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?