I first came across Pinterest last summer during one of my mental breaks from dissertation writing. Before the Pinterest Epidemic. The media site seemed rather, shall we say, prosaic? Bloggers have been creating pinboards for years for everything from wedding ideas and color palettes to interior design. (In fact, the non-blogger could piece together boards on sites such as theknot.com.) So why has Pinterest exploded from 1.2 million users in August to over 4 million? Its site visits increased by 4000%. When I signed up in the beginning of December, I was placed on a waiting list. Entrance was by invitation-only, like some elite society where all the cool kids go. Why? For all that is right and good and logical in the world, why?!
I’ll tell you why: Pinterest’s creators did three things very well. Dare I say, Right.
1. They tapped into our visual culture. We increasingly communicate through pictures, as evidenced by Facebook’s new Timeline, iPhone’s instagram and hipstamatic, and our continued consumption/interaction with screen media. Moreover, Pinterest engages our sharing culture. From the “Like” button to the Tweet, we love sharing and spreading content, especially online.
2. Appealing design. The site itself is beautiful to look at and easy to absorb. The grid layout is aesthetically pleasing – streamlined and simple. Not to mention the screen is filled with images. It’s like browsing through a glossy magazine, all connected by a common topic.
3. Simplicity is queen. Pinterest is so very easy to use. It is easy to create your own boards. Easy to browse through others’ pins. Easy to pin. Easy to…you get the picture. Pinterest provides a “Pin It” button that you can place in your Bookmark toolbar. Any time you find an image on the web that you want to add to your collection, you simple click the “Pin It” button. That brings you to a pop-up window in which you label and caption your picture. Easy peasy. Its brilliance is in its simplicity.
And, yes, it’s fun. I played with Pinterest for a few hours and found it incredibly addicting. (Check out my FemTV: Strong Women board here.) It harkens back to the days in junior high when you collected magazine pictures and collaged them together, creating a visual composite of personal interests. (Or was that just me?) Pinterest provides a space to keep track of all your favorite images across the web. It is a home for pictures – a bookmarking site. All pinned photos include a link to the original site, so for those searching for specific items (say, kitchen decor or shoes), Pinterest offers an image bibliography, with which you can trace back to original sites in order to find even more related images.
Despite all this, I still find Pinterest to be a curious trend. It is yet another example of user-generated content via the spreading of other people’s material. There is little originality to be found with Pinterest. You are not a creator of images. You’re merely a curator of them. Arguably, how you choose to design your board could be called “creative collecting” or creative expression. It’s similar to window displays. The actual product being displayed (i.e. clothing) is the fashion designer’s creation. The way those pieces are placed together for a window display is another kind of creation, but one that still relies upon someone else’s genius. What does Pinterest do to the actual art of photography or graphic design?
One recent article suggests that the promise of Pinterest lies within its ability to encourage its users to take their own pictures and upload them to the home site. Yet, I argue, even if that were to happen, it would only encompass a small percentage of users.
I suppose I’m nervous with our cultural shift of spreading content rather than creating. This is a much-discussed topic in the field of film and television. “Poaching” content – a term popularized by Henry Jenkins – is the act of taking desired pieces of content and finding new ways to express them. (A fan of Mad Men, for instance, creates her own Mad Men-style avatar and spreads it across the web. Two teens decide to film their own version of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” and post it on YouTube.) I support this kind of fan expression, but it does make me question whether these activities lead to a seepage of innovation. Vanity Fair printed an article in January about the apparent lack of cultural innovation. While I heatedly contest with much of the article, I do agree that culturally we are looking more and more to others (past eras, retro styles, already-produced entertainment, etc) for our inspiration and collections. We are “poaching” aspects of the 1890′s, 1950′s, and 1980′s that we find appealing and refashioning them for our current day. All well and good. I enjoy neo-Victorianism as much as the next person. But what does 2012 look like? Will the 2010′s have its own look, creations, and innovation, or will we just recycle – and curate – prior originals?
I realize that Pinterest is a simple website. And perhaps you find it absurd for me to initiate a philosophical debate on culture from a harmless site. Like most fads, the Pinterest craze will probably tone down and become a companion to Flickr or Picasa.
And yet…there is something indicative of our visual culture made manifest in Pinterest. And it is wise to take note. While curating can be a fun, enjoyable (even addicting) activity, I do not want to stagnate in a culture of curators. As humans, we should be constantly creating, improving, and challenging our limitations. We need to be active agents, employing our curiosity and imagination for the betterment of our world.