Oh, the possibilities and failings of Pinterest. It could be a collective revelation, a cool-girl feminist extravaganza of history, fashion, culture, art, magic, icons, inspiration and aesthetic. It could be a desert-gemstone-vintage-ballerina-cosmic-wild west-delirious-vision quest whirlwind. But sometimes I worry it’s merely a regurgitation of culture, a platform where women advertise to themselves and each other. Is it possible to subvert some versions of Pinterest and strengthen the compelling ones? What is the value and impact of even the most ideal interpretations and participation?
For the non-pinners out there, Pinterest consists of virtual boards where users can “pin” and organize images (mostly gathered from the internet or other users). You can follow people and “re-pin” their images or add your own.
To simplify, there are two general approaches people seem to take with this endeavor of pinning. One approach is a curation of outfits, workouts, inspirational quotes, wedding plans, recipes, and décor that all add up to a dream life. There’s a distinct mix of aspiration and consumerism that could make even the savviest person wish they lived inside an Anthropologie catalogue. Pinterest notably sends a ton of traffic to retailers. The second approach is also curated, but with arguably more inventive and intriguing results. Instead of sorting potential purchases, this approach creates mood boards, personal collections, virtual scrapbooks, stories, experiments, and diaries. There are explorations of color, texture, personality, and atmosphere. There are boards documenting dreams, and nightmares, creating narratives, delving into language and image, and drawing connections through exploration and expression.
One fascinating aspect of Pinterest is the feminist/anti-feminist concerns surrounding it. The high percentage of female users (anywhere from 60% to 90% depending on your source) is often discussed as a curiosity to discredit the site, or phenomenon to remedy. Yet I find something of its power lies in that fact, in the prevalence of Clara Bow, Amelia Earhart, Frida Kahlo, Anna Karina, Gloria Anzaldua, and Angela Davis. Not to mention the range of interests and pursuits represented, from letterpress to Italian film to the Guerilla Girls to owning a business.
The feminist theories of dominance vs. difference line up with the contrasts inherent to Pinterest. We are either to critique that a patriarchal society and capitalist system created the context in which a site like Pinterest even exists, or we can argue that there’s power in a place where women’s voices seem to be manifesting so strongly, no matter the range and tone of content. The latter is an exciting idea, and perhaps the mere culling of images might have more impact than we imagine. In a culture where the male voice still counts as the universal and the female is the other, doesn’t Pinterest have some ground-breaking potential? If so, and I realize that’s likely an overstatement, how might we be using it differently? In his amazing book, The Alphabet Vs. The Goddess Leonard Shlain asserts that before the advent of the alphabet, women had real social and cultural power, and that it was the dominance of the image that celebrated holistic thinking, the right brain, intuition, creativity, and a host of other positive “feminine” qualities. While reading it, I couldn’t help but think of Pinterest.
Through the women I follow, I’ve discovered and re-discovered a lot that captivates me and I use my boards as a means to consider this ephemera. A very small sampling of my notably female discoveries include Anne Brigman, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Jessica Tremp. Searching, collecting, and saving these images helps me streamline and pinpoint my fixations and obsessions. It gives them shape and tangible representation. I can watch my habits and trains of thought as they reveal my virtual (un)conscious. I return again and again to mull over these traces. They’re like the collages on my high school bedroom walls, something comforting, expressive and revealing about them. And there’s the crux of this cognitive dissonance: what am I saying about myself here? What’s the nature of this version of my identity and what do I hope to reveal with a stream of images not my own? What do these collections speak to, and how are our desires, tastes, and interests best manifested?
Let’s assume for a moment our usage is engaged, critical, and aware. Even then, it’s key our participation is the precursor to some artistic, productive, or dynamic offline action. At the very least we must interact with the format in a way that’s specific to us and isn’t merely a shopping list, our possessions speaking for who we are. There’s no way around the fact that the medium influences the way information is produced, received and interpreted. The form guides the content, and “pinning” reinforces certain cultural standards and directions. Who is served and who participates are relevant, potentially problematic factors. That pinners tend toward being white, and upper-ish-class, brings up a whole host of complex issues on voice, perspective, representation and relevance, just for starters. I frequently see the same image pinned over and over (supposedly the majority of images are gathered from within the site itself). The collective unconscious is represented on Pinterest in no uncertain terms and I often wish it was a lot weirder and deeper than it seems to be.
What is almost happening in certain subsets of Pinterest is the creation of a language, a collaborative, collective, cumulative sense of meaning that is perhaps transformative in ways we haven’t yet harnessed. Here is what we are looking at, and what we care about. It’s a constant sea of images hurtling and scrolling toward us, but they’re also coming from us, chosen by us, and how could that work in our favor? Because I want to stick around. I want to use Pinterest in a way that feeds my preoccupations, pastimes and intrigues. It feels worthwhile to meditate on what these preoccupations include, to search for them, and separate them from all the other million things I see every day. I can leave behind what doesn’t feel right, or is trying too hard to persuade me. Ultimately it’s about that balance, one that each pinner needs to strike for themselves as they navigate these strange, confusing, and inspiring spaces. There are perhaps not just two ways to use Pinterest, but countless variations on a spectrum. While I feel critical, what interests me is the potential and capacity for meaning, both individual and collective, that clearly exists. The problems rest perhaps in how deeply we live within our virtual identities, yet how cursory we are in our consideration of them and what they really mean for our living, breathing selves.
P.S. Here are a few of my favorite pinners!