Communication Currents

The “New Me”—Social Curation and Private Collection on

August 1, 2015
Digital Communication & Gaming

Pinterest, an image collection site, has been one of the quickest growing social networking sites on the Internet in recent years, the fastest site to reach 10 million unique visitors in the history of the Web. According to the Web analytics company Alexa, Pinterest is at present the 16th top site in the United States and the 40th top site in the world. While other social networking sites focus on the desire of users to communicate and share content, Pinterest’s main focus is a collection-based activity called “social curation.”

Mostly a response to the ever-growing overabundance of content on the Web, social curation is an activity where the general public, rather than Web publishers and providers themselves, tag, organize, and share content with others. Sites focused on this activity include Digg and Reddit, which emphasize (news) stories, and Tumblr, which allows for curation of all kinds of multimedia. Pinterest is distinct, however, since it focuses exclusively on digital images, which can be curated (or “pinned”) into thematic, personalized collections (called “boards”). While previous research on social curation has mostly focused on educational, participatory, or political uses of this practice, this essay is an exploration of how the less explicitly goal-focused, image-based social curation of Pinterest can play a part in the production of public knowledge.

In general, “curation” is a term that links back to professional activity of caretaking and organizing content found in museums and libraries. It is connected to the practice of standardizing and stabilizing categories of knowledge—for example, what counts as contemporary art or natural history. It should be noted, however, that processes of classification and naming are never neutral activities; they always project particular world views that may be hidden behind the authoritativeness of labels. For instance, questions surrounding whether a Navajo pot should be categorized as an art object or a natural history artifact necessarily involve questions about who has the power to define and who does not. Considering that marketers have borrowed this term from these institutions, how might this usage clarify what social curation can do in a socially networked world?

To answer these questions, this essay focuses on the role of both public curation and private collection within Pinterest, and how these activities play into what I call the digital production of knowledge. On the one hand, Pinterest is explicitly framed for users as a tool for personal, rather than social or communicative, use. Pinterest users can collect images—whether from the site’s database of images or outside the site—by “pinning” them onto themed “boards.” Users are allowed to determine the categories of the boards based on their own interests; the company suggests using boards to help improve one’s “life and work” for tasks including party planning and house renovations, or even keeping track of illustrations, photographs, or works of art one likes. In this way, the practices that occur here continue a long tradition of personal collection. Ben Silbermann, one of the founders of the site, has described how Pinterest developed from his childhood inclinations to collect objects, including stamps and insects.

While users pursue private goals through the site, I argue that the entire “ecosystem” of Pinterest—which includes the individual activities of the users in tandem with the technology and the business practices of the site—additionally ends up contributing to the larger practice of public curation. Perhaps the most obvious way this may be seen is through the creation of categories that have wider impact beyond just individuals. Whereas a collection of physical objects may only be seen by a few, Pinterest boards (and the related pins) can potentially be seen by all 72.8 million users of the site. This in turn influences other boards created on the site—something illustrated by how categories on the site have generally converged on particular (domestic) themes, including crafts, cooking, and wedding decor (and consequently a homogeneous crowd of users, which are predominantly female). In this way, the categories created by pinners do not merely reflect individual inclinations but are part of the wider social activity of Pinterest.

The individual activity of pinners additionally is shaped through the technology and the company itself. First, the navigation technology of the site moderates what users are shown when they click through the site. The choice of these images is based both on one’s previous pinning activity as well as how others have pinned similar images in the past. As it turns out, this is based not only on bottom-up curation, but also the careful practices of the company itself. When Pinterest was first launched, the founders actively worked to shape the database of images that were uploaded to the site. This occurred through select invitations to pools of designers and artists known to them (the first invitation emails included the greeting “You must have good taste!”), as well as the prohibition of uploads from Facebook (therefore limiting personal photos).

The corporate partnerships formed by Pinterest also have shaped what images have been uploaded to the site. Some of the most popular Pinterest pinners include brands and online retailers such as Sephora and Nordstrom, which have uploaded products from their sites onto Pinterest boards, thus giving easy access to individual users. Business members also have the option of adding “Pin It” buttons to their own sites, thus further increasing the likelihood that Pinterest users end up incorporating these products into their own boards.

What is the danger of seamlessly connecting these practices of personal collection and public curation? Some critics have discussed the ways in which Pinterest users are more likely to fall prey to rising aspirations for products and lifestyles beyond their reach—whether elaborate weddings or lavish homes. This might not be seen as particularly problematic, however, since it replicates what lifestyle magazines have long done. Indeed, this is the exact reason that many people come to Pinterest—to have direct access to style leaders and taste makers who have resources beyond their own.

What might be more troubling, however, is how personal activities of individuals on Pinterest are actively monitored by others—namely marketers and retailers. While categories created on Pinterest through curation seem to reflect individual interests and tastes, they are increasingly used to describe the type of person who creates these categories. In other words, Pinterest sells the idea that people have the freedom to determine their own tastes. However, they are doing this within the framework of pre-existing categories, thus categorizing themselves (to marketers) as certain types of consumers. In this respect, the construction of knowledge that occurs on the site is not primarily the categorization of objects but instead the categorization of people themselves. While this practice is just a continuation of a long trend of targeted demographic construction (e.g., how purchasing certain products has always told marketers the kind of consumer one is), Pinterest is unique in that it allows for the seamless integration of personal taste building alongside the creation of consumer demographic categories. In this fashion, the type of knowledge construction that occurs on the site is not really about who we want to be, but increasingly how others are trying to understand who we are.

About the author (s)

Debora Lui

University of Pennsylvania

Doctoral Candidate