The Pinnable Life: What Do Your Pins Say About You?

by Maxwell Tielman


Ever since its creation, the social media site Pinterest has been the target of both celebration and derision amongst the creative community. The site, which allows you to digitally “pin” inspirational photographs to virtual bulletin boards, has become an immensely popular tool among everybody from home bloggers to brides-to-be, a streamlined and easy way to bookmark, collect, and showcase imagery. It has been hailed as the savior of the creative internet and, simultaneously, lambasted as its worst enemy. Depending on who you ask, Pinterest can either be viewed as an essential research tool and community builder or an evil, copyright-infringing menace to the professional creative. These arguments have already been made with more depth and eloquence than I could ever muster, so I’m going to leave them to the professionals. (If you’re interested, just google Pinterest and copyright.) What I’m curious about, and what this short article will discuss, is the social function that Pinterest fulfills. As our social lives move increasingly into the digital realm, many social functions that previously lived in the physical world are now finding parallels online. Twitter and Facebook, for example, act in much the same way that postcards and face-to-face chats did in the previous century. What social void does Pinterest fill, though? What does the act of “pinning” say about us as humans and as a society? Let’s discuss.

You’re reading this website, so I’m going to go ahead and assume that you are, at least somewhat, interested in design. And as somebody who is interested in design (and aesthetics), you likely also have what some might call a “personal style.” This personal style—whatever that might mean—very well may inform many of your aesthetic choices, from how you choose to dress and decorate your apartment, right down to the type of toothbrush you buy. Everybody, it can be argued, has a kind of personal style—a certain grouping of aesthetic choices that, when combined, create a visual sense of self. What is the purpose of these personal styles, though, and why do we choose them? Upbringing, and the places, people, and things that we live with most definitely influence our style. As, of course, do personal preferences. “I just like it,” you might say to the person who asks why you have chosen to wear nothing but black your entire life. Indeed, “liking” something is oftentimes the most logical and obvious rationale for your chosen personal style. But is that the entire story?

Let us imagine, for the sake of this discussion, that the entire human race (aside from yourself) has been obliterated by a worldwide zombie apocalypse. You are the last human being alive on earth. Do you, as the sole survivor of the zombie takeover, have a “personal style?” Do you continue to decorate your apartment with beautiful objects or wear clothing that you think represents who you are? You are, of course, preoccupied with survival and outrunning zombies, so nobody will blame you for a certain lack of decorum. Still—do you think that, without anybody around, you will continue to cultivate and express the same aesthetic, stylistic choices? I’m going to go out on a limb and say no. You may stop to admire a lovely spring blossom, but I doubt you’re going to pluck it up and turn it into a floral crown while fighting for your life.


As much as we like to imagine that our personal styles are about us as individuals, something that defines who we are at our core, our personal styles would be nothing without the people around us. The material objects that we use to fill our homes and adorn our bodies are no different from most other man-made objects—they are, after fulfilling their primary function, communicative tools. The primary function of a pair of shoes, for instance, is to protect one’s feet. When we go out shoe-shopping, however, foot protection oftentimes takes a backseat to style—what will these shoes say about me as a person? Depending on the shoes’ cost, visible markings, material, color, and overall design they might “say” any number of things. These shoes, as with the rest of one’s personal style, help us to “perform” a certain version of ourselves to onlookers within the proverbial theater of life. They are, in a sense, part of a costume.

What makes the you of today different from the you of the zombie apocalypse? Other people. The social need to perform and wear such a “costume” is eliminated due to the fact that any people who would have previously been around to witness it are now rotting, walking corpses. We might all believe that our personal styles are somewhat innate—born with us and “curated” as part of a unique desire to appeal to our own senses. Although this may be at least partially true, it is certainly not the entire picture. Whether we want to admit it or not, our impulse to acquire objects to wear and ornament our personal spaces has much more to do with the people who will see them than us personally. In a way, we define ourselves not by our personal styles, but how our personal styles are perceived by other people. This perception is what helps to inform our sense of self and our place within society. And this—this impulse to mold people’s perceptions—seems to be what is at the core of our desire to pin.

On paper, Pinterest is marketed as a tool for bookmarking and accessing images that you find inspiring—an online bulletin board, so to speak. Bulletin boards, and the desire to save and surround ourselves with images that we find personally inspiring, have been around for ages. Pinterest, though, has taken this heretofore private act and made it public, through the twenty-first century concept of social media. Like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, Pinterest is yet another tool for sharing things with friends and the world at large. The thing that separates Pinterest from the rest of its social media ilk, though, is that, by and large, the things that we share on it are not our own. Pinterest isn’t used to post selfies or status updates pertaining to one’s own life. It is used, almost exclusively, as a tool for “acquiring” objects (in this case, intangible images) that project a certain sense of self. In direct defiance of Pinterest’s terms of service (which stipulate that you are the rights holder to all images posted), the grand majority of the images uploaded to people’s Pinterest boards are from external sources: catalogues, interior design blogs, artist portfolios, and Flickr streams. The result is a digital, entirely non-physical manifestation of our desire to craft a personal style—public collections that communicate who we are, what we like, and how we want to be perceived.

In Renaissance Europe, the homes of the social and economic elite often featured rooms that housed personal  collections. Known as Kunstkammers (German for “art room”) these curiosity cabinets stored travel souvenirs, hunting trophies, exotic naturalia, and art that was commissioned by the room’s owner. These so-called “wonder rooms” are oftentimes considered the precursor to the modern museum—they functioned as viewing spaces and were oftentimes used to entertain visitors to the home. In addition to providing entertainment, though, these rooms also helped their owners to project their own “personal style” and wealth to a select public. The objects on display, culled from expensive travels and far-off locales, functioned as status markers. “I have excellent taste,” says an oil painting. “I can afford to have leisure time,” says a mounted tortoise shell. “The Kunstkammer was regarded as a microcosm or theater of the world, and a memory theater,” writes Art Historian Francesca Fiorani in a 1998 Renaissance Quarterly article. “The Kunstkammer conveyed symbolically the patron’s control of the world through its indoor, microscopic reproduction.”


In a way, Pinterest boards are the twenty-first century’s version of the Renaissance Kunstkammer—with one massive difference. While a Kunstkammer was meant to project a patron’s style and wealth (they did, after all, invest great capital into the objects housed within it), a Pinterest board allows one to project one’s style for free, thereby avoiding the need for unattainable wealth. In this respect, Pinterest could be viewed as a democratizer of sorts—it allows anybody (or at least anybody with a computer and an internet connection) to “collect” and display objects and art, all tell-tale markers of taste and social status, without financial investment. You may be a college student that lives in a non-furnished dorm room, but your Pinterest boards, filled with designer furniture and bookmarked DIY-projects, tell a story of who you want to be and what your style (not your current spending power) is. You might not be able to afford those Marc Jacobs shoes, but by pinning them, you let the world know that if you could, they are what you would wear. Granted, there are arguments to be made against this money-free form of intangible consumerism and its dark, copyright-infringing underbelly, but all of that aside—one can not deny that the creation and popularity of Pinterest has created a fascinating development in the culture of the “personal style.” Whereas in previous years, much of one’s personal style was dictated by the weight of one’s wallet, Pinterest allows us to bypass this hurdle and cultivate style through a simple click of the mouse.

There is a reason that Pinterest is social and not a private bookmarking service—and it pretty much comes down to our aforementioned zombie-apocalypse-scenario. Would Pinterest be the monolithic internet superpower that it is today if it didn’t allow you to share your pins with the public? Would you continue to nurture your personal style if you were the last person on earth? The answer to both of these seemingly disparate but not necessarily unrelated questions is probably not. As members of Pinterest, we use our pins to archive inspiration, yes. But we also use them to project an image of who we think we are—to say something about ourselves. So— some food for thought: Why do you pin? What do your pins say about you?


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  • What an interest article! I never thought of Pinterest like that. I only got into it recently as away to watch what my favorite blogs post. I agree, it’s more about other people then yours when it comes to the images. Also it’s much more enjoyable to share what you like and have others like them back.

  • I enjoyed the analysis of this excellent essay, especially the apt comparison to the kunstkammer. Thank you, Maxwell. As other commenters have noted I tried out the ideas outlined on my own pinning habits and must admit that I am pleased when one of my (not original) pins is repined (and it is usually one of only a few on my boards, over and over in waves.) I also curate my boards periodically – which signals my concern for self-image, I suppose.

    I no longer pin or turn to pinterest with the same enthusiasm as I did two years ago + when I started as I am not interested in the fashion or food that dominates the site. I preferred the art/design/architecture bent of the earlier pins and miss them. With the dearth of shelter magazines and the creative burst of design blogs (such as design*sponge) Pinterest is about the only way to hang onto design, interior looks, products or ideas that hold appeal. I realize that says something about me – and acknowledge that I hate to clothes or shoe shop and would just as soon wear a handsome uniform of some sort and turn to my clippings, food blogs and cookbooks for recipes.

  • I think very similarly to you. I ask myself at times if I would dress the same or if people in general would if there was no one to impress.

    I think a lot of people, including me, would dress differently if there was no one around to see it, but as for designing, I wouldn’t be much different if zombies took over. I am very affected by my surroundings and if no one in the world ever came to my house again, I would still put a lot of time and energy in designing it. Beauty means so much to me.

    The only thing is you second guess yourself at times wondering what company will think of a certain paint color you choose or whatever. So, really for some people, if anything you hold back for fear of others not liking a risky design decision.

    As for putting things on display or for show, that depends on why you are doing it. I feel if you are showing off, it’s really a turn off for me and not a motivator behind why I collect things, but if it’s because you genuinely love it or want to entertain others with things you curate, then that’s a whole different ballgame. I think you are right that some people do this, maybe even a lot of people, but definitely not all people.

    As for Pinterest, I have had to remind myself that other people may look at my boards at times so I might want to clean them up. Most of the time I forget the public nature of it (it doesn’t feel that public to me, I don’t often look at the entirety of others boards) so I don’t really feel I’m trying to project a persona. Now that you pointed it out though, I feel I should probably try a little harder lol!

  • Thank you for an introspective, thoughtful analysis of social media behavior that is often engaged in without thought or reflection. I am not surprised that some readers found it cynical. The searchlight of analyzing why we do what we do is often quite uncomfortable. Again, thank you. This was a brave topic.

  • oh wow – what an incredible interesting read … i’ve got almost 3000 followers … this really makes one think … thanks … hmm …

  • You know, I’m not sure Pinterest is any different than any social situation – how public you are or how much you like to share is very individual. As a pretty introverted person I dress as much for myself as I do for others and probably pin for myself more than I do for others. It’s not a matter of perception, either. I work at home and dress myself for work every day, even though no one will see me, because I love clothes and love to feel like I look good. And I have a series of public boards on Pinterest that I use less than half as often than the (maximum three) private boards you are allowed- they have twice as many pins per board than all my public boards put together. I create and genuinely cultivate them only for myself. So. I guess I am the person who would actually be weaving daisy crowns after the zombie apocalypse. I’m not sure what that says about me- but I think that at least I am the exception to some of your assumptions- and just for the what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-me? factor – I hope I’m not totally alone! ;) Thank you for a thought provoking article!

  • I’d like to think that if I were the last human on earth—although my personal style currently is influenced by others on the subway, in the pages of fashion magazines, and on Pinterest—I would continue to care about beautifying my surroundings and reminding myself of better times with art, color, or ornament. Not because others would see it, but because it makes me feel good. Sure, I’d run from zombies, then I’d collect, dream, and try to escape my current reality. My personal style gets a public stage because I travel and interact with others during the day, but if I were housebound it would be just as important.

    I’d argue that Pinterest is more of an extended memory bank than a tool for branding my style in the eyes of others. I want to know that idea is waiting for me when I want to renovate, throw a party, or choose an outfit for a job interview. I can conveniently crowd-source great ideas from a pool of people I’ve never met, and once pinned by me, they may help or inspire a friend, or a friend of a friend, as well.

  • As a highly visual person I was sure that I would be using Pinterest like a madwoman, but in reality I barely use it. I like the idea of collecting images/links to be able to come back to and visually see them laid out in front of me but I dislike the “visible to all” aspect. I don’t like other people being able to see what I pin. I’m not embarrassed by my pins but I really just don’t like sharing them because I don’t want people to form ideas about me based on them. For me, I use Pinterest like a file folder of things I want to remember, investigate further or for work. I do enjoy looking at other people’s boards, but I guess I’m just more of a private person. I do like that Pinterest has “secret boards” and may use it more now.

  • Great article. Like “LW” (10/24), I use Pinterest less for social reasons than for personal convenience. There are occasions, however, when someone who leads me to a product or image gets a warm and sincere thanks. Those people are few and far between, though, which is, again, what makes Pinterest useful to me. My real friends are few and far between as well; it just makes life purer and simpler. I cancelled my Facebook account for the same reason. The fact that we involve ourselves in a virtual world is not a sound reason to make that world the primary source of our interactions with like-minded (or different, for that matter) people. Of course, D*S readers and writers are, one and all, real people in the best virtual world. *-) Nice to have a moment to hang out here!

  • As a photographer, I was very hesitant to start using Pinterest, but now I use it exactly as I would a traditional mood board. I only pin things that resonate with me (& am diligent about crediting every pin). Together, my boards really do paint a picture of my aesthetic & having that reference has helped me immensely. As to why make these collections public, honestly – much like getting dressed before heading out in the morning, it’s something about myself that I am willing to share with both friends & strangers. It tells a story about who I am & what I find beautiful or intriguing (even if it’s aspirational) – which of course isn’t the whole story, but I’d argue that it’s a pretty meaty chapter. To me, getting a peek into someone’s aesthetic, feels more intimate than reading about their latest “postable” or “tweetable” activity. It’s like when you walk into someone’s home for the first time, & you pause to take it all in: noticing what sort of art they have on the wall, what they are cooking for dinner, what music they are listening to, etc., all informs you about who that person is -even if it’s ostentatious or artificial.

    It’s true, we all live in the same era, are exposed to the same things & our tastes probably aren’t as unique as we think they are. In a zombie apocalypse, function would take precedence & yes, I’d be less concerned with aesthetics, but if the zombies were keeping Pinterest boards, you’d better believe I’d be checking them out!

  • Thanks for a very interesting and provocative essay.
    As mentioned by you pinning is of course not a basic need. Food, shelter etc are basics, but further up Maslow’s pyramid there’s room for collections of curios/vizuals for one reason or another.
    You write: “Whether we want to admit it or not, our impulse to acquire objects to wear and ornament our personal spaces has much more to do with the people who will see them than us personally.”
    This is ONE reason for pinning, but it’s exaggerated to seek to argue that pinning is always an extrovert presentation of a persona. (introverts have style too and, I suppose, they may enjoy pinning as well.)
    Other purposes served by pinning in my case are to
    – help me remember things I find interesting/beautiful/useful/funny
    – serve as an aide memoire for a blog etc.
    – provide links to info on objects I possess.
    Once again, thanks for sharing your views and provoking reactions – now I’ll have a look at the other comments.
    All the best, mlise

  • Spot on! I am often aware of the ability to create my own kunstkammer (thank you for introducing this concept, btw! new to me, and very interesting!) at zero expense (to myself). The “dark underbelly” you refer to…copyright infringement…is unsettling to me as well. I really like Pinterest, but I don’t want to sincerely hurt anyone by using it. Hopefully we can educate ourselves on how to be more responsible/considerate moving forward.

  • I would like to think I would still maintain my personal style when the Zombies come to stay. With a home based office I still ‘dress’ for work, although I must admit it is a variation on the same standard black wardrobe that has served me well for 20+ years.
    Seeing my two daughters (10 & 11 yrs) develope their own personal style I would strongly argue that there is something inate rather than environmental. One is sleek, stylish and able to coordinate colours and clothes with ease. The other is like a spring garden in full bloom, every colour and style worn at once! A true explosion of delight.
    I too use Pinterest for both my business and personal account. To me it is a great way to record where I am, where I have been (chevron pattern anyone?) and where I would like to go. Whether that is the next holiday destination or the next big design trend. I like the original spirit of Pinterest and tend to favour pins that don’t have the branding and price tags. And of course I have actual real Pinboards everywhere to pin my personal inspiration that is for my (& family/friends) eyes only.

  • Like some of the others, I don’t choose what I do pin to impress others, but I definitely EDIT what I put up there. I treat all social media the same way. The measure is “would I ever want to take this back?”. If so then it doesn’t go out. This doesn’t mean that I present an inauthentic, homogenized picture, it actually forces me to really focus on what’s important enough to me to put out there and own. It was a great day when the private boards debuted- just wish you could have more of them.

    I love these topics and thoughtful way you have been exploring personal philosophies etc. DS has always been an intriguing space, but you are taking it to the next level.

  • Great article, thanks. To me the biggest plus to Pinterest is the time it SAVES. Prior to pinterest I would have to trawl for ages through the web finding like minded images/styles/influences/inspiration etc. but now with Pinterest, as I only follow pinners whose style I admire, I have narrowed my search and am instantly inspired every time I look at my Pinterest home page. I think it is brilliant – and has been brilliant for my on line creative business. To quote Alian De Botton, ‘aesthetics are key to our wellbeing’ I would think I would need beauty ESPECIALLY in a world full of zombies!

  • I had no idea that posting photos from external sources was in direct violation of Pinterest’s terms and conditions! I had, on the contrary, always assumed that posting photos that you actually you owned was quite taboo – a form of self promotion that is, at best, only just tolerated by Pinterest users.

    I loved this thoughtful, well researched essay. (I’m a former art history student, so I would ;) I also love when I find other people who have deeper thoughts about social media and design than one might discuss in 140 characters or less.

    I acknowledge the social nature of Pinterest, but I do belong to the (small?) group of users who would actually pay to use Pinterest to bookmark things privately, if I could. The current three ‘private’ boards are not enough.

    Unfortunately (as a graduate with two masters degrees in marketing) I know that it would impact Pinterest’s bottom line, as its monetization model moves towards integrated advertising and promotional content, rather than a subscription based model.

    But hey, if any Pinterest execs ever read this…

  • I actually wish pinterest let you have more hidden boards. I like my public boards but sometimes I am working on a project that I am not ready to share with the world yet and the ability to have more hidden boards would be great.

  • Before Pinterest I would bookmark those things I loved and tried or wanted to keep so I could try them later, like the cute but simple skirt I made for my grand-daughter a few years ago. I had always wished there was a place that I could keep patterns, pictures that inspired me and the home page to blogs I loved to read. Bookmarking is good but it is hard to arrange. Now with Pinterest I have easy access to those things.

    Another thing I love about it is how many of the women in my church use it. One of our Pastor’s does the Women’s Christmas party each year. This is no small tea it is a bigger than life all out party like you might see at a celebrity house. Last years we have a live Nativity scene complete with camels. So she pins ideas for the party months in advance as she is working out the details to put into action.

    Other women pin baby things when they are pregnant, or lunch ideas in August so they can be armed with tasty, healthy foods for school lunches, and the teacher at my church and in the community pin ideas to help them be better teacher.

    I love Pinterest. I get ideas and insights to those I know from Church and community and I can pin what I like. I did feel that I had started pinning like a mad woman there for a while and have cut back. I have also arranged my boards better to be more useful and feel it could use more tweaking. One of my boards has little use and this has bothered me so I am going to remedy that soon. The title of the board is Stop pinning and start trying. I want to actually use the board as it is intended and not just keep things for the sake of keeping.

    I do have almost completely stopped going to the local library for old magazines to tear inspirations pages out of. Now my stacks of inspiration are on-line instead of looking like notebooks of kindling in my sewing/craft room.

  • The social aspect is actually part of my frustration with Pinterest. I want to see what everyone else pins, and I want to curate ideas for my own home and personal style, but when I actually pin, 90% of the time it’s to a private board.

    I’m not sure why I’m reluctant to share all the things I’m finding and liking.

    I think, recognizing that Pinterest is superficial, I’m afraid of being labeled. If I pin that cabinet, people will put me into a shabby chic box, and if I pin that DIY project, people will think I’m a certain kind of home-crafty person, or maybe if I pin the Eames chair, they’ll put me into a separate kind of elite-fashion box. So I pin it all to my private boards so that…what? What comes after that?

    Perhaps Pinterest seems more like a guilty, unattainable pleasure than anything else, dancing dangerously close to a lie. Is it just “inspiration”? Is it helping to compile my personal style? Can I make a statement about a personal style that’s only in my head? Is having a “personal style” really that important anyway? Can it even be called personal style if everyone else on Pinterest seems to have the same sort of style? Is pinning akin to pornography?

    I may be over-thinking Pinterest.

  • I find that while I am new to Pintrest (going on 2-3 months) I love that I get to put up mood boards that inspire my current state of life and personal style. Everything from eating better, feeling better, exercise, dressing better. Yes I pin these extravagant pieces I can’t afford and they are all over the place because well, my future decor depends on what the space calls for, the occasion dictates the outfit, etc but it inspires me to do what I am doing right now better. Annie Dillard said, “How you live your days is how you live your life.” I am all about streamlining and digitizing the inspirational mood board, rather than tearing images and wasting paper, I access them online and modify as necessary, streamline as I get closer to that reality. It reminds me to buy fresh flowers from time to time, how to wear that old sweater I am bored to tears with in a fresh way, to innovate with my meals, to bake more!

    As to the social component, it allows me to keep all of the blogs that inspire me together in one place in a visually appealing way. The big picture aspect. And at the same time I feel that I am bonding with other friends and acquaintances on pintrest over our castles in the air of the lives we want to lead. A kind of support group in achieving a certain lifestyle and just being fabulous together! I find that with people I was once not so close with, we now have this common bond: progress to discuss when we do meet up.

  • I decided to use Pinterest because it was a way to remember where a got said image in the first place. I was doing what I do on pinterest before but saving the images to my personal computer and getting frustrated that I couldn’t remember the source. So pinterest helped me save room and find the source. I was a little apprehensive at first because others could see what I was pinning but I got over it and now find it interesting what other people respond to. Funny thing is I think even in a zombie apocalypse I would take a moment, when I found a safe place to make my space feel more homey. I can’t help myself I’m selfish, I do it for me.

  • Really really good article! I have often looked at my pins and thought, “Damn, my Pinterest makes me look cool.” And then I laugh at myself but it’s the honest to god truth. I’m on a very low income… but I DO have good taste, I swear! Pinterest (and similarly my blog) allow me to explore and express that taste, and I’ve wondered if that amounts to me being terribly farcical or if it can be shrugged off as just having fun.

    I will note that while the social nature of Pinterest is huge to its success and I definitely agree that if I was the last human on earth I would probably lose interest in expressing my personal style… I must also say that I do still value ways of saving images online that are not shared with the world. I used Zootool and when that started going defunct switched to Clipular, which has an interface very similar to Pinterest but the default setting is private. You CAN share boards you just don’t have to. Pinterest’s three secret boards are much more limiting. I use Clipular to save all the stuff that I want to remember, to reference back to, to be inspired by, to buy at a later date, but that I don’t feel the need to share. Honestly, I think I’ve branded my Pinterest, and if I want to save an image that doesn’t fit in my brand, it goes to Clipular. WEIRD, right? It doesn’t help that I have my Pinterest account assoicated with my blog, so I really only want high quality, well curated images on my Pinterest. OBVIOUSLY I’m not pinning just for myself.

    You really got me thinking, sir! :)

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