Founded in 2008, Pinterest has become a world-renowned photo-sharing website. This essay aims to uncover why Pinterest has been so successful by analysing what transformative effects have its unique nature offered.
In the first section of the essay, I will be giving an overview of the site in relation to its essence and key services it offers. Section two will be focusing on its history and a regulatory debacle of copyright issue. Pinterest’s internet ecology will be examined in the third section. And finally, I will be discussing how Pinterest has culturally changed the social life of regular users and economically changed the way users’ data are collected for personalised advertising.
Section one: What is Pinterest?
Pinterest is a US-based book-marking site that enables its users to save, search and share content in the form of a “pin”, each pin consists of an image, a description, and a link to its source. On Pinterest, Users see pins they like, then “repin” (save and categorise) them to a storage space based on their own interests, hobbies, and future-orientation. These theme-based photo collections are called “Pinboards”(Jin, 2017). For example, a pinboard entitled “dream home” might contain thousands of photos of home decorations previously uploaded by other users. Pinterest therefore is often used for discovering inspirational ideas. Mull and Lee (2014)’s research revealed that users likely use Pinterest to search for trendy items, learn exciting ideas, and plan for future arrangements. Similarly, Johnson (2020) confirms some brides Pinterest users have digitally curated their dream wedding by drawing inspirations from other female users who have the same experience. Thus, despite functions like commenting and liking others’ pins, Pinterest is essentially a
“visual content discovery site that happens to have some social elements” (Gilbreah, 2014, p. 113).
Figure 2. A Q&A explains key terms in Pinterest. Image: Loren & Swiderski, all rights reserved.
Watch the video made by Pinterest marketer Anastasia Blogger to explore the key affordances of Pinterest (From 1:41 to 5:00)
Figure 3. What is Pinterest and how does Pinterest work for businesses, bloggers, and for personal accounts. Video: Anastasia Blogger, Youtube, all rights reserved.
Of course, one can consider Pinterest a visual search engine as most of pins on Pinterest have links to their source sites. Pinterest retrieves content from other sites so it fits into the“information retrieval system” definition (Halavias, 2013). Additionally, Pinterest users function as “crawlers” and “indexers” within a typical model of search engines as they curate across the Internet, collect images (crawling) from their source sites and categorise them (user-centered indexing)(Gilbert, et.al, 2013).
One could also argue that major visual search engine entities such as Google Images also delivers inspirational visual results. Nonetheless, they barely offer the functionality of storing and organising inspirations as Pinterest does. This makes Pinterest unique, as users can always collect ideas, organise them in manners, and come back to them at any time.
Figure 4. A screenshot shows a pin has a link to its original site. Image: Pinterest, all rights reserved. Shot 5th Nov 2020
Figure 5. A screenshot of my pinboards. Image: Pinterest, all rights reserved. Shot 5th Nov 2020
Section two: Historical development and the regulatory debacle
In August 2008, Paul Sciarra quitted his job at NY venture capital firm, with his friends Evan Sharp, and Ben Silbermann (who was a former employee at Google) together found “the Cold Brew Lab”(Carlson, 2011). The founders of the site gained inspiration from a shopping app, they created a product that enables users to put images in buckets just like how online shoppers put goods in their shopping carts, this idea formed the basis of Pinboard (Carlson, 2011). After two years of mapping and lobbying for angel funding, the first prototype was released in 2010, only available to a small group of friends and family members (Carlson, 2011). Pinterest remained itself as a closed beta for invited personnel only until 2012, aimed to refine functionalities and devise its unique user experience of visual discovery (Rudy, n.d.). Pinterest subsequently experienced success in both reputation and numbers of users. However, the site soon encountered a copyright setback.
Figure 6. Pinterest · Create Account. Image: Stain, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
As mentioned above in Section one, Pinterest retrieves content from other websites. This affordance is called “Pinner”, initially launched in 2012, which allows users to pin images, even copyrighted material from anywhere on the internet to their Pinboard with no external file hosting required (Loren & Swiderski, 2013). Copyrights owners soon noticed their images circulated on Pinterest without their permission, let alone proper credit. As Suzor (2019) notes, copyright owners realised very early that to gain control in the unregulated, lawless internet space, instead of using the law to punish wrongdoers, it would be less costly and more efficient to exert pressure on the platforms or companies that provide the tools or services. Copyright creators on platforms such as iStock did the same thing to Pinterest as Suzor (2019) pointed out.
Although Pinterest claimed itself subject to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a safe harbour prevents tech companies from being liable for what their users behave, as long as they permit copyright owners to report any unlawful use of their material (Pinterest, 2020; Suzor, 2019). Under increasing pressure, Pinterest eventually compromised by releasing a ‘nopin’ HTML meta tag that allowed websites to opt-out of their images from being pinned (Loren & Swiderski, 2013).
Figure 7. Copyright reasons. Image: gaelx, CC BY-SA 2.0
Section three: Internet Ecology
Pinterest’s success inspires many bookmarking sites such as Digg and Start.me and several smaller visual-oriented platforms that focus on inspiration discovery experience across specific subfields (Carr, 2012). For example, Tastemade (for visually discovering new combinations of food, creating new recipes, and sharing with others) and Houzz (offering visual inspiration for house decoration and interior design). Other competitors include visual search engines (e.g., Google Image), and photo-sharing sites (e.g., Instagram).
A majority of Pinterest’s clients are individual users who seek to gain inspiration by browsing countless images around topics they are interested in (Jin, 2017). Yet discovering new ideas is not the sole reason individual users choose Pinterest. For example, feminist social media scholar Johnson (2020) found some female Pinterest users have used their pinboards for self-expression and identity reconstruction. Similarly, Schiele & Ucok Hughes (2013)s’ work revealed that Pinterest users developed a sense of ownership when they collected and categorised pins into their Pinboards even though pins are virtual possessions rather than actual objects. As most of the pins on Pinterest contain a link to their source sites, another user group on Pinterest is business accounts owners, whose seek to drive more traffic to their product homepage or to facilitate direct purchases by building their brand on Pinterest and linking their products with their pins (Majure, 2012).
Pinterest is subject to the oversight of copyrighted content creators across the web, considering the DMCA includes the “notice and takedown scheme” which entitles copyright owners the right to inform and force content hosts to remove any material they found unlawfully uploaded or shared (Suzor, 2019).
Below is an infographic shows Pinterest’ internet ecology
Figure 8. Internet ecological map of Pinterest
Section four: transformative effects (culturally, socially, and economically)
Culturally, Pinterest has transformed the way individual users collect ideas for their social lives. It is Johnson (2020) who pointed out that Pinterest shares a very similar cultural nature with scrapbooks in the 1900s. She argued that the way Pinterest users collect images they like, arrange them in Pinboards is similar to how Women used to collect advertising trade cards that they desired from Women’s interest magazines, and arrange these cards in their scrapbooks.
Figure 9. Antique scrapbook found at Goodwill. Image: litlnemo, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
It might seem like both two acts reflect the same motivation of “storing and expressing what one yearns for” (Castro-Lewandowski, 2013, p. 1), and the only one that has changed is the medium (Johnson, 2020). Nonetheless, the emergence of Pinterest has significantly broadened the horizons of image collectors.
On Pinterest, Users have access to tremendous amounts of content across fields such as creative projects, fashion, entertainment (Mull and Lee, 2014). The resources available to users are far greater than the photos contained in several magazines. Meanwhile, Pinterest’s TOS clearly states that ‘we show thing we think will be relevant, interesting, and personal to you based on your onsite/offsite activities (Pinterest, 2020). Therefore, Pinterest offers more personalised ideas delivery as its algorithms collect users’ data, evaluate their day-to-day activities(e.g. what types of pins a person click through the most), and generate predictive “ideas” for users (Pinterest, 2020).
Figure 10. A screenshot of Pinterest recommends ideas for me after I clicked through several images around sushi, interior design, and Tattoos. Pinterest, all rights reserved. Shot 11th Nov
Socially, as Shifman (2014) argues, “sharing” is the central logic of the Web 2.0 era. Users embrace Pinterest for multiple reasons. Some might use Pinterest for ideas discovery (Jin, 2017), some might want to denote or share aspects of their “mental journey” (Gravey, 1996, as cited in Johnson, 2020). When it comes to the latter, Pinboard offers a platform where image collectors with similar tastes can establish networked communities. To be more specific, when a user shares interests/tastes with numerous strangers on Pinterest, their like-minded tastes may lead to repining, commenting, even following, so they can see more of each others’ pins. While in the scrapbook age, image collections were either preserved for collectors themselves or shared within small groups. In this sense, Pinterest also changes the way users relate socially by blurring the geographic barriers among image collectors.
Economically, Pinterest has altered the way of collecting users’ data to better generate personalised advertisement. Like most platforms that offer “free” services, Pinterest’s business model relies heavily on advertising revenue, it offers advertisers similar options as other social media platforms (Tarver, 2017), ranging from CPC (cost-per-click) to CPM (cost-per-thousand). However, it has been pointed out by many scholars and social media marketers that Pinterest is a more marketable site than others (Carr, 2012; Johnson, 2020).
Pinterest adopts the approach of “social sharing” to advance its targeted advertising (Martin & Tim, 2019). When a user first logs on to Pinterest, Pinterest would convince him to share a series of personal information (in the sequence of gender, age, personal interests). First, if one selects the male gender, the algorithm will filter most of the “women-interest categories”. Then if a user chooses the age group above 30, the algorithm would present approximately 15 “relevant” categories such as survival tips, tattoos, and Men’s haircut. The user will then be asked to select 5 of his favorite which will constitute future recommendations.
Despite criticisms of Pinterest’s filtering and algorithmic prediction are being “too sexist” (Johnson, 2020), unlike other data-mining sites that continuously monitor users’ activities to perfect their targeted advertising (e.g. Google)(Noble, 2018), this unprecedented arrangement helps Pinterest to capture users’ personal preferences in the first place, then refine them based on users’ ongoing activities. As the future of business will be built upon the rise of automated means of tracking and evaluating human behaviour (Mayer-Schönberger & Ramge, 2018, as cited in Martin & Tim, 2019). By convincing users to share their interests, together with Pinterest’s predictive algorithms, Pinterest in partner with its advertisers is enabled to target potential customers more accurately than they can on other sites.
Figure 11. Evidence of Pinterest targets users based on age group/sex. Image: Pinterest, all rights reserved. Shot 12th Nov
To conclude, Pinterest is a visual discovery search engine with users playing the role of indexers and crawlers. Despite copyright setback, Pinterest’s unique nature and affordances (Pinboard) distinguishes it from its competitors and will continue underpinning its success globally.
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