You’re so pretty. Everything in your world looks sanitized and inspirational.
Your tagline is “organize and share things you love.” You don’t really mean our sticky kids, though, or the gritty streets of NYC on a February Tuesday. That’s for Flickr and Instagram.
You’re about our aspirations. Your purpose is to make us look like designers of our digital lives: clean, controlled, concise. Maybe quirky, just a little.
“Find your niche,” advises our culture’s contemporary mantra for success: “Me, Inc.” The age of Neoliberalism.
Your niche and passion, Pinterest, is our deep desire for escape from our cluttered excess. We are busy and overloaded, most of us. We’d like to run away and live online, in miniature white screen frames stark and orderly as zen paintings. With witty aphorisms. And tiny, perfect servings of food porn. Your niche is our escapism.
And so you’re booming, Pinterest. Last night, Mashable released a chart showing your rapid rise in user engagement numbers over recent months. You’re, without a doubt, the flavour of the week.
And you look and taste great. Hey, I enjoy a decontextualized serving of digital heart-shaped creme brulee (almost) as much as the next person.
But there’s something terribly Stepford Wives about the whole practice.
We Are What We Share
Sure, it’s just a hobby, a pastime. But you make me nervous, Pinterest. Because when I run away and live online in your world, as opposed to on my blog or on Twitter or even Facebook, I’m crossing into a model of digital identity that’s very shiny, but also scary.
It’s “Me, Inc.” without the, um, “me.”
(No, this isn’t about copyright, Pinterest. Yes, that’s what everybody’s on about these days, and it appears with good reason: you look to be a bit of a copyright nightmare, with Kafkaesque Terms of Service. According to this lawyer, you have apparently reserved the right to prosecute users for the very copyright violations the Pinterest platform seems designed to support.)
But. My issue isn’t the copyright practices you implicitly encourage.
It’s the identity practices.
Using social media shapes who we are, and how we see ourselves. Social media relies on identity: on handles or names or pseudonyms that represent us and our contributions to the rest of our networks. Pinterest is the same: when I sign up, I get an account, under a name of my choosing. People can see what I share. Being “re-pinned” means what I’m sharing is stuff people want to see.
To our networks, we are what we share.
And on Pinterest, that stuff? Isn’t usually mine. And isn’t encouraged to BE mine.
“Me Inc.” Without the Me
See, the difference between Pinterest and most of the major social media platforms that have come before is that Pinterest is set up to encourage us building identity and reputation primarily on the basis of other people’s content.
On Pinterest, sharing your own work goes against the explicit etiquette of the site. Rule #3: “Avoid Self-Promotion.” Sure, “If there’s a photo or project you’re proud of, pin away! However try not to use Pinterest purely as a tool for self-promotion.”
I can see the collective exhale, here. No wonder Pinterest looks kinda like an Ikea catalogue for every facet of human life. Its express purpose is to free us from the awkwardness of self-expression and keep us safely in the realm of the pre-chewed, the market-filtered.
Admittedly, self-promotion on most online platforms gets tiresome. Hey, look at what I did! What I wrote! What I dug out from my back teeth and photographed in extreme closeup!
On Pinterest, I’d just share pictures of somebody else’s perfect teeth. Whitened. Without the accompanying stories of orthodontistry or the person’s flossing regimen. Probably not even his or her whole face.
Pinterest is exactly what it claims to be: the digital equivalent of the corkboard I had in my bedroom when I was thirteen. I had me some Bono, some Annie Lennox, a dented centrefold of Thriller. I once tore a page out of a hair salon magazine for a grainy shot of the dude who played Robert Scorpio on General Hospital. I may also have clipped the Volkswagen microbus ad out of chapter six of my geometry text. (Sorry, Mr. Murnaghan.)
These things weren’t me. They were who I wanted to be, in a sense, but in the dream realm. My cutout of Robert Scorpio didn’t actually further my path to becoming a soap opera spy, in any sense. My purloined VW image didn’t actually buy me a car. It was just an early form of brand affinity, a way of performing identity and belonging.
That’s the problem, Pinterest. You’re a grownup version of dress-up, of playing cotton-candy princesses. It’s fun. Play is healthy. But when we build broadly networked aspects of our public selves based largely on these tickle-trunk identities? Especially with stuff that we’ve lifted finders-keepers-style from other people’s equally aspirational magpie nests? We may eventually find ourselves with the identity equivalent of tooth decay.
Because make no mistake: the way social media works, our Pinterest practices ARE shaping our digital identities.
Augmented Reality: The Blurring of Offline & Online Worlds
Social media’s promise is that of an augmented reality: one wherein physical and virtual combine to create a blurring between offline and online.
Most of us who use Facebook or Twitter already live in some version of this reality; our networks of friends live both inside and outside the computer.
By extension, so does our identity, and theirs: we know and understand each other via a combination of physical and digital interactions. To the friend on Facebook whom I haven’t actually seen in person since 1988, I am as much my photos and my status updates and whatever I share of my contemporary life as I am that girl who used to chew her pencils. I hope.
Social media bypassed the gatekeeping of mass media control, and enabled us to become creators as well as consumers.
Identity-wise, this was revolutionary. Instead of sharing who I was via brand or band allegiance, or some other externalized representation of myself, I could actually connect with people – with anybody, anywhere, so long as we happened upon each others’ networks – on the basis of my words and thoughts and images. On the basis of what I created.
I could be known for being me. Or an aspirational version of me. Instead of having a picture of a typewriter pinned to my corkboard, I could write, and build an audience, and gradually – slowly – come to see myself and be seen through that lens. “Writer” became part of my digital identity. And – thanks to the blurring between online and off – my so-called “real” identity too.
Anybody could do it. You could share your work – your words, your pictures, your witty-ish status updates – and engage with the work of others and in so doing build reputation and connections and complex linked networks. Axel Bruns called this produsage. George Ritzer – with a few minor variations – calls it prosumption.
Want to be a photographer? Social media offers access to photography platforms, photography learning opportunities, and photography communities. You can take pictures and share them, with your name attached. You can participate in the sites and networks where other people are sharing photography that appeals to you. If you want to become known there, you can gradually build a presence and an identity and – yes – a niche. If you keep sharing and are generous with your own work and that of others, you may never be Ansel Adams, but you’ll be – in a very genuine way – a photographer.
The Difference Between Curators and Creators
An internet of a billion aspiring photographers, of course, does tend to get clogged. The culture of scarcity which led to my criminal defacement of a geometry textbook back in my misspent youth no longer exists. Instead, we have abundance, or excess. And a need to curate.
Since blogging died the first of its over-reported deaths back in, what? 2007? and Facebook and Twitter began minimizing the centrality of creation and enabling the public sharing of other people’s content, the notion of “curation” has been getting attention. Curation, really, is what librarians and archivists and gallery owners do. It involves more than collection and sharing, in its original context. But increasingly, and with some apoplexy on the part of professional curators, it’s being taken up simply as what you do when you select and share a friend’s great picture, or a New York Times article you loved, or a pin of vintage Snoopy coffee cups.
Curation is as much a part of our digital identity practices as creation, today.
It’s what Pinterest operates on, entirely. But at the express expense of creation. If you search “I wrote this” in Pinterest, for example, you get a gallery of pins that are pretty easily digestible, at a glance, without much depth to click and explore. Commerce. Curation. Not much in the way of creation that could actually be tied to a person’s digital identity or fledgling reputation as a writer.
And that’s no huge deal, if Pinterest is just a sideline in our digital identity practices. But in fact, it extends trends already begun with Tumblr and even, increasingly, Facebook, where frictionless sharing of unidentified content stands in as the means by which we communicate with our networks.
Here’s the thing, identity-wise. If we drop the “creator” part of the equation, people of Teh Internets, we really go back to being consumers, and consumers alone. Because the type of curation Pinterest offers isn’t actually new at all; it just used to involve doing unspeakable things to geometry texts and hair salon magazines.
Style over Substance: Simulated Reality, not Augmented Reality
The things Pinterest enables us to share need to be more or less instantly visually communicable, either in the form of a picture or an image of words, preferably in minimal quantity. It’s well-suited to design and aphorisms. It’s not well-suited to complexity.
Life is complex. In this augmented world of constant engagement and digital self-promotion, it’s exponentially complex. It’s no wonder we want to go live in Pinterest’s perfect white kitchens and surround ourself with cute pictures of polka-dots and cupcakes.
But online practices become habits. What we see shared shapes what we understand to be shareable, to be palatable.
Taken to its logical conclusion, the practices of Pinterest suggest we’ll stop writing about the stuff stuck in our teeth, or the stories of how our teeth or our selves got broken. (Schmutzie does a beautiful job of taking this apart, this creeping process of self-presentation). We’ll default increasingly to playing dressup in decontextualized, aspirational pictures of other people’s purdy teef. Like in the magazines.
Magazines have always been simulated reality. I like magazines just fine.
But you would not know me from a magazine article about me, if such a thing existed. You might recognize me from a picture, but the meeting – the moment where the physical and the digital selves converge in the same space – would be like meeting a celebrity, a cardboard cutout, not a person with whom you share a regular, intimate interaction in daily life, even if ‘only’ online.
If we trade the produsage model of augmented reality for a simple, Stepford-wife simulated reality, we undermine the premises and promises of social media; the idea that the long tail will ultimately have something for all of us. If we gradually remove ourselves from the creation portion of the creator-curator-consumer model, we’ll end up simply shuffling mass-mediated or market-driven versions of self around Teh Internets, wondering what went wrong.
Or perhaps entirely oblivious, smiling, Stepford-style.