Pins

Cutting and pasting and streaming and tweeting – all distant metaphors that have taken on their own meanings. My life on screen is one of appropriated verbs, relationships between words and actions that would have made little sense not so long ago. One recent addition to this gibberish-to-my-dad lexicon, to my daily routine: pinning.

Without me noticing, Pinterest has become a central part of my working practise, an essential tool for gathering source material, inspiring images, curiosities, ephemera. Anything that might one day be useful research material for a project ends up pinned to one of many sub-categorised boards. It's a means of giving clarity and order to what would otherwise be lost in chaos. It's useful.

But it’s more than just sensible, productive mood-boarding. There is also an addiction – a bizarrely irrational one at that. Pinterest satisfies the urge to collect.

But then collecting teeters over into hoarding. Every website is a potential harvest of pins, whether they'd be useful or not. Why exactly am I amassing this digital pile of science fiction corridor designs? What am I ever going to do with hundreds of images that have nothing in common other than the fact they all prominently feature yellow? Am I ever going to receive a brief that calls for dozens of photographs of that guy in York who dresses up like a Stormtrooper? Do all these boards have any real value, or are they just detritus from yet another online habit?

A quick survey of my friends and peers reveals I'm not alone in this compulsion. Pinterest has finagled its way into the lives of millions. This wasn't supposed to happen. It was a fad. It wasn't going to last. It was a flavour-of-the-month thing; another startup craze for the media to build up and tear down; an excuse for some pseudo-intellectual Harold Pinter puns. It …

It's still here.

There were initial concerns about intellectual property ownership and who could store what where and how – those were addressed easily enough. Once the initial hubbub died down, it became apparent that Pinterest was actually a very smart, very useful new corner of the web.

On paper, the idea behind it seems restrictively basic: it’s a place to bookmark images, nothing more. And for most users, myself included, that's how it's used. But the beauty of a good platform is in it's susceptibility to creative misuse. Pinterest’s rigid hierarchy of user/boards/pins has proven to be an incredibly flexible sandbox for all sorts of brands and publications – basically anyone with a decent flow of visual content (i.e. 90% of the web).

For example, Esquire's 24 boards capture the essence of the magazine – women, cocktails, suits, food – and frees it from the pesky shackles of context. Pantone oversee a predictably garish explosion of colours, with a lot of emphasis on their annual colour of the year nonsense (this year: Radiant Orchid; Flamingo’s Dream was robbed). Random House prove that if there's one thing more satisfying than good book, it's a nice photograph of a good book. All images thrown to the masses to be re-pinned, re-boarded, re-whatevered.

It was put to great effect by Michelle Obama in the run up to Him Indoor’s 2012 re-election campaign. She (or rather, her staff) didn't bombard followers with any old pins – everything that went up was carefully considered. The boards had a very particular story to tell, values to sell. Candid family photographs, a few favourite recipes, behind the scenes images from the campaign trail – all contributing to a much bigger image. All of this content could've lived on a regular website, but within the Pinterest environment, the message could be shared and spread with ease.

Also offering a fast-web alternative to their understandably vast and unwieldy website, Space.com embraced the more immediate pinboard approach. When refracted through the Pinterest kaleidoscope, the visual content is more manageably distributed. When you divvy aspects of the universe onto distinct boards – the Moon, comets, Hubble images, etc. – it become so much easier to explore.

The nature of Pinterest is ideal for those walking the line between personality and brand. Why just be an actor when you can be a style guru or design maven? For instance, Jessica Alba is a keen pinner of parenting and DIY recommendations, while Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle publication, goop, is a natural fit for the network. The profile description proudly asserts that the couple of thousand pins have been “curated” by Paltrow. Professional curators would no doubt balk at this over-simplification of their art, but it's just another misappropriated verb, the illusion of productivity. It'll do until we've come up with a succinct catch-all term for finding and grouping and sharing and procrastinating and pretending to be adding something new to the world when all you're really doing is regurgitating.

Alanis Morissette, of The Nineties Sure Were A Long Time Ago fame, has gone the other way. She curates nothing but herself: here are her videos, here are her press shots, her feet, her own inspirational quotes. The few pins that don't originate directly from her adhere to the angst-ridden poster child image she perfected all those years ago. One wonders if her board of recommended self-help books (”you can become your own loving parent!”) is meant to be a joke. Perhaps it's ironic. 

It seems that there are as many ways of using Pinterest as there are people. Perhaps these ersatz websites go some way to explaining my infatuation with Pinterest; they satisfy a sticker-book, gotta-collect-them-all mentality. Plus, with barely any visual customisation opportunities – you can change your profile pic and your main board images and that's about it – there's a calming uniformity and to it all.

Pinterest offers a unique paradigm, the idea of “curation” taken to its extreme. It is a network of exploded content, shattered into equal chunks, constantly being rearranged. For better or worse, it is the web reigned by beautiful entropy – simplified, compartmentalised and scattered.

Of course, by the time you read this, those words will probably mean something completely different.

Written for MacUser.

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