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Friday, July 27, 2012

The whole embarrassing situation could have been avoided if Pinterest existed then.


Pinterest, Tumblr and the Trouble With ‘Curation’


Illustration by Tom Gauld



Years ago, in my penurious and somewhat traumatic 20s, I got into the habit of collecting interior-design magazines. My parents were splitting, and my family was scattering, and one day I picked up a copy of Elle Decor at an airport and suddenly felt as though I were teleported to Narnia. I didn’t have a house or even the disposable income to purchase nonessentials that cost much more than magazines. But my family moved often when I was growing up, and my mother tried to mitigate this upheaval by reproducing our last house in each new house, while rigorously maintaining a standard of perpetual “magazine readiness.” I guess it had a lingering effect.

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A few years later, I reluctantly lent my collection of magazines to a (now former) friend. He had just bought a house that he had no idea what to do with. I, on the other hand, had nothing but ideas. O.K., they weren’t strictly mine, in the sense that these ideas were acquired, arranged, styled, photographed, published and distributed by entities bearing no relation to me whatsoever. They were mine because I internalized them. I gradually convinced myself that they were me.
Of course, I didn’t realize any of this until my friend returned my magazines to me with dozens of pages torn out, having either forgotten or ignored my admittedly ridiculous request that he make photocopies instead. I felt gutted, but I was much too ashamed to admit it. How could I, without sounding crazy? It was better, ultimately, to let the friendship slide into estrangement.
The whole embarrassing situation could have been avoided if Pinterest existed then. Pinterest is a social-media Web site on which users compile collections of pictures they find on the Internet or just browse the collections of others. The site’s name combines the words “interest” and “pin,” in reference to “pin boards,” which are also known in various creative professions as inspiration boards or mood boards — basically a large board onto which appropriated images (torn from magazines!) are juxtaposed to evoke in the viewer a certain feeling, atmosphere or mood. Once the exclusive province of advertising art directors, designers and teenage girls in boarding-school dormitories, mood boards and their electronic equivalents have exploded online. Not just on Pinterest, but also in the form of dopamine-boosting street-fashion blogs and cryptically named Tumblr blogs devoted to the wordless and explanation-free juxtaposition of, say, cupcakes and teapots and shoes with shots of starched shirts and J.F.K.
This kind of visual catch-bin blog has become disconcertingly common, for reasons that a cultural theorist like Walter Benjamin would perhaps be hard pressed to explain. Who knew there was such a large, mainstream market for artfully arranged pictures of other people’s stuff? Or that “curation,” that rarefied and highly specialized skill, would all of a sudden go viral? Pinterest went online in 2010, and by the end of that year it had 10,000 unique users. By January 2012, that number had increased to 11.7 million, making it the fastest site in history to break through the 10-million unique-visitor mark, according to TechCrunch. For this, it has been valued at $1.5 billion.
I’m not a big Pinterest user (more of a lurker, really), but the over-the-top monetary valuation doesn’t entirely surprise me. Long before I heard of Pinterest, I was already spending too much time on “curated” (read: reblogged) design/fashion/image/inspiration blogs. For me, it’s sites like Apartment TherapyFfffoundPoppytalkOh Joy and dozens and dozens of obscure, exquisite, utterly pointless but oddly compelling Tumblrs. (Some, like the addictive street-fashion blog The Sartorialist, are made up of original photos, but this is more the exception than the rule.)
In fact, in the past half-decade, I’ve probably spent more time fighting the urge to satiate my visual addictions — addictions formed in the process of satiating them, no doubt — than I have actually browsing through magazines. Not because I don’t like magazines. In many ways, I like them better. But they’re too grounded in space and time, too organized and linear, too collaborative and professional to deliver the synaptic frisson available from the stream-of-consciousness image blog.
I used to think this obsession was mine alone. But now nearly everyone I know — and by that I mean everyone who spends vast, barren tundras of time at her computer — goes to Web sites like these to escape, destress, perk up, calm down, feel something, not feel something, distract themselves and (they don’t call it “lifestyle pornography” for nothing) modulate pleasure and arousal. A friend of a friend calls his addiction to sites like these “avenues for procrastination,” but I think there’s something else involved. Like other forms of pastiche — the mix tape, the playlist, the mash-up — these sites force you to engage and derive meaning or at least significance or at the very least pleasure from a random grouping of pictures. Why not dive into an alternative world full of beauty and novelty and emotion and the hard-to-put-your-finger-on feeling that there’s something more, somewhere, where you’re not chained to your laptop, half dead from monotony, frustration and boredom?

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