Is Self-Expression Possible on Pinterest?

by Whitney Kimball on May 14, 2012 · 3 comments Opinion

In the six months since Pinterest became one of 10 largest social network sites, we’ve heard no end to its praises. It’s been sold to us as a venue for self-expression, similar to Tumblr — but with auto-filled boards like “Products I Love,” “My Style,” and “For the Home,” it’s far less shy about its use of love-only Facebook-derivitive lifestyle branding. Unless you’re working against it, can such a place even be a venue for self-expression?

With a “repins from” category on every profile, “following” and “followers” menus, and profile-linked comment threads, it’s remarkably easy to bounce around in Pinterest; four hours can go right out the window. But, as Hyperallergic’s An Xiao pointed out recently, it all tends to look the same. It’s bright here. Many of my auto-followees (mostly white, early 30s art directors) wear sunglasses, and photos are almost all daylit. Idle browsing begets a mix of 1930s Eastern Europe (letterpress, kerchiefs, potato prints) and 1960s fashion photography (sunglasses, pin-up girls, Bridget Bardot). Blouin Artinfo’s “Mad for Mad Men” board looks fairly original by comparison.

When I search for something I like, though, the landscape slightly improves—which makes me think that if more people join, and if Pinterest finds a way to direct its users into streams, this could be a very useful tool. Though Tumblr’s got its fair share of torture porn, for example, you’ll probably only stumble across it if you’re looking around in that social group; Pinterest’s layout is so open that any one and their grandmother could stumble over it in minutes. (And when that happens, the internet might explode; as Gawker reported back in February, light-hearted use of the word “fuck” provoked an onslaught of offended users).

For now, art boards function almost exactly the same as the product boards, where opinions expressed largely range from a scale of “wonderful” to “superlative.” “Broadway Boogie-Woogie,” for instance, draws praise like “can’t beat a bit of Mondrian!” and “Love that Mondrian!” Like everything else here, art’s sole function is to temporarily improve a user’s day. On that particular board, brightly-colored epic sculpture (like Olafur Eliasson’s “One-Way Tunnel”) get the most repins, followed by epic sculpture (like Fiona Banner’s “Harrier”), followed by bright colors (like a magenta James Turrell), followed by paintings of women. Only the stockiest art photos survive Pinterest’s sieve. Here, Lynda Benglis makes rainbow pours; Bruce Naumann makes neons; Keith Harring lives on through cars or fake nails; Marilyn Minter photographs high heels and pearls in mouths. Laurel Nakadate is a stock photo model, and Duchamp’s urinal, a funky sink.

“Self-expression” is ironic word choice for Pinterest’s selection process. Far more often than an expression of taste or selfhood, we’re basically re-affirming what we already agree upon: colors are pleasant, large things are impressive, animals are cute, food is delicious. Conversation is polite both because invitations can be rescinded (it’s “invite-only”), but also because if you extend an invitation, you want the party to make you look good. (As one commenter noted under the “fuck” photo: “THIS IS SO NOT APPROPRIATE, I JUST INVITED MY DAUGHTER-IN-LAWS AND A FRIEND PLEASE STOP THIS OR YOU ARE GOING TO MISS A LOT OF VIEWERS!!!!!!”) There’s also a general assumption that animals and colors are fundamentally good, therefore we should proliferate these things in order to improve the world.

Search “hate,” though, and the enamel begins to crack: alongside photos of a kitten in water and a grouchy cartoon character grumbling about being tired, there are rare moments like an African American girl giggling on a bench (“don’t hate”), or a sign that reads “I HATE CANCER.” After these and countless friendly comment threads, my own boards “Boobs I Love” and “Things That Make Me Bang Me Head Against the Wall” made me feel like a bit of an asshole. The fact is that this isn’t a place for discourse; this is a place where people go to fantasize, and that probably makes a lot of people feel good. This internet Pleasantville can only last as long as I keep my mouth shut—which is only to say, don’t Pin this.

Lucian Freud, "Girl With a Kitten," 1947.

Glimpses of dialogue do congeal around paintings like Lucian Freud’s “Girl With A Kitten,” in which a beautiful girl with a 1930s haircut holds a kitty by the neck. Comments range from “beautifully painted” and “nice pallete” to “is she trying to choke the kitten?!” and “absolutely horrible.” The most revealing of the space Pinterest had created, though, is the response “Um, why gripping the neck? We’re all friends. :)” We’re not actually friends, as Pinterest doesn’t allow “friendships”; you can follow people, but everything is public. But the difference between this and other social networks is that you don’t need an introduction, just an invitation—it’s a social media network where everyone automatically knows each other.


Robert Boyd May 14, 2012 at 4:21 pm

I love Pinterest–I’m constantly pinning images I run across during the day, as well as repinning images from those people I follow. But I agree the default settings are consumerist in the extreme. In addition to pinning images or art I like, I also have a board that consists of artwork from my own modest collection. I haven’t seen anyone else do this, but Pinterest seems an ideal vehicle for sharing this kind of thing. Likewise, it strikes me as a great way for displaying a portfolio for artists. Lots of artists I know use Flickr, but Flickr seems like such a clumsy tool compared to Pinterest.

I realize I’m coming across as a paid Pinterest promoter. I think if you dive into Pinterest cold (looking at the Everything: Art category for example), you’ll be disappointed. And if you use the default boards the way that Pinterest wants you to, you’ll start to feel like a shill. It is a matter of creating the kinds of boards you like with the kinds of images you like–and that’s what induces people with similar tastes to follow you. And then you can follow them back if they have good boards.

whitney_kimball May 14, 2012 at 5:51 pm

Of course, that makes sense. I agree that it’s an incredibly useful service for sharing information, and there’s nothing wrong with instructing users to be respectful. I just think if we’re talking about tastes, or self-expression, some dislike is eventually going to have to factor into the dialogue, and there’s going to have to be a way around the group censorship. 

Jennifer Chan May 17, 2012 at 6:13 pm

lol @bacon bacon bacon tag. I think it’s probably been met with distaste from my twenty-somethings peergroup just because the form and function of it doesn’t appeal to us as much. And tumblr already exists, why waste time pinning stuff into faux-pinboards? I have yet to activate my invite though… I do want to check out the interface before I completely write it off…

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