I work in tech, and over the past few weeks I’ve found myself in various conversations about the resounding success of Pinterest. The site just reached 10 million users, and is growing rapidly. But something I’ve repeatedly been hearing from my male colleagues is that they don’t quite get it. They have accounts, and they’ve played around with it, but they don’t understand why it’s so appealing. Meanwhile, I have to impose an embargo on Pinterest during work, because if I start, I won’t be able to stop. So their confusion, in turn, puzzled me. What’s to get?
Pinterest users are overwhelmingly female. What you see, when you go on Pinterest, is mostly retail. Clothes, shoes, and home goods are a huge category. Another is food. Wedding pins are a huge subset, as are children’s accessories. Travel photos, crafts, jewelry, and design are other common pins. It’s head-scratchingly stereotypically female. Which led me to wonder: Is Pinterest fundamentally feminine in some way?
The answer is no. Pinterest isn’t feminine. Pinterest is a natural offshoot of reading women’s magazines.
I’m not going to dissect the evolution of women’s magazines better than n+1’s Molly Fischer, who traced writing for women from the flawed vehicle of women’s magazines to the differently flawed, but still flawed, vehicle of mainstream “ladyblogs.” Whether or not her criticisms are valid, I think that she accurately and importantly identifies a community of women who used to read magazines voraciously and now exist mainly on the Internet. Perhaps ladyblogs (like this one) have become the new, better forums for community engagement and writing for women. Pinterest, meanwhile, has turned itself into the arm of women’s magazines that I believe we had a more complicated relationship with – those gorgeous layouts and photoshoots that depicted the world we wanted to live in. And significantly, that world was often based in retail goods. As I thought back to how I used to read magazines, it struck me that the process was very similar to how I use Pinterest today.
Buying a magazine was not just about reading what was inside, after all – it was also an opportunity to define yourself by its niche, and to be influenced by the tastemakers who created it. And so if you read Vogue you were a certain kind of woman; if Cosmo, another. But all of these magazines, if they had a visual component, sold something. Not just through their advertisements, but through their features and editorials. Sometimes they sold actual things, like clothes, makeup, books, accessories, and home goods. But the products were often astronomically priced, far out of reach for most people. Though the magazine layouts featured salable goods, mostly they sold a lifestyle. They sold feelings and beliefs, ideals and values. They sold romance, and they sold dreams.
Like many of you, I grew up reading women’s magazines. There was a brief golden period of frequent flier miles when you could trade in miles for magazine subscriptions. Through this I got Vanity Fair, Vogue, Food and Wine, and InStyle delivered to my house at one time or another. I supplemented these with a heavy rotation of grocery-store impulse buys: Jane was my favorite, but I’d settle for Seventeen or Cosmopolitan in a pinch. (I still have all of these magazines shoved into a closet in my parents’ house. It’s a surprisingly comprehensive timeline of the decline of women’s magazines, from 1998 to 2004.)
By the time I was in high school, the way I would read these was almost formulaic. I’d settle down in front of the television, rewatching a Julia Roberts movie, and I would tear an entire magazine apart. I might give it a quick scan first, but the point of having the magazine was to cut it into pieces. I’d rip out interesting articles from time to time, but it was far more important to tear out pictures: fashion shoots, travel destinations, interior design, food porn. Pull-quotes overlaid prettily on charming photos of Europe. Advertisements and original content were equally interesting, if they caught the eye. When the process was over, the magazine was just binding, glue, and discarded images. I’d harvested what was most important into a pile of my own pictures, which often included the cover.
In my experience, the girls I knew had different ways of handling their hoard of clips. Some might go into scrapbooks or inside lockers. I knew some people who would modge-podge magazine cutouts onto their class notebooks. My clippings went on my walls. I’d never thought about it this way before, but you could even argue that I had different boards, because different sections of my room were devoted to different topics. There was a whole section of anime, of course. In high school, the wall over my dresser became a Hollywood board, with movie stars and stills from film. The back of my door ended up becoming eye-catching magazine photography. My closet doors were almost entirely interesting advertisements. I had a few smaller collections: people who I thought looked like fictional characters, the Backstreet Boys, the Lord of the Rings (yikes). I even had a whole section from bridal magazines. Neither the clipping nor the organizing itself was well thought-out. In fact, the more I did think it through, the less my clips meant to me. I was looking for something, and I found it in that moment.
What was I looking for? It could have been anything, really. The way a dress draped over a model’s body. Black-and-white photos of starlets in exotic locales. Interesting one-page columns, like “How to dress like Alias’ Sydney Bristow” or “Silver bracelets from around the world.” “57 Things Every Woman Should Know” – written by a man, of course. Candid photographs of Johnny Depp. Stills from my favorite movies. I was looking for photos, layouts, or quotes that would strike a chord within me – that would resonate with some romantic idea of who I wanted to be. Because I was 15 or 16 when I was going through these magazines, when I saw a photo of a model ascending an airstair wearing a voluminous Michael Kors violet gown, I knew that someday my life would look like that. I wasn’t sure how or when, but it was very clear to me that this vision of femininity was what I wanted. It was the same feeling I got watching Friends or listening to Enya (double yikes) or reading Marian Keyes books. A vision of being an older, more capable woman, financially comfortable, drinking cocktails and going on dates and decorating my apartment in Manhattan.
Fast-forward ten years, and the realities of the economy and rents in Manhattan made much of this vision not true. But that was okay. Because magazines were so passÃ©, anyway. This packaged lifestyle they were selling us – whose life was that, really? Could anyone afford any of these clothes? Was anyone so privileged as to be walking up an airstair in a Michael Kors gown at the age of 22? Was it even possible to clamber up those stairs in a ball gown? As I grew up, magazines could no longer sustain those lifestyle fantasy.
Perhaps that’s just a byproduct of growing up, but I do think the coming of age of the Internet had something to do with it. As online publications flourished and the Internet came of age, taste decentralized. Now the editors of Vogue aren’t the only people that will tell you what to wear; Tavi Gevinson and Bebe Zeva will, too. They might pull stuff from Vogue, but that won’t be the only publication they’re looking at. We aren’t limited to the magazines we get in the mail – we can see all the things, to quote Allie Brosh. There is this sense that we are better than being told what to care about. We no longer have to pay Vogue five dollars to have Anna Wintour tell you what to think about fashion – we can read a blog for free, or better yet, publish our opinions ourselves.
I’m very happy with this stance, by and large. That obsessive magazine reading created expectations for my life that it was going to be impossible to fulfill, especially in the worst recession since the Great Depression. It was nice, as I got older, to feel like I’d intercepted that constant striving towards some sort of beauty or lifestyle ideal I wasn’t going to achieve, and could channel it towards making my own life rewarding, on its own terms.
And then Pinterest came along – and I liked it.
What I do with Pinterest is arguably almost exactly what I did with magazines growing up. A crucial difference is that I don’t know where the content comes from, though much of it looks like professional catalog or fashion photography. But I feverishly add to my boards with the same diligence I papered the walls of my bedroom – to reflect some idea of who I am, and further, who I want to be.*
The success of Pinterest suggests that it’s not just me who is drawn to this aspirational expression. But I’ve noticed something interesting about the Pinterest community: There’s a self-awareness to this aspiration, too. A common type of pin that floats around from time to time reads something like this: “Pinterest: to plan the weddings we can’t afford, to raise the children we don’t have, and decorate the houses we don’t live in.”
It seems like most of us on Pinterest are in on the joke – we’re buying into a fantasy lifestyle, and selling it to each other. Some of us may be using our boards to plan a real-life event, or to give us ideas for a concrete occurrence, but I think most of us are updating our dream scrapbooks – fully aware those dreams may never happen, but indulging in the fantasy anyway.
But: A little voice in the back of my head says, “Pinterest is how you express yourself”¦ through stuff.” And it’s true that at times Pinterest feels like aggressive Internet window-shopping.
Pinterest the business, I believe, is hoping to leverage on the stuff. It puts pricetags on pins when it can detect a dollar sign, and it gives you the option to search for “Gifts” with different price ranges when you’re browsing. As fun as it is to express yourself, Pinterest is here to make money. Further, it seems like this is exactly what the women’s magazines have primed me for: to express myself through my purchasing power, to bind up inextricably my sense of my future self with my sense of my future things.
But it’s interesting that so many of the pins on Pinterest aren’t attached to a pricetag. They’re more about the idea of the product, or what can be done with the product, than the product itself. I do not pretend to argue that with our pinboards we are not buying into a culture of stuff. But we buy into a culture of stuff by doing a lot of other things, too.
In other words, readers, I can’t really decide if Pinterest is a materialistic retail vehicle, an extremely fun way to shop for shoes, a torturous promoter of a life I’ll never live, or an Internet scrapbook to keep tabs on what I’m excited about. What do you think, readers? Do you have Pinterest accounts? What do you use it for? How does it work for you?
[Find me on Pinterest here.]
[Check out Sally’s how-to article if you’re interesting in making Pinterest work for you.]