Thursday, March 28, 2013

Pinterest: the Pinboard as Personal Museum

In his 1972 book Ways of Seeing, the novelist/art critic John Berger notes that home bulletin boards, or pinboards, on which people pin letters, snapshots, reproductions of paintings, newspaper cuttings, original drawings, and postcards, are like personal museums. Forty years later, Pinterest has become the personal museum of millions around the world.

Launched three years ago, Pinterest is a virtual pinboard that allows users to create and manage theme-based image collections of events, interests, hobbies, etc. Users create and categorize “boards” containing images of their interests, browse each other’s boards and “re-pin” their images to their own boards, or simply “like” photos. The boards can be as personal and specific as the individual creating them (“Hobbit Safety Videos,” for example), but the most popular Pinterest categories are Food & Drink, Do-It-Yourself and Crafts, Women's Fashion, Home Decor, and Travel. As of last year, 83% of the users globally were women. The age range, at least in the U.S., was generally 35-44.

Unlike other social media which emphasize social connectedness, Pinterest is, above all, a place for personal inspiration. It is, as Pinterest describes itself simply but brilliantly, “a tool for collecting and organizing things you love.” Nathaniel Perez of Fast Company writes about Pinterest’s vast appeal and how it differs from sites such as Facebook and Twitter:

With Pinterest, it’s the things we like that connect us. It's a natural propensity, one that mimics the way we behave with our connections in real life...

[W]hile other social networks have largely focused on static sharing behaviors (think “liked,” “stumbled,” “digged,” “read,” “watched” and “checked in,” all [in] a “timeline”), Pinterest is focused on fluidly bringing users together through visual discovery, while connecting them to the stories and authors behind “pins,” whether they be trusted friends, interesting strangers, or brands thinking creatively.

Generally speaking, Pinterest users connect (or “follow” each other) not on a personal level but loosely in terms of shared interests, represented visually. “On each board,” John Berger mused in Ways of Seeing, “all the images belong to the same language and all are more or less equal within it, because they have been chosen in a highly personal way to match and express the experience of the room’s inhabitant.” [Emphasis added] How true this is today of how Pinterest feeds the individual’s need for personal expression and inspiration.

Initially, I couldn’t see the appeal of simply adding images to an online board, but as its popularity skyrocketed in 2012 and my own wife began obsessing over it, I tried Pinterest to see what all the hoopla was about. I quickly understood its potential not only for inspiration and creativity, but for private, personal expression. My Pinterest page is anonymous, because, after being awash in the social interaction of Facebook and Twitter, I wanted to experiment with an intensely personal online space utterly separate from anything and anyone with whom I currently interact. My page is solely a reflection of, and a personal refuge within, my own private interests. That’s a valuable need for people who may need to detach themselves periodically far from the madding crowd of other social media.

On the down side, some see Pinterest, with its near absence of text, as the swelling tide of a visual future in which images supersede words, like the Middle Ages when iconography was the literacy of the masses. For someone as devoted to the Word as myself, this is a disturbing prospect and all the more reason why the written word must not be taken for granted. But for better or worse, the momentum of the future lies with Pinterest.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/26/13)