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.

13 Responses

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  1. Jennifer Germann said, on May 21, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    Thanks for posting this Craig! I have been thinking about how to use Pinterest in my Introduction to Visual Culture class – a natural fit, so to speak. So far, what I have come up with is giving the students a theme prior to a class meeting and having them pin to a class board. For example, find examples of “Italianicity” in advertisements after reading Roland Barthes’ “Rhetoric of the Image.” Then we discuss and work through their examples in class while applying Barthes’ observations. Since I am fortunate enough to teach this course in a computer classroom, I can also have them work on something like this as a group activity.

    One problem I am working through: Pinterest wants to tie directly into social networking sites (Facebook) and I’m not sure I want that content spilling through into my classes.

    I would love to hear other’s ideas about using Pinterest in teaching or research!

    Jennifer Germann

  2. Editor said, on May 21, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    Thanks, Jennifer! It strikes me as a promising application of Pinterest, and I can imagine it working well — which, of course, isn’t to say that it will — hence the excitment of teaching 🙂

    Along similar lines, I was thinking it might be interesting to give students particular individuals from history and have them make boards for those men and women from the past: images from where they lived and travelled, books they wrote or owned, objects they owned, &c.

    You’ve also identified one of the most annoying qualities — the degree to which Pinterest (like other social media models) wants to take over and encroach everywhere it can. On the one hand, it’s the collaborative, social dimensions of the site that make it appealing; and yet at the same time, how to put limits on that social component? I wonder if it would work to have students register a second email address (used only for this sort of thing) and then tie it into the Pinterest site? In some ways such compartmentalization of our identities may be the only way to proceed.


    • Jennifer Germann said, on May 21, 2012 at 9:49 pm

      That sounds very interesting as well, and I could see Pintarest usefulness in my other classes as well. Thanks for starting this discussion! As per the related post and discussion, I’ll be looking more closely at Tumblr as well.

  3. style court said, on May 21, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    Craig,I really appreciate your thoughtful analysis. I, too, have been watching how various museums are using Pinterest as I organize thousands of my textile images with the thought of possibly pinning them.

    The Met, in particular, has gone to great lengths with the My Met project to make its collection accessible and relatively easy to share and/or simply organize via the platform of one’s choice, whether it’s Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram etc. Although I think it’s set up so that pinning is simplest.

    • Editor said, on May 21, 2012 at 3:21 pm

      Thanks, Courtney. Maybe the Met’s approach is aimed at facilitating how others will interact with their material via Pinterest — as opposed to intentionally establishing that presence themselves.

      You also raise the issue of Tumblr, and I’m a big fan of your postings there. I think Tumblr boards tends to be much more visually satisfying than Pinterest, though it’s the latter’s integration of text and image (and links) that lead me to think it holds richer academic possibilities — though I do wonder what Pinterest will look like a year or two from now.


      • style court said, on May 21, 2012 at 4:00 pm

        Craig — I definitely agree with both of your points (the Met’s objective and Pinterest’s huge potential). There are some all-text Tumblr pages as well as pages that blend text and images. High school and college students seem to be doing some of the most creative things with Tumblr, by the way. Incredibly creative, actually. It’s just a really flexible medium. My site happens to be set up so that a click on an image takes the visitor directly to a museum or other source; hovering below shows a bit of text and more links. Pinterest locks you into one format and, as mentioned above, more social networking. But of course, that’s part of Pinterest’s massive appeal, I think. It’s always straightforward and many participants want the networking. As all the press coverage has said, it’s addictive!

        I think “following fatigue” is becoming something of an issue with all social media, but interest in sharing — and being able to quickly access — images/information will never wane. I see Pinterest continuing to grow and grow — perhaps adding options for customization a la FB.

  4. Emile de Bruijn said, on May 22, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    Craig, I share your fascination with Pinterest. Although I am not pinning myself yet, I did notice that lots of people were adding images from my blog Treasure Hunt, where I show collections and historic places managed by the UK National Trust, to their Pinterest boards, as you can see here: http://pinterest.com/source/nttreasurehunt.wordpress.com/

    In effect this is a wonderful crowd-sourcing tool that tells me which images on my blog – and therefore which National Trust objects and places – people tend to like the most. Interestingly (and reassuringly), the images that get pinned most often show objects or places that are either beautiful or glamorous visually or that have some kind of poetic historical resonance.

    I used to have to rely on like-minded bloggers like Courtney occasionally telling me that they particularly liked a certain image, but now I have that feedback on tap all the time (although nothing can quite replace Courtney’s astute and generous comments 🙂 ). As you say, there seem to be all sorts of opportunities for cultural and heritage organisations to benefit from this free market research and marketing phenomenon.

    • Editor said, on May 22, 2012 at 1:27 pm

      Thanks, Emile. Yes, there’s nothing like Courtney’s pulse on things 🙂
      And thanks for sharing the link — not a bad place in itself to start for substantive uses of Pinterest! It is the feedback component that got me thinking about much of this. -CH

  5. Emile de Bruijn said, on May 23, 2012 at 10:42 am

    My colleague Alex Hunt (whose rather wonderful title is Insight Lead) kindly sent me this link to a post by We Are Social about the profile of Pinterest users (and the interesting difference in profile, at the moment, between US and UK users): http://bit.ly/ynlVnN From what Alex was saying I think he would agree with you that Pinterest users seem to be a small (as yet) but relatively influential audience.

    • Editor said, on May 23, 2012 at 11:34 am

      Thanks, Emile. It’s a really interesting comparison. Will be interesting to see what it looks like a year from now. -CH

  6. […] debate about the significance of Pinterest (initiated in a post by Enfilade which I responded to in this post) has been continuing with a post on the blog Unmaking […]

  7. […] May I invited Enfilade readers to consider how Pinterest might be put to better use for scholars of […]

  8. […] that HECAA and Enfilade now have a Pinterest presence! Having written about the site in the past (21 May 2012 and 17 January 2013), I’m now even more optimistic. Lots of you are already pinning. Some of […]

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