Cupcakes, Boots, and Shirtless Jake Gyllenhaal
If you like any of those things, you should be on Pinterest.
At Slate’s annual retreat last summer, Holly Allen, one of the magazine’s Web designers, buttonholed me and exclaimed, “Have you heard of Pinterest? You’ve got to write about it!” I hadn’t heard about it, and rather than explain what it is—because while Pinterest is many things, easy to explain isn’t one of them—she rushed to get her iPad to show me the site.
Since then, I’ve noticed paeans to Pinterest everywhere I go. Several readers have exhorted me to write about it, calling it their favorite new thing on the Web. I’ve spotted Pinterest stickers on laptops at the offices of both Facebook and Google. And every day, my Facebook and Twitter feeds brim with links to Pinterest. This mania got me thinking that I really should write about why Pinterest is so wonderful, and how it’s the hottest new social site since Tumblr. There’s only one problem: I just don’t get it.
OK, I understand the very basics: Pinterest is a graphical social bookmarking site, a way to show off cool images you find online. Its motto should be, “If you see something, Pin something.” When you find a picture on the Web that you like—Diane Von Furstenberg boots, blue velvet cupcakes, Amy Adams—click the Pin It button to send the image to your Pinterest page. People on Pinterest can follow your Pins, and you can follow theirs. This may sound similar to any number of other services online—Pinterest shares some features with Twitter, Facebook, Delicious, StumbleUpon, and Tumblr—but the site’s novel design encourages more ferocious bookmarking and consumption of those bookmarks. Pinterest displays your friends’ pictures in a striking, forever-scrolling table, a virtual pinboard of really pretty pictures. If you’re into pictures—especially of fashion, home décor, food, and animals—you should stop reading and sign up right now.
I suspect that my problem with Pinterest is that I’m just not that into pictures of fashion, home décor, food, and animals. Most of Pinterest’s users are women, and the pictures that greet you when you visit for the first time show off stereotypically feminine pursuits. Indeed, many of the site’s users jokingly refer to Pinterest as an outlet for nonsexual porn for women—food porn, furniture porn, fashion porn. (The site’s terms bar nudity, which is interpreted narrowly enough to permit lots and lots of shirtless photos of Jake Gyllenhaal.)
I’m not the sort of man who shies away from traditionally womanly interests—I’d rather make yogurt than watch sports—so I didn’t turn away from Pinterest immediately. For one thing, I thought it could be a good place to find new recipes. But I couldn’t get into it that way. I linked Pinterest to my Facebook account, which let me browse through my Facebook friends’ Pins. While I found that lots of these people had posted wondrous pictures of food—and there were many more pictures in Pinterest’s Food category, which shows me stuff from everyone, not just my friends—the actual recipes they linked to weren’t that interesting to me. The main problem was that they were all over the place; unlike my favorite food blogs, Pinterest’s food collection felt cluttered and chaotic, a mishmash that wasn’t personalized to my own tastes. Many people will thrive on this diversity, but I found it numbing.
But what bothers me most about Pinterest is its earnestness. Unlike Tumblr, where people often post stuff just to make fun of it, Pinterest feels like the least cynical place on the Web. Though the site is based in Palo Alto, Calif., its founder, Ben Silberman, is from Des Moines, Iowa, and he has said that the site first caught on among women in the Midwest. Perhaps that explains why people don’t Pin stuff ironically, or to convey any other emotion aside from full-throated, earnest appreciation. This is not a site that will make you laugh. Ever.
What I learned from browsing around Pinterest is that I consider the Web my own personal laugh machine. I like to scour the day’s links for pictures and videos that make me laugh, which is why I follow who I follow on Twitter and why I’m always reloading Buzzfeed. If I’m looking for solemnity, I’ll read a book.
You could argue that the stuff I don’t like about Pinterest isn’t really a problem with the site, just with the kind of content it’s attracted so far. As Pinterest grows, won’t it attract stuff that’s more to my liking?
Perhaps, but I doubt it. There’s something intrinsic in the site’s design—the way it cleanly lays out photos—that seems perfect for pictures of home furnishings and designer boots, and that wouldn’t work as well for a list of the 25 Biggest Facepalm Moments of 2011. More importantly, I don’t think it should change. Just because I’m not into Pinterest doesn’t mean it won’t appeal to lots of other people. In fact, there’s a good chance you’ll love it for exactly the same reasons I don’t.
Part of what makes the site so successful is that its designers know their audience, and they’re not willing to expand the site into something it isn’t—a place for slapstick viral videos, say—just to grow faster. In the summer, I wrote about Ravelry, a social network for knitters that I also would never use myself. That site worked, I argued, because it managed to replicate a real-life community on the Web.
Pinterest feels the same way. It’s not for everyone. It’s probably not even for most people. If you prefer to see the Web as a series of links—as I do—then you’re probably already having the time of your life on Twitter. But if you like design and art and typography and sharing your favorite things, then Pinterest might just be your new home on the Web.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.