Pinterest: “Just pin it”? New generation of visual collections reflects problems in digital era

-- Pinterest's innovative features reflect issues of copyright infringement and gendered operation

pins on pinterest logo
3d illustration of a large red sphere with a Pinterest logo on it covered with push pins by Michael Td Roberts licensed under Flickr

With the growth of digital technology and people’s usage of mobile devices, the potential of social media in transforming social tendencies and people’s behaviour in the digital environment is tremendous. Pinterest is a social media and a visual discovery engine (All about Pinterest, 2020) which aims at providing a platform for users to discover and collect visual inspirations. With its technological structure such as the sharing features and the function of algorithms, as well as the internet ecosystem in terms of the collaboration with other media companies, Pinterest brings transformation to the substance of traditional visual collages by its social network and individualised recommendation.

pinterest app logo on phone

Figure 1. “Pinterest app logo one phone” by Brett Jordan licensed under Pexels

To present a structured collection of selected information, media platform gathering, and organising the user-generated content which complies with the platform’s intention and values as the process of social curation (Lui, 2015). Pinterest functions as a social curation site and an interactive digital scrapbook to collage, label, and share graphical resources among users. Pinterest’s innovative technological features and operation bring transformation to users’ online participation and business’s advertising, also trigger the awareness of copyrights regulation and the platform’s gendered operation structure. Through analysing Pinterest’s innovative features and the transformation it brings to the individual and the digital world, this analysis is going to demonstrate that under the sharing economy environment, Pinterest leads personal collection contributing to the platform’s social curation, transforms the individual participation’s position and visual advertising modes, raising the awareness of copyright regulation and gender issues on social media.

What is Pinterest and how does it work?

Here is a great introduction video by Social Media 4 Beginners to help you understand Pinterest.

Pinterest’s technological functions and its collaborative environment enables the platform to reform the function of digital scrapbook. It was founded by Ben Silbermann, Evan Sharp, and Paul Sciarra and was made available to the public in 2010. It grew rapidly during the next two years, becoming the fastest site to break through 10 million US unique visitors in 2012. The growth of the internet industry and social media platforms provides a sharing economy environment (John, 2018), which facilitates Pinterest’s operation and development. Besides collecting images from websites, posts shared by users from social media such as Instagram and Tumblr also constitute a large part of users’ source of collection. Pinterest’s collage function is mainly constituted by the “pins” and “boards” to allow users to gather pictures from links or upload pictures to collect in boards with different categories. The app interfaces of all versions basically including the home feed, search engine, information inbox, and the self profile page, as shown by the screenshot below by the author. Users can easily access the feeds and interact with each other. User’s collections are public and can be re-pinned to others’ boards, the process of resaving pins makes the description and intention of images are editable (Johnson, 2020).

screen shot of pinterest interface
Figure 2. Screenshot of mobile app’s homepage buttons. image taken by the author November 2020

Pinterest has made a series of innovative features in its development: in 2013, based on the data collected from app and websites, Pinterest delivers advertisements as promoted pins. The image query engine is updated in 2015 with searching by image function, also the company developed “buyable pins” in the same year to cooperate with advertisers. In recent years, Pinterest’s algorithm is gradually becoming sophisticated and mature, the feed page is highly individually designed with functions to display recommendations of trending topics and relevant products. With the methods in mobilising users’ experience and advertising market, Pinterest has reached 442 million active users monthly, which provides labour and targets for the media company to collect data and deliver advertisement and pins.
However, while Pinterest’s business model gains profit based on promoted pins and advertisements, a large number of social media nowadays have also adopted algorithms to promote individualised content and advertisement, such as Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram, which are strong competitors of Pinterest in the digital market. Besides the interaction among users and advertisers, Pinterest company also collaborated with digital service providers such as WooCommerce, an e-commerce plugin for businesses to set up online stores, to directly cooperated with retailers to finish orders on the platform. Pinterest also relies on feed optimisation services like GoDataFeed and Feedonomics to generate algorithmic feeds for users (Williams, 2020). With the cooperation under the sharing economy circumstance, Pinterest has produced over 1 billion annual revenue in 2019 and had a market capitalisation of $38.52 billion so far . For a more comprehensive view of Pinterest’s position in the internet ecosystem, here is an ecology diagram to represent Pinterest’s related entities.


pinterest ecosystem

Figure 3. Pinterest’s ecosystem diagram created by the author, November 2020

Users’ devotion to the platform’s curation

Encouraging users to construct individual collections to engage with the platform’s curation is vital for Pinterest to bring transformative impacts to users’ online activity and the digital market. Firstly, the combination of visual engine and social network challenged users’ position in the usage of personal collections. Pinterest’s goal is to provide a platform for users to seek and collect visual inspiration and discovering oneself (Phillips, 2014), it also provides individualised content on the feed page constituted by other users’ pins. Users’ pins are a part of the archive of the app activity and resource, which can be reused and edited by others to create new collections among the platform. Thus, personal collection from individuals inevitably becomes a part of the public collection of Pinterest, users’ private activities contributed to the public construction of knowledge (Lui, 2015). With the flow of sharing, users generated content is structured in the platform curation. Here is a Pinterest page whose content is constituted by user-generated content.

pc page of Pinterest

Figure 4. “Macbook Pro displaying Pinterest” by Charles Deluvio licensed under Unsplash

However, the curatorial acts enact power by the preference of the particular framework (Foucault, 1970), the platform’s curation is selective and the structure is navigational, which would form a unified aesthetic and impact who stay on this platform (Lui, 2015). Based on the platform’s choice and value of the curated content, the feed’s structure and operation are not objective. Since the private collections meld with the platform’s curation, the individuality is partially challenged by the process of coalescence: Pinterest users are subject to the majority taste, the alternative perspectives are more likely to be washed away (Johnson, 2020). The dominated content’s over-exposure on the platform may lead to the overlook of marginalised ideas, also challenging users’ aesthetic value of inspiration and sensations (Aljukhadar, 2020).

What is more, the platform’s operation between the collection of private and public significantly influenced the business of online marketing. With the feed page’s structure of content distribution, the advertisers’ pins have great chances to be exposed to the targeted users based on the platform algorithm. Also, since visual stimulations enhance costumers’ response to products (Elder and Krishna, 2011), the visual-based structure facilitates the advertising effect, which definitely increased the amount of visiting of the websites. Advertising images appear on Pinterest feed the same way as the pins, with the targeted distribution, the images of the ads are matching with the other pins’ style and aesthetic on the same page. When users clicking on the advertisement’s image, Pinterest directly leads users to the product’s websites. Here is an image of an example of product promotion on Pinterest.


Figure 5. “ad example of Pinterest” from Pinterest

Advertisers could seize the opportunities to cooperate with the platform, and Pinterest has created a new picture of the digital marketing. With the targeted ads distribution and the visual-based structure, the image of retail products forms the function of Pinterest as a window-shopping site, Pinterest can drive more traffic to product websites than Twitter and goggle+ (Hempel, 2012). Thus, Pinterest’s transformation of the relationship between user-generated content and the platform’s social curation challenge the users’ online behaviour and provide new opportunities for visual advertising.

Copyright issues generated in Pinterest

While Pinterest provides a convenient platform for users to gather visual information, the collaborative sharing of website content on Pinterest brings issues about the infringement of copyrights, triggering the awareness towards the regulation of copyrights. Firstly, although Pinterest is social media, it is different from other social platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, which are more concentrated on interaction and socialisation. Pinterest’s participation cares less about the original source and pin author (Johnson, 2020), leads to the ignorance of the position of the content creator, and overlooks the tributes to the author. Moreover, the pinning and re-pinning activities allow users to edit the source’s description of the pins. Since people who want to avoid copyright regulation might obscure the link or description (Suzor, 2019), the lawless person might take advantage of the unregulated reedition process, copyright infringement is easy to happen among Pinterest. The design and technological features also threats the protection of copyrights (Tan, 2018). The image source from websites being shared as pins could be directly saved from Pinterest, while some websites have taken measures to protect the image’s credit, Pinterest can function as an external tool to skip the website’s copyright settings and download the images. Here is an image to appeal Pinterest users to respect the copyright regulation.

UNPIN yourself!
Figure.6 “UNPIN yourself!” by Chantal Pare is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Besides the technological structure neglecting the protection of copyrights, the incompatibility between the terms of service and copyright regimes might mislead the users who lack conscious of copyrights to misunderstand that their use of copyright-protected content is licensed (Tan, 2018). Also, Pinterest is a cross-country collaborative platform, the difference of copyright legislation in various countries brings difficulties to regulate the users’ behaviour among the platform. Since copyright owners offended by consumers and the platform’s mechanism play a vital role in shaping the awareness of copyrights (Suzor, 2019), the technological mechanism and the terms of service which bring the vulnerability of the protection of copyrights on Pinterest are complained and boycotted by a large number of copyright owners. Pinterest has raised the awareness of the modern social media engaged in the world of copyright legislation (Gard & Whetstone, 2012), triggering the concerns of authors’ self protection and the copyright relationships between user-generated content and platforms’ knowledge construction. The concerns facilitate the discussion of the laws in terms of copyright protection and the critics of the platform’s terms of service.

A consumption-oriented platform targeting at female users

The platform’s operation structure and business model reflect Pinterest’s gendered stereotypes, leading the public discussion of female’s position in the consumption-driven social media. Among Pinterest users, 70% are female. Overwhelmed by the feminised popular culture (Johnson, 2020), the platform’s operation is gendered, leading female users to consume on the platform and challenging users’ individuality. For example, the huge amount of wedding content on Pinterest is still a popular topic with massive participation among female users. While criticising society for stereotyping Pinterest as a wedding-planning tool, we still can not deny that Pinterest’s attempt in controlling the content and users’ behaviour in guiding feminised activity. Initially, some Pinterest technological features are designed for attracting female users and guiding their consumption. The sign-up process is gender-divided and encourages the performances of femininity (Johnson, 2020), also since the algorithm is biased and structured in power relationships (Nobel, 2018), the individualised content promotion is also structured in a gendered way. In addition, the curatorial power of Pinterest enables it to dominate what is the mainstream content. The content represented on the user’s feed might challenge the user’s individuality in terms of aesthetic value, social ideology, and shopping tendencies.

In conclusion, Pinterest as a visual discovery platform and a social media has developed a series of technological features to reform the usage of visual scrapbooks, such as the pinning and re-pinning function, interaction between users as well as personalised content recommendation. These designs enable users to make individual collections and discover visual inspiration in the cyber world, also facilitate the social curation of the platform. Pinterest blurring the boundary between private collection and platform curation, making user-generated content a part of the structure of public knowledge, also forming an interactive window-shopping pattern on social media. Business advertisers also benefit from the platform structure and functions to distribute advertisements to users. However, while Pinterest providing a collaborative sharing platform for users’ visual exploration and bringing opportunities to advertisers to marketing effectively, the activities on the platform might infringe the copyright of authors and reflect gendered operation towards feminised content. Thus, personal collection engaging with the platform’s curation makes Pinterest reform users’ status and the advertising modes, triggering the awareness of copyright regulation in the digital era, raising the research agenda about and gender issues in social media.



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Runhe Yu
About Runhe Yu 2 Articles
USYD Art history and digital culture student