10 interesting things about Pinterest

1. Pinterest is an image-based content-aggregating crowd-curated website/social media platform.

2. It was founded in March 2010; in January 2012 it had ‘more traffic referrals than LinkedIn, YouTube, and Google+ combined’ (Fox News). Please note this is not the same as the number of hits: it is a metric of the capacity of the site to pull users away from pages they are currently viewing, i.e. how interesting the content appears to be, at least as a link from another page.

3. It redistributes beautiful or interesting images. The pictures are often concerned with ‘lifestyle’ (signifying a life affluently well lived) and are fairly up-market. The social media idea is that you ‘follow’ people whose selections you admire or enjoy. This encourages competition and higher standards, and the pleasurable hobby/work of building a follower base.

This screen grab is three screens deep but only an eighth of a complete page. Wider screens display more columns. There are at least 200 images on view, and more arrive when you reach the bottom of the page …

4. One of its strengths and weaknesses is that it is journalistic, i.e. it has an angle. It is from the beginning not trying to be all things to all people. What do Pinterest say about themselves?

Pinterest is a Virtual Pinboard.
Pinterest lets you organize and share all the beautiful things you find on the web. People use pinboards to plan their weddings, decorate their homes, and organize their favorite recipes.
Best of all, you can browse pinboards created by other people. Browsing pinboards is a fun way to discover new things and get inspiration from people who share your interests. To get started, request an invite.

Note the putative exclusivity, as if the site were an elite party or social gathering to which users have to be invited. This is probably playful rather than mendacious: its whole content aggregation policy requires sourcing from crowds.

Note also what I take to be gender-neutral language that is primarily targeted at women. Apparently, according to TechCrunch, women comprise 98 per cent of the Pinterest user base. This sounds weirdly unlikely and exaggerated, and looks like an example of the unreliability – even by comparison with print journalism – of data on the web. From the kinds of images on show, however, it’s easy to believe the general trend.

I wonder if Pinterest is the most gender-based mass internet platform. (There are some interesting and more reliable-looking data here from Pew Research, saying, and remarking how extreme the gender imbalance is, that in their June 2011 US sample 63 per cent of Twitter users were women.) By comparison, for example, how gender-specific is Google? (It isn’t.) Is Pinternet’s gender bias sustainable? (No.) If content really belongs to users, what is so inherently women-centred about the Pinterest editorial premise? (Not as much as the stats apparently show.) As the site matures, will it inexorably move towards gender-neutrality? (It will.) If it doesn’t, it will be fascinating to see how the brand polices or reinforces its current gender predisposition.

5. In terms of its cybernetics, like most Web 2.0 platforms Pinterest redistributes information many-to-many. As a channel, however, it is deliberately not neutral. Please note the distinction here between information (content) and channel; but please also remember the two necessarily react together and evolve, like software and hardware, shaping each other. Conventional (non-web) publishing has one-way content push from producer to consumer, usually predicated on experienced assumptions about consumer response; occasionally there is market research, depending on the scale of the project. Pinterest is curiously old school because it pushes out an ethos (more accurately, an eidos) that frames and attempts to define in advance the visual sophistication of its content. This is interesting, because it seems to have editorial values similar to those of an old-fashioned printed glossy magazine. The pictures are manifestly beautiful in familiar variations of unrealistic and/or aspirational, but overall the standard of visual literacy is impressive. Where did it come from? Is it the fruit of decent digital cameras in phones, everywhere? Although not up to wondrous Wikipedia standard as a collective project of self-organizing word-based knowledge, Pinterest still gives ample evidence of a very high level of visual education.

6. You can decide what you want your boards to be called, but the given overarching categories are as follows. They are taken straight from the pulldown menu under ‘Everything’: architecture; art; cars and motorcycles; design; DIY and crafts; education; film, music and books; fitness; food and drink; gardening; geek; hair and beauty; history; holidays; home decor; humor; kids; my life; women’s apparel; men’s apparel; outdoors; people; pets; photography; prints and posters; science and nature; sports; technology; travel and places; wedding and events; other. I’m not sure why apparel is the word of choice, nor why the two varieties of it are not in alphabetical order. These categories are slightly targeted at women but I certainly don’t see a resulting 98:2 per cent gender bias here.

7. The Pinternet business model is as yet unclear. Their own current statement is this:

How does Pinterest make money?

Right now, we are focused on growing Pinterest and making it more valuable. To fund these efforts, we have taken outside investment from entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. In the past, we’ve tested a few different approaches to making money such as affiliate links. We might also try adding advertisements, but we haven’t done this yet.
Even though making money isn’t our top priority right now, it is a long term goal. After all, we want Pinterest to be here to stay!

Currently the array of beautiful objects and images without commercial payback is idyllic, almost a consumerist Garden of Eden. The Google postlapsarian commodification of the viewer’s eyeballs appears not to have yet happened. Companies have also not colonized images with their web addresses yet, which would be a logical if annoying development.

There is already a viewing filter based on the price of ‘gifts’ (n.b. the permissive nuance of not shopping for oneself), but the objects on display don’t look like paid-for ads.

We can expect the high visual standards at some stage to be readily convertible to a very attractive offer to upscale advertisers. (This was the premise behind the launch of the colour supplements, conjoined to the newly achieved quality of litho printing in the 1960s.) This will need to be adroitly managed, because success and populism may easily dilute, in a vicious circle, both the user-curated content and the user experience.

8. The overt Pinternet premise or foundational metaphor is quickly graspable: visual content from the web is presented as a pinboard (noticeboard in UK English). This is new and valuable in itself. The metaphor – like most skeuomorphs, including the text-based 140 character limit in Twitter – conforms to the beautiful and effective way we understand the new: take something we know already and attach it to the unfamiliar. Desktop has already made this journey; if Pinterest takes off board will go the same way. Curiously, a more accurate metaphor is the scrapbook; the ‘Pin It’ button (see later) is like an electronic pair of scissors for content you paste into your pages.

9. The Pinterest wall of pictures is an interesting counter to the pro-ugliness tenets of the puritanical and self-styled web guru Jakob Nielsen; while Google search does not valorize attractiveness directly (how could it?), it certainly registers numbers of hits – which come from people, not machines. The density of visual information reminds me of the Daily Mail website, now according to the BBC the most popular web newspaper in the world:

The Daily Mail website home page 11 March 2012, two screenfuls deep. Baroque celebrity celebratory chic: a profusion of signature long headlines (for searchability and skim-reading), with over 300 showbiz and human interest images

As with Pinterest pages, the content is designed to be grasped quickly: pictures are more quickly understood than words.

The Pinterest pages are visually elegant. The rhythmical grid structure breaks down potentially intolerable or chaotic visual diversity into readily understandable columns/chunks. There is something deliriously profuse about so much structured visual richness on display. I don’t think this would work as well on a smartphone (although of course there is an app); Twitter, by contrast, is derived from phones and is fully idiomatic for them. It looks oddly empty on a large screen. But Twitter content fits well with mobility, moving about; Pinterest content is often about home.

Of course any content valued primarily on its appearance or aesthetics is – true to its medium – not semantically (i.e. alphabetically) searchable. As internet and mobile content changes in response to ever-broader bandwidth we may confidently expect a drive to greater visual intensity: a profusion of still images, as in Pinterest, and, subsequently, movies. Whether multiple simultaneous moving images are ever going to be popular remains to be seen (and seen …).

10. The Pinterest ‘Pin It’ browser button is designed to hoover up images from the web; legal concern to Pinterest over copyright has made it responsive to new ‘no pin’ code that allows image posters to block it. Stern corporate policy statements and the introduction of a ‘Report’ button allow Pinterest to profess due care and diligence on these matters. Lawrence Lessig has a fascinating account in Free Culture of the poultry farmers who in 1946 unsuccessfully prosecuted the US Airforce for trespass on their traditional property rights ad coelum (up to the sky) because planes disturbed their chickens. Pinterest shows that another longstanding form of property law – copyright – is under major renegotiation simply owing to technological innovation. This is not Pinterest’s ‘fault’: their success makes them a crux for current issues that are almost universal. Connoisseurs of hypocrisy will note with relish that Google’s sites are already active blockers of pinning – though this is probably just old-fashioned sour grapes towards an impressive new competitor.

About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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4 Responses to 10 interesting things about Pinterest

  1. Tony Sleep says:

    “Pinterest shows that another longstanding form of property law – copyright – is under major renegotiation simply owing to technological innovation. This is not Pinterest’s ‘fault’: their success makes them a crux for current issues that are almost universal.”

    Pretty lies. The reality is that this process of redefinition is in fact stripping individuals of the right to control and benefit from what they create, and is allowing all monetary value to be appropriated by corporate interests. Facebook, Google, Pinterest et al are merely the latest uber-efficient ultra-selfish incarnation of MSM, leveraging mass theft. Free culture, my arse,

    • Propagandum says:

      I feel upset too that the content sweated for by generations of writers and publishers is perhaps a couple of US legal decisions away from mass discounting or even being given away to attract eyeballs to search advertising. I don’t believe, though, that swearing or complaining – no matter how pithily expressed – brings about the result we want.

      • Tony Sleep says:

        My Anglo-Saxon exasperation was not aimed at you personally. In my view it is a genuinely impossible problem that copyright, necessary to ensure creators are rewarded and able to create, is now irreconcilable with the web’s MO.

        Platforms like Pinterest take a primitive C18th view that predates ecology, when fishing assumed there would always be plenty of fish in the sea. Creators who need to get paid in order to create are simply out of step, an anachronism. The web belongs almost entirely to those who can give content away and generate revenue indirectly, or, as with amateurs, from elsewhere. Rather than opening the door to new ideas and creative expression, the mechanism limits creativity to that which can be sponsored by axe-grinders or justified as self-promotion, or cheaply knocked out with little effort..

        If you read Thomas Macauley’s 1841 speeches to Parliament http://www.baen.com/library/palaver4.htm you’ll find a very precise and principled defence of copyright as a means to ensure that the public had the benefit of a “supply of good books”. Without copyright it was only possible for the relatively wealthy to create as an indulgence, which clearly was not a good thing. But if copyright was too strong or abused, then it would fall into contempt, theft would proliferate, and ordinary men would be unable to make a living from their creative work. That’s a prescient summary of where we have now got to.

        There is a hidden price to pay for consumers too, aside from the cost of advertising. The free access, ad driven model of the web annihilates punters’ ability to vote with their wallet. With pay-for media, we could decide “this is rubbish, I’m not buying it any more”. With “free” media this isn’t possible. The only way to vote against Facebook, Pinterest etc is to excommunicate oneself. As social media become ever more integrated into personal and business life, this is a nose-spite-face proposition that makes us prisoners of corporate entities.

        I believe Lessig is well aware of the monster that has been unleashed. The idealism of the early web has been bought and sold. Free culture has turned out to be merely “free as in free beer” after all. There are plenty of genuine benefits to the web, but for most creators it is a broken and toxic ecosystem, far more exploitation than liberation.

      • Propagandum says:

        Many thanks for a most helpful and thoughtful explanation. McLuhan said that ‘education is civil defense against media fallout’, and I agree there’s plenty of media toxicity everywhere, not just in education. I’m with Blake that ‘I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s’, though clearly he thereby committed himself to a lifetime of struggle. I think we benefit from that now, though he didn’t. I’m not saying I know what the answer is, though in Darwinian terms we the human race will use our creativity to survive in the gaps between machinery and exploitation. In the mean time there’s the ceaseless work of creativity, generosity, adaptation and truth-telling too. Many thanks for your piece of that here.

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