Pinterest, I’ve discovered, is something you learn by doing. And by “doing”, I mean getting sucked in to the site, like Alice going down the rabbit hole, picture-by-picture, pin-by-pin, only to emerge, feeling hungry and lazy (yet inspired), wondering where the last two hours of your life went.
But when you try to explain what Pinterest is, the conversation can go in circles. At least that’s what I found when I tried to explain it to two men. Their reactions were the same:
“But what does it do?”
“I don’t see the utility.”
“What else could you use it for?”
“Could companies use it?”
As someone who’s read a thing or two about gender, femininities and masculinities, it only took a second for me to realize that, in our short conversation, we’d bumped up against the devaluing of the feminine – the very same discursive act that makes remunerating domestic labour (performed for oneself anyway) seem ridiculous. It’s why the “feminization” of certain jobs and industries – sectors where we find more women than men working – usually means a concomitant decline in wages and work standards.
My men-folk don’t “get” Pinterest because they’ve been socialized to see all of the productive activity around kitchens, food, care, family, friendship, fabric, and art as merely aesthetic things people frig time away doing. These are forward thinking guys, mind you; but like the rest of us, they’ve got a lot of cultural baggage.
That’s why they could not see the “utility” of sharing recipes, fashion tips, décor options, kids’ craft tutorials, and ideas for activities and objects – even though these things all create, through their production and consumption, bonds between the people who make and use them.
They are also the sorts of things that contribute significantly to the reproduction of people – healthy, happy, clothed and comfortable people – who go out into the world and do other productive things. They are a crucial, oft-ignored part of what Miriam Glucksmann called “the total social organization of labour.”
They’re imperative, connective threads in the social fabric, and yet they hardly register to men and women alike who’ve learned, just by living in a hegemonic-masculine world, to see them as superfluous to the productive stuff of the ill-defined “public sphere”.
Indeed, Pinterest is dominated and driven by women. It’s the first social media site to be that way. As such, it is not entirely surprising that it has become, in a sense, home economics, digitized and shared virally. After all, historically, in nearly every society, and even today (despite some huge changes), women have shouldered most of the responsibility for the labour we call “domestic.” A site dominated by women is going to reflect the offline things that are also dominated by women.
It’s also not terribly surprising that Pinterest is subject to the same commercialization that has crept – or stomped – into housework and carework in the offline world. While my feed on the site is dominated by DIY and one-of-a-kind pins and boards, a still-healthy proportion of the pins I see when I log in are pictures of consumer products – brand-name shoes, fashion magazine spreads, mass-produced pillows and quilts, and exorbitantly-priced furniture. Scrolling or clicking through those pins is like window shopping. I’m sure I’m not alone in pressing my nose to the glass, peering longingly at things I’ll never own.
Pinning designer duds or housewares, meanwhile, seems a rather innocent way to display one’s style without spending a cent. It’s a means of showing your followers what your tastes are, or what your tastes would be if you could have whatever you wanted.
Surely, Pinterest can, does, and likely will increasingly facilitate purchases, but even if there’s never any actual exchange of money for products, the act of pinning a company’s products to one’s board is an act of participation in consumer society. Alternatively, it might be an act of spectatorship.
Either way, it’s at this point in the analysis of Pinterest that another writer might feel compelled to ask, in light of its link to consumerism, whether it’s “empowering” to women.
I am not that writer, because it seems to me that women can’t have any fun without someone worrying about empowerment. I understand why, but I also suspect that often concerns about empowerment stem from anxieties about morality and purity that apply uniquely to women and not men.
I am, rather, cautiously encouraged by Pinterest, as I am by anything that appears to facilitate sharing, caring and ingenuity. I like that aspect of social media, even though I’d prefer to see people getting together in the flesh to cook and craft and care and turn old objects into shiny new ones. I’m not the first person to wonder about the differences between “real” and “virtual” communities and identities, or about what it means for societies and individuals when bonding and communicating takes place online. These are questions that warrant ongoing critical reflection. But they don’t necessarily warrant the alarmism, nor the romanticism about the “real” communities of the past, that they sometimes trigger.
So far on Pinterest, I’ve found instructions for making a bracelet out of inexpensive hardware and twine, and I made it for my best friend, who lives too far away and needs, whether she knows it or not, something to remind her of me. I also found a recipe for breakfast cookies (cookies! For breakfast!), which I made last week and fed to some people (and one animal) I love. I even got inspired to replace the straps on an ageing purse with found materials instead of replacing the whole thing.
If Pinterest can incubate virtual communities of people with that DIY ethic; if it can offer people the opportunity for conspicuous consumption without them ever having to actually buy anything; if it can give parents a way to share ideas directly with one another rather than through a magazine, between chunks of advertising; if it can bring giant waves of attention to tiny, unknown blogs and struggling artists and designers, then it’s doing something useful. The question is, can it survive and grow on a diet of mostly home economics and art? And what, if anything, will the success or failure of Pinterest tell us about the gendered economy? What might it reinforce? And what might it transform?