close due to lack of uptake. Early indications suggest that people just aren't in "shopping mode" when they're on Facebook - "It was like trying to sell to people when they're hanging out in a bar," said one analyst - leaving a space for the likes of Lyst and Buyosphere.
Yet another way, then, that major brands are leveraging the behaviour they find online. Meanwhile, tech entrepreneurs seek to make shopping from your sofa as fun and social as it can be on the high street. The phrase "shop till you drop" may soon be consigned to history.