Rethinking @Pinterest {#Opinion}

When I received an invite to the Pinterest beta many months ago, I was intrigued by its approach. The layout was novel, clean; the site was fast and simple to use. As it grew, and gained a reputation for its user base- namely, women, a group of which I am not a member- I began to lose interest. I didn’t quite see the point. It lacked a certain utility, and I began to discard it as just another social networking site.

Recently, I downloaded the mobile app, and it changed my outlook.

I began to search for a word to describe the appeal, and the word that constantly surfaced was ‘serendipitous.’ There was, indeed, a certain serendipity to browsing the app. Again, I thought of the perceived uselessness. I want a practical purpose, and none was to be found. What could I possibly stand to gain from collecting random images all over the web?

Then I began to think: what if the purpose could arise precisely from the feeling the site generated?

Most popular web entities serve a particular, pragmatic purpose. Pinboard collects your links, Twitter cultivates communities of like-minded people, Google helps you find what you’re looking for, LinkedIn connects professionals. Sure, these entities can all be said to elicit a certain emotion when using them, but that invocation is secondary. First and foremost, they serve a purpose.

Pinterest’s allure lies precisely in the fact that it creates a certain ambiance, that it feels a certain way to use it. From that emotion, uses can be contrived- a direct reversal of the traditional paradigm, wherein an app garners an identity from its function over time (think Google- its primary function has led to its reputation, and therefore our perception of the company as a whole).

Think of the appeal of a traditional, physical scrapbook, a perfect example of a platform in which little ‘real’ purpose can be extracted. Its appeal, too, lies in the emotion it tears from us. It’s pleasant to browse old memories, or to create new ones.

Now, imagine Pinterest as the ultimate scrapbook, but instead of collecting new memories, we create a fluid snapshot of our very selves.

My boards currently consist of things like sailboats, libraries, books, conceptual products. These are the things that elicit enough emotion from me that I deemed them worthy of being ‘pinned.’ They also present a fairly accurate collage of what interests me at this point in time, and what are we, after all, but the manifestation of the sum of our interests?

I can imagine my boards changing with my interests, with my self- always presenting an accurate description of what occupies my mind. How wonderful it would be, at eighty years old, to look back on my digital collections and marvel at the intricacies of my thirty-year-old self.

My boards will grow with me. For that reason, perhaps more meaning exists in an ‘emotional’ app than one which serves a distinct pragmatic purpose. In this way, using Pinboard strictly as a bookmarking service for images can serve a sort of graphical journal, and one from which a significant amount of meaning can be extracted if we utilize it for any significant amount of time.

Or, if you prefer, think of the act of collecting. Ask a collector of... well, anything, really... to tell you why they collect, and you’ll hear the same response: it’s the feeling associated with collecting bits of things you love. Why do little boys collect baseball cards? Why do grown men collect train sets? Certainly, not for pragmatic reasons.

Then there’s the social aspect. Yes, of course the argument exists: who needs another social network? Again, I argue, precisely for the emotional response we feel when browsing Pinterest. There is nothing useful here, only the ambiance, the serendipity of jumping into the fluidity of someone else’s consciousness. Follow the boards of the things that you feel something about, and your browsing experience will, at the very least, bring the faintest of smiles.

Like us, Pinterest has become something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s an image-laden pick-me-up, a hot cup of coffee on a cold winter’s day. It’s the start of the emotional web, whose precise lack of function creates a function greater than the technology upon which it’s built.