Using the Internet To Create Offline Experiences

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Below is a summary of the talk I’ll be giving at Pinterest next month. After editing it several times, I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a book lurking between the lines. Something about the necessity of offline community in the digital age, maybe? More to come.

I once heard someone describe the table as an anchor and when I heard that comparison it made me think of Thanksgiving. After the annual feast was complete, my family could have moved to the couch, but the table gave our conversations elasticity and more often than not, we lingered there for hours.

Writer Shauna Niequist says that while the Internet is where we vocalize opinions “divorced from context and relationship” it is the table where we converse with both generosity and frankness. Looking back on my brief life, I’ve realized that my most treasured memories all share a commonality and that communicability is the table.

Back in 2015, my friends and I felt an imbalance in our lives: we had hundreds of friends online, but only a handful that existed independently of the Web. As Brene says, we wanted to bridge the gap. For whatever reason, we decided the best way to do so was to host dinner parties. Here in Iowa, everyone knows somebody with access to a barn and so we found a barn, purchased some Stouffer’s lasagna, and began gathering people together.

It was very homespun in the beginning with no chefs, photographers, or stylists; just friends helping other friends hang twinkly lights from the rafters of an old barn’s roof. But even in those early days, those gatherings resonated with people. Guests would linger around the table, chatting with people who had been strangers just two hours prior. I can still remember standing in the corner one night and being moved by the sight of strangers becoming friends. After a handful of events where this happened, I began to sense a deeper purpose and I wondered if this hobby was more of a calling.

The table was our first tool - it acted as both an anchor and a magnet but our second tool was Pinterest. It was an invaluable tool, too. because we were able to log on, find visual inspiration, and then log off and bring it to life. We use Pinterest because it isn’t about making online life look better, but about making life better offline.

As Around the Table has grown from an intimate dinner party to an immersive social experience, Pinterest has become our favorite tool, second only to the table, of course. It has helped us streamline our creative process as our partnerships have grown. We’ve noticed three things that it’s especially helpful with:

  1. It brings people offline: Pinterest isn’t about shares, likes, or followers. It’s truly social because it’s about making memories offline, whether it’s a recipe, DIY project, or dinner party. Pinterest is social media.

  2. It documents the creative process: There’s nothing like throwing an elaborate party and being able to go back to that event’s board and see where the inspiration first started. It helps us see the forest through the trees and also encourages us with the fact that we did it once and we can do it again.

  3. It acts a digital touchstone. There are so many irons in the fire when it comes to planing these experiences and having a central hub for all of our partners has been key to keeping everything on schedule. Pinterest is our reference point for each event. It tells the photographer how to edit their pictures, it shows the florist how to arrange the bouquets, and it helps our stylist understand the vibe we’re wanting to channel.

“The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger coincide.” - Frederick Beuchner

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. These words have become my shepherd. It’s the secret fire beneath our events and the core value that keeps me engaged even when things get tough.

“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.”

I feel that I’ve been studying hospitality for the past five years. But why? I don’t believe the endgame is more and more events, I believe there’s a deeper meaning for my life beyond events. I believe I’m here to facilitate community.

The last three months have been some of the most difficult of my life and it’s because of a lack of community. I’ve grown increasingly frustrated by the fact that I can organize community for everyone but myself. Literally, I can gather forty people in a loft, but I just can’t seem to find a steady group of friends. Is it me? Is it them? Is it both?

The table isn’t just an anchor that keeps people in conversation with one another, it’s also a tool that can build bridges, strengthen families, and transform cities.I want to continue to use the table, but I feel a pull towards the small scale. I know I could build bridges for my city and myself simultaneously, but I’m beginning to feel tired and coarse.

I will not set a table for the masses without having one for myself.