December 1, 2021

robertlpham

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I Called Off My Wedding. The Internet Will Never Forget

I had been using Pinterest on both the web and my iPhone, sometimes ending up in the app unplanned because a Google search for wedding #inspo would lead me there. Several months after putting all wedding-related activities behind me, I was still getting daily suggestions for “pins” in my email inbox. These were feverish vision boards of hetero-normative matrimony, sultry brides in egg-white gowns and elaborate jewels posing in cavernous spaces. Or couples standing in fields, exchanging their vows. All of them clear-day weddings (on Pinterest it never rained). Would the app ever catch up to real life?

It occurred to me that Pinterest’s San Francisco office was around the corner from my own. So on a blindingly sunny day in October 2019, I met with Omar Seyal, who runs Pinterest’s core product. I said, in a polite way, that Pinterest had become the bane of my online existence.

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“We call this the miscarriage problem,” Seyal said, almost as soon as I sat down and cracked open my laptop. I may have flinched. Seyal’s role at Pinterest doesn’t encompass ads, but he attempted to explain why the internet kept showing me wedding content. “I view this as a version of the bias-of-the-majority problem. Most people who start wedding planning are buying expensive things, so there are a lot of expensive ad bids coming in for them. And most people who start wedding planning finish it,” he said. Similarly, most Pinterest users who use the app to search for nursery decor end up using the nursery. When you have a negative experience, you’re part of the minority, Seyal said.

When engineers build ad retargeting platforms, they build something that will continually funnel more content for the things you’ve indicated you’re interested in. On average, that’s the correct thing to do, Seyal said. But these systems don’t factor in when life has been interrupted. Pinterest doesn’t know when the wedding never happens, or when the baby isn’t born. It doesn’t know you no longer need the nursery. Pinterest doesn’t even know if the vacation you created a collage for has ended. It’s not interested in your temporal experience.

This problem was one of the top five complaints of Pinterest users. So for nine months, Seyal and his team worked on a solution. The intent, surely, was good. Seyal showed me how to “tune” my home feed and unfollow entire topics—like “wedding”—rather than unpinning items one by one. By going through my account history, I saw that I had clicked on way more wedding-related pins than I’d ever realized.

I asked Seyal if Pinterest had ever considered a feature that let users mark a life event complete. Canceled. Finished. Done. “We would have to have a system that thinks about things on an event level, so we could deliver on the promise,” Seyal said. “Right now we just use relevance as a measure.” But had Pinterest considered that, in the long run, people might be more inclined to use the app if it could become a clean space for them when they needed it to be, a corner of the internet uncluttered with grief?

“I think it’s an even stronger statement than that,” Seyal said. “If we solve the problem you describe, the user doesn’t necessarily come back more, but we might have solved what’s a terrible experience on the internet. And that in itself is enough.”

Pinterest hadn’t really solved it, though. The new tuning feature I saw in their offices felt like little more than expanded menu options, a Facebookian revision of settings. In early 2021, Pinterest was still suggesting “24 Excellent and Elegant Silk Wedding Dresses” to me.

That day, leaving Pinterest and walking back to my office, I realized it was foolish of me to think the internet would ever pause just because I had. The internet is clever, but it’s not always smart. It’s personalized, but not personal. It lures you in with a timeline, then fucks with your concept of time. It doesn’t know or care whether you actually had a miscarriage, got married, moved out, or bought the sneakers. It takes those sneakers and runs with whatever signals you’ve given it, and good luck catching up.