Using the Internet To Create Offline Experiences

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Below is a rough draft of the talk I’ll be giving at Pinterest next month. I was able to choose the session’s title and decided on the above because all of my work is in pursuit of bringing people together offline. Feedback is welcome!

Memories involving a shared meal with family, a party with friends, or a popup event each share a common element: the table. Author Shauna Niequist says the table is the polar opposite of the Internet. While the Internet is where we vocalize opinions “divorced from context and relationship” the table is where we lay our weapons down. In a digital world, the table feels like coming home.

I almost titled this session “A Course in Hospitality” because life has been teaching me about the power of gathering people together and the lessons have been transformative. It all began because I felt a dissonance growing in my life: I had lots of friends online, but not many in real life. You could say that I needed less tablets and more tables. And I asked myself: how can I build a more sustainable community? For whatever reason, I decided to start hosting dinners.

When it all started, it was very homespun and there were no chefs, photographers, or stylists. My friends and I hung twinkly lights, played records, and served Stouffer’s lasagna on disposable plates. But even at the beginning, people were appreciative of what we were doing. After dinner, they lingered around the table, chatting with folks who had been strangers just two hours before. I can still remember standing in the corner and being unexpectedly moved by the sight of strangers becoming friends. Facilitating those experiences began to feel less like a hobby and more like a calling.

Right from the start, Pinterest was instrumental. It became an invaluable tool because we weren’t wasting hours and hours on the site. We logged on, found inspiration, and then logged off to bring it to life. We use Pinterest because it isn’t about making your online life better, but about making life better offline. Now, try and say that three times!

We started Around the Table in 2015 and it has been growing ever since. Last year, our local ballet company performed for guests and two months ago, we gathered forty people in a loft for local IPA’s and live music. We now work with a wide variety of award-winning chefs, stylists, and photographers, but the heart behind it hasn’t changed and we still use Pinterest.

Through this “course in hospitality” I’ve learned a handful of lessons and I’d like to share those with you today. In order to help you build community and invite people into offline experiences of their own.

  1. Pinterest brings people offline: I admire Pinterest because it isn’t about shares, likes, or followers. It’s about creating memories. In my opinion, it's truly social. Without it, it would be so much more difficult to create these events. With its help, we’ve been able to collaborate on events that have become some of the highlights of my life.

  2. People are looking for invitations to log off: Whenever I talk about creating experiences, I always point out the popularity of Broadway shows and musical festivals. Peoplewant to feel the energy that only comes from sharing something with others, whether it’s a Coldplay concert or a performance of Dear Evan Hansen. As we say in Iowa, “If you build it, they will come.”

  3. Efficient social media is the next big thing: I’ll never get tired of pinning an image in April and seeing it come to life in June. It’s usually satisfying. The creative process is tangible with this website and it inspires me like no other site can.

One of my favorite podcasts is On Being and my favorite episode features artist and maker Ann Hamilton. The episode focuses on experiences and how they can bring us together. I end with an excerpt:

“I think one of the questions that is behind a lot of the things I’m working on is, where is it that we can gather and, kind of, be alone together? And what are the circumstances for “we,” that I can enjoy the pleasure of something I’m seeing, knowing that I’m also sharing that with a person next to me? There’s an interesting intimacy with this total stranger that the situation makes possible.”