Trying to Think Seriously about Pinterest

Posted in resources by Editor on May 21, 2012

From the editor

Edward Collier, “A Trompe l’Oeil of Newspapers, Letters and Writing Implements on a Wooden Board,” ca. 1699 (London: Tate Collection)

Last year I planned to run a piece on Pinterest — just before everyone seemed to know about it. Well, I put it off for a few weeks, which turned into a few months, and then suddenly there was no need. Now, however, with Pinterest recently in the news for raising $100 million, bringing its start-up value to $1.5 billion, I decided to weigh in. For although a good portion of people now know about Pinterest (its users having soared from 1 million in 2011 to 20 million last month), I’m not sure anyone has a handle on how varied uses of the site will be, even in the near future.

A recent Wall Street Journal article (17 May 2012) describes it as a “scrapbooking site,” but from my experience (I starting ‘pinning’ a few months ago), the characterization is inaccurate and disregards the metaphor altogether: it’s a pinboard, after all, not a scrapbook (how interesting are all of these metaphors for how we interact with computers, going back to files and the desktop — hardly anything new with Pinterest in that regard).

So why raise the issue on a site dedicated to the art and architecture of the eighteenth century? For two reasons: 1) to extend an invitation to brainstorm and 2) to suggest a few preliminary ideas.

On the first front, I’m eager to hear of scholarly or at least ‘cultural’ uses for Pinterest. Are there examples of academics already using the site in such a manner? And if Pinterest isn’t going to help you write your next book, might there be any pedagogical function? By all means feel free to weigh in with examples or ideas.

As for my own suggestions, it seems to me that a genuinely engaging Pinterest presence could particularly serve the interests of museums. By way of comparison, I’ve been fascinated to see how House Beautiful uses the site (full disclosure: I’m afraid one of my Pinterest boards is given over to an upcoming bathroom renovation). Realizing, I imagine, that Pinterest users are inevitably going to ‘pin’ images from the magazine, House Beautiful ‘pins’ images itself. If you ‘follow’ the magazine, a photograph or two will appear on your Pinterest site each day, and with one click, you’re able to add it to your own board. The advantages? First, the magazine controls the text under the image (it’s easy enough to make changes, but most people don’t take the time). Second, it provides a steady stream of contact between magazine and its followers. Rather than getting an issue once a month in the mail, you get updates each day (no matter that it’s mostly the same content). Third, and this seems crucial, the magazine is able to tell precisely what photos resonate most fully with users (in terms of which ones are ‘liked’ and ‘repinned’). Presumably (for better or worse), this can be mapped onto all sorts of analytic data about individual users’ preferences more generally, with huge marketing and advertising potential (hence the $1.5 billion start-up value).

It seems that these advantages would apply equally well in the case of museums; and indeed, major institutions are already well represented. But surely the possibilities have only begun to be tapped.

For instance, at House Beautiful, I’m able to choose from 22 different ‘boards’ to follow — from ‘mixing patterns’ to ‘living rooms’ to ‘bookshelves’ (or I can ‘follow all’). At The Met, there are currently just nine boards, and they tend to be arranged by silly themes — treating letters or dogs, for instance — rather than the kind of information people presumably want from The Met, i.e. upcoming exhibitions, lectures and scholarly events, children’s programming, new acquisitions, &c. (by contrast, The Met has invested considerably energy in its Facebook presence). In some ways, The Art Institute of Chicago is better with its generally more sensible eight boards, addressing topics like ‘News & Views’, but again a lot is missing. Remarkably, what gets posted all too often does look more like a scrap for a book than than a poster for a pinboard. On the other hand, both institutions look like models of progress in comparison to MoMA, which has a profile and 660 followers but not a single pin posted. The British Museum’s experimental approach is interesting. There are just three boards so far — ‘pattern and texture’, ‘jewelry’, and ‘architecture’ — but it’s easy to see how both the groupings and the things the’ve pinned so far would find a keen audience. I’ve no idea about the going rates for advertising in The New York Times or The Times Literary Supplement, but it must be astronomical compared to the 2-minutes it takes to add that same image to Pinterest. Museum goers have long covered their walls with exhibition posters, why wouldn’t they do the same to their Pinterest boards?

Just as blogs were long derided as being frivolous — because so much of the content was only frivolous — it’s easy to mock Pinterest (there’s far too much truth in this piece from The New Yorker). I’m not sure, however, it’s the medium that’s at fault. Who knows? A year from now, the world may have already abandoned Pinterest, in pursuit of the next new thing. But I doubt it. -CH

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Note (added 24 May 2012) — Along with the interesting comments submitted below, readers might be interested in Emile de Bruijn’s posting at Treasure Hunt, the blog he writes for the UK’s National Trust.

Note (added 8 June 2012) — Treasure Hunt pursues the subject with more interesting examples and, from Emile de Bruijn, questions about the relationships between viewers and objects.

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